The story of my Marking Knife goes all the way back to 2013, only a year after I started woodworking. I was beginning to get to grips with using certain tools such as planes, chisels and knives and was starting to find out what worked for me. Secondly, I had also just started my job at Axminster Tools and Machinery which was exposing me to many different tool varieties and brands. So even if I didn't necessarily own a tool, there was a good chance I would end up trying it while working at Axminster over the next 5 years of my employment.
In 2013 I came across David Barron on YouTube. David was a furniture maker who trained at The Edward Barnsley Workshop and had produced a small batch of videos on various woodworking topics from dovetailing, setting and using tools, and general workshop inspiration. During this time, he was beginning to transition into manufacturing tools such as the David Barron Dovetail Guide, which he is probably most known for. I actually ended up buying one from him as well as a Gyokucho Dovetail Saw to aid with my dovetailing and they worked incredibly.
But what really stood out for me was one of his Marking Knives. They looked sublime. Beautifully shaped, a variety of colours, nicely finished, and of course came with a razor sharp blade. I wanted one.
During this time, I was also reading David's blog and followed the process of him making batches and batches of these knives and I heard nothing but great testimonials from them. Unfortunately, every single time I was ready to buy one, he had sold out. When they were back in stock, I had already splashed my monthly earnings on other tools that I needed. Until one day I came across an article on the Woodworkers Institute Website that he wrote for Furniture and Cabinetmaking Magazine. Which explained how he makes his dovetail marking knife.
The First Prototype
During 2013 to 2014, I was studying Level 3 Furniture Making and managed to complete my project a couple of weeks earlier than scheduled. So instead of going home and calling it there for the summer, I continued to come in until I was literally kicked out the workshop by tutors who were trying to set up the Rycotewood End of Year Show. It was during this time, I made The Faultline Bass Guitar.
One evening, I was scrolling through eBay looking for cool pieces of wood I could buy. (I was a cool 18 year old eh?) I came across a Snakewood Turning Blank. I purchased it alongside some Swann-Morton SM-01 Blades and decided I was going to attempt to make my own Dovetail Marking Knife following Davids article in Furniture and Cabinetmaking Magazine. Scarily, this was the first time I had used a lathe, and as usual I jumped straight in at the deep end. The first thing I did was get the 4 prong drive, and whack it into the endgrain of the Snakewood blank to bed it in.
A massive split appeared down at least 30% of the blank. Let it be a lesson to anyone reading this that Snakewood does not take well to a blunt prong drive being smashed into the endgrain. Looks like this knife is going to be smaller than expected! I eventually managed to get it safely mounted in a 4 jaw chuck after some guidance from a fellow student who was far better at turning than I was. After a few catches and ropy moments, I managed to get it turned and even managed to get a bead on the end of it! It looked crap but hey, it was there. I took the handle out the chuck, cut the slot for the blade, and slipped the ferrule into position.
The article I was following stated that David tends to epoxy his blades in place. This seemed counter intuitive at first, although he made it clear that due to the chisel-like shape of these blades, it was entirely possibly to re-dress the point by simply honing it on a diamond stone. I looked my existing marking knife. Chips, dents and glue took up more of the blade than a sharp point. If I can do this much damage to a thick marking knife, god knows what I could do to a Swann-Morton Scalpel Blade! I decided that I couldn't trust myself to solely use the knife for wood and had to make the blade removable. I purchased an M5 Tap and grub screw and drilled straight into the side of the ferrule and tapped straight into the Snakewood. Due to the dense grain of the wood, the thread still stands today! I used this knife for several years and loved it. The blade was incredibly sharp, the handle was intuitive to hold, and despite looking ugly, I was proud of it.
Planning and Research
On the 30th of December, 2018, I stopped working at Axminster due to trying to juggle too many balls at once. I had limited time to work on things that I wanted to pursue such as YouTube and a social life and sadly, Axminster got the cut. I anticipated this for months in advance and gave management plenty of notice, and in the meantime saved up a ton of money. In the 4 months prior to leaving, I was working at Axminster, teaching both day and evening classes at Rycotewood, and was also running my own business with the YouTube channel. I grinded and saved a lot! I intended to make full use of my employee discount before walking out the door for the last time.
At the end of December, I ordered a Metal Lathe, a Milling Machine, and bunch of other engineering equipment. I had been woodworking for around 6 years by this point and decided that I wanted to expand my skills into other areas. Secondly, as my channel was growing, the tools I was using began gaining more attention. Everyone noticed the usual suspects such as Lie-Nielsen and Veritas, but no one could identify the knife. I also noticed that David Barron had ceased selling his knife.
I had 4 things to confirm there was a gap in the market. Firstly, I had seen how many knives David was selling after reading his blog a few years ago. Secondly, I had a larger following than he did at the time of selling his knives. Thirdly, there was potential to make the blade replaceable which also had the added benefit of allowing the user to choose from a selection of 6 different blade shapes. Finally, I realised that it would be easy for me to make the handle and the ferrule fully customisable if I were to make these knives in-house.
