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Leon's View

How to put a quick attractive patina on a carbon steel blade

How to put a quick attractive patina on a carbon steel blade

I didn’t intend to stain the carbon steel blade on my new slipjoint pocketknife, but the cavalry attacked and I had to move quickly.

by Leon Pantenburg


Before: My pocketknife looked new and unused at this point.

My wife, Debbie, and I were at the annual Civil War reenactment at House on the Metolious in Central Oregon. A number of reenactors presented life within the Civil War in 1863. Along with  scheduled events throughout the day, people showed and demonstrated activities and struggles during the war. Camps and clothing are all period-correct throughout the weekend. 

Anyway, I was carrying my new, shiny Great Eastern slipjoint pocket knife. About the time of the afternoon skirmish, Deb and I left the reenactment area, found a spot overlooking the skirmish area and spread out a picnic lunch on a blanket.  (That too was traditional. At the first battle of Manasses, Virginia, there were a lot of civilian spectators who took picnic baskets to watch the show. They ended up fleeing back to Washington D.C., glad to escape the rebel hordes!)

I was slicing cheese and ham with the Great Eastern, and enjoying one of  my favorite snacks of crackers and sardines with mustard. I didn’t think about staining the 1095 carbon steel blade, figuring I’d wipe it off when we were done eating.

But the Union cavalry appeared just below the hill, so I abandoned lunch, grabbed the Nikon and headed out. I got engrossed shooting photos, and Deb

vinegar blade soak

The blade was immersed in vinegar for a couple hours.

packed up everything. She put the dirty eating utensils in a sealed plastic bag. When we got home, several hours later, and opened the bag, the blade had an ugly stain.

Well, I had kinda been thinking about aging the blade so it would pass for a 1860s era  knife. The idea was to let the patina develop naturally, but I couldn’t live with the random spots on the shiny steel.

So here’s what I did:

I took some mustard, smeared it on the blade and let it sit for a couple hours. That stained the blade, but it didn’t look natural.

Then, I got some apple cider vinegar, put it in a tall glass and submerged the blade, up to the handle. A couple hours later, the blade was evenly stained.

I compared the finish to some carbon steel blades that had aged naturally, and the the pocket knife looked pretty authentic.

The next step is to carry the knife in my haversack or possibles bag and use it. I like the design of the two blades, and the knife will be really handy.

Russell and Great Eastern

The Russell carbon steel mountain man knife (top) has been used hard and aged naturally since I bought it new in the 80s.

Currently, the patina is a little dark for my tastes, but the knife isn’t done. Regular camp use, and maybe cleaning some fish and peeling potatoes should make the knife look really authentic.

So is this vinegar stain thing something you should consider for your carbon steel blades?

You decide. The patina is purely cosmetic and won’t affect the knife’s durability or use. The patina may offer some protection from rust, but don’t count on it. The best way to protect a carbon steel blade is to use it regularly, wipe it off before sticking it back in your pocket and make sure the knife stays dry.

If you’re like me, you enjoy looking at your gear. I like arranging mine in displays at camp or when I’m out hunting or fishing and taking a break.

It’s kinda like looking at art and enjoying a painting, photo or sculpture you’ve seen many times. This traditional design knife, with signs of use, is going to look really cool with the rest of my Civil War accouterments.

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Leon's View

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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