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The Best Blade Grinds: What To Look For

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As with most things knife, one type never fits all.

BY MIKE HASKEW BLADE® FIELD EDITOR

Finding the best blade grind for the job at hand has become the subject of some debate, but most knife users agree that certain grinds are better suited for certain functions. Combinations of steel, knife design and use influence the choice of grind.

“I’m a proponent of the right grind for the right job,” related author/knifemaker Abe Elias. “In small bushcraft knives, a thin, flat grind and a saber grind are hard to beat. It makes sense that clear cuts are best flat edged. Carving chisels have rounded convex edges to go into wood and take small cuts and come out.”

An inappropriate grind may produce drag, a ragged or erratic cut, and generally poor results. “For overall working of wood and good, straight, controlled cuts, you want a knife grind to ride flat against the surface so it cuts past certain levels and growth lines, riding flat on the wood between growth lines,” Elias added. “It’s just physics. That’s all, and nobody can really argue it.”

One of the most popular grinds for bushcraft knives is the scandi grind, and Elias describes it as a perfectly flat grind with no secondary bevel, starting at the shoulder with an angle that is perfectly flat and straight to zero.

One of the most popular grinds for bushcraft knives is the scandi grind. Abe Elias describes it as a perfectly flat grind with no secondary bevel, starting at the shoulder with an angle that is perfectly flat and straight to zero. He used it on the blade of his Woodcrafter model. (Abe Elias image)

“Scandi grinds will go on any steel you want, but there are limitations to them because of the shoulder,” he noted. “It doesn’t tend to go through soft surfaces well, such as processing meat. When the knife enters a malleable surface, it creates too much drag on the blade. Like anything else, the thinner it is the easier it enters into other masses. We run into problems when custom makers make them and factories produce them without following the golden rule of proportion. The angle should be proportional to the thickness of the steel and the design of the knife itself.”

CONVEX MODIFIED

Influenced heavily by BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Bill Moran, Bill Bagwell, and Don Hastings, ABS master smith Jim Crowell recognized early in his knifemaking career that the intent was to make a full convex grind from the spine of the blade to the cutting edge. He has adapted those original lessons through the years.

“I’ve found that it’s the edge that needs to be convex, not necessarily the whole cross section of the blade,” Jim noted. “Consequently, I have now, for many years, ground my blades flat from spine to cutting edge, stopping short of going to zero and then rolling the cutting edge on convexly. The trick is to get the geometry correct for the thickness the edge was ground to prior to sharpening in conjunction with the type and heat treat of the steel used.”

Crowell says he believes the convex grind is best for knives in the field, including bowies, fighters, and fillet knives. He uses the convex grind almost exclusively and indicates it allows for an uninterrupted transition from the cutting edge to the full thickness of the spine of the knife. No matter how thick or thin the spine of the knife, with convex geometry it will have the least amount of resistance when cutting through an object.

ABS master smith Jim Crowell has ground his blades in a modification of the convex style for many years, grinding them flat from the spine to the edge, stopping just short of a 0-degree angle, and then rolling the edge in a convex shape. His 15.5-inch bowie features W2 tool steel and walrus ivory. (Chuck Ward knife image)

As for sharpness, Jim gives the nod to the scandi grind. However, he believes that when the cutting edge is, in fact, the grind line as well, the edge itself is more fragile in comparison to other grinds.

“Scandi grinds are great,” he said, “and useful for a lot of small chores. Then there are special-purpose applications like some sushi knives that have specialized grinds. Still, for day in and day out I like and recommend the flat, convex grind.”

COMFORT MATTERS

Knifemakers tend to use the grinds they are comfortable with and which they believe fill the bill for the types of knives they make. The degree of difficulty associated with a particular grind lies more in the experience of the maker than in the grind itself.

“The hardest grind is the one you do not regularly do, and the easiest would be the one you do all the time,” Crowell reasoned. “When I started, I used to hollow grind stock removal blades. You could lay everything out and follow the lines—it is still hard though. When I started forging it was really hard because there were no layout lines to follow, and all the scale and hammer marks made it hard to tell what I was doing. Daggers are generally acknowledged to be more difficult. Some of the Russian and Persian stuff with a ‘T’ spine or center ridge would be tough.”

