Having written about the ABS JS and MS Performance test, it's now time to delve into what I consider the most important, and in many cases the most difficult portion of achieving one’s ABS JS or MS rating….The Presentation Phase. The bold portions of this article are taken directly from the ABS website/documentation. The rest is my attempt to clarify and explain them.
This portion of the ABS testing is conducted in only one of two occasions/locations per year, in conjunction with the Blade Show and International Cutlery Fair, held in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Or The ABS Exop, in San Antonio, TX. USA.
This portion of the test requires the applicant to travel to one of the above locations and present 5 knives of varying types for review by a panel of ABS Mastersmiths. All of the individuals chosen for judging duty at both the JS and MS levels are very seasoned Bladesmiths, and well versed in just about any area of Bladesmithing/Knifemaking you can imagine…in other words, those people who are judging, know what they are looking at, looking for, and simply cannot be fooled on anything concerning a knife. This phase of testing is basically putting yourself on the line with some of the very best Bladesmiths in the world evaluating your abilities.
Before I get into the specifics of the Presentation Phase, there are a few things that each individual who is testing needs to know.
Not only will you be required to present 5 knives for judging, but you will also be required to present your Performance Test blade along with the signed Testing Form. PLEASE, ensure that you have EVERYTHING required. Missing any of the required items is grounds for refusal to judge, or failing the Presentation Phase of the test. The responsibility for all required items rests with the applicant.
Know where and when the testing takes place! There will be separate rooms set aside for the JS and the MS judging. These rooms are located outside of the show room, on the same level of the hotel. Check, and then recheck the time that the judging begins. Generally the testing begins at 8am on Friday morning, prior to the opening of the show. That means that you need to be there, and have your knives, as well as your Performance test blade, and your signed Test form, laid out and ready for inspection BEFORE 8am! At 8am the testing room door(s) will close, and if you're late, your knifes will not be judged! Make your travel plans accordingly. I have judged at both the JS and the MS levels, and have seen very few exceptions allowed.
YOU must be there in person. At one time there was an allowance for those who had an emergency, to allow another to present their 5 test knives, with permission from the Chairman of the ABS, but due to some cases of abuse, that is no longer the allowed. Testing for the JS or MS rating represents a serious commitment, and part of that commitment is being there in person.
Throughout the rest of this article I will use quotes from the ABS online information concerning the presentation phase of the testing, and will insert my ideas and direction from my personal perspective that may help clarify those quotes. Quotes from the ABS guidelines are colored red.
“During the annual judging of both Journeyman Smith and Mastersmith applicants, the Board of Judges will use the following guidelines during the formal inspection to evaluate fit, finish, and symmetry of the applicant's knives."
Let's break this paragraph down, and I will try to give you my interpretation of it's meanings. The words “fit”,”finish”, and “symmetry” are the baselines for the areas your knives will be judged upon. That does not mean that it is all they will be evaluated on. It does say to me that if those aspects are all in order, then those things that incorporate those factors are obviously correct. Make fully certain that you understand what each of those words mean, as they relate to knives. “Fit” means everything fits tightly and correctly together. The best way that I can think to describe this is that the overall knife, when completed, appears as a single entity, rather than a conglomeration of parts.
“Finish” means that the finish on each and every part, viewed from any angle, is pleasing to the eye, clean and even. The most common failure relating to this aspect is the finish on blades. I have judged, especially at the JS level, and saw 4 presentation blades from the same maker that passed with flying colors, only to see that the fifth blade has either “waves” in the blade finish, or heavy grit scratches that the individual failed to remove. In most cases this was due to the individual rushing to finish that last blade. In the judging rooms there are no rulers, calipers, or any of the other devices that most knifemakers have in their shops. Its all by the trained eye of the Mastersmiths doing the judging. Get in the habit of looking at your finished knives in various types of light! What you might not see in one type of light, will be a glaring error in another.
Do not confuse the word finish to mean that everything must be a mirror finish! The finishes on various parts of the knife (blade, guard/bolsters, and handle) must COMPLIMENT each other, or contrast in such a way to accentuate each other. Consider that you are creating knives with an ABS flavor...and look at the top ABS Mastersmith's knives if you don't know what I mean by that comment.
