Monday, March 28, 2011

The Three Most Useful Knives You Can Own: The Cheap

One of the points of emphasis of this blog is practicality (See? Right there in the title). In realistic terms, opracical often means cheap. This is especially true for knives: if you wanted, you could easily drop hundreds or thousands of dollars on wondrously engineered, precision honed uberblades from companies like Chris Reeve, Shun, or William-Henry. After doing so, you would probably proceed to leave your new investment in its display box for the rest of time, as actually using it would hurt the value.

First and foremost, knives are a tool, just like a hammer or a saw. They are meant to be used and abused. Spending a ton of money a single knife is a guaranteed way to forget that fact. This isn’t to say that expensive knives aren’t great knives (with a few notable exceptions), but you are likely to get a lot more use out of a cheaper knife.

That said, don’t rush out to the gas station, grab the $5 China special, and trust your life to it. Going cheap on a knife means you better be a lot more diligent about what you pick.

The best dirt-cheap fixed blade

Frost Mora
Ok, so it looks boring. And it’s kind of small. But Frost Moras offer a lot of value for practically nothing. First, the Mora uses an actual tool steel hardened to RC 59-60, for its edge, sandwiched between softer steels for flexibility and toughness. Second, the simple design is surprisingly tough: plenty of serious bushcraft type guys swear by it, and they use their knives for everything. In fact, from personal experience, my Mora has routinely outperformed the majority of pricier knives in edge retention and toughness (Cold Steel, looking at you.) Best part? It costs 12 bucks.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Three Most Useful Knives You Will Ever Own: The Paring Knife

A paring knife doesn’t spring to mind as the most useful kitchen knife, and to be perfectly honest, it probably doesn’t get as much use as a mainstay like the classic 8-inch chef’s knife. However, given a choice, I would personally prefer to have a high-quality paring knife and a merely decent chef’s knife, rather than the other way around. The reason? A paring knife usually fills a niche that most other knives don’t. If you cook at all, you probably have at least three knives: a French-style chef’s knife, a 6 inch utility, and 2 inch paring knife. Because of their size, the chef’s and the utility serve a lot of the same functions, like slicing meet or dicing vegetables. What they don’t do, however, is intricate work. Ever try to devein a shrimp with a chef’s knife? How about peel a potato? You wouldn’t (I hope), because you would probably end up skewering yourself or butchering the food.
It's not the size of the boat, it's the motion of the ocean

Here’s what to look for:

Blade style: Get a spearpoint. This classic style works in almost any situation, while less-common blade profiles like a sheep’s-foot generally do one thing well, and everything else mediocre. Serrated is dumb.
Top: Spearpoint
Middle: Sheepsfoot
Bottom: Crazy moon knife

Blade steel: A good steel is important in any knife, but it is doubly true for a paring knife. Given the tight space and intricate work you are going to be doing with the paring knife, a dull blade that will catch or slide on the food you’re working with can easily end up with a trip to the emergency room. 440C or above, no exceptions.

Guard: The guard is the point just between the edge and the handle, and protects your hand from running under the blade. This is somewhat counter-intuitive, but a thinner guard works better in a paring knife, as you can fully take advantage of the limited cutting area- as long as the guard extends past your finder and you pay attention, you should be safe enough.
Living on the edge with no guard

Get: Any of the brands I mentioned in this post will work great, but I would lean toward the mid-range or higher.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The 3 Most Useful Knives You Will Ever Own

There’s a tendency among the “knife community” (weird that is to say) to focus on the latest super steel, craziest tactical feature, or coolest-looking blade profile and proclaim that the new hotness- everything else is now useless. We tend to lose sight of the fact that, for most of us, we don’t need the latest or greatest, don’t want a massive collection, and we aren’t willing to spend $100+ for a knife that we may rarely use. With that in mind, this post is about the three knives that I guarantee you will use over and over again, and some great (affordable) examples of them.

1.      A good multitool: This first knife isn’t really a knife at all, per se. Rather, it’s a toolbox in a small metal handle. The knife is a big part of what makes this so useful, but it’s the assortment of other tools that really give this utility. There is a reason survival experts, craftsmen, and regular joes all tend to carry these things- you will find them handy every day. 
Bear Grylls could survive on Mars with this

What to look for:

A decent assortment of tools, but not every tool under the sun.
At one point, I bought a SwissChamp, the Swiss Army Knife that includes almost every tool they offer. More tools=better knife, right? Well, the truth of the matter is I used that knife maybe twice- the thing was so heavy and ridiculous looking that I would just leave it on my dresser in the morning and grab my Leatherman Squirt instead. 

A good blade: The knife on your multitool is going to see the most use. Make sure to choose one with at least a 440C steel blade.

Ergonomics: Any tool with sharp edges or too much heft will just be uncomfortable (see the SwissChamp). Get one that fits your hand.  

