10 Must-Know Tips Before You Buy that perfect knife
“… research is the best friend of any buyer looking for a perfect knife …”
The year was 1962. I had just seen “The Iron Mistress,” and the movie changed my life. You could say the story of Jim Bowie hooked and reeled me in like a salmon on a line.
From that day forward, I was obsessed with knives. I have bought hundreds of knives since then and have traded, made, altered and everything else except stolen knives to sate my mania.
Being a prolific purchaser of cutlery, I have come to my own conclusions about buying knives. In the following story, I have made 10 suggestions about what you ought to know before you buy that perfect knife.
When deciding to buy a knife, consider what tasks the knife is expected to perform. If you need a knife for the kitchen, a thin blade that will slice vegetables and meats is required.
However, if you purchase a military/survival pattern knife to use for kitchen tasks, I believe it would frustrate even the Iron Chef.
Conversely, if you are looking for a perfect knife for military service and purchase a thin-bladed kitchen knife, it may snap in two the first time it is used to pry open a crate of ammo.
How the blade is thinned to produce the cutting edge determines the best uses for the perfect knife, which is why the blade grind is so important. The flat grind, a blade with a symmetrical V-bevel that tapers from the spine to the edge, is good for food preparation and woodwork.
The saber grind, with the bevel starting halfway through the width of the blade, excels in chopping. For added strength to the flat grind, a Scandinavian grind begins its bevel very low on the blade and is good for carving wood.
Hollow grinds have concave surfaces with a very sharp edge and are used for shaving and slicing. A sharp edge that’s produced by curved, symmetrical surfaces is called a convex grind and these grinds are good for hunting and food preparation.
The blade is the center of performance, and the expectation of that performance is directly proportional to the quality of the blade material. Most blades are made of several different types of steel, titanium, ceramic, obsidian and some other precious metals.
There are many other materials that blades are made from and deciding which to choose should be based upon what you will be doing with the perfect knife. The variations in steel are too great to list them all, but I will provide a brief overview.
A blade employed in the jungle or maritime conditions, where corrosion is a risk, should be stainless steel or rust-resistant titanium. Similarly, a chef who has a blade constantly cutting acidic meats, fruits, and vegetables would choose the same, since his blade is seldom dry.
Steel is classified as high carbon when a minimum of 1% carbon is the hardening agent, and this has little or no resistance to corrosion. Stainless steel has a minimum of 13% chromium content and has a high corrosion resistance.
Many other alloys may be included as hardeners, such as tungsten and molybdenum. Titanium is used in knife blades for its lightweight, non-conductive and stainless qualities.
Damascus steel is a name given to pattern welded steel in which two dissimilar metals, either high carbon or stainless, are bonded together with heat and pressure into multiple thin-bonded layers to complement each other’s strengths and weakness.
This process makes very beautiful collectible knives, but a knife made with quality Damascus certainly could be used. San Mai steel is similar to Damascus steel, but consists of a thick core of hardened steel.
Brittle on its own, San Mai steel is strengthened with milder steel on each side of the blade, which makes it very useable and will maintain a great edge.
In a collectible knife, the artform of the handle may be its only purpose and value. Beautiful, fragile materials, such as black lip mother of pearl, coral and several types of ivory, may increase its value and appeal, but creates a liability to practical application in the field or home.
Before buying a knife, the buyer must decide which is more important—durability or style/beauty. Some materials such as antler and exotic woods can bridge the gap between these two parameters of art and function.
Natural materials, such as antler tines, require a narrow extension of the blade, called the tang, to attach them to the blade of the knife via a hole drilled through the antler.
The Swedish Mora knives, with the red painted wooden haft on a narrow tang, are the most widely used, inexpensive knives in the world and can do most tasks required of a perfect knife.
The strongest and most durable handles on knives consist of a full-width, full-thickness tang. Two plates of man-made materials such as Micarta, G-10 or carbon fiber are attached to the tang.
These materials are impervious to moisture and resist wear and tear of most sorts, apart from extreme heat. Mated to a stainless-steel blade of 440C, D2, 154CM, or ATS 34, these knives are now very affordable and will likely last several generations.
Fixed or Folding?
Some promote the fixed-blade knife for any wilderness usage because it reduces the risk of medical mishap from a failed locking mechanism. Others opt for folders.
Folding knives require more work to clean and maintain than fixed knives. The slot for blade storage, the locking mechanism and the pin or bearings can be difficult to clean adequately in the field.
