How to Choose and Buy Your First Knife

If you’ve ever stood in front of a knife display case, you can appreciate how widely knives vary and how perplexing it can be to figure out what knife will fit you best. In this article, we’ll touch on the high points of knife selection for first-time buyers.

Knives: The Universal Tool (rambling side note)

I’ll go out on a limb and venture that the knife is the most broadly-used tool out there. If we could travel back through the millenia to the date that our first imaginative, do-it-yourself ancestor got sick of using his (her?) hands for ripping apart an animal, I expect we’d see the knife born as one of the first tools ever invented — probably just a sharp rock, but a tool nonetheless, born just shortly after a club or spear for killing, but altogether more useful. Ever since that day, the knife has been an integral part of our daily lives, from the razor blades we shave with to the scissors we’re constantly reaching for (or in my case, searching for — the kids find them as useful as I do). You’ll find a knife or cutting instrument of some sort in almost every trade that works with physical materials. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that today’s desk jobs, where fingers only touch keyboards, stand at odds with every other skill, trade, and profession in the history of the world. But even those desks have letter openers, and even those computers have Cut and Paste. And that most noble of professions, Medicine, not only needs knives, but demands the sharpest, most precise blades of all and equally demands hands that can manipulate them with perfect skill. As much today as at any time in mankind’s past, cutting is essential. And you never appreciate that more than when you’re in the outdoors.

Figure Out What You Need a Knife For

When you choose a knife, you have to start by figuring out what you need it for. That seems so obvious that you’re probably wondering why I even bother mentioning it. But you’d be surprised how often we get drawn to a knife just by its looks. Think of a 12 year-old boy walking by the knife case at Cabela’s. His eye goes straight to the big combat-style knives, especially if they’ve got serrations, moreso if the serrations run along the top of the spine like a saw. Does he need a knife like this? Would he even know what to use it for? No. He’s just attracted to the idea of it. Moral of the story: don’t be a 12 year-old boy. Take an honest assessment of your needs, and pick the knife that meets those needs, even if it’s small and boring. In my case, it took me going through a handful of knives before I really understood my needs. Each time, I thought I was picking the right blade for the job. But after putting it to use, I’d realize the knife didn’t actually fit my needs, or more often than not, I’d come to understand my true needs better. One thing I found myself guilty of more than once: I had a tendency to cast my wants as needs. For example, early on I “needed” a knife to be able to chop down a tree. Well, over time I discovered that I simply was drawn to the big-bladed knives (hey, who isn’t). But once I experienced lugging one around on my belt and once I discovered that it didn’t chop nearly as well as an ax/hatchet of the same weight, I realized my “need” was really just me lusting after that big, gorgeous blade. In the end, I’ve ended up with sensible utility knives that match my needs (though I admit a Fallkniven A1 or A2 can still turn my head). Here’s a laundry-list of potential knife tasks to get your thought processes rolling:

Fine carving and whittling, chopping small logs and branches, splitting wood into kindling, shaving tinder, making feather sticks, making stakes, notching poles, boring holes, cutting spindles and hearth boards, skinning game, cleaning and filleting fish, cutting rope, cutting meat, slicing vegetables, cutting cloth, limbing trees, shaping wood for camp stands, opening packages, trimming dead skin, shaving, etc.

Consider what you want the knife to do, and pick the style that fits your needs best. Most importantly, talk to the people you run across in the field or on the knife forums (www.knifeforums.com and www.bladeforums.com). Find people who use knives the way you intend to, and ask what knives they recommend. This will quickly narrow the field down to a few styles and brands.

How Much Should You Spend on a Knife?

