By Sam Hayward.
The pursuit of the ‘perfect’ knife is arguably a never-ending one, as I have found. There is a lot more to it than one may realise, with the added factor that everyone will have their own individual preferences. I’ve been acquiring them now for over 20 years and I’m certain that if you were to ask my wife whether or not I have too many knives, her answer would be a resounding YES! I too have to concede that, in the process of amalgamating the collection for this blog, I have a fair few ….
In the above photo all the knives on the bottom row are ones I have purchased, including several cheapies. All the ones on the top row I have made, starting from right with the oldest to left being the newest, a sort of chronology of knife making exploits!
The number of knives I own though is not due to some crazed obsession (honest!). Rather it’s a reflection of the number of activities I take part in both on a personal and professional level, that require a useful blade, as well as how my views on knives have changed over the years. A large number are also resultant from my personal knife making exploits and experiments over the years (15 years?!?) and thankfully, somehow, I’ve become a little more proficient over time. From expeditions both in the UK and abroad by foot and/or canoe, to ‘bushcraft’ activities ranging from shelter building to carving a spoon, to the preparation of food – game/fish/vegetables, there are numerous considerations relating to how appropriate a blade is for a given task.
I spent my childhood enthusiastically watching Paul Hogan wield his monstrous ‘Crocodile Dundee’ knife, thinking to myself “I can’t wait to get my hands on one of those!”. As a kid, I had created an image of what a decent knife was, based on pictures, films and media, without having any practical experience. When I finally came to use something that resembled it however, the reality vs perception/hope was much different. The thing looked cool but was unwieldy, uncomfortable in the hand (several blisters!) and only really of any use for chopping materials when building dens…. This was where I started to realise that the ‘tactical’ and ‘size matters’ knives and blades used in films and on TV were often misleading, especially where they were being used in survival and ‘bushcraft’ scenarios. Far more practical was the first ever fixed-blade knife I owned – a small Scandanavian ‘Scout’ style knife that my dad picked up on a trip to Denmark and gave to me as a present. It’s still a knife I use and love today, partly maybe due to sentimentality, but also because it’s comfy, a sensible size and holds a razors edge. Using a knife in practice, and putting it through its paces, is something that over the years altered my perception of what constitutes a ‘good’ knife.
There are a wealth of knives on the market these days, that come in all shapes and sizes and are marketed for a variety of different uses. It must be noted that I am discussing knives here – not larger blades such as a parang or machete! The following is also geared towards fixed-blade knives, rather than folding (although many points are still relevant), as they are considered more appropriate for use in bushcraft environments where there is not a worry about blades folding or locking-mechanisms failing! The three main components when looking at a knife are handle, blade and sheath. Each of these three things can be looked at more in-depth to help assess/determine the intended use, functionality and durability of a knife:
Handle – For me, comfort and ergonomics are right at the top of what’s important, along with durability. You can tolerate most things (handle-wise) for short periods of time. However if you end up using a knife with a ‘poor’ handle for any period of time, then the number of blisters and sores on your hand will convey the importance of comfort better than any words can! Durability is also key, and so looking at the materials and construction of a handle is important. Basic wooden handles are great on dedicated woodcarving and whittling knives, but can suffer a bit in everyday general use and often require TLC. I tend to favour a general use knife that can be used for a multitude of tasks – from splitting and basic woodcarving to the occasional bit of food prep. For me these uses often coupled with Welsh/UK weather, requires a material that will tolerate water and not distort (swell/shrink) or crack with moisture, and can be easily cleaned. Plastic and rubber handles perform just fine, and a properly treated wooden handle can certainly tick all the boxes, however there are also some great synthetic alternatives such as Micarta and Tuffnol, which look aesthetic but are also extremely durable. Finger-guards, which act as an additional safety feature between handle and cutting edge, can vary in size greatly and are a matter of personal opinion. Some of the larger metal/brass guards can certainly become a nuisance when using certain grips, causing blisters, and is why many bushcraft knives don’t have them. For me a properly contoured handle with a slight recess for index finger and protrusion before the blade is ideal.
The manner in which the blade is attached to the handle is also worth considering. A knife’s ‘tang’ refers to how much the blade extends into the handle. Full-tang knives are generally regarded as the strongest/most durable type of construction, with a single piece of metal running the full length of knife as both blade and handle. The handle material may be attached to either side of the ‘tang’, which is visible, or be hidden within the handle and only protrude at the end. Fixings should always be strong and sturdy – I use bolts as a mechanical fixing combined with a marine-grade epoxy resin for extra strength. Partial tang knives have the blade extend only part-way into the handle. Although some knives are classed as part-tang, they can often take an AWFUL lot of abuse before they break…. trying to baton/split rather ambitious large logs can finish them off…. So I’ve heard!
