In my quest for the knives from exotic steels I've worked with a lot of knife makers and have tried a lot of steels which are rare, hard to obtain, difficult to work with and as such, not very popular with many knifemakers. The other day, couple years back, I was doing research on the steels, and stumbled on the post by Fred Haakonsen. He was discussing high hardness alloys and his ideas did sound very interesting and better yet, I felt the same way about many aspects discussed in the post. So, I've contacted Mr. Haakonsen and started rather long discussion on the future knife project. As an added bonus, it was quite an educational session too, as Fred does have PhD in metallurgy. Around the same time I was working on the knife steel composition chart, Fred helped out with that too. All in all, it was a very productive exchange, at least from my side. I've learned a lot, can't say the same about Fred, but what can I do, I'm a programmer, not a knifemaker :)
General- The first step in custom knives is the design, unless you have already picked something in particular. In this case, I've chosen to work with the maker first, and I had not chosen what I wanted. I got photos of the Fred's work in the email and we had a few emails back and forth, discussing what I wanted, plus the material choice. While the steel choice was easy, I went with Bohler-Uddeholm Vanadis 4E steel, since it vas quite a bucket of alloying elements to be considered on the exotic side. Designing the actual knife took more time. Can't say it all was too successful, but I have myself to blame for that. In the end, I went with a simplistic, smaller knife, based on one of the Fred's knives. One aspect to consider was the cost. Fred Haakonsen is from Norway and works there, and taxes and general costs are considerably higher than in US. 750$ 87.00mm(3.43") blade knife, fixed blade with no fancy addons and implements is rather steep price. Well, to make you feel better, there are tons of knives by US makers, with far lesser steels and performance costing a lot more than 750$ I've paid for this knife. They have difference value, and whether or not it is justified, it's up to a buyer. Ok, not about my screw-up with the design. I did insist on shorter handle, and even though Fred repeatedly warned me that the handle was a bit short for the knife, I still asked him to keep the length I initially requested. And what do you know, first time I have used the knife, first thing I've noticed was that the handle was lacking in length. My bad and Haakonsen honestly warned me. One of the things that can happen when designing custom knives yourself. Well, no biggie, it's a perfectly workable knife, after all it's a small fixed blade. I guess enough about design phase, let's talk about the knife itself. It took about a half year to make. Small fixed blade, quite stout, almost 4mm thick. Quite nicely done, the only flaw I found in the whole knife was the small uneven grind bevel section. Other than that, blade finish is very good, and I can fully appreciate that part, knowing first hand how hard it is to grind that steel. The handle is also a match for the knife, nice finish, well fitted, no gaps or any other issues. Kydex sheath fits the knife perfectly and although I don't have much use for it, it is a nice addition to the knife.
Blade- The blade on the Haakonsen utility knife is 87.00mm(3.43") long, 3.87mm thick at the heel and throughout most of the blade, and 25mm wide at the heel. Like I said, small, but tough blade. Nice satin finish, very small ricasso, with Haakonsen's initials on it. The edge bevel grind was interesting, it's a variable edge. Most of the edge was ground to about 15-17° per side, but the tip is considerably thicker. I've taken several measurements and it varies form 20° to 25° per side. I've asked Fred about that, it was obvious the grind was done on purpose and I've asked Fred about the details. Scandinavian knives, at least conventional fixed blades are more often optimized for woodworking and as Fred put it, they should be able to take some abuse, preferably a lot. I don't really have the need to put my knives through a lot of abuse, but I definitely don't mind when they can withstand a lot of it. The Vanadis 4E steel blade is hardened at 66HRC and until very recently it was the hardest fixed blade in my collection, actually the second hardest, after William Henry ZDP-189 spearpoint folder which is 67HRC, but this utility knife is much tougher knife than the spearpoint folder. Hardening the steel to those levels has its problems when making the knife. In this instance, we had to decrease the blade length from initial 130mm to 87mm, because Fred had concerns about warping. Another compromise was thickness, I wanted 2mm thick blade, but because of the alloy and its hardness we went with sub 4mm thickness. Blade geometry is quite simple, but very utilitarian. I've used the knife for variety of tasks and it worked out very well for pretty much everything that can be considered as utility cutting, except for the failed experiment when I've experimented with the Haakonsen utility knife in the role of the paring knife. I'll cover that in the usage section.