When you visit the knife forums, be cautious of one thing: most of those folks spend a lot of money on knives … a lot of money. They’re knife enthusiasts, and many of them don’t bat an eye at spending three figures on a knife. Don’t take that to mean that you need to spend three figures to get a good knife. You can find fantastic knives for well under $100. These knives sometimes get a bad rap on the knife forums because they’re made in China or have slightly lower-grade steel than a Bark River knife. If you’ll forgive my rant, I find that completely ridiculous. Let’s get some perspective. The frontier was explored and tamed by men who carried a knife as their primary everyday tool. Those knives, by the standards of today’s steels, were absolute junk. Yet they held an edge, took a beating, and kept their owners alive. If you were to hand any of those men one of today’s “cheap” Ka-Bar or Cold Steel knives, it would feel to him like an invincible blade forged by gods themselves. The fact that a knife doesn’t measure up to a $250 custom blade doesn’t make it junk by any stretch of the imagination. My two favorite knives span the price spectrum. On the upper end, I love Fallkniven knives (and you’ll see me mention them often; sorry for the bias). I have an S1 that’s my jack-of-all-trades knife when I’m out on day hikes and only take one blade with me. This knife cost me well over a hundred dollars. I also have a Fallkniven F1 that I bought as a basic camp/bushcraft knife. The F1, however, hasn’t seen any action yet. Instead, I always reach for a Mora knife. Mora knives are on the opposite end of the spectrum from Fallknivens — you can pick them up for about $10 each. They’re fabulous little knives, sharp as a demon’s tongue and sturdy as a screwdriver. These things take a beating beautifully. And I think that’s the reason I favor a $10 Mora over a $120 F1: outdoor knives need to take a beating, and a part of me winces at beating up my gorgeous F1. By comparison, think of SUVs. Which are you going to take off-road, performance being equal: your Jeep or your luxury SUV? I love $10 Moras because if I roll a blade or lose one in tall grass, I can shrug it off. Here are a few of the most common reputable brands of knives, roughly ranked from low price to high (though there’s not a huge price difference from Gerber through Ontario). Any of them will serve you well:

What Kind of Knife Steel, Carbon or Stainless?

Steel falls into two broad categories: carbon and stainless. Obviously, stainless is much less prone to rust (but can still rust if you don’t take care of it). Both come in a wonderful range of types and hardness, and both perform very well. As a rule of thumb, carbon tends to show up more in knives under $100 and stainless in high-end knives. Carbon blades are often epoxy-coated to help ward off rust, but don’t plan on the epoxy lasting; before too long, worn-off epoxy will be showing the world that your knife is well-used and well-loved. The more important measure of blade steel is hardness. Big box stores and sporting goods stores carry loads of nice-looking stainless steel knives for under $20. These knives all have one thing in common: soft steel. While soft steel will take a wicked-sharp edge, it loses that edge very quickly. A hard steel, on the other hand, takes some time to sharpen, but once it has a sharp edge it will keep it. For example, I can chop and split wood with my Fallkniven S1, then turn around and still slice paper. The S1 has an incredibly hard laminated VG10 stainless steel blade. You’ll usually see hardness stated as a rockwell hardness figure, or HRC (for the rockwell “C” scale; see Rockwell Scale). In a nutshell, you want a blade with at least a hardness of HRC 55. Cheap department store blades are often more like HRC 50-52. My Fallkniven S1 is at HRC 59. Mora knives range from HRC 57 all the way up to a staggering HRC 61. If a blade gets any harder than that, you will have a very hard time sharpening it. One more note. Hardness isn’t the final word on blade steel. As with most things in the natural world, hard means brittle and soft means flexible. A knife needs some flexibility or it will snap under stress. So don’t automatically think an HRC 55 blade is inferior to an HRC 60 blade. That HRC 55 is strong enough to hold a great edge, but will have some flex to it. In fact, some knife makers will wrap a softer steel around a hard core, trying to achieve the best of both worlds. Fallkniven is famous for this. (Side note: if you have an hour to kill, go look at the knife destruction tests to see how a well-made knife can stand up to abuse. Interestingly, while Fallknivens are almost indestructible, much-cheaper Cold Steel and Ka-Bar knives can take a huge beating for the money.)

What Kind of Grind (Edge) Should the Knife Blade Have?

