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1/28/20

Sculptural Knife Vase

Sculptural Knife Vase

The Sculptural Knife Vase


I have been teasing for many months that I have been working on a knife project.... What kind of knife project?... Why, a flower vase of course! A machined metal flower vase with fifteen razor-sharp hardened steel blades that encircle its precious blooming cargo.
(Actually dried flowers in this case, it is winter after all)

This may seem like an odd combination, maybe even a tad tongue in cheek, however this piece has been in development for several years and embodies many of the themes I have been laying out over the last few projects. It connects a number of conceptual threads in my work, and does so in ways that were unexpected even to me.

So please tuck in for a long read (if you are inclined) and I will do my best to explain.


Preface

I have spent a lot of time thinking about traditional craft-forms within various studio art movements. Practices such as glasswork, woodturning, and ceramics are all crafts that got their start on a factory floor a lot like machine-work. However these crafts differ from machining in a few important ways.

Unlike machining, each of the above craft movements represents a process that has largely fallen out of industrial use. They have since been picked up by artisans and have been turned towards more creative ends. Likewise, these crafts have signature shapes and forms that are common within their trade (Vases, bowls, urns etc). They are shapes that tell that crafts particular history. Most of these forms are used to learn their respective practices and have become inseparable from that crafts visual language.

Knifemaking, Art knives, Knife, Flower

These craft-forms are of interest to me because while machining is a craft that shares a similar industrial past, there are few signature forms one can point to that uniquely representative it as a medium. The machinist landscape seems to lack ubiquitous forms that fall neatly into the same paradigm of craft and craft-form. One likely reason is that machine-work is a sprawling discipline full of specialized skills. The range of tools and processes at play are so varied it is nearly impossible to find projects that are analogous to what one finds in a woodturning class or glass blowing studio.

Because of this absence of unique craft-forms within the world of machined metal, I have spent considerable time exploring what a “machined craft-form” might be. Should machining eventually find better standing as a sculptural medium, what forms might come to define it?

Knife, Vase, Flower Vase, CNC, Craft

I undertook a wide variety of projects to explore this, including hand-held kinetic art projects, a machined vessel series, and even a few collaborations with other makers and machinists. These projects drew inspiration from many of the industrial crafts listed above, as well as trends within the contemporary machinist community, and even ancient craft-forms such as Japanese Netsuke and Chinese snuff bottles.

Machined, Metal, flower Vase, CNC Art

Over that time, I have become captured by the idea of borrowing forms from older crafts and reworking them into highly engineered machined craft-forms of my very own. And while it may seem counterintuitive to use a contemporary and technologically advanced process to revisit forms from bygone industrial eras, it is important to remember that every craft, no matter how old, was cutting edge technology at some point in time.

The impulse to formally explore technology transcends vintage and it has become a lively and fruitful line of thinking for my work. This new project is the next step along that journey and takes the idea of borrowing, reimagining, and remixing traditional craft-forms to new places.

Knife making, Art knife, Vase

The Sharp Arts

Now with all of that said, there is one particular craft tradition that up until now, I had been avoiding. I am of course referring to the world of contemporary knife making (both decorative and utilitarian).

Knife making is a discipline that perfectly captures the dichotomy between historical and contemporary industrial processes. Much in the way that I am exploring older traditions with machine tools, it is a field that mixes historic and modern methods rather elegantly. Knife making is a rare craft, in that it maintains working first hand knowledge of nearly every technological step of its long history. Its roots go all the way back to the Stone Age, and it has evolved and changed with each technological epoch along the way.

Machined Flower Vase

The history of the knife is the history of mans material progress. Like machine-work, it embodies a wide spectrum of metalworking processes. One can find countless practitioners still putting hammer to anvil in a way that is thousands of years old. And while its historical traditions are alive and well, the world of knife making has also been completely transformed by the adoption of modern machine tools and new technology.

Knife making’s influence on the creative culture of machine-work is undeniable. It has a long decorative arts tradition that has only grown with the adoption of digital fabrication technology. As a metal sculptor who is involved in the ways process can inform the aesthetic elements of a craft, knife making is beyond fascinating to me.

