Everyone should have a knife. It might be the most handy analog tool you can have, save for maybe a pen. For daily carry duties, the convenience of a small, robust folding knife can’t be understated, but for other things, such as light camping, a bug-out bag, or any other purpose that will see hard use, a fixed blade is going to be your best bet.
There’s a lot available out there, and it’s very very easy to pour your money down the wrong hole. We’ve put together a bit of a guide to help you cut through all the options out there and pick a knife that should best suit your needs.
While there are a lot of different purposes that require a knife, there are a few common
denominators that are worth considering. A kitchen knife will have a few different requirements from a camping knife, but both could benefit from a full tang, for example. We’ll go through those things that I feel are important regardless of the purpose. We’ll also mention the exceptions, where applicable.
The first is construction. If you’ve ever been to a flea market or some sort of survival shop, you will no doubt have seen those knives with hollow handles containing matches, a compass, fishing line, and other small doodads. While any knife is better than no knife, one is better served with a knife with a full tang. This means the material of the knife extends from the tip of the blade, all the way to the very end of the handle. The knife then, is a single piece of steel from tip to heel, with the handle formed by sandwching the steel between two pieces of wood, G10, micarta, or other material. Paracord is also sometimes used. The reason for this is durability. In other knives, the blade can be screwed into the handle, resulting in a weak point where the blade steel meets the handle.
There are also rat-tail tang knives, where the heel of the blade extends, and terminates in a spike, which is then driven into a formed handle. Many of the cheap bolos are constructed in this way. This keeps the price down, as you don’t use as much steel as a full-tang, but at the price of durability, as the tang will generally work its way free from the handle material. There are exceptions, of course. Just ask around and do research to find those gems.
The second consideration is the steel used. While there isn’t a particular steel I would recommend, you do have to think about what your knife is made of. Carbon steel is very durable, easy to sharpen, takes a keen edge, and is really the only steel that will work well with a firesteel, but is very prone to rust and corrosion, particularly after exposure to something like saltwater or some food.
Conversely, stainless steels, such as the cheaper 8CR13MoV, or Aus-8 steels, might resist corrosion, but won’t work nearly as reliably with fire steels.
The harder ones such as VG-10 or S35V might take and hold a very keen edge, but are a pain to sharpen in the field. Basically, look at the steel your candidate knife has, and choose the one that will fit your requirements.
A field knife would do great with carbon steel, so you can retouch the edge easily with a bit of sandpaper or coarse rock, while a kitchen knife can be a fine-grained, hard steel that will keep a great edge for a long time.
Another factor to look at is blade shape. Hacking brush and filleting a fish are two very different tasks, and a knife made to do one will naturally be a poor choice for the other. That’s not to say you can’t do it—a good edge is going to cut, but if you pick a blade shape that’s ill suited for the task, you’re going to spend more time trying to get your blade to work for you, than actually doing the task. You usually can’t go wrong with tried-and-tested designs.
This is not to say that innovations are not welcome, but knives have been around in one form or another for a very long time, and designs that don’t work just fall away. Before you fall for the hype of some fancy new blade shape, consider the most basic option first, and see if that doesn’t serve your purpose well. If you’re buying to collect, or just because it’s a beautiful, or interesting shape, then go for it. But a knife for a particular purpose would do well with the particular shape for that purpose.This extends to another consideration, and that’s blade length. You can’t fold it for storage, so it’s a delicate balance. I generally tend to favor the shortest blade length for a task. Any more is extra work to sharpen, extra weight to carry, and could pose a hazard during use. I’ve not often wanted a longer blade, but very frequently, I’ve wished the one I had was shorter.
Corollary to this is blade thickness. A knife with a beastly quarter-inch spine will never cut a tomato as cleanly as a razor-thin fillet knife, no matter how keen the edge, just because it’s so thick.
Thin blades do delicate cutting, such as slicing tomatoes or garlic, or filleting a fish, very well. Thick blades make quick work of thick, heavy materials, and will even hold up well to prying if you really need them to. This also translates to weight, which you’ll have to lug around all the time.
Other concerns, such as blade grind, and edge angle are important in my opinion, but not
necessarily at the top of the things to consider, unless you get into very specialized tools, do a lot of your own sharpening, or are a blade geek. Put more simply, don’t concern yourself with these until you feel you want to be, in the same way not everyone who drives is concerned about knowing how to take apart a caburetor.
Likewise, the manufacturer is important only in as far as it gives you a gauge of the general
quality of the hardware. There are a lot of small, inexpensive or unknown manufacturers that come up with great blades. Don’t get hung up over brands so much. More important is the
feedback on a particular knife.
That’s a crash course on what you might want to look at for your next fixed blade. If you remember nothing else, just keep your purpose in mind, and everything should fall into place.
Also published in GADGETS MAGAZINE July 2017 Issue
Words by Ren Alcantara