A knife’s grind refers to the shape of the edge, or in other words, how the knife transitions from the side of the blade down to the cutting edge. For our purposes here, we’ll lump them into three categories: convex, scandi, and all of the others. To figure out what kind of edge a knife has, point the knife at your nose and look down the length of the cutting edge. Note how the sides of the knife transition into the cutting edge. The shape of this transition is the grind.

Convex Grind

Convex edges actually “round” to a sharp point. There’s a gradual thinning of metal until the very last section before the edge, where the metal rounds to a sharp point. The rounding only happens in about the last 1/8 – 1/16″ before the edge. The great advantage of a convex blade is durability. You can chop and hack with it and the blade won’t dull significantly. In fact, the other name for a convex grind is “ax grind” since most axes have convex blades. Convex blades are standard on many high-end knives, like Bark River and Fallkniven. A convex edge is hard to create if you don’t know what you’re doing, but if your knife comes convexed, maintaining the edge is pretty easy. Just strop it at the end of the day, and if it needs an occasional touch-up, just put a piece of 600+ grit sandpaper on a mouse pad and gently polish each side of the blade, drawing the knife away from the edge.

Scandi Grind

“Scandi” is short for “Scandinavian.” Scandinavian knife-makers prefer an edge that comes directly to a point. If you look at a scandi grind, the knife starts to thin about midway down the side and continues in the same line, right to the tip of the edge. If you look at it head-on, it’s just one very long, continuous V. The first advantage of a scandi grind is sharpness. These blades will slice. I saw a picture of one man who got careless with a scandi knife and didn’t just slice his finger, he cut a chunk of bone out of it. The second advantage, and to me the real selling point, of a scandi grind is ease of maintenance. If I lost my eyesight, I could still sharpen a scandi blade. The problem with most knives is that the edge is a distinct “v” at the bottom of the blade. To sharpen the knife, you have to figure out and maintain that angle. To appreciate what a pain this is, look at all of the knife sharpening kits out there designed to “automatically” get the angles right. Scandi grinds do away with that completely. To sharpen a scandi, just lay the knife blade flat on the stone and slide it along. No-brainer. Even in the wild, any flat rock will do to touch up your blade in a pinch. All Mora knives come with Scandi grinds. Those who make custom bushcraft knives also tend to favor scandi grinds.

All the Rest

The rest fall into the group we just described above: knives that have a short, distinct “v” for an edge, or in some cases, that have a chisel-shaped edge. The vast majority of knives out there fall into this category, including most of the knife makers on the list above. The angle of the “v” determines the blade’s performance. A narrow “v” will slice well but won’t be durable. A wide “v” will chop well but not slice or shave as finely. If you get this type of knife, get a good sharpening kit that will help you with the blade angles. One sharpener that has worked well for me in the past is by Smith’s (“Diamond Field Precision Sharpening Kit,” model #DFPK). It has rods and a guide to keep the angles consistent. I’ve seen it at Lowes and Home Depot (also fairly cheap on Amazon.com). How Long Should the Knife Blade Be? How Thick? Now comes the hot debate. Big knife or small? Out on the knife forums you’ll find endless threads about blade length. We’re going to dodge the issue altogether with two big generalizations which should help you see which way you lean: big blades are for folks who want a do-it-all knife and small blades are for people who want precision instruments. Let’s look at the big-blade camp first. These are typically folks who want a single survival tool, one instrument that’s always on their hip, ready to do anything needed: clear brush, chop small logs, split kindling, carve a feather stick or spoon, notch poles, skin game, chop through bones, etc. They don’t want to carry a lot of extra tools, just one reliable tool that can fill any need. Many of the frontiersmen we mentioned above fell into this category. These blades (not including the handle) are often 8″ or longer and can weigh a pound or more. The small-blade folks, on the other hand, point out that while a large knife can do most things, it doesn’t necessarily do them well. For example, an ax or hatchet will chop better than a knife of equal weight, and a saw will work better still. For finer work, a small knife works much better for cutting a feather stick than a heavy, thick knife. Those in this camp would rather use the “right tool for the job” even if it means carrying a few more tools. Interestingly, they can often do it for about the same weight penalty as one big knife. Typical tools are a 3-4″ fixed blade knife, a folding saw, and a light hatchet or ax. Which is the best way to go? That’s a completely personal choice. I started out wanting a medium-sized knife that could do everything, thinking I was getting the best of both worlds. That’s why I bought the Fallkniven S1. The 5″ blade lets me do some light chopping and splitting while still being short enough for some carving. But I soon discovered that a multi-purpose knife is a compromise for most tasks, which led me to start getting more specialized tools. Now, if I’m going light (like day hikes) I just throw my S1 on my belt, since it will keep me alive in any situation; but if I’m setting up a camp, I leave the S1 at home and take the right tools for the tasks I expect to do.

