The Things We Carry
The Cutting Edge Knives in Our Lives
By Tamia Nelson
February 17, 2004
Down the river of time, since long before
men and women were recognizably human, we've relied on edged tools, and
the knife is the most versatile tool of all. It can carve, peel, slice,
chop, hack, and more. We'll never know who made the first knife, but his
(or her) legacy still lives on in our homes. For my part, I'd be lost
without the knives hanging on the wall in my kitchen, and you don't have
to be a foodie to
admire the skill with which a chef wields the tools of his trade. Just
watch him slice an onion, carve a roast, peel an apple, or filet a salmon.
It's a fascinating choreography performance art fused with
function. His knives aren't so much tools as they are living extensions of
his hand, and he's on intimate terms with each and every blade in his
I can't claim to be a chef, but as a one-time professional cook and
life-long enthusiastic amateur, I too appreciate the utility of a good,
sharp knife. Of course the kitchen isn't the only place where I use
knives. I carry one of the ubiquitous Swiss Army knives in my pocket every
waking moment of my day, reaching for it almost without thought anytime I
need to do a job my fingers can't manage on their own sharpening a
pencil to make a sketch, say, or pulling a staple from a sheaf of
papers, or slicing through the tape on a package, or adjusting the stop
screw on the derailleur of my mountain bike.
That's not all. A more robust blade accompanies me whenever I venture
onto the water or into the woods. I'd no more go paddling without a blade
than I'd go walking without my
wellies. In fact, I almost always take more than one knife with me. On
the water, I carry a utility knife on my belt or clipped to my life vest.
Then there's the razor-sharp penknife in my first aid
kit, and the Currey Bo'sun rigging knife in my ditty
bag. If fish are on the menu, I tuck a long, thin filleting knife into
pack. And I always have a simple, sturdy sheath knife the sort
usually described in the catalogs as a "hunting knife" in my
Too much of a good thing? Perhaps. But I don't think so. A professional
chef will have six or more blades in his battery, and he'll find a use for
each one. Paddlers may not have to flute a mushroom or butterfly a chicken
breast very often, but they, too, need to match their tools to the job at
hand. Without the right knife, many jobs around camp become drudgery,
chores to get through as quickly as possible, rather than something to be
enjoyed. And in a hard chance, the right knife at the right place can be a
life-saver. The paddler's world is held together with rope and
cord. But rope isn't
always a paddler's best friend. If you ever find yourself pinned
between a rope and a hard place, you'll be mighty glad that you have a
sharp blade within easy reach.
Sometimes danger appears where you least expect it. Discarded
high-tensile-strength monofilament and microfilament fishing lines
hang from bridges and trees, trailing treble-hook lures, each one ready to
snag an unwary paddler's clothing or her face. Nor are such hazards
confined to inland waterways. Lost and jettisoned nets drift ceaselessly
through the world's
coastal waters, waiting their chance to entangle an unlucky kayaker.
Kelp forests can be deadly, too.
You get the point, I'm sure. A knife is a welcome ally in time of need,
and no paddler's kit is complete without one. But which knife? Even
a quick browse through the catalogs will reveal a confusing array of
competing choices. Let's see if we can sort them out. To begin with,
there's the fundamental question: how do you
Know When to Fold 'Em?
Some paddlers prefer folding knives, also known as "folders." Others
opt for fixed-blades, or sheath knives. Allegiances are often deeply-felt.
It's a perennial source of discord among paddling's hot-stove league,
almost equaling the surprising heat and bitterness of the old hunting-camp
arguments about the best deer rifle. Me? I take the easy way out. I own
In a canoe, I wear a sheath knife on my belt. Always. Even when the
water's cold or the
weather's chilly. (I wear pants over my wetsuit. And the pants are
held up with a belt.) So my knife stays with me if I take off my PFD to scout a
portage or answer
nature's call. When it's needed, it comes out of its sheath ready for
duty, with a minimum of fumbling and fussiness. I like that.
But there's no denying that a sheath knife can be a pain in the butt
when you're in a kayak. It can also hang up on your back-brace or cockpit
lip, making wet exits more exciting than they need to be. Moreover, a belt
knife is always on the wrong side of your spray skirt. What's the
solution? Lash your sheath knife to your life jacket, or get a folder and
clip it into a jacket pocket. If you choose the first alternative, buy a
jacket with the necessary lash tabs already stitched in place. Why is this
important? Life jackets
aren't do-it-yourself items. In fact, any aftermarket modifications to
a PFD invalidate its certification. So if you tailor your life jacket to
take a knife and then go boating on patrolled waters, you're courting a
warning or a fine. Lastly, never forget that when you wear a sheath
knife on your jacket, the blade is often pointing right at your neck (or
gut). You'll want to be sure that the sheath is bomb-proof. You're betting
your life that it is.
I'm not a betting girl. So I carry a folder in a kayak. But not just
any folder. It has to have a thumb-stud, a blade-lock, and a short
lanyard. The stud makes it possible to open the blade with one hand.
