So you’ve decided that you would like to achieve your American Bladesmith Society (ABS) Journeyman Smith rating? Over the years I have fielded many questions, and helped a number of people achieve their Journeyman, as well as their ABS Mastersmith ratings.

Let me start by saying, this is not an endeavor to be taken lightly! Having judged at both the JS and the MS levels for the ABS, I have witnessed, on many occasions, people who have not understood what this endeavor is all about, and usually those folks end up disappointed, and in some cases extremely angry when the judging is completed, and they did not pass. This is not something that I would recommend an individual to attempt simply because a friend or relative did it. This is the sort of achievement that requires the individual to dedicate a great deal of time, effort, and , do a lot of “homework”. If you decide to start down this path, then do it for YOU, and do it because it’s something that YOU desire to achieve. Anything less, and you will find it filled with frustration.

I have already written an article about HOW to create a blade that will pass the ABS Journeyman Smith test, and will not get too much into that aspect. However, I feel it is necessary to explain that both the ABS JS and MS tests consist of two parts…a Performance Phase, and a Presentation Phase. I would be remiss to talk about one without addressing the other, so we will begin with my thoughts on preparing for, and taking the Performance Phase of your test. This will more so apply to those testing for JS, but the only difference between the two tests is the blade. The JS test blade being a plain steel blade, and the MS test blade being at least a 300 layer count Damascus blade…otherwise all the same principles will apply.


The ABS Performance Test

The simplest way to explain this portion of the JS and MS test is to say… Read the rules posted on the ABS Website, then read them again. DO NOT SIMPLY SKIM OVER THESE RULES! Read each section carefully. Pay particular attention to the “TEST KNIFE SPECIFICATIONS” section.

TEST KNIFE SPECIFICATIONS: (for Journeyman Smith Applicants)
- Overall Length of Knife: Maximum fifteen (15) inches.
- Blade Width: Maximum two (2) inches.
- Blade Length:  Maximum ten (10) inches from point to the beginning of either the guard, bolster, or handle of the blade.
- Handle Configuration:  Any handle configuration is acceptable with or without guard, bolsters, ferrule, etc.
- Handle material is irrelevant and solely the choice of the applicant.
- Blade Material:  The Journeyman Smith may test with any forged steel of his or her choice except Damascus.”

I have had to turn away several individuals from Performance Testing because their blade(s) did not meet these specifications. I cannot speak for every ABS Mastersmith, only for myself….when an individual comes to my shop, or asks me to supervise his/her JS test, I always have a printed copy of the rules, a tape measure, and a black “magic” marker. I measure all the required aspects of the performance test blade, according to the written specifications, in the presence of the individual testing. If everything falls within the required specifications, we proceed with the performance test. Once the test begins, I cannot provide any coaching, or instructions. This is where doing YOUR “homework” comes into play for this portion of testing. Of course you're going to be nervous…in fact if you're not, then something is wrong! If you’ve gotten this far, then it’s a good bet that you have invested a lot of time and effort already.

NOTE: It is the responsibility of the individual who is testing, to provide the required materials…. IE: 1” rope, 2x4s for the chopping portion, as well as required safety gear.

Something that I feel is worth inserting at this point is…although the ABS rules state that the performance test knife need not be highly finished, I can generally get a very good idea of whether the individual will pass or fail the performance portion of the test, base on the appearance of their test knife! I’m not saying that if you come to me for testing, I expect your performance test knife to be “show table ready”, but I have thorough experience that if an individual has taken the time to make the knife look good, then chances are very good that they took the time and effort to ensure that everything is right “under the hood.”

The test begins with the free hanging cut of a 1” manila/hemp rope. For many this is the most difficult portion of the test, and I can easily spot someone who has not practiced. The ABS rules make exceptions for those who are physically unable to perform this portion of the test, but any exceptions must be approved by the Chairman of the ABS, and accomplished PRIOR to taking the test….this means that if an individual has a physical disability that prevents them from performing this, or any portion of the test, it's up to that individual to obtain an exception from the Chairman of the ABS, and to ensure that exception is conveyed to the attending Mastersmith.

  There is a “technique” required to cut the rope. No matter how good the edge geometry or how sharp the edge, if you attempt to cut the rope at a 90 degree angle, it just won't happen. Since the rope is free-hanging, a stroke at a downward angle, somewhere around 30-45 degrees is the best option. This type of stroke creates tension on the rope as it is being cut, and in many instances individuals thought they had actually missed the rope because the resistance was so minimal. Again, PRACTICE on your part will ensure success when testing.

The chopping test is to be conducted with 2x4 construction grade wood stud. The 2x4 may be either hand held or clamped into a vise or other safe devise. A chopping motion (no whittling) is to be used. The 2x4 must be chopped completely through a minimum of two (2) times. The applicant may choose the area of the 2x4 through which to chop. Following the chopping test, the Mastersmith will inspect the edge to determine if there is any noticeable damage to the blade. Any nicks, chips, flat spots, rolled edges, or other deformations of the blade will result in failing the test."

