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Let's talk about knives

11519 Views 28 Replies 8 Participants Last post by  JeepHammer
First off, as a matter of full disclosure, I am a "professional hobbyist" knifemaker. That is, I have a full-time job, but bladesmithing is my apprenticeship to my retirement.

Second, I do not believe that there is one superior brand, or even style, of knife that's appropriate for every situation, let alone survival. Survival and preparedness cover so many situations, that I think the best we can do is talk about the guidelines, and things to look for, when choosing a knife. Personal taste, and personal experience will color our choices as well.

So, what makes a good survival knife? If one defines survival as existing away from "home" and readily available manufactured goods, then it must first be able to do whatever I ask of any knife. It should be exceptionally sharp, exceptionally durable, and capable of taking a great deal of abuse without failure. The American Bladesmith Society has a performance test that all members must pass in order to earn their Journeyman rank... a test blade must first shave hair from the arm, cut through a free-hanging hemp rope (1 inch thick) in a single cut, chop through two 2x4's, and then shave hair again. Then, the smith must put the blade in a vise, and bend it 90 degrees without breaking (a partial crack is okay, but the blade must not fail completely).

While I am not a member of the ABS, I do use their test to gauge my own quality, and I can confidently say that a knife made to these standards will serve the survivalist very well. The test covers the areas of proper heat treating, edge geometry, the sharpening skill of the maker, and the steel itself. If any of those areas are weak, the knife will underperform, and in a survival situation, that's just not cool.

Knives are generally made of either carbon steels (which generally includes tool steels), and stainless. The paleo guys will correct me with knapped work that surpasses the maximum sharpness steel could ever get, and we can go off on a tangent of bronze-age stuff, ceramics, and synthetics... but most of us work in steel, and that meets the modern need quite well.

Stainless steel has the advantage of corroding (rusting) far slower than carbon and tool steels. It accomplishes this by adding other elements in large amounts, as much as 13% by weight, in order to alloy the steel to a "stainless" state. Chromium is the usual suspect, though there are other things in there as well. At such high alloy levels, the forging and heat treating of stainless steel is a difficult process; most blades are stamped and ground from sheets fresh from the mill, and heat treated with computer controls and precise repetition.

Carbon steel is a simpler recipe, but is easier to manipulate (forge) and can be easily recycled and modified. It will rust quickly if weathered, but can be more flexible, durable, and even aesthetically pleasing. The modern customer tends to prefer shiny to performance, so most of the knives getting cranked out of factories by the thousands are made of stainless, by machine, rather than hand-made to an individual's specifications.
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Styles of Knives

The classic "survival knife" generally appears in most people's heads as a derivative of the USMC K-Bar, a long stout blade with a bowie-clip point, straight guard, and round handle. Some cheaper models use a short screw tang on a hollow handle for storing additional survival kit items, some high end ones incorporate advanced steels, full tangs, and various shapes besides the main cutting edge for a wide assortment of uses.

A survival knife is what gets the job done when you need it. They can, truthfully, come in all sizes and shapes. I have a small survival kit in an Altoids can, with a plastic bag for water, a lighter, a book of matches, some very thin nylon high-strength cordage, and a small blade I designed for finger-thumb use (no handle, as such). With this kit, I can cut things, tie things, and light things on fire. With that, I can do much to improve my situation and make other things as needed. I carry a "neck knife" when camping, which really isn't much more than a glorified steak knife, similar in size, and carried in a sheath which I wear around the neck and tuck under my shirt. It is conveniet, sharp, and comfortable to use. I also carry a Finnish Leuku, which resembles a small machete, and I find it incredibly useful across a wide spectrum of chores, including just about everything a small handaxe would do.

American Frontiersmen often carried 2 blades... a medium knife, perhaps 6-8 inches long, and a belt axe, whose actual dimensions are surprisingly small, though it is a very effective tool. The knife was used for cutting, the axe for chopping, and any job too big for those was often not attempted at all without specialized tooling. Modern "camp knives" are often marketed with the ability to chop, and the ABS test reinforces this notion, but the use of multiple, more focused tools, may actually get the job done better.