When preparing food or dressing game and fish, the knife may encounter animal urine and feces. The knife then, whether peeling an apple or slicing bread and cheese, might introduce a host of reproducing pathogens into the digestive tract. Be thorough when cleaning. Conversely, a fixed blade knife can be easily cleansed of microbiology as contaminants are restricted to the surface of the knife.
In modern society, it has become a concern to venture out with knives on our belts. They are often misconstrued as a weapon, instead of a tool. This is where the folding knife has the upper hand.
Fitting inside a pocket or bag, the folding knife is easily concealed and therefore not seen as visually threatening. Some readers may carry a folding knife as a defensive tool, but it’s wise to maintain that it is used for cutting cardboard and other mundane uses.
Personally, I don’t believe a finger guard is needed on a utility knife. To test my theory, take a knife and slice a piece of bread in half. Pay attention to the movement of your free hand. A typical person will unintentionally move their hand away from the cutting edge. It’s our natural instinct to avoid injury.
Some knives are made with a small, built-in guard as part of the blade. To me, these are ideal as they are stronger than a separate guard, less prone to microbes and can’t work loose.
Combat Knife Guards
During the 1939 Winter War, one-quarter to half-a-million Finnish soldiers defeated four million Russians. Lowell Thomas, a journalist who covered the war, reported patrols of 6-12 Finns dressed in white smocks traveling on skis with a sled and one machine gun.
They would patrol for two to four weeks and return the sled filled with Russian guns. He stated that the Finns would ski within 100 yards of the Soviets, hidden from them by forest and snow.
They would slither up on their bellies and jump en masse into a gun emplacement, stabbing the Russians through heavy woolen winter coats with their puukkos.
Afterward, they loaded the guns onto the sled and skied away to the next emplacement. One Finnish vet stated that a 6-inch blade was sufficient in reaching vital organs.
If you do insist on having a finger guard on a military fighting knife, the double guard should be no larger than needed to prevent it snagging on equipment when you need your knife the most.
When purchasing a fixed-blade knife, a sheath is included and there are many different kinds available.
Military and some utility sheaths tend to encase only the blade and have a belt loop extending up the handle portion. If the sheath folds over at the top of the blade portion, it is possible for the knife to fall out.
A sheath-in-a-pouch configuration in which the knife handle is at least half to three-quarters of the way inside the pouch, lowers the knife’s center of gravity and generally allows it to remain in the sheath.
“The strongest and most durable handles on knives consist of a full-width, full-thickness tang.”
Scandinavian sheaths incorporate a blade liner of wood or plastic to lock the knife in and further protect the user from injury. Some manufacturers of nylon sheaths include this feature. Folding knives can also be lost from their belt pouches if the fastening catch is not secured.
Leather knife sheaths are traditional, but they are prone to moisture damage. Sheaths of Kydex and other hard plastics are revolutionizing the sheath market due to their resistance to rot and tearing.
Knives get dull with use and require sharpening to keep the cutting edge sharp and efficient. Edged tools and weapons were sharpened with stones in the earlier times. Natural Arkansas, as well as man-made carborundum and India stones, will still do the job.
However, today diamond and ceramic hone technology is slowly taking over. This form of sharpening has received high praise and will produce a superior cutting edge, especially on steel knives. Other options include carbide sharpeners and power sharpeners.
Where to Buy
Shopping at a store allows you to handle a knife and check the sheath for quality and security of the knife. The internet is a very convenient way to purchase a perfect knife and allows you to view many different options within a short amount of time. It’s important to check the reputation of a seller before making a purchase and entering your credit card information.
I have dealt with Nordic Knives in Solvang, California for over a quarter of a century. I have received exemplary and knowledgeable service from owner, Dave Harvey, who has been in business for almost 50 years. If merchants have been in business for this long, they most likely have good customer service.
I have found much value in reading customer reviews on a knife I’m considering purchasing. It’s easily said that research is the best friend of any buyer. The internet is full of forums and knife sites. This will answer all the questions a new knife buyer or old hand will have.
There will always be controversy and conflict of belief. This is because we only form opinions from the information to which we have been subjected. Therefore, it is important to pull your facts from reliable sources and research any knife thoroughly.
Almost all knives require upkeep, but some more than others. Maintaining a clean, functional knife can be easy or challenging depending upon the grind, blade and handle material, and the style of the knife—whether it is a folding or fixed blade knife.