Essential Working Knives
By Gary Zinn
My first pocket knife was a Christmas present when I was six years old. Over the six decades since, there has seldom been a day when I haven’t carried a knife in my pocket, or at least had one close at hand. This is not just a habit or fetish, because almost every day I use a knife for some purpose. I have worn out, broken, given away or lost more knives than many people have ever owned and I have learned some things along the way.
Currently, I have some two dozen working knives in my dresser drawer, on my workbench, in my fishing tackle box, etc. Yes, you’re right: this means that I have knives laying around that I don’t use very much. However, there are five knives that I either carry with me or frequently use. Two of these are multi-blade pocket knives, one is a fixed blade sheath knife and the last two are different sizes of a single-blade locking folder models. These are my essential working knives. Understand that the key theme of this article is the four distinct types of knives that I use frequently, while the specific brands and models of knives I feature are good, but not exclusive representatives of their type.
Everyday carry pocket knife
When I go out and about, a small pocket knife is as essential to me as my car keys and wallet. Currently, my “dress knife” is a Buck Companion model. This is a three inch (closed) knife with a 1-7/8" clip blade and a 1-1/2" pen blade, both hollow ground. This knife is compact and light in my pocket, with two useful blades that take a good edge and hold it well. The knife features 420 HC steel blades, nickel silver pins, liners and bolsters and is available with several different handle scale treatments. Mine has cherry “Dymondwood” scales. This knife as described costs $33. (All prices quoted in this article are from the Smoky Mountain Knife Works website, as of December 2012.)
Comments/alternatives: There are a variety of small pocket knives available, but in my experience a two-blade knife in the 2-3/4" to three inch size range is just about perfect for everyday carry and light use. Smaller knives do not have a very useful main blade length and strength and the handles are too small for a firm grip. Pocket knives with more than two blades or longer than three inches are a bit bulky for comfortable dress carry.
I used to carry a Case Peanut model, but a nephew fell madly in love with it and I gave it to him. That knife has a 2-7/8" closed length, with two blades almost identical to those of the Buck Companion. Both are great knives for everyday carry.
Serious work pocket knife
Over the years, I have used a good number of larger pocket knives with various blade numbers and patterns. For me, the three blade stockman knife is, functionally, as good as it gets. My newest one is a Buck Stockman, a 3-7/8" long (closed) knife with hollow ground blades, including a 2-1/2-inch clip blade and 1-3/4-inch sheepfoot and spey blades. The blade steel and other materials of this knife are identical to the Buck Companion. This is a generous handful of knife, with sturdy blades capable of handling any task that one has any business doing with a conventional folding knife. This knife is priced at $37.
Comments/alternatives: All through my teen years I worked for my brother-in-law. He was a farmer for whom knifes were serious tools. He held that the stockman was the only pattern of pocket knife worth carrying and he favored the Boker and Case brands. Boker, along with Hen & Rooster, still offer a limited number of quality stockman knives, while Case is the current king of the stockman, offering dozens of variations in length and handle materials. Schrade used to make a good stockman, but I will not vouch for the quality of the knives that are being marketed under the Schrade brand today.
Besides the Buck, I currently have a Case 3-5/8" and a Browning 3-3/8" stockman. (Zinn’s axiom: there is no such thing as having too many stockman knives.) Both are at least equal in quality to the Buck. However, Browning no longer markets that knife, which is a shame.
Fixed blade utility knife
Sometimes there is simply no substitute for a good fixed blade knife. Heavy cutting or hacking that would, sooner or later, damage most folding knifes is the prime example. Suppose that one is doing something that requires moving about and cutting something every few minutes. In this case, having a fixed blade knife at hand in a belt sheath is much more efficient than repeatedly manipulating a folding knife. This may be a personal quirk, but as a life-long outdoorsman I do not feel properly dressed for the wild unless I am wearing a sheath knife. Weird things can happen out there and you never know when you may really need that blade.