“Symmetry” means equal and even. From the blade being straight inline with the handle, to equal amounts of material on each “face” of the overall knife. To clarify what I mean by the term “face”, I'm talking about each side of the knife as a “face”. Each side should be a mirror image of the other. That includes all the lines, all the flow, and all the finishes. Differences are what will catch the judge's eye, and will give cause for further investigation. This is where the MS Dagger comes into play, and why it's used to separate the JS requirements from the MS. When producing a dagger, you have just doubled your difficulty factor. Every dagger has two “faces” on each side, and each of those two “faces” not only must be mirror images of each other, but the two faces on one side must be mirrored by the two faces on the opposite side of the knife.
Let's investigate the next paragraph, with my input as to how they relate to the JS and the MS level ratings.
"Although the criteria is the same for Journeyman Smith and Mastersmith applicants, the judging standards are much more stringent for the Mastersmith rating. The overall quality for the Journeyman Smith is in the range of "very good" to "excellent". The quality for the Mastersmith is "excellent" to "superlative". The Mastersmith knife (European quillion dagger) should be art quality as well as an "art knife". The applicant is cautioned that one substandard knife may result in failure. Therefore, he/she should submit only his/her best work.”
OK. This paragraph is what separates the JS level standard from the MS standard. At the JS level, the standard is “very good to excellent” What that means is that there can be some MINOR errors or mistakes. Where the agony for the judges comes is that they must decide if an error or mistake is bad enough to cause the knife to fail. So that means that your job is to ensure that ALL five of the knives you present are the most error free knives you've ever produced.
For years I’ve been hearing that the ABS keeps “raising the bar”...it just isn’t so! The only changes in the ABS JS test since I have been a member, is that damascus steel is not allowed on any JS Presentation knives.... let me repeat that NO DAMASCUS WHAT SO EVER ON A JS PRESENTATION KNIFE. If you show up with anything that looks like damascus, on any of your JS knives, they will either refuse to judge your knives, or flat out fail you. This rule came about because individuals where making substandard knives with damascus steel, and when the knife failed, the individual would complain, saying “But it's damascus! I made damascus steel!” In one instance an individual complained to me enough that I simply said...”Yes, you made damascus, but you did it as poorly as you did the knife!”
Back to point about “raising the bar”.... as I said the ABS hasn't done that, WE as knifemakers have. Each and every year the level of craftsmanship gets higher, and it's only human nature to compare all other knives in the room to the ones that a person views as being “the best”. That's true at both JS and MS levels, and is simply the way it is...no prejudice, nothing underhanded. Personally, I think that's a good thing. I would hate to see the level of craftsmanship represented by forged blades to still be what it was in the 1980's.
The MS standard is “outstanding to superlative”. This is a very easy one...if it looks like a mistake, it is a mistake, and the knife fails, cut and dry. By the time an individual considers testing for their MS rating, they should possess all the skills and experience to meet the standard...at the MS level the judging is super tough, and rightly so.
"Design can be very subjective, however, it is the objective of the ABS and the applicant to create well-designed knives. A well-designed knife will have the proper amount of material in the blade and handle - neither too much nor too little.”
This is where you must remember who will be reviewing your knives, and for what purpose...it will be ABS Mastersmiths, who want to see ABS style knives. Basically the judges are going to want to see knives that exhibit those traits normally seen in the top Mastersmith's knives. Some of the characteristics that have come to be known on forged blades are: Dropped blade edges at the ricasso, achieved by forging down the edge bevels. This is generally something that is not seen on most stock removal knives, and is one of the keynotes that usually distinguish the two. Smooth, flowing lines, or what I refer to as “organic”. No sharp edges where they shouldn't be, nice flowing lines, everything smooth and radiused. Just take a look at nature...there are no sharp angles or square corners. It's all smooth flowing lines that blend and lend themselves to each other. Your knife designs should emulate that.
If you believe that you're at a level and prepared to test for your JS, you should already understand this. If you’re at the level where you believe you're ready for the MS test, then you must know, and fully understand it.
“It is important to design and construct a knife for the intended end use. The applicant should keep in mind that form follows function.”