According to Jim Crowell, the dagger blade pattern generally is acknowledged to be more difficult to grind than most. Michael Jankowsky ground the blade to a double edge on his “Thor” model in Elmax steel and Siberian jade inlay. The engraving is by Kati Mau.(Francesco Pachi image)

“The hardest grind is the one you do not regularly do, and the easiest would be the one you do all the time.”—Jim Crowell

ABS journeyman smith David Lisch—shown grinding the blade of a custom collaboration knife to raise money for the African Wildlife Foundation in its fight to protect elephants from poachers—applied a Persian grind to his 16-inch integral fighter in Thunderbird damascus and walrus ivory. (SharpByCoop.com knife image; image of Lisch courtesy of Mark Knapp)

FACTORY APPROACH

Knife manufacturers gear their grinds for prospective use as well. Hollow grinds are usually the most efficient for manufacturing because both sides of the blade are ground at the same time. Flat grinds are ground one side at a time, and precise machining and good tooling create the even grinds for which manufacturers are known. Convex grinds are usually finished by hand, and such work is the province of a skilled custom maker.

“Hollow grinds are great for slicing,” commented Jim MacNair, new product coordinator and senior designer at KAI-USA Kershaw, “and they create a nice, thin edge geometry, and the panel of the grind stays thinner as you sharpen away the blade over time. These blades will feel very sharp because the grind scoops away more material and makes the blade thinner overall.

The hollow grind is great for slicing and feels very sharp because it scoops away more material and makes the blade thinner overall. Vasyl Goshovsky employs a hollow grind on his working knife’s 4.5-inch blade of N690Co stainless steel. (SharpByCoop.com image)

“The most obvious benefit of the flat grind is strength and toughness. The wheel is grinding a flat surface rather than a concave one like a hollow grind, and it removes less material from the blade. That added material makes the blade thicker and stronger.”

The most obvious benefit of the flat grind is strength and toughness, according to Jim MacNair. Kevin Cross flat ground the 52100 blade of his kitchen knife. The handle is spalted hickory. (SharpByCoop.com images)

MacNair sees compound grinds emerging in the custom market, including blades that feature a combination of flat- and hollow-ground bevels. These are often done to create a “cool” look, and the maker is also providing the best of both cutting options: a thin, hollow-ground edge for slicing and a thick, flat-ground tip for toughness.

Innovation continues to find its way into new and user-friendly blade grinds, while the emphasis on the job to be done is at the center of the decision. Putting the proper edge on the blade for cutting, slicing, skinning, chopping or any other task will always be primary.

SWORD GRINDS HOSTETTER’s WAY

Swordsmith Wally Hostetter focuses on Japanese blades and tailors the grind of each to its anticipated function. He forges the blades and sets up the edge geometry with hand filing.

“A lot of guys do hollow or flat grinds with a machine, but what I do has to be done by hand,” Wally explained. “I hand polish to the cutting edge, and there is no micro-bevel. Some have an appleseed [convex] edge—niku is the Japanese term—and some have the edge slightly rolled in for better cutting. For cutting heavy stuff, the niku comes to a finite edge but runs farther up the blade. There are many subtleties to it.”

According to Hostetter, other Japanese grinds, such as that found on the tanto, are fine and done to a thin edge because they are not intended for hard striking against surfaces. He uses 1095 carbon steel primarily and decides on the appropriate grind based on both the use of the blade and the historical time period that is being replicated.

African Blackwood is on the Rise as a Custom Handle Material

Maybe it’s a bit of a contradiction, but both elegance and simplicity are elements of African blackwood, a handle material with a rapidly rising profile in the custom knife industry.

