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Old files can make wonderful knives. Many of these tools were made from proprietary alloys that would today be considered boutique specialty knife alloys like Japanese White Paper steel. If executed properly the old file steel has great edge retention while being relatively easy to sharpen compared to high end stainless alloys. The other difference is the heat treat can be manipulated to make the blade stronger and more resilient. I personally also like the look and the story that goes along with the blade.

Here’s an example. This blade was made from a circa 1900 G&H Black Diamond mill file. You’ll notice, stamped on the file is “Best Cast Steel”. This is really what we call Crucible Steel now. Crucible steel was an expensive process where they’d make a pure iron billet, melt it down and add a controlled amount of carbon by way of cast iron and cast billets.

Around 1907 this company was bought out by Nicholson File Works and became the Black Diamond brand. In 1970 Nicolson which owned a lot of regional brands consolodated and discontinued most of those but due to the overwhelming popularity of the Black Diamond brand recognition that name is still used today. Before 1970 the files just had “Black Diamond” but after 1971 they will appear with both “Black Diamond” and “Nicholson” names.

Note the square shoulders at the tang and "Best Cast Steel" stamp.  While there were a few files like Delta that carried that style tang into the 1950's those brands are rare.  Also the "Best Cast Steel" stamping was not used by many companies after the 1910's that stamping did continue on a large hardware store's house brand and some English files.

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Great information.  Thanks so much for sharing.  

If you guys want I can get into the more modern mill file metallurgy.  After 1981 things started going down hill for the industry as far as quality goes.

I'm curious on the process of using the file and working it into a knife.  I understand shaping, profile handling.....what about heat treating?  Will the file/blade need heat treated after shaping it?

This is how I do it, everyone has their own recipes.  We will stick with the Nicholson brands for this example.  I may throw in some others.  

Nicholson was an acquisition company, they bought out many brands like that G&H Barnett (which became "Black Diamond" and were used as regional brands.  These files used a proprietary alloy running 1.27% carbon, an alloy similar to Japanese white paper steel.  The mill file blanks were heat treated in molten lead and brine quenched leaving them with a hardness of 67-70.  Since I prefer to do a narrow tang/bolt through handle I will grind the files hard.  As is these files are too hard for a knife blade so they require a 430F temper which brings the working hardness to around 58-59.  I'll also follow that by drawing the spine to further strengthen the blade.

For full tang blades one needs to anneal the files to soften for drilling.  Re heat treating in a forge will net around a 10-25% loss in edge retention as compared to the original lead bath heat treat.  This has the files performing at around what 1095 will produce.

Pictured are 3 files I did a clay backed heat treat to produce a Hamon.  The Hamon really shows the difference in the alloys.  The top blade is the pre 1980 Nicholson/Black Diamond.  Bottom is a post 1981 Nicholson mill file (1.57% carbon).  The center blade may be the only file brand that I've found that used W-2, an America's Best (circa 1965).



Andy Larrison said:

I'm curious on the process of using the file and working it into a knife.  I understand shaping, profile handling.....what about heat treating?  Will the file/blade need heat treated after shaping it?

Nice work, James.

I've got what may be a dumb question but does the hamon have a function? 

Like many things, at one time it did but now it just shows a makers skill and adds a bit of "art" to the steel.  

Back in the day Japanese smiths perfected the Hamon in their swords.  It was thought to make a better blade.  Those blades were made from an inferior steel and the hamon was a way to get the most as a cutting blade without sacrificing strength.  Those smiths were so good at applying the hamon that it became a signature of sorts, the waves in the hamon can be traces to a specific smith.  Those swords were not tempered as the edge was very hard and brittle.  The movies where the Samari would fence are inaccurate as they would never cross swords.  That would result in a broken or chipped sword.

Like Damascus the hamon has passed into a "because I can" category as with one exception the technique reduces overall performance (strength).  Like Damascus modern homogenous alloys with a full quench can outperform those techniques.  That one exception is passing the ABS tests.  They require a blade to be forged that can cut a free hanging rope, chop through a 2x4 twice then bend 90 degrees without breaking.  Those blades do not spring back, they stay bent.  And that is the weakness of that heat treat technique.   Modern smiths will temper the blades because our alloys will get harder than the old Japanese steel.

I prefer a drawn spine as martinsite (the hardened form of steel) is stronger than pearlite (unhardened form).  These blades will not bend but will flex and spring back

I like to use a Hamon on unknown file brands to help determine the alloy used.  The Hamon can be attractive and does take skill to master.  

J.J. Smith III said:

Nice work, James.

I've got what may be a dumb question but does the hamon have a function? 

From my (albeit limited) understanding, the hamon was basically a visual indicator of a differential heat treat caused by the application of clay on the spine to slow the quench which altered the martensitic conversion away from the edge.  This allowed the sword or knife to have a little more flex and toughness modulus during use.

I happen to have been given several older files, which I initially thought to make into knives.  After doing a bit of cleaning on them, many still appeared to be sharp and actually functional.  So I am hanging on to them for now.