This means that the design of a knife that is intended to be a hunter, should be designed in a manner where it lends itself to the intended task. A usable length and shape for the blade, guard or bolsters suited to the tasks, and a handle that is comfortable when held in any position. Likewise for other types of knives such as bowies, fighters, daggers, boot knives, etc.
“A knife of good design will be more appealing than an equally well made knife of poor design. The objective must be to make a good knife with good design. The following guidelines should be reflected upon and taken into consideration when designing and constructing a forged knife”
"Flatness, bevels, and finishes are to be uniform. Blade surfaces must be free from scratches. Mirror polish, satin, or hand rubbed finishes, are acceptable. A distal taper will provide good balance and feel to the completed knife. Damascus blades must be free of faults (cold shuts) and pits.”
The key word in this section is “uniform”! That means that everything must appear like it belongs there. Differences within the same area of the knife, for example the blade, will set off alarms in the judges’ minds, and cause them to look more closely at every aspect of your knife/knives. Most of the time the “scratches” that this section refers to are either those that the maker has missed, as in left over “shadows” of heavy grit scratches, or “fish hooks” in a satin finish. Neither is acceptable, and you need to pay special attention to ensure the blades you present have none of these flaws. “Shadows” of heavy grit scratches showing up in a finished blade, is just telling the judges you were lazy, and will usually cause you to fail at the JS level, and will certainly fail you at the MS level. It’s simply a matter to pay close attention, and to devote yourself to ensuring that ALL scratches are gone by the time you're at the finishing stages of a blade. “Fish hooks” in a satin finish have caused many failures at the JS level. These are tiny “J” shaped scratches that occur when you change directions while hand sanding/hand rubbing a final finish. The solution to “fish hooks” in a finish, is simply to not change directions when your putting on that final satin finish. Easy! Right? Sometimes not so. There are a couple of “tricks” that I employ that will help. Once I’m done with the sandpaper on a satin finish, I then use a micarta block, which I designed to hold a section of very fine (gray colored) scotchbrite pad. Scotchbrite does not produce “fish hooks”, and I use it to blend any inconsistencies that might remain. Simply use it as you would a sanding block with sandpaper on it. Next I use #0000 steel wool, and a healthy dab of metal polish and literally scrub the blade. This further blends the finish, and gives a lustrous sheen. The type of metal polish isn’t all that important…Flitz, semi-chrome, maas, wenol, or just about any other metal polish works fine.
Now let’s talk about distal tapers. For those who might not understand that term, distal tapers simply means that the thickest portion of a blade should be just forward of the guard/bolsters, with the blade tapering (thinner) to the tip, and tapering from rearward to the end of the handle. Basically when viewing the blade from the top (spine), the shape should look like an elongated diamond. Distal tapers are a trademark of forged blades, by using them in your blades, several aspects are enhanced. The blade will feel lighter and faster, a “balanced” feel will be apparent when the knife is held, and by installing distal tapers you will also be building in an increased ratio of strength to weight. In my opinion, the installation of distal tapers also makes a tight, clean assembly of the knife easier.
“Damascus blades must be free of faults (cold shuts) and pits.”
Since Damascus is not allowed on JS test knives, anyone testing for JS can ignore this section, but if you’re testing for MS, read and heed! Anything, and I mean ANYTHING that looks like a flaw in your Damascus, whether it is or not, will flat fail you at the MS level. Remember what I said earlier about testing at the MS level? If it LOOKS like a mistake (flaw), it is a mistake, and the knife fails.
“GUARD CONSTRUCTION: The guard must be symmetrical and centered on the blade (side to side). Solder fittings shall be clean and appealing, free from lumps, holes, or voids. The guard should be free from scratches and finished uniformly”
On to guards! “Symmetrical and centered”…that means that the same amount of material on each side. Not only that, but the radii you apply needs to be the same...each side a mirror image of the other. Now let's talk about something that is worth mentioning. When you are setting up your blade for a guard, whether it’s a full or hidden tang, try NOT to set the guard up to 90 degrees to the blade. But rather tilt your guards slightly forward at the top. There are two reasons I encourage this…#1. Almost every time you attempt to set a guard up at 90 degrees to a blade, once the knife is completed, the top of the guard will look like its cocked towards the handle. This is often an optical illusion, but remember, there are no measuring devices in the judging room(s), and if it looks wrong to the naked eye, then it's wrong. #2. A guard that is slightly tilted forward at the top lends a sleek, and almost “fast” appearance to a knife, making it more attractive to the eye, and that is something that the judges like to see.
