The Marbles Woodcraft pattern has existed for over 100 years, and is still in production today. While discussing the classic, KNIVES ILLUSTRATED editor Bruce Voyles proposed a cut-testing evaluation to me between a vintage Marbles knife and the same model knives currently being made both in the USA and overseas. I don’t often get the opportunity to report about head-on comparisons, so I was enthusiastic about accepting this project.
The Marbles Woodcraft originally came from a hand-drawn design submitted to Marbles Arms and Manufacturing Co. by George W. Brooks (founder of California Insurance Company). A patent for the design was granted to Webster L. Marble on February 22, 1916. The original 1916 blade design patent predates what Bob Loveless designated as a “semi skinner,” but exhibits many similar design considerations.
How much of the final blade design should be attributed to Webster Marble may be debatable, but the design influence of these knives produced by Marbles Arms and Manufacturing has been so extensive, that many new knife enthusiasts take those influences for granted without realizing their origins. The Woodcraft blade featured a full-bellied edge curve from tang to tip. Instead of a swept point, the blade spine included a slight drop point with a swedge behind the tip.
Besides being one of the premier knifemakers in the world, Bob Dozier has been known to accumulate examples of other makers’ knives over the years. Marbles knives were widely considered the best-made knives available in the rural Louisiana environs where Bob Dozier grew up, and Bob’s grandfather (from whom Bob received his first instruction on how to make a knife) used a Marbles knife from Bob’s earliest memories of him.
Bob volunteered to send me an example of a vintage Marbles Woodcraft to test. This vintage Woodcraft of forged 1095 steel was comparison cut tested against the other current production Woodcraft models. The current made in the USA Woodcraft model is stock removal ground from 1070-6C high carbon chrome vanadium steel. The Safe Handle Woodcraft model is imported from Mainland China. It is made from 420 HC stainless steel and also stock removal ground.
The vintage Marbles knife had been sharpened on a belt grinder before I received it. The edge matched up with the 20-degree slot on my Lansky sharpening fixture (which just happens to by my preferred personal use angle), and I sharpened the imported Marbles knife to a matching angle so edge bevels would all be comparable.
The Vintage Marbles Woodcraft
While these knives share a common heritage, it is visibly discernible that they are not each ground to the exact same pattern. The vintage Marbles Woodcraft was forged and hand-ground to its finished shape, so each example was always going to be unique. Modern production techniques using CNC blade-grinding machinery will result in finished blade blanks that are virtually identical when they originate from the same machinery in the same factory.
I suspect that programming for the blade grind of the overseas manufactured Safe Handle model has been tweaked to provide for maximum production efficiency and the lowest production cost. It is also common practice for modern reproductions of older designs to be produced with enough distinguishable differences so the modern knives can’t be easily used to create counterfeit copies of originals. The modern Woodcraft has been made both of thicker blade stock and with a longer blade.
The current Woodcraft models have more of a swept point than is evident in the vintage example I tested. The vintage Marbles knife definitely has a patina of age to it. It is also a bit “cobby” when compared with modern production standards; there are grinding lines and forging dimples evident in the blade. Once I started cutting with this vintage knife, it became more and more attractive. This particular vintage Marbles Woodcraft knife is a superior cutting tool, regardless of its origin in time. If beautiful is as beautiful does, then this vintage knife is a beautiful cutting tool.
However, don’t try to draw general conclusions about other vintage Marbles knife performance capabilities or other knives made with 1095 steel on the basis of the cut-testing results of this particular vintage Woodcraft test piece. Until each knife is proof-tested, it is just a question mark.
The cutting-endurance test of this particular vintage Marbles Woodcraft test piece resulted in 500 single-slice cuts of 1/2-inch manila rope. This certainly proves that at least one Marbles knife made in the late 1920s is capable of demonstrating cutting endurance that exceeds 90 percent of what is currently available with modern metallurgy and modern production methods. I think the performance of this vintage Marbles knife indicates there are factors involved in producing knives with superior cutting endurance that are still not widely understood enough to reliably duplicate.
I am not a metallurgist, but I do have a degree in chemistry, which has provided me with greater exposure to the theoretical principles of metallurgy than average. It is humbling to me to have knives like this Marbles demonstrate that knife production techniques that attain superior cutting endurance for a finished blade are not any more predictable for most knives made today than they were before the mid-1900s. With that end in mind, here’s how the current Marbles woodcraft knives compare with the vintage one.
Imported Modern Marbles Woodcraft
The overseas-made Safe Handle Marbles model uses 420 HC stainless steel in its blade. One of America’s oldest and largest knife purveyors reports a customer preference for 420 HC because it is easier to sharpen than many other stainless steel alloys. 420 HC has also been reported to be one of the most abuse-resistant stainless steels.