Next comes the 2x4 chopping. There are a number of different thoughts on how to accomplish this portion of the test. Over the years I have noticed that the most productive and efficient method seems to be one where the individual doing the chopping is down on one knee, with a length of 2x4 held at an angle, with it’s butt resting on the ground. My thought is that if the blade was correctly heat treated, and the edge geometry good, it is best to get through the 2x4 in as few stokes as possible. Those knives that are created well will sink into the 2x4 ½-3/4 of the blade’s width with each stroke, and can generally sever the board in 10 strokes or less. One trick to think about when chopping the 2x4….chop ½ way through one side/edge, then flip the 2x4 over and finish up from the other side. Many times the board will come apart when there is still an inch or more of uncut wood left!

After the Mastersmith approves the quality of the edge, the blade will be returned to the applicant. The applicant must then shave hair using the section of the blade that was most frequently used in the cutting and chopping portions of the test. Enough hair must be shaved to demonstrate that the edge remains keen and shaving sharp.”

Once the chopping portion of the test is complete, the Mastersmith inspects the test blade’s edge, and then returns the blade to the applicant. The applicant MUST shave hair from their arm, with that portion of the blade that was most used during chopping.


Next comes the bending portion of the test. Again my tape measure and magic marker come into play. I will measure off 3” from the tip of the blade, and mark it with the marker. That mark will be the guideline for inserting the blade into the vise jaws, with the mark being placed right at the top edge of the vise jaws.

“The applicant will then bend the blade ninety (90) degrees. The supervising Mastersmith will signal the applicant when the ninety (90) degree angle has been reached. The blade is allowed to crack at the edge on bending but not beyond approximately two thirds (2/3rds) the width of the blade. However, if any part of the blade chips or any part of the blade or tang breaks off, the applicant fails. Because of the many variables in the size, geometry, and temper line of the blade, the Mastersmith using his/her judgment, shall determine if the extent or location of the fracture line is acceptable. The decision of the Mastersmith is final.”

“If the vise jaws are rough, smooth metal inserts shall be located on each side of the clamped portion of the blade to protect the blade, when bending the test knife.”

Most modern vises, will have knurled jaws…if a blade is clamped directly with this type of vise jaw, almost none would survive. The knurling will “bite” into the blade, usually resulting in the blade breaking because of the cutting action induced from the vise jaws. I keep a set of copper covers for the vise used for testing, and although some have failed with them in place, it was never due to the vise jaws cutting into the blade.

“The blade shall be bent by force applied to the handle. A leverage device, such as a pipe may be used as long as it does not pose a safety risk. The use of such a device is at the sole risk of the applicant and at the discretion of the supervising Mastersmith.”

The first part of that statement, referring to the force being applied to the handle, is something to think about! If the handle material has been attached with overly large diameter bolts/pins, you have already considerably weakened that area by drilling a large hole through the tang. I would highly encourage you to think about the type of handle material you use, as well as the attachment method. My thought here is to use a handle material such as micarta or G10, that will lend support to the tang, and attach that material with no more than 2-3 pins, each peened in place. Simply “gluing” on something MAY work, or it MAY not! Why take the chance?

At this point the attending Mastersmith will likely be off to one side, and in a position to view/determine when the bend has reached the 90 degree point. The bending of the blade should be a smooth and steady motion/pressure. DO NOT jerk on it! More than a few times I have had individuals fail because they got overly excited at this point, got about a 30 degree bend into the blade, and then for whatever reason, let up a bit and tried to jerk the blade to 90 degrees….usually resulting in a loud “SNAP”, and the individual ending up on their butt….and a failed test. SMOOTH AND STEADY! Remember the edge of the blade is allowed to crack, but no more than 2/3 of the blade’s width.

After satisfactorily passing the test, the supervising Master Smith will sign and date the applicant’s test form.”

If all goes well, the Applicant and the supervising Mastersmith will fill out and sign the testing form, and then it's off to Atlanta to “face the music”.

Something that I did not talk much about is the “Supplemental Test”.


The applicant may be required at the Mastersmith’s discretion:
a. To forge a non-Damascus blade of any style.
b. To pass a verbal quiz.”

Generally by the time an individual comes to me for a test, I have known them long enough, and well enough, to know much about them and their knives. I personally have only used the Supplemental Testing option on two occasions. In both instances, it was because I had never met the individuals before, and had no idea of their knowledge level. In both cases, although I have no way of ever proving it, I suspected that neither had produced their own test blades, and incidentally, both failed, based on the results of the supplemental testing.

My final advice on this portion of the test is: Guard that signed testing form! I would encourage you to make several copies, and store them in a safe place. One is going to go to the ABS offices, and you will be required to present the original, along with your Performance test blade, when you lay those five knives out on the table in Atlanta.

I, along with most other ABS Mastersmiths share an unspoken rule, that once we achieve the Mastersmith rating, it's part of our responsibility as a Mastersmith, to help others achieve that level. Hopefully this article will do just that.  Of course, no one article can be all encompassing, so if you have specific questions that I did not anwere here, feel free to contact me, and I will always give you the best possible answer that I can.  If I don't know, then I wille either find it for you, or point you in the right direction.

Disclaimer: In this article I have attempted to break down the information on Journeyman Smith, and Mastersmith testing standards of the American Bladesmith Society. I hold no official position within the organization, outside of being a long time member, and an individual who has attained the ABS Mastersmith rating. The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily the official views of the ABS, but are  my personal opinions and views obtained over 26+ years of Bladesmithing/Knifemaking
Copyright 2019: "The Montana Bladesmith"