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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 battery.

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 my kitchen pack. And I always have a simple, sturdy sheath knife — the sort usually described in the catalogs as a "hunting knife" — in my rucksack.

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 both.

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 the…

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 you'll save.

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 looking sharp.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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