Planning and Research
I began working on a design for the knife, particularly the locking mechanism on the ferrule. I considered a collet, however there was no chance I could make one efficiently. I considered a pin that slots through the side of the ferrule and through the hole on the blade, secured in place with a magnet. But this would easily get lost in a pile of shavings if dropped. Everything pointed back to my original design of using a grub screw to secure the blade in place. Of course a grub screw could easily get lost in a pile of shavings. But at least it was far easier to order spares online as opposed to a bespoke magnetic pin! So I got to work re-designing my original knife and faced a number of different challenges.
The original knife required the blade to be cut shorter before being inserted into the ferrule. But I did not want people to need to cut down blades in order to replace them. Not only from a convenience standpoint, but also from a safety perspective. This mean't that the ferrule had to be longer on the new design to accept the entire blade. The nice thing about this is that it's added a nice amount of mass to the front of the knife so that it required less effort to cut, and feels like a higher quality item.
Grub Screw Placement
I wanted the grub screw to be in the centre of the ferrule along it's length. But after increasing the length of the ferrule, it meant that the grub screw hole was no longer aligned with the hole in the blade. This was a big problem. If the grub screw was to be over-tightened against the side of the blade, there is a high chance the blade could chip and fill the blade slot with metal fragments. As you'll see later in this article, these are impossible to remove.
I tried so hard to avoid this being a carbon copy of David Barrons knife, but on the flip side there was so little I wanted to change about his original design because I loved it so much. In the end I decided to remove the bead at the end of the handle, simplify the shape, I also removed the shoulder that leads the handle into a ferrule, and I was to offer it in a variety of materials. With the addition of a visible grub screw, the design is now noticeably different to Davids original.
One thing I couldn't distance myself from was the thumb-hold. I thought it was genius. In addition, due to the fact my blade was removable, it meant that the blade could simply be flipped the other way around and it would be suitable for both right and left handers!
This is where the real challenges arose. I'm pretty sure I exhausted all potential cock-ups possible before finally coming out with a design and a process that works well. Below are some of my favourite screw ups.
When it blew up
There was a split in the rosewood that I didn't see. Suffice to say it didn't like the skew chisel touching it.
I forgot to cut the blade slot before attaching the ferrule. Then ended up mashing it anyway...
I decided to highly polish the ferrule as an experiment, then proceeded to overtighten it in the chuck jaws...
The slitting saws I use are extremely flexible. This happened to at least 50% of the first batch.
One second I was chamfering the copper, the next second my pants were brown.
The shank was too tight in the handle, so I decided to machine it down slightly. Ended up mashing the slot shut.
When the araldyte joint failed, causing the ferrule to rotate around the blade holder. You could get a grub screw in that, right?
When I forgot to set the depth stop on the drill and blew through the opposite side of the ferrule.
Snap The Tap
One of the many occurrences where the tap snapped while cutting the thread. This is one of the most annoying!
Another Failed Joint
Aradyte rapid didn't work for the wood to metal joint either. These often launched off the lathe.
When the slitting saw broke and I decided to mount it on the lathe afterwards as an experiment. It didn't like it.
Flying Sharp Things
When you're fitting the blade for the final time and it snaps in the slot. GARRGH
The only slitting saws I could find were available from China. They were good 90% of the time, the other 10% was this.
When I got carried away while sanding the handle and ended up shaping the brass ferrule too!
Snap the Tap V2
A huge problem I faced was breakout within the slot. After adhering the ferrule to the blade holder, every time I drilled and tapped the hole there would be small amounts of metal that would prevent the blade from being fully inserted. I considered assembling the ferrule and blade holder dry while drilling and tapping the hole, taking it apart, cleaning out the slot, then re-assembling it. But this would almost certainly make aligning the threads difficult. Not to mention the potential of threadlocker leaking into the pre-drilled grub screw hole!
I found that inserting a piece of 0.7mm sheet steel into the slot before drilling and tapping greatly reduces this risk and I now have a success rate of about 80%. The remaining 20% are usually still functional, but are a challenge to get the blade fitted. I usually reserve these ones for myself, friends, and display items if I were to ever set up a stall at an event.
After completing the first batch of knives, I have since subcontracted the metal components of the knives out to a small local company. This stops me from having to spend hours slaving over a lathe and milling machine doing repetitive tasks and instead focus on video creation. However, I still glue, drill, tap, countersink, and chamfer the ferrule myself. As well as turn, finish, and package etc.
It's been a real rollercoaster trying to get these things going but the initial feedback has been incredible. I'm seeing lots of happy recipients of their knives all round the globe and I could not be more humbled to see people enjoying them. If you want to purchase one yourself, you can visit my online store. If you find they are out of stock, be sure to sign up for my marking knife notifications by clicking the button below.