The Care and Feeding of the Swiss Army Knife

article image
My favorite Swiss Army knife is the relatively simple Camper model by Victorinox, which has two blades, a corkscrew, a can opener, a bottle opener, and a "punch" (actually a single-blade reamer).

I’ll admit I laughed long and loud the first time I saw a Swiss Army knife. To me (and, mind you, I’ve been using pocketknives ever since I was old enough to wear pants with pockets) the very sight of all those gadgets protruding from a single handle was just too much! Besides which, the blades were made of stainless steel, and “everybody knew” that stainless — because of its inability to take and hold a proper edge — was suitable only for household cutlery. And, besides that . . . the knife in question had a chintzy-looking red handle that made me think it’d been made especially for the “toy-knife” set.

Well, the passage of time has proven me wrong on all counts. Because today, the Swiss Army knife is probably the most popular folding knife in these United States . . . and deservedly so. It is, after all, more than just a pocketknife: It’s a pocket-sized assortment of tools!

Many Models of Swiss Army Knife to Choose From

Swiss Army knives come in many models, with various combinations and quantities of attachments. The simplest versions have as few as three accessories and weigh only a couple of ounces . . . while the grand-deluxe models may sport eleven or more fold-out tools and weigh more than a quarter pound!

My favorite Swiss Army knife is the relatively simple Camper model by Victorinox, which has two blades, a corkscrew, a can opener, a bottle opener, and a “punch” (actually a single-blade reamer). It also features a lanyard loop. All-up weight: a smidgen over two ounces, or roughly half the heft of a super-deluxe model.

Another — and very similar — Swiss Army knife comes with a Phillips screwdriver in place of the corkscrew . . . a substitution I dislike for two reasons. First; unless the Phillips is used with adequate pressure in clean screws of the proper size, the tip will unavoidably be damaged. Second, it’s impossible — for all practical purposes — to repair a damaged Phillips tip by regrinding (as is customarily done with ordinary screwdrivers). Let’s just say, then, that I much prefer a corkscrew which works to a Phillips that doesn’t (or that soon won’t)! [EDITOR’S NOTE: A letter from reader Boyd Hill, of Honolulu, Hawaii, appeared in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 44 suggesting that “the Phillips-head screwdriver can be improved by filing about one millimeteroff the point. This permits the fins to force their way down into the screw slots for a secure match.”]

How to Buy a Genuine S.A.K.

You’ll find that Swiss Army knives — even of identical brand and design — vary considerably in price. For example, four years ago, my friendly local hardware dealer was selling Camper model Swiss Army knives for $11.40 each. That seemed a bit much at the time, so I stopped by the Sierra Designs store on my next trip into town and bought the identical model for a more reasonable $7.75. The moral: It pays to shop around. [EDITOR’S NOTE: These days, Victorinox Swiss Army knives retail for from $10 to $40.]

If possible, visit a store where you can try the action of several knives. The effort required to open and close blades differs widely from one knife to the next, and you definitely do want a tool that opens easily. (The stainless steel in a Swiss Army knife doesn’t “wear in” very quickly. If it’s stiff’ when new, it’ll probably always be stiff!)

Caution: Beware of cheap (and not-so-cheap) imitations. The original — the one that lasts like a mother-in-law’s curse — bears the name Victorinox on the large knife blade near the bolster. Accept no substitutes!

Keep Those Blades Sharp

Any knife is useless unless it’s kept sharp . . . and the S.A.K. is no exception.

You’ll find that the stainless steel blades of a Victorinox — which are quite thin (as knife blades should be) — will take and hold a good edge, but do require more time to sharpen than the softer carbon steel blades of the average pocketknife. If you rely on the old standby — a whetstone — for putting an edge on your Swiss Army knife’s blades, use only a natural Arkansas stone; the cheaper synthetic Carborundum stones are dandy for carbon steel, but no match for stainless. When honing, hold the blade of an S.A.K. at a flatter angle to the stone than when sharpening an ordinary penknife.

When a whetstone isn’t available (such as on a backpacking trip), you can substitute emery cloth . . . the sort that comes rolled up like hair ribbon. (A 180-grit cloth is best, though 120-grit will do in a pinch.) All you have to do is lay a short piece of the material on a hard, flat surface and then use it as you would a stone.

To keep your knife in tip-top shape, touch up its blades between regular sharpenings with a few strokes against a butcher’s steel.