Solder? Even though it's mentioned, I have not used solder on a guard in years, and I would hope that anyone who is testing for either JS or MS wouldn’t use it. Solder is nothing more than a moisture seal, used to prevent moisture from getting under the guard/handle, and rusting a knife from the inside out, and is just horrible to clean up and finish. Far more modern methods are available, which are much simpler to apply, and if needed, far easier to clean up without wrecking the exterior appearance of the blade/guard joint. If you're reading this and you believe that you need solder to attach a guard, then I say to you…you are not getting a tight enough fit between your blades and guards! I don’t worry about the moisture seal because I use acra-glass as my glue, and it will seal the blade/guard joint, and keep anything from intruding. If you still feel you must use something, I would recommend something like JB-Weld. It's easy to mix and apply, you can clean up any excess with a Q-tip and acetone, and once set, it’s a super seal. (Remember, we’re building knives for the JS/MS test here, and we want them to look as clean and crisp as we possibly can.)
Remember that I mentioned earlier about a distal taper making for an easier, tighter fit up when assembling? Well, let’s use a hidden tang design knife as an example. Following my previous instructions, the tang is tapered, with the thickest portion being just forward of where the guard will eventually come to rest. When I cut/file the hole through my guard stock, I make that hole a tapered rectangle, with the part that the handle butts against being the largest, with the hole tapering towards what will be the front of the guard. I work this tapered hole until it fits within ½” to 1” of reaching the shoulder on the blade. I then lock the blade up in a vise, using a soft piece of leather to protect the blade, slide the guard over the tang, then use a tool that I built from a piece of micarta. Essentially it’s a long fork. I place the fork other the tang with one tine of the fork on each side of the guard material, and literally drive the guard onto the tang with a hammer, until it's butted hard against the blade shoulders. Since the material you're using for the guard is generally softer than the tang, it will deform to every tiny shape and contour of the tang, creating a super tight, clean fit up. Usually you will have to knock the guard back off, do your final clean-up and finish, and then re-install it, but that’s super easy, and will only require a few light taps with the “fork” and hammer. Some folks also use a filing jig and create a shoulder completely around the knife. While this works, I don’t do it because it's much more labor intensive than the method I mentioned.
“HANDLE CONSTRUCTION: The handle must be symmetrical and centered on the blade, with even radii on sides and end, clean fit on all matching surfaces with no checks or splits around the pins”
Symmetrical and centered should speak for itself. Notice how that seems to be a repetitive theme? “Even radii on sides and end” Many times we get so wrapped up in getting a knife finished, that we sometime forget the little things. Take the time to look very closely at these aspects. Remember that each knife has two “faces” and each must be a mirror image of the other. This is the main reason that I discourage the use of stag on any presentation test knives. Stag is seldom straight, and even less often symmetrical. Using the excuse “that’s the way the stag was shaped” will get you nowhere with the judges. It usually comes across as a lame excuse. If you feel you must use stag, I would recommend using it on a full tang as slabs, rather than on a hidden tang. At least on a full tang you have a better chance of making things look centered and even. Do not try to round the butt ends of your handles! To most who are judges this just says, “I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just tried rounding it off.” Leave the end of the handle with a nice radius from top to bottom, and only LIGHTLY knock the sharp edges of the sides off with a few passes of hand sanding. DO NOT DO THIS ON YOUR BELT GRINDER!