If they were all won out and dull so that filing would not really be feasible, I might having an easier time justifying the repurposing of the file.  With what I perceive to be fairly old and still functional files?  I have not been able to bring myself to do it yet.  At what point does the value of the file exceed the value of a knife that is made from it?  I am just trying to maximize the value of the limited resources that I have access to.

I may have to take some pics of the tang stamps and send them to you though.  See if you can shed some clearer light on when they were made.

Thanks for the great info!

Send me those pics.  Since the old files and there history is important to me I do a lot of research.  Always finding new brands and learning new things.

Old files are basically scrap metal, there is very little value to an old file to most folks.  Even those two G&H Barnet files that were New In Box (with the box) I only gave $40 for.  Most of my stash of old files were bought at flea markets and averaged $2 ea.

I will tell you, the old files perform much better than their modern counterparts.  Typically a pre 1981 Nicholson would run 67-70 Rockwell while the modern ones are in the 63-65 Rockwell  due to the less effective heat treat. .  If the files are still viable as files they are better.  You can "sharpen" them by soaking in vinegar then laying out overnight.  Brush off the rust in the morning and they are sharp.  

As a knife, they are much more valuable.  I believe since I retain the files history while making a functional knife it increases the value even more (at least to me it does).  

<EDITED>   fighting with the attached pictures

James,

Sorry it took me a bit to get pictures of the stamps and get them sorted and measured.  It probably was a good thing to do, but I had not done it yet.

Okay, here is a text breakdown of the bigger files I was given.  I have cleaned most of these up a bit, and even used a few.  The smaller ones and the non-rectangular ones I have ignored for this exercise.

2 files    -     14" x 1-5/16" x .318-.341" thick - stamped Kearney and Foot - coarse (bastard?) (double cut)

1 file     -      14" x 1-5/16" x .304" thick - stamped Kearney and Foot - smooth (double cut)

1 file     -      14" x 1-5/16" x .240" thick - stamped Delta - medium (second cut?) (single cut)

*****

1 file     -      12" x 1-1/8" x .271" thick - stamped Kearney and Foot - second cut? (single cut)

*****

4 files     -     8" x 13/16" x .145-.153" thick - stamped Arcade - second cut - (single cut)

1 file      -      8" x 13/16" x .146" thick - stamped Kearney and Foot - second cut - (single cut)

*****

1 file      -      8" x 3/4" x .087" thick - stamped Nicholson - Warding 2nd cut - (double cut)

Here are some photos that show examples of the stamps I see:


With the maximum width of the files just under 1-3/8" yet over .300" thick, I would think that at least for the bigger files, I would consider fully annealing the file, then forging it into a shape that was thinner, and perhaps taller from edge to spine.  Yes, this would completely destroy the existing heat treating. I would need to re heat treat the blade.  As long as I am careful with the annealing and heat treating atmosphere, would this steel suffer much from decarburization?

I have NO idea when any of these files were made.  Judging from how rusted everything was, and how I was told they were stored, I am expecting that most (if not all) are before 1981.

Awesome group.  The K&F's and Arcade were most likely made as Nicholson brands.  They will be the 1.27% carbon, lead bath heat treated alloy that Nicholson was known for.  The Nicholson is probably a pre 1970, using the same alloy.   If one was to do a Hamon they would look like that top blade.

That Delta is a stand alone brand.  I haven't run across many, but the ones I have did well.  I Rockwell tested one at 70, which is the hardest file I've ever tested.  The Delta dates from the late '40-late 50's.  

All will make a quality knife if done properly.

Kevin D said:

With the maximum width of the files just under 1-3/8" yet over .300" thick, I would think that at least for the bigger files, I would consider fully annealing the file, then forging it into a shape that was thinner, and perhaps taller from edge to spine.  Yes, this would completely destroy the existing heat treating. I would need to re heat treat the blade.  As long as I am careful with the annealing and heat treating atmosphere, would this steel suffer much from decarburization?

I have NO idea when any of these files were made.  Judging from how rusted everything was, and how I was told they were stored, I am expecting that most (if not all) are before 1981.

As far as forging, I've really found that forging these is a waste of time and energy.  With the thinner files less than 1/4" unless you are changing the handle angle and doing a tapered tang anything you forge will end up not changing the dimensions.  Those files were heat treated in a lead bath and brine quenched.  If the original heat treat is intact, after tempering and comparing it to one that is re heat treated you will see a 10-25% loss in edge retention.  Not to say that the edge retention is bad by redoing things it's just impossible to replicate that lead bath in a forge.  

Kevin D said:

With the maximum width of the files just under 1-3/8" yet over .300" thick, I would think that at least for the bigger files, I would consider fully annealing the file, then forging it into a shape that was thinner, and perhaps taller from edge to spine.  Yes, this would completely destroy the existing heat treating. I would need to re heat treat the blade.  As long as I am careful with the annealing and heat treating atmosphere, would this steel suffer much from decarburization?

I have NO idea when any of these files were made.  Judging from how rusted everything was, and how I was told they were stored, I am expecting that most (if not all) are before 1981.

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