Great multitools: Leatherman Wave, Victorinox SwissTool Spirit

One quick note: I have to give a huge thumbs down to the Gerber line of multitools. Plenty of people swear by them, but I have literally had the pliers heads snap off from too much torque. I think Gerber has a decent warranty, but that is still a hassle that no one wants to deal with.

```` Next: The backbone of your kitchen 

Kitchen Knives for Any Budget: 4 Great brands

Budget: Forschner
If you’re a college student, a casual cook, or someone who just doesn’t want to budget for a pricy set of kitchen knives, you can still find a great set of knives at a price that is more than reasonable. The Forschner line of knives is produced by Victorinox, the folks behind the timeless Swiss Army knives (Wenger, which was the other maker of Swiss Army knives, was acquired by Victorinox in 2005- as a general rule, Victorinox Swiss Army stuff is higher quality). Forschner knives use a premium quality steel that is both tough (won’t chip or break) and easy to sharpen and hone. Best of all, a decent set shouldn’t set you back more than $100, and their chef’s knives can go on sale for $25. One thing that is a little lacking is the handle material in most of their knives, which is basically compressed plastic- there’s no real loss in utility, but it just feels cheap.

Mid-range: Wusthof Classic or Henckel’s Twin
Both Henckel’s and Wusthof make mid-range knives that perform excellently. While these are (significantly) more pricy than Forschner knives, they offer the added benefit of a traditional three-rivet design in the handle, excellent warranties, and excellent blade steel in most of their lines. I personally own the Wusthof Classic line, which uses “X50CrMo15”, which is incomprehensible to me, but in practice performs like 440C, a premium cutlery steel found in mid-range pocket knives that is known for being tough and offering decent edge retention (ability to stay sharp).  Henckel’s doesn’t provide a fancy name for its blade steel, but it again performs similarly to 440C. One caveat- if you purchase Henckel’s, stick with the TWIN (Zwilling) line (you’ll know by the two stick figure logo rather than the lone stick figure).

Premium: Shun Ken Onion
If you drive a Porsche and need a knife set to complement your opulent lifestyle, get some Shuns. Okay, this is slightly exaggerated, but the fact is Shun knives do not come cheap. The Ken Onion chef knife, probably the best chef knife I have ever held apart from a few custom works, can run between 220-300 bucks. You get what you pay for, however: all of the Shuns have a unique bevel in the handle that provides superior ergonomics, and use VG10 blade steel sandwiched between softer, but more durable, 410, which makes for a blade that won’t chip or break under normal use, and holds its edge indefinitely. Plus, it has a cool hamon, a Japanese design along the edge that distinguishes the steel layers.
Opulence. I has it.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Folding Knife Locks

The Basics: Folding Knife locks

Tension locks
Bleh. This is the type of lock you can find in your run of the mill Swiss Army knife. If you aren’t going to be doing anything too serious or that requires a lot of force, this style of lock is fine. Anything more, though, and you will definitely want a real lock.

The Lockback
An oldie but a goodie. The lockback is one of the oldest locking mechanisms, and was really popularized by the Buck 110, one of the most famous folding knives ever. Lockbacks offer premium security, with a mechanism that won’t wear down with repeated use. One major downside is how difficult it is to close a lockback knife one handed- with certain knives, like much of Spyderco’s line, this is easier but still dangerous.

Liner lock
Another very popular style, the liner lock relies on a scale of metal between the handle scales to keep the knife locked open. For one handed open and closing it doesn’t get much easier than this. One major downside is that liner-locks do tend to fail more often than framelocks or lockbacks, and repeated use can wear down the metal scale of the lock, eventually rendering it useless. At that point, unless you purchased from a company that guarantees your knife for life, you’re pretty much screwed.

This is a beefier version of the liner-lock, with the locking scale integrated into the frame of the handle itself. The most famous, and best, example of this is the Sebenza by Chris Reeve (which is also one of the best production folders on the planet). A framelock will generally be tougher than a liner, and easier to open and close then a lockback, but the usual caveat of repeated use wearing down the locking mechanism still applies here (although it would take significantly longer than a liner lock).

Axis Lock
Benchmade pioneered this style of lock, which uses a spring-mounted bar to hold the knife in place. Having handled quite a few of these over the years, this is by far the easiest locking mechanism to engage and disengage, one-handed or two handed. It is also very strong- I haven’t heard many accounts of the lock itself failing, except where there were some issues with the metal itself. There are two drawbacks to this style, however- first, the spring used to hold the bar in place gets loose over time, which makes the lock easier to (accidentally) disengage. Second, if you are using the knife in extremely tight spaces, the locking mechanism can get snagged and cause the blade to accidentally close.

The Basics: Fixed blades

To start off, we should take a look at a basic breakdown of the two main types of knives: fixed and folding knives.

Fixed blades:
Fixed knives are the backbone of any kitchen, toolbox, camping trip, bug out bag, what have you. Generally speaking, they come in a variety of sizes and styles, some more useful than others. Given the wide variety of applications, what you should look for vary based on what you want to use it for. However, there are a couple universal characteristics of a good fixed blade.

Tang: The tang of a knife refers to how far the actual steel runs through the handle. Generally speaking, you never want less than a full tang. A half-tang or ¾ can be dangerous, as any sort of heavy use can cause the steel of the knife to crack or shatter the grip.

Grip: Something grippy but not sticky. You don’t want a knife that has too smooth of a grip, unless you enjoy unintended surgery. You also don’t want something sticky because sometimes you have to let go of a knife quickly, for safety or other reasons- a sticky grip makes this much harder. A few good choices for grip material: paracord, G10, stabilized wood, micarta, stacked leather. Bad: RUBBER, plain steel (sometimes), stingray skin (unless you’re a samurai that will be bathing in the blood of your enemies).

Blade: Again, this is contextual. There are dozens of blade shapes, all designed to excel at certain tasks. For pure utility, a drop point, clip point, or straight-back work best. Tantos, with squared-off straight points, are useful for puncturing, and that’s it. In a future post, I’ll dig in to why tantos are generally inferior.

Edge: Straight or serrated. Pick one, and stick with it. A recent trend among knifemakers has been to combine the two on a single edge- in most cases, this is not the best idea. Here’s why: most practical fixed knife blades range from 3-6 inches, with the vast majority hovering around 4 or 5. With such a limited length, you need every bit of the blade to take advantage of an edge style. An inch of serration is all but useless, unless you enjoy resetting your cutting motion 600 times to get through that piece of rope.

First Post!

Exciting! In this blog I will dispense some practical knowledge regarding knives, knifemaking, knife laws, essentially anything related to one of the most useful tools you can own- the almighty knife!