“Clean fit on all matching surfaces with no checks or splits around the pins”
This means that the mating surfaces between guards/handles, handles slabs/full tangs, or bolsters/handles MUST be super tight fits with absolutely no gaps, and must match so that if a fingernail is run across the mating area, no difference is height is noticeable. “No checks or splits around pins” means just that. As most of you who are at this level know, you cannot fit a 3/32” pin into a 3/32” hole…they are the same size, and the pin simply will not go into a hole of the same diameter. Often times when drilling pin holes, a drill bit will slightly deflect, and will “wallow” out one side or the other of the hole. When finished this will usually produce a tiny halo of a gap, or glue. A way to prevent this is to ensure your pins are cut just a tad over length, and VERY LIGHTLY peen the pin(s), then finish them down to match the surface of the handle material. Checks or splits generally arise when using more fragile handle materials like ebony, stag, or pearl, and often come about because the individual forced the pin into a hole that was too small to accept the pin. One more reason checks show up in the fragile handle materials is because the side that the drill bit exits, is not supported, and the drill bit literally breaks through the last couple of thousandths, creating a chip or check. On those fragile handle materials the solution is often as simple as applying a layer of masking tape to the side the drill bit will exit. I many cases, I will use the tape, and in addition will use a hard rubber/urethane pad between the material and the drill press table.
“SHAPE/FORM: A knife is three dimensional. Various lines and shapes show planes of light reflections to the viewer. Convex and concave areas make for exciting shapes. Realistic design should look like a natural object.”
This portion deals with the knife being a three dimensional object, meaning that it must “look correct” no matter what the viewing angle might be. Again, just look around you at nature. There are no square corners, very few sharp angles, and things tend to flow in such a way that the parts make up the overall object. The ABS judges use light reflections as a tool to determine just how flat a grind is, how smooth a radius is, and how cleanly various parts fit together on the knives you present...Obtaining all of these things is a matter of time and attention to detail. This means that you must be critical, and completely honest with yourself, about every aspect of the knives you create for presentation. This would be a good place to also make this recommendation. I highly encourage you to complete your 5 presentation knives in a timely manner, that will afford you the opportunity to get them to as many ABS Mastersmiths as possible for review/evaluation. A number of times while judging at the JS and MS levels, I have asked someone who failed, “How many Mastersmith did you have review your knives?” Without fail, the responses have either been “One” or “None”. I have very little sympathy for those who chose not to take the time and effort to get their test blades evaluated by a Mastersmith. That is part of the dues paying process to do everything possible to ensure you will pass. Those who had their knives evaluated by a single Mastersmith learned a valuable lesson about human behavior. There are some personalities out there who are very non-confrontational, and due to their personality makeup, simply will not take the chance of hurting another’s feelings by telling them that something is wrong with their knife/knives. This is why you want as many Matersmiths as possible to review your knives prior to heading for Atlanta. Get your knives done in a time frame that will allow them to be reviewed, and for you to fix any issues that may be found.
“PROPORTIONS: Proportion is the relationship of the sections, areas, spacers, or part of the knife to each other as well as to the handle and blade as a whole. Exact mathematical precision and measurement are not essential. The Knifemaker's eye for proportions, once acquired, remains the best tool for creating a successfully unified knife design”
To break this paragraph down, think about the knives you have made that just didn’t look right. Chances are very good that something on those knives was out of proportion. You may not have had the experience to recognize it at the time, but I suspect that if you were to go back and think about it, the handle might have looked too large (either in diameter or length, or both) for the blade, the blade may have looked too wide for the rest of the overall knives, or maybe the guard/bolsters were too thick, or even something as simple as the finger groove at the guard/handle joint not matching in depth with the bottom of the ricasso. It’s all about looking like it belongs there, with the end product looking like a single object, instead of a conglomeration of parts. Many of these errors are as simple as removing a few thousandths of material in one spot or another. But! Remember that you can always take material off, but you can never put it back. To this end I always tend to stop grinding just short of whatever I consider the finished size should be, of whatever the particular area is that I am working on. From there I usually complete whatever portion I’m working on by hand, with sandpaper, files if required, or even by making a dozen trips back and forth to the grinder, removing tiny amounts at a time until things look right. The statement about “mathematical precision and measurement” is there as a warning! Sometimes you can use a precision measuring device such as calipers or micrometers to ensure that things are “dead on” and they still do not look right. I have seen several cases at the MS level judging where an individual failed and argued that he/she had used a micrometer to ensure the measurement was exact. It doesn’t matter to the judges. If it looks like a mistake, it is a mistake, and the knife fails, at least at the MS level. The judges do not have those tools at their disposal…they are using and relying on their “Knifemaker’s eye”, and so should you.