While I have resisted taking up knife making directly, preferring instead to keep my attention firmly on sculpture, I am drawn to it as a source of inspiration.

Knife, Knives, Metal Flower Vase

The Sculpture Connection

While various knife makers have inspired my work, I found it difficult to approach the craft directly through my work. My process typically involves stripping away the utility from various design or craft concepts to better reveal what is aesthetically interesting about them. I felt that it might be impossible to strip the utility from a knife and still have an object that is both interesting and spoke meaningfully to the craft.

It finally occurred to me that it isn’t necessary to fully strip the utility from a knife to appreciate its inherent aesthetic qualities; one can simply put those qualities into a unique context. My previous projects involving historical craft-forms have (oddly enough) provided me a conceptual bridge of sorts. They have supplied me with the necessary framework tell a story about material progress and blade making at the same time.

Metal Art, Flower Vase

The project

Creating this rather distinct (if impractical) flower vase might seem an odd way to explore knife making, but I felt the best approach was to use the blades as sculptural elements in a way that created an unexpected context for them. Rather than stand alone objects, I felt it more interesting to contrast the blades with some of the other craft-forms I have already been exploring. I wanted to use my foray into blade making to further tell the story of how various industrial crafts come to be appropriated for the purpose of making art. 

So while it may seem counter productive to make a flower vase out of machined knives, that is strangely enough, exactly what I have done, and not without reason.

This work is a good example of combining two relatively simple ideas (making a vase and making a knife) to create a situation that impedes the usefulness of both. What remains is an object that mischievously demands that it be appreciated for more than its precarious utility.

CNC art, Digital Fabrication, design

Now there may be some of you out there who are put off by the idea of exploring weapons of any kind as art, but I think this piece easily demonstrates that knives can be many things besides that. I myself am not entirely sure what all the implications of using blades as sculptural elements might be. But to those who would be critical, I ask that you maintain an open mind, and acknowledge that more often than not, knives are tools like any other.

There is beauty (and humor) to be found in even the most tactical aesthetics within the creative industrial arts, so while it is easy to judge, it is far more interesting to explore, and it is my intention to do the latter.



Technical Notes:

Since I was keeping this work kind of a secret, I was not able to share process photos in real time like I have become accustom, so below is breakdown of some of the challenges I faced as well as some of the documentation I made along the way.  Again, a bit of a read, but for those interested in the nuts and bolts of the project, it should be interesting.

While my preference is to introduce new techniques one at a time, tackling knife making made that approach quite impossible. I was in over my head in too many ways to count, which was refreshing and disorienting at the same time. I had never made a knife blade before (not on purpose anyway), so there is rather a lot to touch on here.


Machining the blades:

There are several common ways to make knife blades, some are forged (think hammer and anvil), some start with pre-made bar stock and go straight to the grinder to create the shape, and still others machine the majority of the geometry and then go to finishing operations. In my case, I obviously wanted to machine the blades, but this is not as straightforward as it first seems.

For starters, I had never machined high performance knife steels before. Knife steels are much harder than the alloys I typically select. They are unforgiving to machine, so set-ups and machining parameters need to be much more carefully applied. Choosing an appropriate alloy was daunting, but after a lot of research, I settled on a steel called AEBL. Like all knife steels, it has pros and cons for use as knife steel.

The pro: AEBL is used in a lot of kitchen cutlery, so it is pretty common and easy to source. It has great corrosion resistance and is known to be relatively easy to harden and sharpen. It is also reasonably inexpensive, which is important for an experiment with so many blades in it. Exotic knife steels can get extremely pricy, and there was no need to be unnecessarily spendy when good options abound.

The con: Surprisingly, there was not a lot of information on machining AEBL. I had a hard time getting recommendations on cutting parameters. I came to learn this is because AEBL is primarily used in making large quantity commercial blades. It is more commonly cut with abrasives processes like water jet cutters or lasers, and then ground to final shape. That didn’t mean it was un-machine-able, it just meant that that it wasn’t common, so information was scarce. I did eventually get some useful guidance from a fellow knife maker to use as a starting point.