420 HC has a percentile content of 0.4 to 0.5 carbon, 0.8 manganese, 13 to 14 chromium, 0.18 vanadium and 0.6 molybdenum. It has been heat-treated for cutlery applications to Rockwell harnesses running from Rc 51 to Rc 58. I have tested quite a few knives with 420 HC blades from different sources and all have tested in the good cutting-endurance range. The overseas model Marbles accomplished 50 single-slice rope cuts, which puts it in the range where past experience would have predicted. A dozen freehand strops on a DMT fine diafold hone followed by four strokes each blade side on a Spyderco fine sharp-maker hone to remove the edge burr restored a hair-popping edge after cut testing. Easy to resharpen with good cutting endurance is a recipe many people are looking for. This blade will clean, skin and de-bone an entire Virginia whitetail deer between sharpening if the user does his or her part well. It is also priced below $25. Knives with 420 HC blades demonstrate excellent cutting ability in a variety of raw and cooked meats, as well as cutting rubber and plastic products with better-than-average enthusiasm.
I have tested other knives that were made in the USA with both 420 HC blades and 1095 blades that didn’t exhibit cutting endurance as good as this mainland-Chinese-made knife. The rubber safe handle is comfortable in use and the blade grinds are symmetrically applied. This budget-priced knife provides good value and good performance. I can count on one hand with fingers left over the brands of knives I have tested that can be purchased at this price point that might predictably exceed the cutting endurance of this knife. Anyone who expects to get more for the money than this knife provides is probably going to be perpetually disappointed.
American-made Modern Marbles Woodcraft
The current USA-made Marbles Woodcraft knife is one of the few remaining traditional-brand icons that satisfy the often-repeated vanity about carbon-steel knives made in America being the best using knives. The 1070-6C high-carbon steel blade of this one matched its 420 HC sibling while cutting plastics. It had a slight advantage carving seasoned wood.
I asked Marbles Knives CEO George Brinkley if he could provide me with the chemical content of 1070-6C chrome-vanadium steel. He said he would, but I did not receive the information in time for this article. I’m not sure if the exact alloy content has any particular significance unless it can be correlated to having some demonstrable advantage in objective testing.
There are many chrome-vanadium steels. The 1070-6C alloy formerly used by Camillus was once reported to be AISI 50100 B steel. While George Brinkley hasn’t given me the exact alloy content of his currently used chrome-vanadium steel, he did tell me in a telephone conservation the steel used in current Marbles USA-made knives had more chromium and vanadium in it than 50100. George described the steel as being like 1095 with chromium and vanadium added.
The current USA-made knife surprised and pleased me by allowing me to use its out-of-the-box edge to zip though the first 100 single-cut slices of rope without a break for my arthritic hands. Most knives won’t provide me with that much cutting ease in rope. Like the previously tested vintage knife, after the initial 100 cuts, the used part of blade edge would not longer shave hair. But this USA-made Marbles test knife has already exceeded the performance of four previously tested knives with 1070-6C blades from three other different name brands.
George Brinkley had assured me in a telephone conversation (predictably) that the current production Marbles knives were among the best knives available. By George (pun intended), objective testing had validated that assertion, and we had just begun cutting.
On day two, I did a second 100 single-slice cut test. I accomplished 75 cuts without a break and finished up the last 25 cuts after a brief rest. One of the things that impresses me a lot about this knife is I didn’t have to adjust the factory edge at all to get the performance I am reporting.
The blades for the current USA-made Marbles knives are produced under sublet contract by a firm in Washington State, and finished in the Marbles factory in Gladstone, Michigan. Blade production by this Washington State firm was initiated in 2007 after two previous subcontractors making the 1070-6C blades for Marbles had gone out of business. My test results indicate the cutting endurance performance of the current production USA-made knives is superior to that demonstrated by the previous two-blade production providers. Sometimes things can seem to work out for the best. My test example of the current production USA-made Marbles knives has already matched the performance provided by a Marbles knife with a 52100 alloy blade and convex edge made back in the late 1990s—and we were not done cutting yet.
The cutting endurance of the current Woodcraft Marbles test knife topped out at 450 single-slice cuts. This performance nearly matched the performance of the vintage knife and is definitely a superior cutting endurance performance. Fit and finish of the currently made knife is to unquestionably higher standards than the vintage Marbles knife.
All three of these knives were an equal delight when used for cutting up raw and cooked meats. In casual use it can be difficult to distinguish between knives with good cutting endurance and those with superior cutting endurance. I don’t believe there are any losers here.
There are different end-user niche applications for each of these knives, and each is capable of satisfying an end user who understands the use each knife is intended to provide. At least, that seems to be what these knives are indicating to me. So make your choice, and ante up for your knife use satisfaction.
If the cutting endurance of the average USA-made Marbles knives with chrome-vanadium high-carbon steel blades can be maintained at the levels exhibited by the examples I have tested, the current production traditional design knives are setting a benchmark standard as some of the best cutting and highest quality knives ever made by Marbles or anyone else.
By Michael S. Black
Blue Ridge Knives
166 Adwolfe Rd.
Marion, VA 24354
(276) 783 6143
Fax: (276) 783-9298
Marbles Quality Knives
420 Industrial Park
Gladstone, Michigan 49837
(906) 428 3710
Fax: (906) 428-3711