“BALANCE: There is little trouble in achieving balance when symmetry is used. When opposite sides are close to being identical in weight, balance is achieved. The applicant should remember that aesthetic balance is as important as weight balance from a design standpoint. When a knife feels light in the hand, good balance has been achieved.”
I have read, and re-read that paragraph a dozen times, trying to break it down further. I’m not really sure I can. It encompasses all of the other aspects that I have discussed in this article. About all I can do is re-emphasize the importance of distal tapers, and the attention to details. Each step in your knifemaking process should be geared to compliment the following step(s), and each should have a distinct reason and purpose. Doing something just because another said, “that’s how you should do it” is not good enough. Each individual who creates knives must know the reason for each step they utilize in the process, and how each step relates to the next, and affects the finished product. If you don’t understand that, then you have some “homework” to do. Not understanding those things is why some knives come out “right”, and others come out “wrong”. Not to worry, I still stumble in this area whenever I’m building something for the first time. It’s the fact that I am ever learning, and ever evolving that has allowed me to maintain such a keen interest in Bladesmithing/Knifemaking for all these years. My hope is that these printed words will help others along the path to their ABS JS and MS ratings. Never hesitate to contact me if I can be of help with your journey.
Following are just some of my thoughts that I think might be helpful.
Remember that if any one knife fails, they all fail. What that means for you is that EACH knife must be the very best you can produce, in every aspect. I've seen a number of failures at both the JS and the MS levels because an individual did not allow themselves enough time to build their Presentation Knives. In the end they wound up rushing the final knife, making mistakes that they either did not take the time to see, nor have the time to fix...and it ended up causing them to fail. Give yourself plenty of time, and think about how much time it would take is something were to go wrong with a knife, and you had to start over. I usually recommend that someone who is a part time makers (has a job outside of knifemaking) start at least nine months prior to the Blade Show, and those testing for MS start a year prior. That might seem like an excessive amount of time, until you get into it, and then its gone before you know it.
Think about the types of materials your going to use for those presentation knives. In order to give yourself the best chances for success, use materials that are familiar, and easy to work/finish. Choose things like nickel silver or softer materials for fittings and guards. Avoid materials such as 304 stainless or other difficult to finish materials. Choose handle materials that will provide visual impact, yet be relatively easy to finish, at least at the JS level. Materials such as African Blackwood, Desert Ironwood, or most any other exotic wood that has a tight grain with good figure, as well as some stabilized burls (no color dyed woods, most judges will consider them cheesy looking.)
Since the expectations are higher at the MS level, the more exotic and/or highly figured, the better, with the exception on the Quillion Dagger. The baseline for designing the dagger should be taken from those created by Bill Moran. Your own flair can be applied, and if you can pull it off, is encouraged. Remember that ANYTHING you put on a knife including filework, engraving, or any other embellishment will be judged on it's own merits. If its pulled off well, thats great, but if its not done well, it could easily fail you. Do not include sheaths or anything else that you do not want judged when you take your knives into the judging room. If its present, it will be judged, and you simply do not need to take the chance.
Concerning marking your knives. A clean clear mark shows that you take pride in what you do. Stamped or etched is irrelevant. If you put a knife in the judging room that doesn't have a mark on it, chances are very good that the judges will think you simply do not have enough pride in your work to justify giving you a stamp.
Finally, every year an award is presented to one individual who presents, what the judges consider the best knife from the JS and the MS applicants. If your building your knives with the idea of winning one of these awards in mind, I would encourage you to rethink what your doing. History has proven that the winners of these awards did not build their presentation knives with winning awards in mind. Those who have won either award, concentrated on building the best 5 knives they could, and the rest took care of itself.
Obviously a single article can not answer every question. If you have specific questions, that where not addressed in this article, feel free to contact me. I will always give you the best possible answer I can, and if I don't know the answer, will either find it for you, or do my best to point you in the right direction. Good Luck!
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"