Scott Robertson

Selecting Knives

By: Posted On: 2013-07-01

This is part one of a three part series written by Jon Melick in Quincy MA who is an Eagle Scout, Vigil in the Order of Arrow, and Assistant Scoutmater with Troop 20. I would like to personally thank him for allowing us to republish his "Wood Tools" document.

Over the years, I have seen many publications which tell the reader how to use a knife, axe or hatchet, or saw; but I have not seen very many publications which help the reader select which one to use in the first place. This guide is intended to assist anyone who is interesting in acquiring one or more of these woods tools for personal use. Each section is divided into three areas: “Leave ‘em Home”, for tools which are of little or no use and which can be hazardous; “Limited Use”, for tools which have some usefulness, but which are not ideal (especially for young people), and “Bring Them”, for tools which are best suited for use. This guide is addressed to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts; but the suggestions in it can be used by anyone.


“Leave ‘em Home”

Often, the first knife a Scout buys is an inexpensive one, often an “imitation” Swiss Army knife. However, these imitations are almost always made of poor-quality steel. They dull quickly and require almost constant sharpening; and many of their “extras”, such as saws, are almost useless. I have a few of these knives; but I use them only for introductory lessons in which the Scouts practice carving bars of soap, since their dullness helps prevent injury. Using them to cut wood is dangerous, since a dull knife is much more likely to slip and cause injury. Also popular are knives with scalloped blades. These should be avoided, since although they may look “cool”, it is almost impossible to sharpen the scalloped areas of the blade.

I regret to say that I am including current-issue Boy Scout and Girl Scout knives here. They seem to be made with the goal of keeping the price down and avoiding rust; but quality has been sacrificed in the process. I bought a current-issue knife in 2009; but after a total of 10 minutes of use it was already dull, and the blade was already wobbling noticeably. Its Girl Scout counterpart does not appear to be any better.

Another knife to avoid is what I call the “glove compartment” knife. Typically, these are about two inches long, and feature a small knife blade and a pair of scissors. They are almost useless in the woods; so if you have one, keep it in the glove compartment of your car, in case you need a knife when driving and aren’t carrying your regular knife.

“Limited Use”

Included here are single-blade knives, both folding and fixed. Many, including several in my collection, are of high-quality steel and hold an edge well; but these knives have only one use, and the temptation to use them as a prying tool, screwdriver or can opener can result in a blade that is dented, bent or broken beyond use. The larger single-blade knives are also too large for most practical uses in the woods, especially for young people. “Whittling knives” can be excellent tools for the serious woodcarver; but they are of little practical use otherwise, and should not be the primary knife brought to a camping trip (and in 2012, I noticed that the current Boy Scout whittling knife now suffers from the same lack of quality as does its standard counterpart). On top of that, many Scout councils have restrictions on the type and size of knives permitted to its Scouts.

“Multi-tools”, like the Leatherman, can be useful in the woods; but not every Scout needs one. One per patrol is sufficient. These multi-tools have knives in them; but it is far better to have a knife which is designed as such.

“Bring Them”

There is very little that a Scout needs to do, with a knife, in the woods, which cannot be done by what is often called a “jackknife” or “pocket knife”. There are many different kinds of pocket knives, many different brands, many different sources, and many levels of quality among those available; so anyone who wants to buy a pocket knife should choose carefully.

Many purchasers of knives are tempted to buy one with a large selection of extra features such as scissors, magnifying glasses, cork screws and so on. However, many of these extra features are unnecessary, if not almost useless; and the larger knives of this type can be clumsy to use, especially if the user’s hand is small. The functions which these extra features perform will often be done better with a tool designed for that purpose, or rarely if ever done at all in the woods. The official Boy Scout and Girl Scout knives, past and present, as well as many traditional pocket knives, feature a knife blade, screwdriver, can opener, bottle opener and leather punch; and this is all that is really needed by most people.

If you do want a knife with extra features, keep the number to a minimum. My own Swiss Army knife has, in addition to the above items, a small knife blade, a Phillips head screwdriver and a bootlace hook; and I find all of these useful. The knife has other features, but I have them on my knife only because I could not find a knife which includes what I want but does without these extras. Two companies, Victorinox and Wenger, make Swiss Army knives; and the quality of both kinds of knives is excellent throughout their product lines.

It is very difficult, nowadays, to find a pocket knife which is NOT a Swiss Army knife. Most knife display cases seem to offer endless varieties of single-blade knives, often with serrated edges, with overly fancy handles. I have found that online auction services, such as eBay, and online woods tools distributors are an excellent sources for this kind of knife; and more than once I have acquired a “classic” Boy Scout or Girl Scout knife in this way. These knives may not look as pretty as their modern counterparts; but their quality is far superior. The knife blades hold an edge well, and their other features perform their jobs well. If you choose to look for a knife in this manner, look for indications as to the age of the knife; and see if the listing mentions a manufacturer such as Imperial, Schrade or Ulster. These, and other knives of the same style, will usually cost at least $25; but the extra cost is well worth it, because if you take good care of these knives, they will last practically forever.

Sometimes, you will see an auction for knives which have been improperly stored and are badly rusted; but I have successfully restored these knives to use by soaking them in 3-in-1 oil (or something similar), and then letting the rust drain onto a paper towel. Then, a brass-bristle brush, steel wool and cotton swabs can finish cleaning the rust and dirt away for you. These same items are also very useful in keeping your knife in top shape.

I have also found it useful to go to a hardware store and buy a double-ended brass clip, a length of small-gauge chain and some split O-rings (like you see on key chains). If my knife does not have a shackle on one end, but only has a small O-ring (as in the case of many Swiss Army knives), I will thread one of my new O-rings through the small ring. I will then attach a 3-inch piece of chain to one end of the O-ring, and then attach another O-ring to the other end of the chain. I will attach one end of my brass clip to this second O-ring, and attach the other clip to a belt loop on my pants. More than once, this has stopped me from losing a knife in the woods, because if the knife pops off of the clip, it simply drops into my pocket. When I use the knife, I simply tuck the chain and O-rings into the palm of my hand.

When choosing a knife, don't forget its also a very handy tool if you find yourself in a survival situation. Many survival experts recommend a multi blade knife. This is because if one blade breaks you still have other blades to survive on. Surviorman mostly used multi-tools such as a leatherman or garber pliers. You can check out some knives at our friends Camping Survival.

Next week we will talk about Axes. Tell us what your unit does, what you think of Jon's ideas, etc on facebook.


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