Knife Design Concepts

I want to introduce a number of design concepts that I believe help in understanding knives as functional art objects. Yes, knives can be art and some of the most beautiful pieces of sculpture and design are knives or swords. So you can take the Powerpoint slide show or read the material below.

Remember that there are no hard rules here. Some of these concepts overlap and clear operational definitions are lacking. Despite these problems the concepts can still be helpful. Beauty really does lie in the eye of the beholder. Someone may think that a particular maker’s knives are beautiful while someone else sees the same knives as ugly. Still, we know enough about designs of many objects including knives to draw some general conclusions about the preferences of the majority. I would suggest that these basic concepts guide us only. They are clearly not intended as rules. Also, straying from any of the guidelines can be used to achieve an intended effect. Please note that “intended effect” is the operational term here.


We all know what a line is or do we? A line is what connects two points but a line can be straight or curved. How the line changes affects our emotional reactions to the object. Curves often are more pleasing to the eye than straight lines. Abrupt changes in a line draw the individual’s attention to that place on the line. Many knifemakers and collectors may describe a blade as having “nice lines”. The easiest way to think about line is to trace a blade and look at the lines you just drew. Are they smooth and clean and do they appeal to an esthetic sense.


Lines that are parallel are often more pleasing to the eye than those that converge or diverge. Most knives have parallel features. The ricasso is usually parallel to the spine. Butt caps are usually parallel to the guard or hilt. The edge and spine are often parallel to each other for some portion of the blade’s length. However, both convergence and divergence are basic to design.


Lines that come together are more pleasing than lines that diverge. Obviously, most knives end in a tip where the lines of the blade converge. A pattern in Damascus that appears to get smaller as it moves towards the tip is common and provides a pleasing effect. If the Damascus pattern got larger (divergence) it would possibly seem wrong and have the opposite effect. As it turns out most patterns get smaller because of the forging process results in compression of the pattern making it smaller as it moves towards the tip.


Lines that diverge are more difficult to use successfully and achieve a pleasing to the eye effect. However, there are positive examples. The use of a series of < cuts in a handle can be very pleasing.


Symmetry is a combined effect. It usually encompasses multiple lines or sections. Often symmetry relates to the parallel aspects of two halves or sections of an object. However, symmetry can be rotational or helical or mathematical. At its simplest it helps us see an object in relation to its parts. For example, a handle can be in symmetry with the blade or not (see example in slide show). A pattern that appears in a damascus blade may also appear in the handle. A good way to think about symmetry is to think of the concept of balance.

“What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry” William Blake.


Proportion could be described as an aspect of symmetry. In knives, proportion is worth mentioning as a separate concept. Think of proportion in relationship to the size of the blade versus the size of the handle or the size of the guard in relation to the size of the blade. Do each of the pieces appear proportionate in size to each other. Proportion can be used to the draw the eye to the intent of the artist, but it can also result in a piece that looks clumsy or “off”.


Patterns that repeat are often more pleasing to the eye than those that are random. Order from chaos seems to be a part of the human psyche. Patterns that change in organized discernible ways are more acceptable than those that do not. As an example, look at most file work on the spine of a blade. The visual repetition of the pattern is more pleasing than random cuts. I once tried using an arithmetic progression in my filework on a blade. No one saw the pattern until I pointed it out. Even then I got the impression they did not like it.


Certain features of a knife can be used to accentuate and strengthen a piece. The maker can use texture, color, reflection of light, and other features to make a statement. For example, an ivory handle set between a deep hot blued guard and buttcap uses contrast to accentuate a dynamic relationship in those parts of the knife.

All of these concepts can be put together to create a piece that has visual interest.

Caution:Be careful not to put too many things on a single knife where each thing fails to add to an overall effect. What is that overall effect the maker is trying to achieve? In my opinion the knifemaker should ask that question prior to making the knife rather than trying to justify it afterwards. For example, a knife with a scrimshawed ivory handle, file work, Damascus blade, engraving, mokume buttcap may be just too much with each aspect distracting rather than adding to the whole. Each aspect may have been excellently done, but the overall effect can still be distracting. Still, as was stated when we began this primer on design, these are guidelines and not rules.