Billy Joe’s Knives and Tools Made from Found Steels

Billy Joe Chef's
A rustic Chef’s knife made from a section of a scythe blade more than a century old and handled in Tea Olive, an uncommon American wood.

Rustic cooking tools and knives have been produced from old steel tool parts as a result of testing a new forge and other knife-making equipment at Hovey’s Knives of China’s shop in Georgia. A rib flipper and forge tool have been made from a piece of lawnmower steel, and a Chef’s knife was cut from a 100-year-old blade from a scythe.

Rib Flipper start metal
Rib flipper being heated in the author’s homemade forge.

These Billy Joe Rubideoux  products are named after a fictional character from Plaquemine Parish in the Louisiana Delta. Raised in the water-logged swamps below Lafitte, Billy Joe had a hard-scrabble existence where trips to town were infrequent. If he needed a tool, he had to make it  or do without. Working in this tradition, a rib flipper was made for turning meat on a charcoal grill and the rounded piece of left-over steel was used to pound out a forge-cleaning tool.

Billy Joe s Rib Flipper prtotype
This improvised, but useful tool has a grip that is thicker on one side so that it can be comfortably held in a horizontal position in the hand and the dogleg-shaped blade allows meat on a grill to be efficiently moved and turned.This grip is also made of Tea Olive, as are all the Billy Joe knives and tools.

The rib flipper

Anyone who cooks on a grill must turn their meat. The most commonly use tools to flip ribs, turn chickens and move chops are spatulas, tongs and forks. None of these are very efficient. A piece of steel from the bottom of a riding lawnmower had a curved shape and appeared that if it was straightened and handled would be ideal for that purpose.

The steel was heated on the forge to the point where it could be pounded flat, cut and ground. The result proved to be a somewhat dogleg-shaped object that only needed a handle to be functional. I used a piece of salvaged wormy tea olive as a fitting grip for this tool and designed an asymmetrically – shaped grip that could be held horizontally in the hand. This grip proved ideal for turning ribs and other objects on the grill and outperformed anything I had used.

As the carbon steel in the flipper easily rust, I polished it with a steel wheel and coated it with canola oil to provide a non-toxic protective coating. Square holes in the flipper’s blade provide a handy means for hanging on the sides of my smoker. More custom flippers will be made in the Billy Joe style will be made along with stainless steel adaptations  for commercial use.

The forge cleaner

After the Rib Flipper was completed a piece of steel remained which had a distinctively curved profile, similar in shape of a flattened spoon. I used this piece to clean the ashes out of my forge, which has a steel tire rim as a fire-box. This worked and needed only a longer grip to make it efficient. I wire-brushed it down to bright metal, dressed the edges with grinding wheels and drilled it for a grip. This grip would be firmly attached by four pins made from cut-off nails. The result was an efficient forge-cleaning tool that I protected from further rust by giving the blade a coating of black enimal paint. Thus, both pieces of salvaged lawnmower steel were put to beneficial use to make new-to-the-world tools that performed beneficial functions.

The Chef’s knife

I had been saving the blade from an old scythe from the 1800s that was given to me over 30-year-ago. It had been exposed to rust and was well-pitted, but was nonetheless sound. The steel used in this scythe was among the highest quality steels available in the day  and similar to that used to make straight razors. The shape of the blade was wide enough to provide sufficient steel to make a Chef’s knife. After the basic shape had been drawn on the blade, a torch was used to  profile of the blade. Rough shaping was done using a grinder and final edging was completed on a 72-inch knife-making machine, which is basically a 72-inch variable-speed belt grinder with a 2-inch wide belt. To preserve the blade’s rustic look, the deep brown rust patina on the sides of the blade was left intact.

Once the blade was ground and holes drilled for the scales, the forge was  used to re-temper the blade, as heat from the cutting torch had heated the steel sufficient to soften the steel. The tempering process served to stiffen the blade and harden the edge. A video showing how the knife was made is at: https://youtu.be/maFAogwdrcw.

Wood from the tea olive, a native American tree whose fragrant-smelling blossoms caused it to be planted around  many antebellum plantations,  was selected as the handle material. This wood is harder than pine, ivory colored, commonly spalted and worm-holed when it has been on the forest floor.  The natural holes and contrasting colors proved to be complementary to the over-all look of the knife. Although the finished knife is fully functional and has a sharp edge, it would appear to be hundreds of years old. Closer inspection would reveal that its cutting edge is brightly finished, the grips are coated with a tough polyurethane and the back of the blade exposes bright metal.

Billy Joe's Chef's knife in kitchen
In a video the Billy Joe Chef’s knife competed in a cooking test with a commercial knife from the discount table at a mass-market outlet. 

Billy Joe’s knife was compared to a $7.00 Chef’s knife from a mass-market-outlet’s discount table during cutting tests using bond paper and vegetables as I prepared some soup. Although Billy Joe’s knife had the advantages of having a sharper, deeper and longer blade, the pitted sides of the blade produced much more friction. In most cases the commercial knife was superior as a usable kitchen knife, although the rustic Rubideoux knife felt better, worked better as a chopping blade and kept its edge during the test. In short it proved itself to be a usable Chef’s knife, although not as good as the inexpensive commercial product.

The Billy Joe Rubideoux knife is more art than functional knife,  but it will work for its intended purposes in a home setting. Its design is superior to the commercial knife. The longer, deeper blade and long grip with the stag-like feel imparted by the worm holes give it a distinctive feel while the light-weight wood of the grips provide a desirable weight-forward balance for the knife. Only the roughness and perhaps the slight lip at the top of the blade made the Billy Joe knife function less well than the commercial blade.  The wooden grips, which provide an artistic counterpoint to the blade,   will  also soften  if immersed in water or put in a dishwasher. These grips demand careful handling, which is not likely to happen in a commercial kitchen.

A video, “A $700 Billy Joe Rubideoux Chef’s Knife Vs. a $7.00 Mass-Market Markdown Makes Soup for the Toothless,”  was made when showing this knife being used to chop vegetables for a soup. While the knife felt good in the hand and handled better than the commercial knife as a chopper; overall, the slicker-sided commercial knife proved to be much more efficient. While distinctive as a piece of rustic functional art made and fine for casual use in a home kitchen, its pitted blade caused it to be inefficient. Billy Joe’s knife would be thrown out of a commercial kitchen, although it did serve to demonstrate that a functional Chef’s knife could be made from scrap materials in a home workshop.  This video may be seen at:https://youtu.be/jpsLeNHNY-E.

This experiment was sufficiently successful that the decision was made to custom make knives and tools in the Billy Joe fashion using salvaged steels and handle materials furnished by the anyone who wants a custom-made, functional tool made of something that had significance to him. As long as it is a reasonable carbon steel, a useful knife or tool can probably be made by the  combined processes of cutting, forging, grinding and tempering. The last is significant, because if too much heat is applied to the metal during cutting or grinding the result will be a softer steel and a weaker tool that will not hold an edge or quickly fail if exposed to heat or stress.

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s