Blade – Size does matter….. but in this case bigger isn’t necessarily better! For normal use within a bushcraft setting you seldom need a large blade. Though length is often an individual preference – for me personally I don’t really use anything with a blade exceeding 4”/10cm. I have found little benefit in using anything larger, and often find a smaller blade of 3”/7-8cm can easily accomplish most tasks.
The type of metal the blade is made from is the next important consideration, and again is often personal preference (influenced by the intended use). I own and use both carbon steel and stainless steel knives. Stainless is my blade of choice for wet environments (paddling expeditions) and food preparation, especially when preparing game and meat. A simple knife that can be easily cleaned, with the option to soak in a disinfectant solution as required without worry of rust, is ideal. Most of the time though, for bushcraft and general use, I have a high-carbon steel knife. I find it is easy to maintain and keep sharp, and retains a good working edge – not necessarily ‘shave’ sharp all of the time as some may believe is required, but perfect for everything else!
The last of the main considerations is edge profile, or grind, of your knife. This again is personal preference (there’s a theme here….). Three of the most common edge profiles are convex, concave/hollow ground and ‘scandi-style’ grind (there are numerous other edge profiles too!). People will advocate the merits of different edge profiles, but for me there should be a greater emphasis on ensuring that you are capable of maintaining and sharpening which ever option you choose. Without this, your knife will change from asset to liability! Sharpening practice is absolutely essential with whatever edge profile you choose. Many bushcraft and woodcarving knives have a scandi-grind, with a flat bevel on each side of the knife running down to the cutting edge. The principle of sharpening is easy enough – in its simplest form place each bevel flat on the sharpening stone and draw it back and forth to remove a uniform amount of metal and renew the cutting edge. Poor technique and inexperience however will often result in the knife being rocked back and forth on its bevel, which over time then changes to a convex edge! I would strongly discourage anyone from spending any significant amount of money on their first knife until they have accrued a bit of experience with maintenance!
Sheath – This is often overlooked or compromises made, as the knife takes ‘centre-stage’. However for me a knife and its sheath go hand-in-hand, as a blade can lose its practical usefulness if it can’t be transported or stored safely, or can’t be easily accessed when needed.
Sheath material will normally consist of either leather (which may require a bit more maintenance) or plastic. Whichever it may be, it should provide protection against damage to the knife and cutting edge from knocks, bumps etc, but also provide the owner with a good degree of protection from the cutting edge and point! The knife should be securely retained within the sheath without worry that it might escape (if carried in a pocket or pack) – a knife should easily be retained even if the sheath is held upside down. You also need to think about how you personally transport your knife when in use e.g. carried in pocket, worn on belt or as a neck-knife, to ensure it can achieve this. I personally tend to keep my knife on my belt when relevant, and so I will always look to ensure that a sheath has a strong and durable belt-loop attachment.
You have probably realised by now that a knife can be a very personalised and individual affair, and what suits one person might not suit another! I believe that if your relevant interests and hobbies are numerous enough, you will struggle to find a single knife that is ‘perfect’ for everything. For me a knife is a tool, and I will therefore choose the tool most suited for the job or task that I am doing. If starting out, or looking to acquire your first buchcraft/outdoor knife, spend some time researching and ideally getting some hands-on experience with a variety. It is possible to spend an absolute fortune on a knife, and indeed there are some extremely beautiful and practical knives made by very talented custom knife-makers. However I would caution against spending large amounts of money to then worry endlessly about using a knife in case it’s damaged or is lost! There are many knives that can be purchased for under £20 that are very easily capable of performing most tasks.
I feel it is important to finish with a subject that is of ever-increasing relevance – that of knife ownership and use, and the law. For me a knife is a pretty essential tool for a number of the activities I take part in both personally and professionally, and therefore I believe it is important to promote responsibility and ensure that I operate within the boundaries of the law. I am very fortunate to have access to large areas of private land where I undertake numerous activities, and where I often carry a fixed blade. For the purposes of the law and knives – it is ILLEGAL to carry any knife with a fixed blade, or one that has a locking mechanism, in public without serious justification/reason. You are permitted to carry a folding knife, with a blade that cannot lock and does not exceed 3 inches in length, but even then you should ask whether it is appropriate. I would encourage anyone who owns and uses a knife to be familiar and up-to-date with the law. Further information can be found at https://www.gov.uk/buying-carrying-knives.