Overall: Once work got underway, I found that AEBL wasn’t horrible to machine, even on the modest tools that I have, the finish was actually pretty good. But, while the machines handled it well enough, I had to take my time and not push things. I found that AEBL has some abrasive properties to it that wore the end mills faster than anticipated.

Since I had to make 15 blades (plus some spares) for the project, I burned through more $25 cutters than I care to admit. Some of this premature wear could have been mitigated with a more rigid and balanced tooling set up, but I soldiered through, took my time, and ended up with pretty great results.

Below is also a video showing some of the fixture-ing and the warping issues I also encountered.


Heat-treating and Hardening steel:

Another process I had little experience with was heat-treating and hardening steel. While this is something that toolmakers and machine designers are quite familiar, as a sculptor, it just isn’t something I had much of a need for, until now.

Heat-treating is fascinating for many reasons; chief among them is that it makes much of the metal work I do possible. At its simplest, machining is simply using a harder material, to cut a slightly softer one. When milling brass with steel, this can seem a simple mater of material selection. But when cutting one kind of steel, with a similar kind of steel, things start to get technically interesting and down right philosophical.

This is grossly oversimplified, but think of it this way, the main factor in determining steel’s hardness is its carbon content, and how those carbon atoms are arranged within the metal. Heat-treating is how one arranges the atoms to create the hardness one desires. Cutters and blades only need to be slightly harder than the material they intend to cut. So it is entirely possible to take two pieces of the same alloy, heat-treat one to make it hard, and then treat the other so that it is soft. From there you can easily shape and cut one with the other, sort of like cutting warm softened butter with a harder piece of frozen butter. That’s fascinating stuff.

So long story short, in order to harden my knife blades so they would take a nice edge, I had to invest in a special kiln to heat-treat them. From there I was able to crash coarse my way through this fascinating process and achieved good results. Having a way to harden metal also opens a lot of doors for interesting future projects.


Sharpening steel:

While I have been shaping metal for decades, I had never intentionally drawn a razor sharp edge onto a piece of metal for the purposes of making art. I have sharpened cutlery in a utilitarian context, but never in a way that was careful of the geometry and polish of the steel. Sharpening blades with precision was another skill I would have to hone (get it).

There are seasoned knife makers who have perfected their sharpening technique over many years, and over thousands of knives. Some can draw an edge onto a blade standing at a manual grinder in just a few minutes using some hard earned muscle memory. I however, do not have this skill (yet!) so despite my long career in metalworking; I had to compensate for inexperience with the use of a sharpening fixture.


I settled for hand sharpening each blade on a relatively slow, but tried and true, knife sharpening jig. It produced great results, but was time consuming. It is something that will likely change but slow and steady was the way to go here.

Assembly and composition:

The overall design of the Vase is an area with which I was much more comfortable.


All of my sculptures are built around some novel assembly method or engineering concept that I can express in a visually interesting way, and this work is no exception.


Each blade has a T shaped spine that engages with a comparable slot along the length of the vessel body. The blades are secured by a couple of tiny setscrews that engage the spine and provide a clamping force for the blades in each slot.



The screws are accessed from the opposite side of the vessel, by reaching through the work from the decorative pin holes exactly opposite the lock screw. From there, the rest of the assembly was pretty straight forward, I used the decorative pin holes as additional locking set screws for the stainless steel liner of the vase.

I made a short video to demonstrate the concept.  (below)


As you can see in the video, I also made some fun devices for moving the work without having to touch the blades, something that needed quite a bit of extra consideration. Getting this thing into place without hurting yourself or others is actually pretty tricky. 

Anyhow, thanks for reading. 

As always, questions and comments are quite welcome. 

4 comments:

  1. I love it! I am a bit afraid of it... but I love it.

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  2. Lovely! Dabbling with functionality I see :P

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  3. You won't have to worry about rose thorns nicking you! I love this piece.

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  4. Thanks so much for sharing this work, your process and thoughts. :-)

    ReplyDelete