The color of the material combined with properties that make it a pleasure to work with has resulted in an explosion of interest. Ranging in luster from a reddish to a deep black hue, the wood is the product of a flowering tree also known as granadilla or mpingo. A relatively small tree, it grows primarily in the forests of Senegal east to the horn of Africa and in some parts of South Africa. Long used in musical instruments and high-end furniture, African blackwood is protected in order to prevent overharvesting.

Ken Hall’s sgian dubh features a 4.25-inch blade of twist damascus in a blend of 1075 spring and 15N20 nickel alloy steels. The pommel is formed from stone and giraffe bone. The African blackwood handle not only is ideal for its carvability but also in keeping with the sgian dubh’s name, which is Scottish for black knife.

When the material finds its way to a knife handle, something dazzling happens, and the makers who use it sing its praises. “I’ve always loved black-handled knives, especially with brass,” related Abel Price of Fayetteville, Arkansas, a part-time maker who is completely self-taught. “The black and gold combo just pops and gives it a beautifully elegant Art Deco feel.”

In the mountains of western North Carolina, ABS master smith Andrew Meers finds African blackwood a pleasure to work with. “It’s a dense and stable wood with a consistent grain structure that is excellent for handle material. It is workable and carves well,” he noted. “It has a rich, dark color and finishes out beautifully when sanded, and I haven’t noticed any cracking, shrinking or expanding, especially compared to the cracking I’ve noticed at times in similar looking wood such as ebony. I think these qualities contribute to its growing popularity among makers.”

Abel Price used African blackwood for the handle of his Deco Petty kitchen knife. He said the handle “was sculpted to contain design elements of the Art Deco era while hitting several notes of contrast: smooth and stippled, round and flat, black and white, and straight and sweeping lines.”

Andrew uses rasps and files for shaping, a flex shaft for carving, and prefers to sand and buff to finish his handles of the material. Last of all, he applies a coat of Danish oil. So, the finished product is just what the maker wants, and getting there is most often a pleasurable journey rather than an arduous trek. African blackwood exhibits excellent stability and takes a shine quite well. Custom makers agree that the material is ideal for carving, though whether it carves easily or not is open to the interpretation of the individual maker.

“I think the main reason for its carving ability is that it is hard,” commented Pekka Tuominen, a 17-year maker from Keitele, Finland. “Wood has to be hard if you wish to carve it with sharp and tight curves, and also polish those curves. Let’s say it’s not easy to carve, but when wood is hard you can get a good finish. Of course, it’s popular, too,” he observed. “Everybody knows that if some famous knifemaker uses a material, then the rest of the makers at least want to test it.”

MORE ATTRIBUTES

Waynesville, North Carolina-based ABS journeyman smith Ken Hall appreciates additional attributes of African blackwood. “I like using it because it’s a very dense wood, doesn’t require stabilizing, is hard and does not crack easily,” he stated. “It has a tight grain structure, so you don’t have to fill voids, and it can be carved or shaped without difficulty and provides a dark contrast to a steel blade.”

Huginn and Muninn are the names for two bowies by Richard Dawes. Huginn and Muninn are two mythical ravens that attend Odin. Dawes carved the African blackwood handles in a bird’s-head motif based on the style of bladesmith Bill Bagwell, one of the founders of the American Bladesmith Society.

Securing the handle to the blade most often involves a quality epoxy and a combination of pins, depending on the type of knife under construction. “I use rivets, pins and epoxy,” Pekka said, “but I don’t use African blackwood for full tangs. With hidden tangs sometimes just epoxy will keep the tang solid inside the handle.”

When Price went to work on his Deco Petty, a kitchen knife creation with a 6.5-inch blade of AEB-L stainless steel, overall length of 12 inches, and a handle of African blackwood, deer antler and a copper spacer, he knew just what he wanted to achieve. “The goal was to hit form and function,” he commented. “The ultra-thin cutting edge flexes with lateral pressure, and a Rockwell hardness of 61 [HRC] makes for a laser sharp tool in the kitchen. The handle was sculpted to contain design elements of the Art Deco era while hitting several notes of contrast: smooth and stippled, round and flat, black and white, and straight and sweeping lines. African blackwood does everything you want it to do with a perfect finish.”