Throughout history, we see different cultures bring up the trademark knife that they identify with. In Finland, it's the Pukko. In America, the Bowie. Japan has the Tanto, Scotland the Sgian Dubh, Italy the Stilleto, and so on and so forth. Since the rest of the world was way past "surviving" by the time Iron and Steel came into play, I like to look at the early American experience, where knives accompanied Frontiersmen, Traders, and Voyageurs into the wilderness, and were called upon to serve in an environment unattached to manufactured goods. A Rendevous might happen annually, and if your gear failed, it could be months before you had a chance to resupply, and you still had to ply your trade, whether it be trapping, trading, or homesteading, with what you had left. The tools of that time epitomize to me, the height of human reliance on a blade.
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The modern survivalist

The most remote place in the lower 48 is in the Southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, 22 miles from any road. A distance that can be hiked in a couple days over difficult terrain, by most Americans.

Classic survival scenarios call for an abrupt end to our way of life, either through massive natural disaster, economic meltdown, foreign invasion, zombies, disease, or terrorism. In any event, the common theme is the sudden unavailability of manufactured goods, money, and trust. Following this line, it is reasonable to prepare materially with things that are anticipated to be needed, and won't be for sale, at some point in the future. A good knife should definately be on this list.

Will your "survival future" depend on the hunting and trapping of game? Will it involve physical defense against competitors of scare resources? Will it be an unwelcome return to "simpler times" accompanied with a lower population (for whatever reason), or a Mad Max scramble to the death? How we see the future drives how we prepare for it.

The average US household has about 10 knives, mostly in the kitchen. A set of steak knives (6) and a few larger ones, round out the basic assumption for most any family in this country. Consider that many men carry pocketknives, and most folks on this forum probably have a few more lying around in their camping/fishing/hunting gear, and it's obvious that even if Walmart were to leave the face of the planet tomorrow, we would not be without basic tools anytime soon.

My Bottom Line for Any Type of Survival

At the end of the day, we tend to revert to form, and into our habits. We use what we know. Obtaining a knife "just" for the survival kit, without the knowledge of what its strengths and weaknesses are, and how to maintain and sharpen it, is foolish. Get out there and practice the skills needed when "things" aren't as available any more. Social skills are at the top of my list, followed by a large larder, water, and fuel, in order to weather short-term disruptions of any cause.

If you hunt, you already have the tools you need. If you plan on hunting in a survival situation, you'd better know now how to do it. You don't wake up one day with the skills. I suspect, in a worst-case scenario, after the looting and depopulation and scavaging is over, the people of highest value will be the teachers of useful skills. Those who know what they're doing, and have experience at it, will be far better off than those of us who just read about it online. The same is true with the use of edged tools and weapons. If I were to pick up a sword today, I would likely chop my own arm off before successfully defending my family. I haven't practiced, I don't know what's important. Use what you know.

For the survival knife, I think for most of us, it will be the knife we use while camping, while in the kitchen, and while hunting. It will be comfortable in the hand, sharp, easy to maintain and sharpen, and familiar to us.

If you don't have one of these, go get one now, and start getting used to using it. Instead of butcher cuts, start buying meat in larger pieces. Practice dismembering chickens, or if you have the freezer space, pigs and cow parts that aren't already on a foam tray in plastic wrap. Learn what kind of blade is more useful for various tasks, and then find a knife that really works for you, for what you need it for. We won't all be chopping down trees with our camp knives, more likely relying on the blades we have to do mundane, everyday work.

Have I made an arguement against being prepared or getting specialized equipment for emergencies? It sort of sounds like it, but really what I'm getting at is to practice what you prepare for, rather than buy in anticipation of future use "just in case". Get the right tool for the right job, and go do some of it, before it's too late to discover that you have the wrong tool and need to resupply.

