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 ForWhen 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:
- Mora of Sweden
- Cold Steel
- Bark River