To Oil, or Not to Oil?

Because stainless steel isn’t subject to rust, most S.A.K. users never oil their knives . . . and thereby do themselves a disservice. A properly lubricated Victorinox is always easier to open than an unoiled one. (This can make all the difference in the world when your hands are cold or wet.)

I use a premium-quality motor oil (which I get from “empty” 10W-40 cans at the local service station) on my knives, but most any kind of oil will do. Just be sure to lubricate all the hinges (my Camper has three).

As for how often you should oil the tool, I’d say once a month is plenty (unless, of course, you accidentally run the knife through the washer or drop it in a pail of cleaning solvent).

The Swiss Army Knife: Expensive . . . but Worth It

Swiss Army knives are a mite more expensive than the common drugstore-variety penknife . . . but then, you’re not likely to wear out a Victorinox.

I used my original Camper for a total of five years. Four of those came after an episode in which I lost the knife along a road . . . only to find it after it’d been run over by several pickup trucks. (Had it not been for the bright red handle, the knife might still be lying — unnoticed — on that same road today!) One side of the tool’s handle was cracked in that little episode, but the knife’s utility wasn’t impaired in the least.

I finally ended up donating the run-over knife to a friend after the breaks in the handle had spread to the point where they were causing undue wear and tear on my trouser pockets. In the meantime, though, I bought another Victorinox, which is now in its fourth year of service and still as good as new. (EDITOR’S NOTE: A second tip from Hawaiian letter-writer Boyd Hill. “If the handle sides ever crack or chip, just mix up some epoxy cement and work it to a putty consistency . . . work this putty into the crack in thehandle, let harden, and then sand smooth. “]

A final word of advice: If you buy one of these miniature tool kits, by all means have your name engraved on the handle. (I say handle because the stainless steel blades don’t take engraving too well.) There are still a few honest souls left in the world who’ll return a tool to its rightful owner . . . even if that implement happens to be a beautiful, red-handled Swiss Army knife!

Screwdriver Tips

Many S.A.K. models feature combination screwdriver/can opener attachments. As they come from the factory, these accessories are next to useless, however, because their rounded corners cause the screwdriver to ride up and out of screw slots, or ruin the screws, or both. The solution: Simply regrind the tip to a proper (i.e., squared off) screwdriver shape. This can be done in a few minutes with a chain saw file.

Knife Know-How

Today’s knife buyer is faced with a sometimes overwhelming array of choices. As perplexing as this diversity may seem, though, it is possible to isolate a few points worth considering. These include the type of steel used for blades, handle materials, and the method of connecting the handle to the blade.

Knife steels can be divided into two basic categories: carbon and stainless. Briefly, carbon steel is easy to sharpen and holds an edge well under normal use, but tarnishes rapidly — while stainless is harder and therefore more difficult to sharpen properly, but is highly resistant to corrosion and holds its edge longer than carbon.

The hardness of knife steel is usually measured on the Rockwell “C” (RC) scale. For general purposes, a knife with a rating of between 57 and 59 RC can be considered a good choice. The metal used in cheap knives may drop below 50 RC.

By far the most common of the stainless steels used for knife making is 440C. In fact, it’s the most popular of all knife metals because it performs relatively well under a wide variety of conditions. Other steels are better in specific applications, but none equals 440C’s overall performance.

Traditional knife-handle materials such as sambar stag, Brazilian rosewood, ivory, and the like still set standards for beauty, but when it comes to utility, synthetics such as Micarta and Du Pont Delrin are hard to beat. Micarta stands up quite well to common use, but for the greatest strength and resistance to chemical deterioration, the newer Delrin — which was developed for the aerospace industry — is probably the best allaround choice.

Common folding knives can accommodate a wide variety of blades and — as in the Swiss Army knives — other useful gadgets . . . but such implements shouldn’t be employed in any situation where a great deal of pressure is applied to the tool: A blade that folds at the wrong time can do serious damage to your hand.

Lockback knives are available in two configurations. Some multibladed variations are equipped with a tab that slips in front of the hilt when the blade is opened. Such an arrangement is helpful, but it doesn’t provide a joint as secure as that offered by a true locking knife . . . which engages a single blade firmly within the pivot mechanism.

Stainless and carbon steel blades, natural and synthetic handles, folding and lockback — there has never been more for the discerning knife buyer to choose from . . . and never before have virtually all the choices been so attractive and utilitarian.

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368