Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Etching art into the blade of a knife

Tom Nizolek '10 explains the art of pattern-welded steelmaking at Lehigh's recent 2009 Academic Symposium. Photo by John Kish IV

In a world dedicated to ever-newer, ever-faster technology, Tom Nizolek ‘10 is something of an anomaly.

Nizolek can spend a hundred hours or more fabricating a single steel knife blade whose inscrutable etchings would be more readily recognized by a Viking than by a modern techie brandishing a Wii.

At his home in Maryland, Nizolek has converted the family garage into a bladesmithing shop and built his own forge using his father’s leaf-blower for a bellows. At Lehigh, where he majors in materials science and engineering, he has solved problems in the department’s aluminum casting lab and served as a freshman teaching assistant.

His work is a labor of two loves.

“I have always enjoyed art and science,” says Nizolek. “Knifemaking combines both. You need the science to make a high-quality knife blade. You need the art to make the blade beautiful.”

Unlimited creativity

Nizolek has been producing knives with blades made of pattern-welded steel for the past five years. Pattern-welded steelmaking dates back more than a thousand years, to Viking times. Alternating layers of two or more steel alloys are forge-welded into a bar, which is cut in half, stacked and forge-welded together again. The process is repeated until the metal has 64, 128, 256 or even a thousand layers.

The final blade is treated with a chemical etchant to reveal the patterns caused by forging irregularities and by the different reactions that the various steel alloys have to the etchant.

“Pattern-welded steelmaking gives you unlimited creativity,” Nizolek says. “Because the forging irregularities are unique—the dings, the valleys and the peaks—every knife has a different design.”

Last fall, Nizolek’s bladesmithing expertise earned him one of the world’s top prizes in materials science. He became the first solo undergraduate student to receive the Jacquet-Lucas Best In Show Award from the ASM International Metallographic Society. His winning poster, titled “Metallography of a Modern Pattern-Welded Steel Knife Blade,” summed up 18 months of research into the blades’ material and chemical properties.

In a league of his own

Nizolek presented his 64-layer steel knife to his mentor, research scientist Arlan Benscoter.

The honor came as no surprise to Arlan Benscoter, a research engineer in the materials science and engineering department and one of the world’s premier metallographers.

“Tom is an accomplished bladesmith and just an exceptional young man,” says Benscoter, who has supervised Lehigh’s optical microscopy labs and student microscopy projects for 25 years. “He has perseverance, patience and curiosity, he is gifted with his hands and he is a fast learner. If something he’s working on doesn’t turn out right, he will do it over and over again until it becomes right.”

Lehigh graduate students under Benscoter’s guidance have received the Jacquet-Lucas Award five times. Kevin Luer won in 1999, Fredrick F. Noecker in 2002 and 2003, and Ryan M. Deacon in 2006. Daniel J. Lewis, a graduate student, and Sarah L. Allen, an undergraduate student, won the award together in 2000.

Before 1999, no student—graduate or undergraduate—had won the Jacquet-Lucas Award in the 55 years of the award’s existence.

“The people competing for this award have been professional engineers from top government and corporate laboratories like Oak Ridge, Boeing and Bethlehem Steel,” Benscoter says. “We have had some outstanding student winners from Lehigh. Tom is in a league of his own.”

A serendipitous field trip

Tom Nizolek’s interest in knifemaking began when he and the other students in his high school sculpture class took a field trip to a local bladesmith’s shop. The students spent two days making knives at the shop, then returned to the high school and completed the project by carving ornate wooden handles for their blades.

Nizolek went back to the bladesmith shop, again and again. He signed up for courses in knifemaking and he studied pattern-welded steelmaking. He did an internship at the shop and became friends with its owner, Rob Hudson, a renowned bladesmith who now lives and works in Rumney, N.H. After Nizolek put together his own bladesmithing shop, he began making his own knives and experimenting with pattern-welded steel.

When he applied to Lehigh, Nizolek called Slade Cargill, the former chair of materials science and engineering, to schedule a visit to the department. Cargill, on hearing of Nizolek’s hobby, hired him to work the summer before his freshman year on problems in the aluminum casting lab that is used by the freshman projects class.

“The molds for our aluminum golf club heads were cracking,” Benscoter says. “Tom had already melted aluminum and developed his own casting techniques at his shop at home. He came here and improved on our process.”

His summer success earned Nizolek a job as a freshman teaching assistant in the engineering college’s projects class, in which freshmen do hands-on projects in different engineering disciplines.

Never satisifed

During his first year at Lehigh, Nizolek’s relationship with Benscoter deepened. So did his appreciation for metallography, which uses optical microscopy to photograph and study the surfaces of materials.

“I used to come into the department after classes and ask Arlan to teach me metallography. I enjoy looking at the inner structure of materials. It’s pretty exciting.”

Nizolek began showing Benscoter some of the steel specimens he’d created. The metallographer encouraged Nizolek, still a freshman, to turn his hobby into a research project.

“In metallography,” says Benscoter, who is the author of the book Metallographer’s Guide: Practices and Procedures for Irons and Steels, “there are many techniques, many ways to attain your goal. Sometimes you have to develop the technique that works for you.

“Some people will take the technique that I suggest and follow it to the letter. If it doesn’t work, they come back and ask why not. Tom will modify the technique to make it work. He’s never satisfied with his results. He’s always asking me about different etchants, different techniques.”

64 layers and an inscription

This summer, Nizolek is doing an internship at MIT working on biomaterials with Samuel M. Allen, the POSCO Professor of Physical Metallurgy. Allen studies phase transformations and the evolution of microstructures, areas which are critical not only to steelmaking but also to the fabrication of metal alloys used in medical implants.

As for the pattern-welded steel knife that he made for his award-winning poster project, Nizolek inscribed it with Benscoter’s initials and his own and presented it to his mentor as a gift.

The knife contains 64 layers of three types of steel composed of varying amounts of iron, carbon and nickel. Its snakewood handle is silhouetted with a cannon and cannonballs, a tribute to Fort McHenry in Baltimore, whose remnants furnished some of the steel used in the knife.

Benscoter is confident that Nizolek has already achieved one of his goals—to advance the science of bladesmithing, especially the heat-treating that is necessary for the blade to be sufficiently tough and hard without becoming brittle.

“Tom is just a unique individual,” says Benscoter, who is retiring this year. “I believe he can do anything he sets his mind on. I wish I could be around 30 years from now to see what he accomplishes.”

Story by Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Monday, June 01, 2009

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