I hope this was helpful to the community.
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So, now the million-dollar qustion, what's your favorite survival knife? Mine would have to be my Leuku:

From Finland, it's a very flat grind from edge to spine, and of a European stainless I'm not familiar with, they call it "silver steel". I haven't tried the ABS bending test with it, but it does everything else quite well, surprisingly well. It is also very light, which I enjoy, and the full pouch sheath keeps it safe and secure. I never go into the woods without it, regardless of what other knives I carry. It is that good.
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That Becker looks a lot like the knife I just made for an Elk-huntin' friend.

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The blade is hand-forged from a custom 1084(MF), which has some grain refiners in it. The guard and buttplate are forged wrought iron... the guard piece was twisted hot, then flattened, to get the look of the grain. It is not welded in place... the slot was drilled and hand-filed to fit, then cutler's resin (pinion pine pitch, boiled, with charcoal powder added as an aggregate) added behind it, inside the buffalo horn spacer, and the elk bone, all the way back to the wrought plate on back. The tang was then peened over to secure the whole package.

Here's a couple more closeups:




In the forge

Once the blade is forged to shape, I grind it clean, through progressive grits, finishing at 400. Then I etch the blade to expose some of the character, and in this case, the quench line, then hand-sand again at 600 grit, and use a 1000 grit japanese slip stone.

The wrought iron fittings were forged, cut, and flat-ground, then etched in ferric chloride (heated) for about an hour, with a couple breaks for a rinse and 600-grit sanding. This rustication process reveals the grain of the iron, without excessive pitting, or leaving an oxide on the surface of the metal. All the parts are then treated with Renaissance wax to protect them. The bone and horn were buffed with white tripoli compound after shaping and sanding to 400 grit.

The beauty of this knife, is that the roundness of the elk bone handle allows you to hold the knife different ways, without feeling 'wrong', like a more ergonomically shaped handle might. By filling the bone with pitch, also, it puts the balance way back in the hand, and to use it is a very stable experience.

The knife is, of course, razor sharp, with a mostly flat grind and fine appleseed edge that goes back maybe 1/8 inch, buffed sharp with green chrome oxide compound after sharpening to 800 grit... which removes the wire edge and polishes the cutting surface. I've been using this sharpening technique for a few years now, and I've been very satisfied at the range of cutting tasks it does well.

Thanks for asking, Dean.
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Smithy, that looks A LOT like my favorite skinning knives!
Looks like excellent work, and from the way you write, you really seem to know your stuff!
Thank you. Each knife I make these days represents the culmination of 10 years of learning, and usually some experimentation that drives my craft forward.

There are a LOT of truly great 'Amateur' blade makers out there....
(and I use the word 'Amateur' simply because they don't make a living making custom blades, not because they aren't as gifted and educated as the 'Professional' knife makers!)
I prefer the term "Professional Hobbyist", or "Semi-Professional Bladesmith", as I think it accurately captures the part-time nature of a serious undertaking.

I never bother making 'Custom' blades, I make 'Working' tools...
I strive to make mine fit both definitions at the same time. I don't disdain art blades or collector knives, but I want my work to be well-used. Reported back on some time later is great, too, so I get a working understanding of how my blades hold up under different circumstances.

I like wrist lanyards.
Most people in North America HATE them and make fun of you if you use one!
The ABS tests require you to wear one, so a majority of ABS Smiths tend to equip their knives with a lanyard-capable design. I get your point completely, but usually leave it to customer request whether they want a lanyard hole or not.
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I don't know the technical terms for it,
But do you treat your thinner blades with two heat/quench zones?
Harder edges with more flexible spines?

If so, do you use clay slurry for it?

I've been trying different ways of doing that from time to time, everything from dropping point/edge in the quinch quickly and first, and then slowing down the quench for the backsides of the blades,
To using clay based slurry on the back of the blades to slow the quench...