Hall fashioned his sgian dubh as an interpretation of a historical Scottish knife. “African blackwood is the ideal wood for the sgian dubh because it can be carved and shaped to the hourglass design of the traditional sgian dubh handle,” he noted, “and provide an eye-catching contrast to the stainless steel bolster and pommel.” He added that blackwood is his preferred wood for a handle with a keyhole design because it can take the force applied to pressing the wood into the keyhole.

AESTHETICS & FUNCTION

Meers made the striking Vulpecula with a 12-inch damascus blade of 1084 carbon and 15N20 nickel alloy steels. Meanwhile, something of a surprise is embedded in the African blackwood handle.

Matt Gregory’s LWT (Lum-Walton Tanto) is based on a design by Mike Walton inspired by the late Bob Lum. The African blackwood handle is polished to a mirror shine and tapers slightly in reverse of the tang, and has a delicate bulge in the center to provide for a subtle yet improved grip. The sheath (not shown) is by Jill Gregory.

“Vulpecula is a reliquary dagger,” Andrew explained. “It is inspired by the tradition of keeping objects, often hair or remains, in an embellished vessel. I found a fox tooth and had it sealed in a glass vial by a friend. I then built this dagger to house the vial as a reliquary.

“The blade fittings and handle are adorned with 24-karat gold inlay depicting a large fox, its skull and paw prints. The hardware is torch-cut steel plated with gold that is brushed back. Vulpecula, the ‘Little Fox’ constellation, is set into the blade with blue diamonds.

“It was a combination of aesthetic and functional choices that made me choose blackwood for this piece,” he concluded. “The wood machines and carves well, so for this handle it was the ideal choice. The blackwood’s depth serves as a rich contrast to the bright gold used in small inlays to represent a starry sky and the fox prints as well.”

Tuominen built his Protector, or Suojaleijee, dagger with a 5-inch welded damascus blade of 1080 and 80CrV2 carbon and 15N20 nickel-alloy steels, a guard of Nicorros (a copper/nickel alloy), African blackwood handle, and a handmade leather sheath with stainless clip. The blade is 7 inches and overall length is 12 inches. “It’s a custom order for an American collector,” he noted. “I used African blackwood because it’s black and more stable than other black-colored woods.”

SOURCES

While African blackwood remains protected, it can be found through various sources. However, Abel has a warning.

“I stocked up at a Rockler store a few years ago,” he remarked. “I’m not looking forward to finding another supplier. I believe the demand is outpacing the supply, and as conservation efforts increase, as they should, so will the price.”

Kelly Vermeer Vella em-
ploys African blackwood
and sterling silver for the
handle of her dagger. The
blade is a damascus of
1075 spring and 15N20
nickel-alloy steel.

Hall searches eBay for African blackwood and makes his selection based on what is available. Pricing, he says, runs $20 to $30 for a handle block or set of scales. While Pekka often sources his African blackwood from European knife shows, he also checks the internet for block-size pieces. Meers has had success with retail suppliers and finds a broad range of dimensions.

The custom knifemaker and the consumer alike have taken a new interest in African blackwood, and that fascination is not likely to fade in the near future.

Knife Knowledge 101: What is a Half Stop?

Safety feature, bell and whistle, or what have you, the half stop stimulates lively discussion.

What is a Half Stop?

An old song includes the lyric, “It certainly is exquisite, but what in the dickens is it?” 

The slip-joint knife version of the phrase can easily be attributed to the function, or lack thereof, surrounding the half stop, the €flattened shaping of the tang that allows the blade to stop in mid deployment.

It’s a safety feature; it relieves pressure on the spring; it’s a mark of fit and finish that the best slip joint makers always include; or, just maybe, it’s like your appendix. It once had a job, but nobody really knows what that job was. It hangs around—and in some cases it has been removed.

