Carving Knives That Last

By Patricia Yu, Liz McDonough, Jiyeon Chun, Ian Lippincott

WHY KNIVES?

It has been stated that the knife is the “most reliable, useful and important tool in human history.” It is one of the “most ancient tools in our arsenal” and archaeologists have discovered sharp-edged tools that date as far as 2.5 million years. Clearly, for however long and wherever humans have been, knives have been also. Yet however ubiquitous their place in our existence, we came to a puzzling aspect of the knife’s life cycle: “Why don’t people ever throw away their knives?”

CULTURE

We began our analysis by looking at the cultural significance of knives; beyond their function, such a fundamentally human tool will undoubtedly come with symbolism and folklore across all different cultures. For example, one superstition states that gifting a knife can be bad luck, as it symbolized “cutting” the relationship. So, it’s an accepted practice in many cultures for the recipient to gift back a coin, so that the knife has techincally been “bought” instead of gifted. In Greece, if you put a knife with a black handle under your pillow, it is believed to keep away nightmares, while in Iceland, it’s believed that dropping a knife in the direction of the sea while cleaning fish is believed to give you a good haul the next time you go fishing.

MANUFACTURING PROCESS

Though seemingly simple in their assembly and make-up, traditional carving knives require a complex process to create. The carving knife consists of two main components: the blade and the handle, and these are typically produced from metal and a synthetic material, respectively. The primary metal found in carving knives is carbon steel, as it is tough, durable, and easy to sharpen. However, being susceptible to corrosion, frequent maintenance is required. The process by which raw materials are extracted and ultimately processed into carbon steel is energy intensive and, while it produces results well suited for high-end cutting use, causes detrimental effects to the environment. The extraction process alone consists of the collection of taconite rock, bituminous coal, and limestone, and many processing steps are required after extraction to produce manufacturable materials.

The knife handle is manufactured using Garolite, a thermoset that is durable under high temperatures, has low-moisture absorption, and a high strength-to-weight ratio. To produce this composite, fiberglass and epoxy phenolic resin must be cured together under high pressures. Again, this process involves multiple steps before the material is in a state for CNC milling machine production.

MAINTENANCE AND LIFE CYCLE

Aside from their creation and usage, knives have an interesting life cycle in that they can be maintained and sharpened for extremely long periods of time, even decades and across generations. When they grow dull, they can be sharpened using various stones, steels, or hand-held or electric sharpening devices.

Which brings us to the reason we were drawn to exploring a knife in the first place: the question of, “Why don’t people throw away their knives?”

When we asked those around us if they had ever thrown away a kitchen knife, we received answers such as “No, I don’t remember ever throwing away a kitchen knife, I just keep the old ones in a separate drawer,” “I don’t ever recalling throwing away a knife, I just sharpen them, I would be nervous to put it in the trash…”

Perhaps the “obvious” maintainability of knives, along with the potential dangers they may pose when simply tossed in a trash bag, are reason for the rarity of their disposal.
Knives can be properly disposed of by recycling at a local metal scraper, or safely secured by several layers of cardboard and newspaper before being placed in the trash.

Knives are a unique product in that when maintained properly, they can be kept and cherished for generations, and even grow increasingly precious and sentimental to its owner over time. With this, our group began to think about the potential knives pose in regard to the concept of urban mines and repurposing material. Here, as a material and fabrication study, Jiyeon found an old, dull file and began shaping it on a metal grinder wheel to create the beginnings of a bevel. From our initial question about the disposal of knives, to our own hands-on exploration of how material might be repurposed into a knife and maintained, this analysis served to deepen our awareness of what it takes to create the products in our every day lives, and how maintenance and repair can extend and improve their life cycles.

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Design That Lasts 2022

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Patricia Yu

Patricia Yu

Industrial/Experience Designer, Human Computer Interactions and Physical Computing at Carnegie Mellon University

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