(You'd better practice this first, however. Be prepared for a sore thumb,
too.) The blade-lock saves me from having to learn base-nine arithmetic.
And the lanyard keeps the knife from swimming away on its own. 'Nuff said?
Once you've decided when to fold 'em, you'd better think about
Getting a Good Fit
Remember the professional chef at his cutting-board? A good knife
should be an extension of your hand. It has to fit, in other words. So try
it on for size before you buy it, or order from a catalog store that
allows you to return undamaged items. Here are some questions to ask
yourself as you heft your new blade. Is the grip too big? Too small? Or is
it just right? If it is, good. But that's only the beginning. Is it hard
to keep hold of even when it's dry? Or does it have sharp edges in all the
wrong places? That's not so good. The grip isn't supposed to have a
cutting edge. Nor should it leave you holding air.
What about the sheath? Is it sturdy enough to keep the real cutting
edge where it belongs? Does it hold the knife securely, yet release it
easily? If it does, you're in luck. If it's a folder, of course, it won't
need a sheath, but you'll have to ask some other questions. Does it open
easily yet not too easily? Can you put the blade into play
with just one hand? And is the blade-lock secure? If you value your
fingers, it'd better be.
Lastly, close your eyes and ask yourself if the knife feels good in
your hand. This is a judgment call, but it's probably the most important
question of all. You don't want your knife to feel awkward or unbalanced.
Have you found the perfect fit? Then it's time to test
The Mettle of the Blade
That should be "metal," of course. A good fit is only the start.
There's more to a knife than the grip. It's the edge that does the work.
So steel yourself to do more than scratch the surface. Most blades come in
one of three flavors: plain-John stainless steel, carbon steel, or
high-carbon stainless. Plain-John stainless is a natural for any knife
that's likely to get wet, but it's not the easiest material to sharpen.
Carbon steel takes an edge readily, but needs to be touched up often and
protected from damp, particularly salty damp. High-carbon stainless
borrows something from both camps. On the one hand, it's quick and easy to
sharpen. On the other, it's slow to rust.
It sounds like a happy marriage, and it is. When I shop for a knife
now, I look for a high-carbon stainless steel blade. This wasn't always
the case. I used to be a carbon-steel fan, taking the touch-ups and the
rust in stride. I told myself it was a small price to pay for a good edge.
Then I got a set of Henckels Professional Friodur® chef's knives.
I've never looked back. I only wish Henckels made knives for paddlers.
Blade cosmetics are something else. Black Teflon® coatings and
Parkerized finishes are the hallmarks of another profession, one very far
removed from the kitchen. Unless you're a member of the Special Boat
Service of the Royal Marines, or some other elite combat force, you can
probably pass them up without regret.
Material matters, of course, but what really counts is
The Cutting Edge
The catalogs are full of knives in all shapes and sizes. Fancy a Gurkha
kukri, with its recurved blade and enigmatic triune cut-out? You
can have one. Or how about a Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife? No problem.
(If your local laws allow it, that is.) Still, such exotica have little
place in the paddler's world. For most jobs, and most boaters, a straight,
single-edged blade is just what the cutler ordered. A case can be
made for a double-edged blade as a boat knife, however. Many years ago,
standing in a river in northern Ontario, with waves breaking over his
head, Farwell found himself sawing frantically away at a rope with the
blunt back of a single-edged blade. It's a moment he doesn't care to
revisit. But double-edged blades aren't for everyone. The two sharp edges
also double the risk of accidental injury. To make matters worse,
double-edged knives are now classed as prohibited weapons in many places.
This isn't a great hardship. Most of us will find a single-edged blade
perfectly adequate. And if our chosen knife also has a blunt "sheep's
foot" point like the point on traditional rigger's knives so
much the better. It will be safer still.
Happily, there is a way to have the best of both worlds, or near enough
as makes no difference. Many knives intended for divers and watermen have
a serrated or saw-tooth edge on the back, and there's no denying that such
edges make short work of rope and webbing. They'll even cut through tough
fiberglass laminates. Despite this, when I encountered my first serrated
blade it wasn't love at first sight. I don't like any knife that I can't
sharpen, and touching up serrated edges demands skills I don't have. If
this doesn't bother you and I have a serrated bread knife I've been
using for years without retouching, so it's certainly not an everyday
chore you could do a lot worse than to get a knife with a serrated
back or partially serrated edge.
Let's see, now. Design. Fit. Material. Edge. What's left? Only
Long and Short of Things
Kukris and fighting knives notwithstanding, a working knife
needn't be large. A three-inch blade is enough for many jobs. Twice that
will do anything short of clearing brush and felling trees. Since you
probably won't be tackling either of those jobs, anyway, leave the Ka-Bars
and Bowies in the display case when you hit the trail. Think of the weight
Let's cut right to the heart of the matter. Your knife should fit you
like a tailored suit. And once you've found a knife that fits, make sure
it never leaves your side. A good blade is more than just another tool.
It's your cutting edge.
Next week: Tamia shows you how to keep all your blades
Copyright © 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights