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.
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
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, bowels, 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.
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
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?
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.
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.
The Sharp Arts
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.
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.
inform the aesthetic elements of a craft, knife making is beyond fascinating to
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.