Taking a stab at knife shopping.
Buying a knife can be overwhelming—the choices in today’s market are immense. You can purchase a pocket knife for a couple dollars at any convenience store or evaluate several thousand $25 knives on eBay. You can even order a $50,000 handmade knife with a Damascus steel blade and a gold-and-gem encrusted fossilized mastodon handle.
Knife options grew in the 1970s, when a renaissance took place and craftspeople began creating a large variety of custom handmade knives. There were perhaps 100 people in this cottage industry then, but there are thousands today. This competition spurred larger knife manufacturers to create higher-quality cutlery, a benefit to us all. But from all this variety, how does one choose the perfect knife?
First, let me make one thing perfectly clear: there is no perfect knife. Your choice will always be a compromise of many factors, but the two most important are intended use and feel.
If you are in the military or are starring in a Wild West or Rambo movie, then your intended use might warrant a large 8-12” heavy stainless blade with serrations and a tough edge. If you’re a hunter, then a drop-point fixed blade with a 3.5-5” blade is plenty, with a blade thickness of 1/8-3/16.” Get a carbon steel blade if you will sharpen and clean your knife frequently. If you’re going to use your knife heavily before each sharpening and cleaning, then get stainless steel, but note that it’s somewhat harder to sharpen than carbon steel. Ceramic blades are very sharp, but don’t drop them or they may break!
If you intend to use the knife a lot, then get a handle made of very durable wood, or a synthetic material such as Micarta, glass-filled nylon (Zytel), G-10, or graphite fiber. For the casual outdoorsperson or hiker, a fixed blade of two to three inches or a folding knife are useful, but get one with a durable handle material. Folding knives should open and close smoothly, and the blade should not wiggle in the open position. Avoid a folding knife if the blade tip protrudes from the frame when closed.
Finally, if you are shopping for a kitchen knife, the blade needs to be thin with a finely tapering edge. No guard is needed as with a hunting knife. Choosing carbon steel makes it easier to sharpen.
Now that you have chosen an appropriate design and steel, the second factor to consider is the feel in your hand. If the knife feels too small in your hand, don’t buy it. If it doesn’t feel right when you hold it with the blade facing downward or upward, don’t buy it. If the blade feels too heavy in relation to the handle, don’t buy it. If the tang (the part of the blade that goes into the handle) has pointed protuberances that press into your hand, don’t buy it.
If it feels good, buy it. There is a huge selection of quality cutlery out there. Buy the one that feels right for you.
Joel Ellefson has lived in the Gallatin Valley for 27 years and has been making handmade knives for over 30. He was a member of the Knifemakers Guild from 1983-2000.
The Cutting Edge
Hand-sharpening a knife involves both knowledge of technique and consistency of motion. With practice, it is not as difficult as you might think.
Good technique requires selecting appropriate sharpening stones and creating the correct angle for the knife edge. Choose two stones, one coarse and the other fine, to create the edge. Stone choices consist of natural “Arkansas” stone, silicon carbide, aluminum oxide, and diamond. To sharpen effectively, the stones need to be at least two inches wide and eight inches long. Mount them into a cradle attached to a workbench or vise. This provides a large sharpening surface and supports vigorous sharpening strokes.
There are three methods to put an edge on a knife: 1) pushing the blade edge into the stone, 2) pulling the blade into the stone, or 3) using a circular motion over the stone. The method isn’t critical, but the angle of the blade to the stone is. There are two angles on the edge of the knife that need to be created in the sharpening process. The coarse stone creates the primary or “transition angle,” which is 15-20 degrees and visible on most knives. The “cutting angle” of 20-25 degrees is set on the very edge of the blade by the finer stone.
To maintain these angles, you can use a finger as guide or buy a device that does this. To sharpen the knife, make a series of consistent strokes back and forth, moving progressively from coarse to fine stone. Eventually you will feel a small burr of steel roll over the edge. When this occurs, the knife is sharp. Remove the burr with a light stroke on the fine stone or using a strop.
With the correct tools, the proper motion, and patience you can properly sharpen your own knives, but heed these important tips: 1) never let your blades get really dull to begin with, 2) avoid gizmos, gimmicks, and outrageous claims for sharpening tools, 3) be careful when using knife “steels,” and 4) don’t store your newly sharpened and oiled blade in a sheath unless you intend to use it right away.