I made my first knife, my father says, at six years old. I vaguely remember being just a shade above eye level with the bench grinder while I destroyed one of his nice steel rulers. At six, my understanding of losing your “temper” was what my father did, not what I was doing to that ruler.
I’m 43 years old now and my conservative guesstimation is that to date I have produced over 1,400 edged tools: steel, bone, obsidian and rock blades. A few years back, I designed a few pieces for Martin Custom Knives in Texas, and I continue to produce custom pieces on a small scale for friends and for primitive skills gatherings. I have a small knife shop and am starting a forge at the wilderness survival and primitive skills instruction school my wife Sera and I run.
My personal knife collection numbers well over one hundred rare and unique pieces. Whenever I see a blade attached to a handle, I have got to see what it feels like in my hands. When I go to dinner parties, I end up in the kitchen sharpening dull paring and boning blades with the sharpening kit my ADD tells me to bring. I consider myself a “knife guy.”
So, what is it that a cutting tool actually does? The simplest definition is that a cutting tool separates matter. With the appropriate amount of force and changes in edge angle, a cutting tool can adjust and manipulate materials allowing us to accomplish everyday tasks. In the domestic world, cutting a loaf of homemade sourdough bread, sharpening a pencil or opening a bag of pet food would be somewhat challenging without a knife. In the forest, shaping the components for a bow or hand drill fire, cleaning an animal for food or cutting saplings and branches for shelters would be all but impossible without the assistance of some type of cutting implement. But there are so many choices of knives, which one is best?
I’ll let you in on a little secret; there is no PERFECT knife. Cutting tools are only as effective as the handler wielding them. I hear and read the never-ending debate over which new knife is “better” and which new alloyed steel will produce a “superior” cutting edge. I am amazed at what modern metallurgists can produce and look forward to seeing what tomorrow holds but I constantly remind myself (and my students) that until not very long ago, we used broken pieces of rocks and volcanic glass to accomplish all the tasks we perform today. I processed an entire deer out last winter using nothing but stone tools, it took a bit longer but you’d be surprised how sharp and effective a few fractured rocks can really be.
Becoming proficient with any cutting tools is a learned skill, not instinct. Purchasing a good knife shouldn’t rely on instinct either. Know why you’re buying a specific knife and if it will do what it is you want it to do. I recommend writing down ten things you need a knife for every day and tailor the tool to the task. Comfort in your hand is paramount, period. If it feels like a shoe that doesn’t fit, move on.
A knife has basically two parts; the handle and the blade. Each comes in a multitude of shapes and styles: survival knives and kitchen knives; fixed blades; multi tools; carbon and semi-stainless steels; full tangs and cut down tangs. Each shape and material will affect the way the knife works with you and for you. The material the handle is constructed from will dictate a lot about it’s potential strengths and shortcomings. If treated correctly, natural materials like wood or leather will give you years and years of excellent service. Materials like Micarta and some new thermo-plastics are impervious to weather and will be around long after we are, and so are also great options. Choosing the type of steel you want for your knife is more complicated than ever. Read every article available and introduce yourself to modern knife steel options.
When you begin to narrow down a few designs, research all the product reviews on the piece and see what people have to say. Knife purists are a picky bunch so remember to take single opinions lightly, look for actual performance reviews. Find any groups in your area that practice the skills you are looking for, join one or all of them and see if you can find someone who has the knife your looking for and put your hands on it. I have 20 or 30 different knives available for all North American Bushcraft School courses so students can try out designs I feel are efficient and practical. Most importantly, don’t purchase a knife until you’re comfortable with it. With a little homework you’ll find the best knife for you!
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