Restoring old knives: Things to consider
A lot of people ask us about restoring old kitchen knives as well as ceremonial swords and antique or heirloom pocket knives. Is it worth it and can it be done?
The short answer is ‘yes’, it can usually be done. Whether you want to go ahead with the restoration depends on a number of factors, however.
Is the knife valuable to you?
Firstly, what is the knife worth to you? Does it have historical or sentimental value that is unique only to that knife? Is it an old favourite that is more like an ‘extension of your fingertips’ and means more to you than ‘just any old knife’?
Does the knife remind you of a certain time and place or honour a person or create a remembrance of a certain person every time you use it?
Will the knife be used again or displayed as an artifact?
Significantly, do you intend to use it again or it is its main purpose to be only for display?
How much has your knife deteriorated?
Another factor you will want to consider is how far your knife has travelled down the road toward disintegration. Perhaps its rust is just surface rust or perhaps that rust has attacked the integrity, strength and structure of the knife at a functional level – either on the blade or on the tang of the knife.
The handle may have acquired moisture and damp inside of it while the blade may be fine, or the blade may be pitted and gauged but still useable and restorable – only an expert will be able to tell you.
The type of steel used will affect its restorability
The type of steel the blade is made from will also, correspondingly, directly affect its ability to age and perform well over time. Some steels are not easily restored. Tests can be done by specialist engineering companies or chemical engineers to determine exactly what type of steel the blade is made from if you are unsure.
Importantly, one point to take stock of is if your knife has certain historical, cultural or ceremonial significance. Restoring it back to a shiny and polished artifact can sometimes impact negatively on its commercial and attested authentic value – particularly within the eyes of investors.
Does your knife have historical or cultural value?
If it is fully rusted but has cultural or historical value, perhaps it is better to give it to a museum where it will be cared for and preserved using archival principals and techniques.
Who is the original maker of the blade? Once again, doing your research can determine your path of progression. Sometimes it is better to keep the blade as it is and just try to stop the corrosion that has already started to occur by applying a vinegar treatment, brushing the surface rust off it and giving it a good oil.
However, if the knife is to be stored and displayed as a personal or family heirloom, it can sometimes look better polished and resplendent, glowing in its newly restored aura – especially if it is to take pride of place in a custom designed display unit.
Restoring an heirloom can give you a sense of pride and have more of an intrinsic value to your family or lineal line by demonstrating a sense of generational continuity – even more so, than the extrinsic or monetary value of restoring the actual knife itself.
Should you repurpose the knife?
On the other hand, if the original shape of the whole knife has been destroyed, you might want to investigate the possibilities of reshaping and repurposing your knife into a smaller version instead – particularly if the tang has rusted to a minimum and will no longer support the flex and structure of a longer blade.
Grinding it back to the original base metal and engraving on the blade that the knife has been repurposed from what it once was, can add intrigue and interest value to the new knife.
Gauges and dents in blades are usually acceptable and workable options as long as the apex of the knife blade can be restored or reshaped.
Has the handle fared well?
The handle, however, more often than not, has not fared as well as the blade. Most of the time it requires a complete removal.
To replace it, you will want to find a material that fits with the style of the knife or your renewed vision of that knife. Timber, steel, bone, antler, skateboard or recycled assemblies of patterned wood, phenolic resins such as G10, or durable and resilient acrylic resins such as kirinite or micarta are all options.
You can have handles subsequently customised to fit your own hand and/or patterned or engraved.
Who should restore your knife?
In choosing someone to restore your knife, make sure the restorer knows what he or she is doing.
Ask to see photos of the knives that they have restored before and ask about the intended process of renewal for your knife.
A restorer should be able to talk through the various options with you to help you decide what to do with your knife.
Taking before and after photos can also add to the excitement and documentation of the knife’s transformation and they are a good way to share the story of your knife.
An experienced knife maker or knife restorer should also be able to give you an approximate cost of the restoration process.
Weighing it up
Remember that sometimes the making of a new knife is cheaper than restoring a knife. Knowing the personal, historical or family value of your knife before you embark on restoring it will help you to decide if that is indeed what you want to do.
And once you do go ahead with restoring it, if that is what you choose, it will add to the value you attach to your knife for a lifetime to come.