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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Things We Carry

The Cutting Edge — Beyond Looking Sharp

By Tamia Nelson

March 23, 2004

On the day before my tenth birthday, I was walking home from the last Scout meeting of the year, matching strides with thirteen-year-old Lynn, a neighbor of mine in the little farm town where I grew up. Despite the difference in our ages, Lynn and I had become buddies, and I was proud to have such a good friend among the "big girls." As we walked down the narrow street, I burbled on about one thing and another, always returning to campfire cookery and knife safety — the topics at the meeting we'd just attended. And then, for what must have been the hundredth time, I asked Lynn if I could hold her knife, a Kamp King with four blades and a lanyard shackle.

Smiling at this now familiar request, Lynn fished around in her skirt pocket for the knife. She placed it in my hand, and I savored the moment, admiring the black Staglon grip and the polished steel trademark badge. Then I handed the knife back, hoping I wouldn't have long to wait before I had a knife of my own.

Soon we'd arrived at Lynn's house. With her left hand already on the doorknob, Lynn turned to me and reached into her pocket again. When her right hand emerged, it held the Kamp King. "I want you to have this," she said, folding my fingers around the precious knife. Before I could reply, she'd gone inside.

I felt ten feet tall. As I hurried down the street toward my house, I examined the Kamp King with an owner's pride. The knife blade came first. It opened smoothly on a well-oiled hinge. I stopped walking for a minute while I marvelled at the gleaming blade. Then I closed the knife carefully and inspected each remaining tool in turn — the awl, the can opener, and the bottle opener that did double duty as a screwdriver. A knife of my own! I closed the last blade, put the Kamp King in the pocket of my skirt, and sprinted down the street. As soon as I got home I ran up the stairs to my bedroom, where I lost no time in making a lanyard from a length of leather shoelace. When I'd finished, I knew I was ready for any adventure fate might throw my way.

In the years that followed, I acquired other knives, but the Kamp King always enjoyed pride of place. It served me well, and it taught me many lessons: how to sharpen a blade, for one thing, and why sharp edges are important. I let the blade get dull once, and the knife slipped while I was slicing an onion for a campfire stew. I still have the scar. From that day forward, I always carried a sharpening stone in my cook kit. At first, I used a two-grit, circular Carborundum "axe-stone." Later, I replaced it with a small diamond-grit slipstone. The slipstone is lighter and handier — it can be used dry, for one thing — though the axe-stone still goes along on the rare occasions when I take an axe into the backcountry.


Do you have a favorite knife? If you do, be sure to take good care of it. A knife can serve several generations of owners, but only if you…

Keep It Clean

Steel rusts. Not even stainless steel is immune. And that's not all. Does your knife have a grip made of wooden scales or leather rings? Then rot's your enemy, too. And what about the leather sheath?

There's no defeating entropy. Rust and rot will always win in the end. But that doesn't mean you have to give up without a fight. Keeping your knife clean and dry will go a long way. When you come in from the cold, take your knife out of its sheath — if it's a folder, just open it up — and let any condensation evaporate. Then wipe the blade with a clean, dry rag, working from spine to edge to minimize the risk that you'll cut yourself. Old t-shirts make great rags, as do cotton diapers. (Use a toothbrush to scrub grit out of the hinge pins and liners of folding knives.) Now is the time to touch up any edge that's not as sharp as it should be. Once that's done, coat each blade with a thin film of grease. Petroleum jelly works fine, and it's a lot cheaper than most proprietary anti-corrosion greases. And don't forget to put a drop of machine oil on the hinges of a folder.

A knife that's seen hard use will need a bit more attention. Salt's not kind to steel, so if you've been paddling in salt water or you've gotten blood on the blade while gutting fish or butchering game, rinse it off as soon as possible. Sweat is salty, too. Knives used in hot weather also benefit from a rinse. (Folders have lots of nooks and crannies to trap salt and moisture. That's why I prefer fixed-blade knives for cooking and camp chores.) If the sheath is dirty or salty, be sure to rinse it off, as well, even if it's made of a synthetic material.