Blade Thickness

One note on blade thickness. You will be surprised how thick the blades on survival knives can run, often upwards of 1/4″, which puts them in the range of a pry bar. This works great for splitting wood, but makes fine slicing more awkward. Mora knives are the odd ones out with relatively thin blades (that are still thick enough for light splitting).

Blade “Tang”

Better knives make a big deal about their tang. The tang is simply how far the metal of the blade extends into the handle. For example, Mora knives have a 1/2 or 3/4 tang, which means that the blade steel goes up to 3/4 of the way into the handle. As a rule of thumb, you want to look for knives with a full tang, meaning that the metal runs through the entire handle. In some cases the metal will even stick out the back slightly so you can use it for light hammering or to pound the knife into something with a sturdy stick. As I said, Mora knives lack a full tang, but given their sturdy construction and ridiculously low price-point, I’m willing to let that go. I’ve never yet seen a Mora blade separate from the handle, and some guys really abuse them.

Where Should I Buy My Knife?

You will be surprised how much knives vary in weight, balance, and feel. Nothing beats being able to pick one up and handle it. You might get lucky and have a knife or cutlery shop that carries many of the brands listed above. But if you’re interested in the high-end knives, you will probably have to buy through the Internet. That’s where caution comes in. Not all knife vendors on the web can be trusted. As a rule of thumb, never buy online unless they list their inventory. Here’s why that matters. Quite a few online resellers don’t carry any inventory. When a customer orders a knife, they put in an order to the manufacturer. That seems fine in concept, except that knife supplies wax and wane. This has led to a lot of angry customers who have been kept in a holding pattern for months waiting for back-ordered knives to show up while their money is held hostage. There are legitimate vendors out there. If in doubt, google the vendor to see if there are any complaints on the forums.

My Favorite Vendors

If you’re buying an expensive knife online, you want a reputable vendor. In my opinion, KnivesShipFree.com tops that list. In addition to listing their exact inventory, they take good care of their customers. For example, when I ordered my Fallkniven S1 through them, they inadvertently sent the wrong style (black blade instead of satin). I called to let them know their mistake, and they immediately shipped the right knife along with return postage for the black knife. That’s trust on their part, and it left me impressed. With Mora knives, you have to seek out specialized vendors. Three that I’ve had good dealings with are Ben’s Backwoods, Ragweed Forge, and Safe Zone. With other knives, you’ll be surprised how many you can find on Amazon.com, where their return policies are stellar. It’s also a good source for user reviews.

In Conclusion …

Accept that you will go through a lot of trial and error before you find the knife (or knives) that suits you. That’s ok. In a way, it’s part of the fun, learning about these wonderful tools that have served mankind elegantly for millenia. Both BladeForums and KnifeForums have areas where you can buy, sell, and even trade knives. Ebay is also a good resource. Pick a knife, try it out, and if it doesn’t suit your needs, sell it as “lighly used.” You’ll recoup most of your money, minus a small bit — “rent” on the knife for the short time you enjoyed it. Then try another one. Before long you’ll stumble across a knife that you wouldn’t let go at any price. Once that happens, you’ll have a tool that you’ll enjoy and cherish for a lifetime.