Zack Jonas here, brand new JS. I was awarded my mark down in San Antonio last weekend along with seven other excellent makers. It was a great experience.
First I’d like to give credit where credit is due: Dan, this thread was a great idea. I’m very glad to participate in it and share my experience with other aspiring makers. So thanks! Now, down to business:
I’m the type of guy who does not like to leave important things to chance. At some point, you have to let go—you never know whether there might be some flaw in a piece of steel, or something—but in an endeavor like this, my objective was to be as close to certain as I could be that I was going to pass the test.
I made six performance blades, as similar as I could manage in terms of overall dimensions, thickness/taper, and profile. I made them all out of 1084. I heat treated three pairs three different ways: 1) full quench 1x, 2) full quench 2x, and 3) edge quench 2x. I tempered them all identically. I drew the spine on all six back to a spring temper twice. (I made very sure to give the ricasso areas just a touch extra—this is where you are most likely to have a stress riser.) Then I ran through the complete performance test on my own with one from each pair and
everything but the bend on each of the others. I took the mate of the one I thought performed the best to the actual test with JD Smith.
(Note: I marked the tang at the butt with a file, giving each knife a number and a mark or series of marks indicating the quenching process used. I also used visibly different woods for each pair, just so that I could see at a glance which was which.) I bent some with the edge still sharp and some with the edge dulled off. I did not observe any difference at all.
All of my knives passed the test. The one I ended up bringing to JD was a 2x full quench. After the bend, the blade came back perfectly
straight. The handle has a 7-8 degree set in the ricasso area. The edge is straight and still razor sharp.
Here’s my advice on design:
1) Chopper-style blade—take advantage of the 2” width, and you’ll cut better
2) Pronounced distal taper—improved distribution of elastic forces in the bend test
3) Round your spine—helps prevent a crimp at the bend which could lead to failure
4) Blade/handle in-line—this will make the mechanics of the bend easier on you and eliminate weird torque on unnecessary vectors.
I wanted to demonstrate two things with my presentation set. First, I wanted to show that I could design and execute a solid knife. Second, I wanted to demonstrate that I could employ variety: I used three different materials for the hardware (German silver, brass, and stainless), six different woods, three distinct hamon styles, and four very different blade shapes. (I’ll post a photo when I get it from Point7.) I chose to make knives that would be familiar to the judges in terms of overall form; I thought of it as though I was saying to them “I believe I am worthy of a JS mark,” and I figured it would be the most convincing if I said it in their native tongue (ABS style knives, in other words). To my mind, that’s what JS is all about—when I go for my MS, I’ll show a set that are very uniquely my own.
(I’m not suggesting that you neuter your own style and produce bland knives just to get through. I didn’t just make “a bowie,” I made a Zack Jonas bowie. But I did keep my imagination somewhat in check.)
A note on “extras:” If you are reading this, chances are good that you’ve been advised not to do any filework or other embellishments on your presentation set. This is probably good advice. Four of my blades had hamons, which I chose to reveal. One of those had some very unusual activity—two parallel hamons roughly following the edge, and then a third up near the ricasso, with some “floating jewels” of martensite in between. I got greedy on this one; it looked so cool to me that I just had to bring it out for the judging, even though I wasn’t totally comfortable with the technique. I probably should have left well enough alone; more than one of the judges had “some questions” about the finish on that one. So my advice to you is to add embellishments ONLY if a) you are completely, completely comfortable with the technique and quite assured that you can achieve a flawless result and
you want to try for one of the awards.
I spent a couple of months working on the knives, although I also turned out several commissions during that time. The shortest I spent on any one piece was three days, the longest was about three weeks. Go at your own pace, and leave yourself plenty of time. Most JS’s and MS’s will suggest that you bring an extra knife to the judging in case something goes wrong with one of your knives in transit. I myself erred on the cautious side and had a couple more knives in the works while I made the five just in case I messed something up while I was finishing any of the intended set. I am a good knifemaker, but we all make mistakes, and I didn’t want to pigeonhole with time running out. As it turns out, I actually did lay one of my original intended set aside about ¾ of the way through because I just didn’t like the direction it was going. So I just switched to another and was much happier. I also felt that it eased the pressure in general.
Once I had the knives finished and ready to go, I brought them before three MS’s, JD Smith, Rob Hudson, and Joe Szilaski. If you have the option to get your knives in front of an MS (or a JS for that matter), do it
. Be clear that you intend to present these knives for judging and that you want serious, rigorous critique. Leave your feelings at the door. Unless you are already going MS quality work, they WILL find features that could be improved. In my opinion, it is OK at this point to have a discussion with them about what you “need” to fix before you bring the knives to the judging panel. You’re not asking “can I get away with this,” but rather trying to get better acquainted with exactly what is expected of a JS. That being said, fix everything you possibly can; you will only improve your odds of passing. I left myself about a month before the event to make any minor changes and refinish the work—SOME OF THAT TIME WAS NEEDED.
Look at your knives under as many different types of light as possible. Different light will show you different things. I also find it extremely useful, if time allows, to set a finished knife aside for a week or so without looking at it even once. That way when you get back to it, you’re snapped out of the semi-myopia induced by staring at the same object for weeks on end. Show your work to as many people as you can, even if they are not very familiar with knives. Above all, be honest with yourself. If you ever find yourself look at something that seems a little off, correct it. If you hear yourself say, “nah, I don’t need to fix that,” FIX IT. Until the moment you put your knives in the judging room, everything you do should be about improving the odds.
Anyway folks, I could go on much longer, but I’m thinking I should wrap it up. I'm happy to answer any follow up questions you might have, and I’ll say that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. So go ahead.
Hope this has been useful. GOOD LUCK!