The fixed blade knife I currently keep close at hand is a Cold Steel Pendleton Lite Hunter. It features 4116 Krupp stainless steel with a molded-on polypropylene handle. The knife is 8-1/2" long overall with a 3-3/4" hollow ground drop point blade. It comes with a cordura belt sheath that swallows all but about two inches of the handle.
I have had this knife for several years and have used it hard. It has taken reasonable abuse in stride with no damage or excessive wear. It takes and holds a very good edge. The handle is well contoured and proportioned for my hand and is conducive to a firm, natural grip.
I am astounded that this knife is available for $20. (No, that’s not a typo.) Of course, with the molded plastic handle there is no expensive material and handwork involved in finishing it, but the knife is a steal at this price. Get one before Cold Steel’s accountant escapes from wherever they’re holding him captive.
Comments/alternatives: I know that any knife freak reading this is, well, freaking right now: “What about fine fixed blade knives?" You know, the kind of knife so beautiful that you are proud to display it next to the picture of your first born and is so perfectly designed and sharp that it can be used to field dress a deer with six strokes. Naturally, it comes with a hand made leather sheath.
Rest assured that I have such a knife (close anyway). However, the only time I carry it is when I go deer hunting. It’s a dedicated, special purpose knife that I couldn’t bear to subject to the abuse that I heap on the Pendleton Lite Hunter. Is everyone clear that I’m focusing on everyday work knives here and upscale, expensive knives are another subject entirely?
Given its functionality and price, the Pendleton Lite Hunter is about as good as it gets for a medium size, fixed blade knife that may get abused, neglected and ultimately broken or lost. However, if you want the ultimate beater knife, check out the Clipper by Mora of Sweden. For only $12 you get a tough and surprisingly sharp carbon steel knife, 8-1/2" long overall with a 4 inch drop point blade, a molded rubber handle and a rigid composition sheath. I have one of these that I use as a gardening tool.
Single blade locking folder
In the last quarter century or so, this type of knife has come to dominate the market, with hundreds of models and variations available. I own several, but the two that I keep closest at hand and use most frequently are made by SOG.
About a decade ago I bought a SOG Trident. This knife has a polished 3-¾" plain edge blade of AUS-8 stainless steel. The blade pattern is an upswept clip point, flat ground, with a fileworked thumb rest at the base of the blade spine. The “Digi-Grip” textured handle is molded from Zytel plastic and is five inches long. The blade lock is what SOG calls an “Arc-Lock” mechanism, with “S.A.T. opening technology” and thumb studs on both sides of the blade base to assist opening.
The majority of lock blade knives work with either a backspring or liner lock mechanism. Both of these are fine, but the Trident (along with several other SOG models) features a different setup. This takes a bit of explaining, so please bear with me.
Hold the closed knife in the right hand and nudge the thumb stud on the base of the blade. Once the blade pivots a bit, an assist spring will take over and snap the blade fully open. It will lock solidly with a distinct click. On the left (finger tip) side of the handle, there is an oblong hole that begins about one inch behind the blade pivot pin. This hole is about 3/8" long and has a thumb stud protruding just above the handle surface. To close the blade, use the right thumb to slide the stud back toward the butt of the handle; this disengages the spring loaded blade lock bar. Then close the blade with the left hand.
I like this system. It’s natural, sure and requires a minimum of manipulation to open or close the knife. The opening assist and blade lock/unlock mechanisms are buried deep in the knife handle, so they are well protected from damage. The unlock setup is designed for right handed users, but a lefty is not at any real disadvantage. The only difference in closing the knife left handed is to slide the lock stud back with the left index finger and close the blade with the right hand.
The Trident is a cutting beast. The blade is wicked sharp and holds an edge like a miser. When I got it, I used it about twice as much as I expected to, before I had to resharpen it and then it took only a few minutes of stroking across a set of crock sticks to bring the edge back. Excellent!