What a Half Stop Does

Phil Gibbs knifemaker
According to Phil Gibbs of A.G. Russell Knives, “In a traditional slip-joint knife a half stop indicates the blade has a square tang instead of a conventional rounded one.” In Detail 2 is a diagram of a tang with a round end; in Detail 3 is one with a
square end. (A.G. Russell Knives image)

“In a traditional slip-joint knife, a half stop indicates the blade has a square tang instead of a conventional rounded one,” explained Phil Gibbs, a veteran knife designer who has worked for A.G. Russell Knives for a number of years now.

“There are two reasons for a square tang. One is that a pause to move your fingers out of the way is desired halfway between open and closed. The second is that the knife has a flush end. Most issues of a square tang not working properly can be traced to poor spring/tang design and/or poor execution.”

There are plenty of ideas and opinions out there, and longtime custom knifemaker Gray Taylor admits the purpose of the half stop is something of a mystery to him.

“A half stop is just a low place in the back of the blade, a flat place that stops the blade and takes tension offŽthe spring,” he observed. “It just protects your spring from breaking, in my opinion, or it could be called a safety feature. Old guys have told me that if you have a whittler pattern, for example, with one blade on either end, you don’t want to open a knife halfway because you double the tension on the spring.”

Case XX Vault Release Copperhead
The Case XX Vault Release Copperhead pattern, new for 2021, features a half stop. The knife is a member of the company’s Black Sycamore family. MSRP: $83.99. (Case image)

The History of the Flat Stop

The history of the half stop is as murky as its real role in the life of the slip joint. For sure, it has been around at least a couple of centuries, dating back at least to the knifemakers of old Sheffield—possibly much earlier.

Museum curator, researcher, and knife historian Pete Cohan points to traditional knives and modern multi-blades that have square backs; therefore, a half stop would have no purpose on them.

For Cohan, the “time factor” is relative, depending on how far back one would have to go.

“The amazing thing is that over a long period of time that feature was not present, and that is a fact,” he commented. “I was puzzled by this a long time ago and couldn’t find any indication of a patent associated with the half stop. At one point, I assumed it was a safety feature, and that was about the only thing I could come up with as to intent. I know similar things have been used in lock making, and that makes sense because you are pushing something to allow it to drop into a location to lock or unlock.”

Gibbs isn’t sure anybody knows the real origin of the half stop, but the earliest example he has seen through the years is on an 1800s barlow with a flush end made in Sheffield.

Veteran multi-blade slipjoint maker Bill Ruple has also seen the Sheffield connection but doesn’t know much more than that regarding the half stop’s history. Nonetheless, he does find function in its continuing existence.

“I have heard the half stop called a ‘safety catch,’ and my theory is that it was invented to be easier on the spring of a multi-blade knife,” Ruple offered. “The blade should literally jump into the half-open position and have no play or wiggle. If you can feel any wiggle or movement, it’s not right.”

Gray Taylor knives
At work here in his shop, Gray Taylor admits the purpose of the half stop is something of a mystery to him. “A half stop is just a low place in the back of the blade, a  at place that stops the blade and takes tension of the spring,” he observed. “It just protects your spring from breaking, in my opinion, or it could be called a safety feature.” (Christy Harris image)

Half Stop Debate

For years, Ruple and A.G. Russell engaged in a congenial debate regarding the half stop. They never resolved their difference of opinion, and it remains one of Bill’s fondest memories of his relationship with the BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member.

“I personally use half stops on all my slip joint knives, unless the customer wants a full tang, and I have been doing it for 33 years,” Ruple commented. “The late Mr. Russell, however, would disagree with me on this one. A.G. was a good friend of mine for many years, and every time I saw him, he would give me a hard time about using half stops. He hated them.”

Gibbs acknowledges Russell’s disdain for the half stop and says it lies in a bad experience that occurred years ago.

“A.G. was not a fan of square-end tangs due to being severely cut by an extremely poorly designed and executed custom-made trapper,” Phil said. “He was cut because the maker apparently had no idea how to correctly design a pocketknife spring and tang to work well together. If your traditional knife works like a mousetrap, you are doing it wrong!”

