It was a regular morning on the 12th of February 2019 when I got a message via instagram from an account I was very familiar with. The notification on my phone read something like “SouthNarc wants to send you a message”. It’s one of those notifications that as a relatively new knife maker in the world of combative / defensive knives that you kind of only dream about. I had, at this time, only been a full time maker for just over 1 and a half years. I had only really been making knives for about 2 years in total. To say it was unexpected is an understatement.
The message was extremely polite. Craig introduced himself and asked if I would be interested in taking on a project for him. Despite all the doubt in my head as to whether or not I was worthy of such a project, I could not refuse the challenge.
Craig went on to explain that he loved what I was doing with the traditional Japanese Tuskamaki style handles and that he would really like something in that vein, with a couple of his own parameters. Namely that the handle should be neutral enough to be used in either hand, in either orientation, that the knife would be deployed vertically from IWB, and that it should not exceed a total length of around 6 3/5”.
Initially Craig was leaning more toward a traditional dagger design, but my personal style is rooted so much in creating curves that I felt the symmetry of a traditional dagger wasn’t going to sit well with me. I set about doing two drawings, one with the traditional symmetrical dagger, and another that would ultimately become the Ibara. Craig is the ultimate patron. He fully trusted my idea when I suggested that the gentle S-curve of the Ibara I had drawn would be the way to go. He gave me full creative freedom to interpret his idea with his main goal being ambidexterity.
I set about creating a working prototype of the Ibara blade in regular carbon steel. I wanted to build the handle and craft a working knife that I could test. In the back of my mind at this point had been this idea to begin using more exotic steels and materials. The Ibara project became somewhat of an incubator for my creativity and specifically my Japanese influence, and during the design process I had the realisation that this knife would be the perfect contender for my forray into Japanese Aogami steel.
Aogami steel is exotic. It’s relatively difficult to find outside of Japan and when you can get it in small quantities it is expensive and usually only available in narrow bar stock. For a stock removal knifemaker like myself that poses a challenge as I don’t have the time, tools or ability to reforge bar stock into a blade. But the Ibara was a small knife, with parameters which made it fit onto the 35mm wide narrow bar stock that Aogami steel comes in.
The Aogami steel, itself a member of the Yasugi steel family, is special in that it is probably the closest you can get to traditional Japanese sword steel, Tamahagane, in an off-the-shelf milled steel product. This appeals to everything I am as a knife maker, and this special quality suited both my style and Craig as a man of exquisite taste.
This was the first of many milestones that the Ibara would eventually become for me.
When I finished the prototype I did what many people would probably cringe at. I tested it to breaking point to find any weaknesses in the design. Because of the narrow parameters of the Aogami steel, the prototype had a really sleek and slender profile which resulted in a quite fine point. I was worried it would not be robust enough and did some organic medium testing of the blade. It stabbed and cut extremely well, but I purposefully plunged the tip into a heavy bone and twisted it. The resulting lateral torque snapped the point off the prototype and confirmed what I had already felt – that the point was too weak for a combative / defensive knife. The profile was refined and I settled on creating a hybrid grind for the blade. A flat grind on the inside Pikal edge, and a convex grind for the outer edge. My theory being that the bit of added thickness at the point would reinforce it slightly.
When Craig heard that I was planning to use Aogami steel for his blade he asked about adding some more exotic materials or some kind of feature to make it even more special. We floated the idea of adding menuki (small decorative metal pieces under the cord wrap on Japanese Swords) to the Tsukamaki handle, however I felt that on a knife this small the menuki would need to be so small that it would probably be lost in the wrap.
It was at that moment I made a suggestion. Something I had again been wanting to try for some time was traditional Japanese metal working. For about 6 months at this time I had been studying the work of Ford Hallam, one of the few westerners to be a recognised expert on Japanese Metal Work and a world renown restorer of antique Tsuba and other sword fittings, as well as an extremely talented and sought after artist in his own right. I has become fascinated with Japanese metal alloys, specifically Shibuichi and Shakudo from watching and studying Ford’s work.
I tentatively suggested to Craig that this may be the right project for me to try using these Japanese alloys on. Baring in mind I had never done this before, it was quite a bold idea that required both a lot of confidence from myself and a lot of trust from Craig. We agreed however that it should be done. Craig is the kind of man who doesn’t like to spare expenses and again his full trust and support in my creative vision showed.