Vanadis 4E steel - As far as its alloy content goes, Vanadis 4E steel is rather a medium alloy steel compared to other, more exotic stuff, from Bohler-Uddeholm and other makers. Like many other things, more is not always better :) Anyhow, it's not easy or wise to judge the steel by its composition alone. Obviously, composition does dictate steel properties, but so do the heat treatment, blade geometry and edge thickness, plus the intended use. All that would be a subject for a fairly large book, and it is the source of the of the never ending discussions on various knife and metallurgy related forums. I'll skip that stuff here, it's not the subject of the review. In short, Vanadis 4E is a medium alloy, PM steel, made using Bohler-Uddeholm's 3rd generation PM technology, also referred as micro clean. Bohler-Uddeholm emphasizes the cleanness of the alloy. I would be a lot more helpful if they have published contaminant contents though, none of the Vanadis 4E specs I have seen clearly state S and P contents in it. I've searched the knife steel database to find similar alloys, but the only thing that comes close to it is another one from the same maker, Bohler-Uddeholm Roltec steel. That one has higher Si content and other differences. That'd be a good example to illustrate how composition changes are difficult to interpret. As in Roltec VS. Vanadis 4E used in the same knife, for different purposes.
Sharpening- I've spent quite some time sharpening Haakonsen utility knife. Not because it dulls easy, quite the contrary, but because it is not all that easy to sharpen, given its 66HRC hardness, and because at some point I've decided to thin down the edge, which is rather standard procedure for me, the time spent on sharpening and grinding this knife was more than enough to get a good idea about Vanadis 4E "sharpenability". Compared to high alloy, especially high Vanadium/Tungsten steels, Vanadis 4E is much easier to grind. However, compared to other, more conventional steels, especially compared to mainstream stuff routinely hardened between 54-60HRC, Vanadis 4E at 66HRC is quite difficult to sharpen. However, as with most of the high hardness alloys, the difficulty is only removing large amounts of metal, such as when you are thinning down the edge like I did. Maintaining the thinner edge is pretty easy, in fact maintaining the edge on that knife is a lot easier compared to softer alloys, because simply it needs less maintenance and on top of that, edge restoration is easy. Where Vanadis 4E edge can come back with dozen strokes on the 0.25µm leather strop, conventional, soft steels will need a lot more work, and often more coarse abrasives as well. Also on the positive side, carbide size in the alloy is quite small, which means the steel can be successfully sharpened to very high levels, I've gone to my usual 100K and it did just fine.
Handle- The handle on the Haakonsen utility knife is quite simple, straight, oval shaped, with cut off top. Handle material - Linen Micarta was also chosen by me. I have used linen micarta in bunch of other knives and I was quite happy with it. Durable material, can take quite some abuse and stay in good shape. I have not tested aggressive chemicals on it, no need, but as far as water, oils and such things are concerned, micarta resists them all very well. I already mentioned that the handle is a bit short, thanks to my requirements. In the hindsight, another 10-20 mm n the handle would've helped, but I am not quite sure now why I was so instant on its current length. Well, the knife works just fine. You know things can always be made better, in this case longer handle... And I'd like to mention again, Fred Haakonsen did warn me few times the handle wasn't long enough, but I didn't listen. In the end, I still have to say thank you to Fred, for both, warning me few times about my design flaw and still doing what I was requesting. Well, if it was a serious enough problem, I'd have a new handle on it by now, but still the same handle, works fine.
Last updated - 03/12/12