How would you do it if you were going to give your blades two quench/hardness zones?
If you look at the elk-bone knife I posted, you'll see the quench line running from just behind the edge near the guard, up and left to a spot about 2 inches back from the tip. For most carbon steels (except the simple 10-series ones as well as homemade Shear steel and Tamahagane) clay is not required. I use a hot oil quench, Goddard's Goop actually, and quench edge-first, with the tip down. Once the cutting edge is below the Banite nose, I pull the blade out of the oil, then dip again for 3-5 seconds, remove, dip, repeat until the spine is well into black heat. The spine, for the most part, never gets quenched at all (except the tip), neither does the tang or hopefully, the complete tang/blade junction.

Without hardening these parts, there is far lower risk of breakage in an extreme-use situation... at worst, the cutting edge may crack, but the blade as a whole will not fail. In a survival situation, this is critical, as the remainder of the blade may still be of use even if the tip is lost, or a crack develops somewhere along the edge.

The use of clay is usually limited to low-hardenability steels, like 1095 and the homegrown stuff, where very low amounts of alloying material are present. The clay, applied thinly, actually speeds up the quench by providing more surface area, and disturbing the vapor jacket, than insulating anything. Cross-section alone will retain enough heat to create a difference between edge and spine. In Japanese blades, the curve is achieved by the edge cooling rapidly, pulling the blade forward, then the spine cooling, pulling the blade back again (which puts the edge under extreme tension). That's why a water quench is so risky, and must be done with a steel that won't over-harden in the first place. Some hand-crafted steels are so difficult to harden at all, that the clay is used to really push the material into a usable state for swords and such. I would never suggest it for most factory steels, such as the one I posted.
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One more thought for now about recycled materials as fodder for blades...

I don't like it, for 2 major reasons. First, I don't know for certain what it's made out of, and that affects how I heat treat the material. And I believe that Heat Treat is the most important part of making any blade, ever. Mystery steels may act like known steels, but unless you get it analyzed, there can be sneaker elements in there that just waste your time and energy trying to figure it out.

Second, and this goes especially for springs, I find more flaws in recycled steel than I do in factory-fresh. A truck spring is flexed how many times over its life? All those microfractures just waiting for a chance to come out and say "gotcha" at the most inopportune time, usually after I've spent time and fuel forging it out, grinding it clean, and even heat treating it, before I discover a flaw that makes the blade unsafe to use.

There is so much clean steel available, at a cheap price, that there is no good reason for a knifemaker to use scrap. That elk knife has maybe $2 of steel in it. I went through another $5 worth making sure my HT was up to snuff before finishing and selling the knife... something I do with all new steels, as they all have different characteristics. This stuff, the 1084, came with a data sheet, though, which greatly enhanced my ability to test and discover the correct method quickly and efficiently, and have confidence in my finished work.

Would I forge a blade out of leaf spring to whack shrubbery in the yard with? Sure. Would I take it into the wilderness, where my reliance on it is amplified, no. If it's going to matter, "stick with the good stuff" would be my advice.
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Some books I'd reccomend would be Goddard's "Joy of Knifemaking", "how to make Knives" by Loveless, and Alex Bealer's "Art of Blacksmithing" for starters. For more advanced treatment of the clay method for low-alloy steels, Walter Sorrells has produced a video for hamon-making on Japanese blades here: HOME ABOUT WALTER which I highly reccomend.

For clay, remember that it is used to harden that which doesn't want to harden... not to keep soft that which one doesn't want hard. Blade thickness and edge quenching, followed by a total tempering cycle (in an oven, multiple times) will give you the flexibility you seek better than an edge-quench and quick flame temper, or any application of clay.
Off the top of my head, no. I think most will warranty against defects in materials or manufacture, but if you want significant repairs, you'll likely end up paying something for it. Many factories will offer a sharpening service for a few bucks, but if you broke the clip, for instance, by trying to hang from it while scaling El Capitan, I doubt you can expect a freebie. :p

If you mean repair to the blade itself, in the case of chipping or tips coming off, I would send it to a craftsman who can deal with one-off problems like that. The manufacturers are really set up for mass production and marketing, not unique repairs.
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