My one criticism of the design concerns ergonomics. The handle is only 7/16-inch wide and is virtually slab sided. This makes it comfortable for pocket carry, but in use it doesn’t fill even my medium size hand very well. A couple of times I have used the knife for extended sessions of hard cutting and my hand began to tire and cramp after about fifteen minutes. It is what it is.
Despite the less than ideal handle design, I like the Trident so much that I doubled down and also bought the Mini Trident. Ignore the “mini” designation; this is a midsize knife with a 3-1/8" blade in a four inch handle. Other than the size, it’s identical to its bigger brother. The big Trident lives in the glove compartment of my SUV, while I keep the Mini in my top dresser drawer, so I know exactly where to find it anytime I want to use it. Prices are $77 and $50 for the Trident and Mini, respectively. Not bad for really good work knives of this type.
Comments/alternatives: With so many brands, models and variations of locking folders on the market, it’s really impossible to cover alternatives in a specific and comprehensive manner. The best I can do, without writing a whole thesis, is to caution that there are junk knives out there. Their market price, and often an unfamiliar brand name, will reveal them. If you see a medium or large size locking folder selling for (say) $20 or less under the Zombie Slasher brand name, it’s junk. Save your twenty dollar bill, wait until you have another one to keep it company, and then buy a decent knife from an established maker with a reputation to maintain.
There are three “features” routinely being built into or added onto today’s locking folder knives that leave me cold. In my opinion, each of these is irrelevant at best and counterproductive at worst.
First, let’s get rid of those horrible belt/pocket clips. They’re ugly. They look exactly like what they are, something that is screwed on, and to my eye they detract from the appearance of a knife. This may seem a trivial gripe, but it’s how I feel. They get in the way. When using the knife, the clip either digs into the palm of the hand or keeps the fingers from resting firmly on the knife handle, depending on the side of the handle on which the clip is mounted. This is distracting and can get downright uncomfortable if one uses the knife for very long. If you depend on a clip to hold a knife firmly on your belt or in the edge of a pocket, sooner or later you will lose it. (Guess how I know this.) When I buy a knife with a clip, I remove it and throw it away; then I carry the knife deep in a pocket or in a belt pouch. (Some of us on the G&S Online staff have used folding knives with waist band clips for years and like them. Tastes vary. -Editor.)
Second, don’t try to sell me a partly serrated, partly plain-edge blade. To me, such a blade is neither fish nor fowl. Consider a knife with a five inch blade, with the back half serrated and the front half plain-edged. What do we have? Two 2-1/2" blades that don’t play well together. If we try to cut something with a full stroke, we start out by ripping it and then make an awkward transition to a smooth cut. When the cutting is done, the result will be messy. If we want to use either part of the blade alone, we end up taking short, inefficient strokes. I have a couple if these hybrid-edged knives laying around somewhere. With luck, I’ll either lose them or be able to give them to someone I don’t like. If you really need to rip something (rope, webbing and old carpet are good candidates), get a knife with a fully serrated blade and go for it. (I have a couple of fully serrated fixed blades that I use for such things.) Otherwise, my advise is to stick with plain edge blades for everyday work knives.
Third, do we really need all those exotic blade patterns? The basic clip and drop point patterns have been around forever for a reason: they are versatile and effective. Thankfully, variations of these two workhorse patterns still dominate the offerings in all types of knives. However, there is a bewildering array of Ramboesque blade patterns being marketed. I have no use for most of them, though I can see some merit in the tanto, spear point and Wharncliffe patterns. Ultimately, if I encounter a cutting chore I can’t handle with a good clip or drop point blade, then I reach for a hatchet, machete or saw.
In the end, the choice of any knife is a matter of personal needs and preferences. I would not insist that the specific knives I have featured are the best of their kind for everyone. However, perhaps the knowledge and experience I have shared will give the reader some insights into what attributes to look for in a good working knife.
Copyright 2012, 2015 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.