Are you in a hurry to put your gear away after a trip? A hair-dryer on a low setting will dry any knife in just a few minutes. Don't use heat to dry a leather sheath, though. And be sure to renew the dressing on the sheath periodically. I use Sno-Seal®. It doesn't seem to soften leather, and since a floppy sheath is nearly useless, this is a Very Good Thing. Are you retiring a knife, or putting it away for several months? Then beware. Some of the agents used in tanning leather are hydroscopic — they attract and hold moisture. So it's best not to store a knife in a leather sheath for long periods of time. If you can't find another safe storage container, however, don't despair. Just inspect the blade regularly. Light surface rust can be removed with fine steel wool and Flitz®. But don't wait too long. Once rust starts to eat into the fabric of a blade, there's no easy way to restore it.

If well cared for, knives seldom wear out, but sheaths do. Is your sheath showing its age? You may be able to purchase a replacement from the knife's maker. If not, look through the catalogs of dealers in military surplus. They usually have a good selection of sheathes. With luck, you'll find one that fits. A temporary blade-guard can be made from heavy cardboard or thin wood, but don't rely on such stop-gaps any longer than you have to — and never carry a knife on your person without a proper sheath.

Grips can be a problem. Plastic, plastic-impregnated wood, and sintered metal require little maintenance beyond an occasional rubdown. Wood and leather need more care. Don't overdo the TLC, however. I find that the oil from my hands usually keeps wood in good condition, and I just varnish leather occasionally. (Use only a good quality spar varnish — and plan on giving the newly varnished grip a day or two to dry.) That seems to do the trick. I don't know what I'd do with knives having horn or bone grips. I don't own any. But I think they might prove rather fragile, in any case.

No knife will last long if it's misused, of course. Knives are first and foremost cutting tools. While the hefty blades of some "survival" knives can split wood, a knife isn't an axe. Nor is it a pry bar or a hammer. Folders are particularly vulnerable to damage. And there's more at stake than the price of a new knife. A shattered blade can do a lot of harm to the hand that wields it. Whenever you use a knife, therefore, ask yourself…

Is It Safe?

Here are the Ten Commandments of Knife Safety:

  • ALWAYS carry your knife so that the point cannot be driven into you if you capsize or stumble. You want your medical guide to stay in your pack, don't you?

  • ALWAYS lock a folder's blade before using it. Pen knives and jackknives don't have locks. Be especially careful with these. And be sure to keep your fingers out of the way when you close the blade.

  • ALWAYS keep a firm grip on your knife.

  • ALWAYS keep your eye on the edge and point. Think before you move, and then move deliberately.

  • ALWAYS cut away from you. NEVER cut toward another person.

  • NEVER put your knife down down on a canoe's gunwale, a kayak's deck, a rock, or a chair — or anyplace else where it might fall or pose a hazard.

  • NEVER try to catch a falling knife. Wait till it hits the ground before retrieving it. If you drop your knife while you're on the water, it may well be the last time you see it. Use a lanyard.

  • NEVER trust any sheath completely.

  • NEVER permit young children to use knives without close supervision.

  • NEVER throw a knife unless it's designed for that purpose. And leave the stage tricks to Bill the Butcher.

It's not hard to see the moral of the story, is it? Take care of your knife, and it will take care of you — for a very long time. My Kamp King was my constant companion for many years. Then, on the day my youngest brother turned ten, I passed it on to him. He'd been asking to hold it since he was eight. Now it was his.

I'll never forget the look in his eyes as he opened each blade in turn, his face a study in pride and concentration. "There are many knives like this," I told him after a few minutes had passed. "But this one is yours. Be sure you take good care of it."

My brother was too happy to speak. He only smiled. That was enough, though. I knew he understood.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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