Ruple is solid in his support for the half stop, relating, “Half stops are easier on springs, especially on rocker springs, which are springs with a blade on both ends. With the half stop, the spring is approximately the same, whether the blade is open, half open, or closed. With a full tang the spring has more pressure in the half-open position.”

Cohan concludes that the half stop has reached functional obsolescence. “Well, take a scout knife with four blades. Invariably, it has a half stop. Why? I can’t think of any reason they still make knives with half stops. Maybe it is more habit than requirement. My point is that the only answer I have ever come up with is the safety feature, and I’ve certainly never seen a patent on it.”

Some observers still assert that the half stop was a necessary revision to the tang, going so far as to state that it prevents the user from needing a pair of pliers to open a knife. Its absence, they say, would cause the spring to flex the entire distance of the end of the tang, and it functions to prevent the total failure of the spring, relieving pressure with the blade open that would otherwise fatigue and eventually compromise the spring’s integrity.
Gibbs scoffs and strongly disagrees.

“Converting to a square end tang in no way significantly reduces spring deflection,” he remarked. “It is the torque points of the tang that define the opening and closing force applied to the blade. A.G.’s tang designs employ a tangential radius to produce the round end of the tang joining the two torque points and resulting in zero increased spring force.

“Consequently,” Phil continued, “the round end tang and the square end tang would have identical opening and closing forces. Actually, with a square end tang the spring is flexed twice for each opening or closing, so I would surmise it increases stress to the spring. The only time there is any difference to the spring pressure on a square end tang compared to a round end tang is in the half-open position.”

Half Stop Knives
Gray Taylor’s small sleeveboard lobster pattern sports six blades and/or tools: two spear-point pen blades, manicure blade, buttonhook, corkscrew, and pick. The sole-authorship piece is 2 3/16 inches closed. (Francesco Pachi image from the soon-to-be-released book Greatest Living Knifemakers by BLADE® editor Steve Shackleford https://www.gundigeststore.com/product/greatest-knifemakers/)

Making the Half Stop

Through the years, the inclusion of the half stop has probably remained fairly constant, and those who pay attention to it can’t say for sure that its use is waxing or waning. Gibbs recalls that the square end tang was traditionally found on barlows and Remington trappers, and some custom knifemakers continue to incorporate it today.

While the pros may differ in the usefulness of the half stop, they can agree that making a slip joint that includes a half stop adds little or no difficulty or cost to the construction process.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a lot harder,” Taylor commented. “You’ve got to make sure the half stop is positioned that when your blade stops at the half stop, it wants to be perpendicular to your knife. If your grind is off five degrees, the blade won’t sit straight. You’ve got to make it perpendicular to the back of the knife to look right. On the other hand, if you don’t have a half stop and cut a cam on the back of the blade, you’ve got to make sure the cam allows just the right tension. It takes practice. Throw a few blades away and you’ll catch on.”

Gibbs, who actually hails from Sheffield, England, considers the flush end knife more difficult to make than one with a square end tang, so the price might be somewhat higher due to the maker’s skill set. Throughout his career, he has had ample opportunities to assess thousands of knife designs.

“In my previous position as cutlery engineer at [the old] Camillus Cutlery Company, I designed several knives with square end tangs,” he related. “I considered it a required feature on some of the Remington Bullet knife reproductions we produced. We also made the Camillus Double Lock Back Trapper with square end tangs. It was not any harder to make at all.”

How to design knives
Gray Taylor said old-timers have told him that if you have a whittler pattern, for example, with one blade on either end,
you don’t want to open the knife halfway because you double the tension on the spring. This I*XL George Wostenholm antique in ivory is an example of a three-blade whittler. (Pete Cohan image)

The Future of the Half Stop

Relevant or passé, here or gone, the half stop is a pocketknife feature that is likely to generate some lively discourse. While it may or may not add anything to the performance or durability of a knife, it’s healthy for the industry simply due to the fact that it gets people talking.

Knife Performance: Is Steel Type Really the Most Important?

It’s easy to use steel type as shorthand for quality, but that’s only one factor when it comes to the performance of a knife. Heat treating, Rockwell hardness and geometry also matter.

 

Sure, it’s all about the steel. Blade steel makes the knife world go ’round, right? Well, further analysis just might reveal a few additional elements that weigh in on the sharpness of a knife blade, and custom knifemakers already account for these factors when they complete their stock in trade.

In Search of “True Sharpness”

Considering heat treat, edge geometry, handle ergonomics, Rockwell hardness and other contributors, the comprehensive analysis of “true sharpness” is an eye-opening experience.

“Assume that all knives are sharp when you get them,” said maker Jerry Hossom. “The question is more about what you want to cut, and is the edge geometry and ­finish one that will do the work you want done. For example, a sharp but coarse edge will not hold up well with hard blade materials.”

Frankly, the ingredients are intertwined, and the path to true sharpness makes frequent stops along the way.

Experience in making and cutting with various materials and knife designs brings knowledge of the process and the expected results.

Physical Features

Best knife steels
ABS master smith Jim Crowell has won a number of cutting competitions through the years, including the first ABS/BLADE Show World Championship Cutting Competition in 2003. Here is the knife he used and his championship belt buckle. (Jim Crowell images)

“I can and will only speak from personal experience,” commented ABS master smith Jim Crowell, winner of numerous cutting competitions through the years, including the fi­rst ABS/BLADE Show World Championship Cutting Competition in 2003. “Since it would be difficult if not impossible to tell by looking, I would consider the reputation of the maker and his or her history.

“Not knowing who made the knife, I would consider the following: Visualize the geometry and edge treatment. The intangible here is the heat treat. If I’m looking at a knife I know nothing about, the physical features that herald sharpness and performance are blade grind/geometry and the edge. If the blade is ground from the spine to the cutting edge, it achieves the smoothest transition from ‘zero’ at the cutting edge to the full thickness of the spine.

“In my opinion, a flat-ground blade with a convex edge is the best geometry. This is the smoothest transition from cutting edge to spine irrespective of spine thickness or width.”

Steel Type & Blade Performance

Best knife blade steels
“Buying a knife from a reputable maker should be simple,” Tim Britton noted. “My questions would be steel type, Rockwell hardness, and what kinds of tools the maker has in their shop.” Tim’s gentleman’s slippy boasts a 2.5-inch blade of BG-42 stainless steel. Closed length: 3.25 inches. (Eric Eggly/PointSeven image)

Of course, a quick nod to the steel has to ­figure in. Without the steel itself, nothing else matters.

“How often have I heard that a knife holds an edge very well but is too difficult to sharpen?” Hossom offered. “They are opposite sides of the same coin. Wear resistance in cutting is the same attribute as wear resistance in sharpening, and again, it depends on the intended use.”

Discussion also surrounds standard versus premium steels, given that either is properly prepared.

“So-called standard steels have their place, but I’m not sure where,” explained maker Tim Britton. “I started with O1 in 1972 and Blackie Collins talked me into using 440C. Peer pressure… Ted Dowell, Frank Centofante, Jimmy Lile and Bob Dozier had settled on D2. New stuff like S35VN leaves them all in the dust. It takes twice as many belts to grind the blade and is max stain resistant. I’ve had great field reports from guides who dress a lot of deer, and one who is a pest control hunter and kills a lot of hogs and nutria.”

According to Crowell, everyone probably agrees that quality steel is a must.

“Some steels lend themselves to cutlery more so than others,” he reasoned. “There are some ‘exotic’ steels that truly outperform, but they are usually more expensive and harder to work with. Then, there are inexpensive steels used in cheap manufactured knives sold in bargain stores.”

Crowell looks at the long-time rub between carbon and stainless steels and likes the “10” series spring steels, 5160, O1, W2 and L6, among others. He prefers steels with 75 percentage points of carbon or more, though 5160 with 60 points of carbon is workable as well.

Rockwell Hardness

For some makers, Rockwell hardness sets the bar in potential sharpness for knife blades. Other factors are important but the scale tells the tale.

“Rockwell hardness has a huge influence on how sharp you can get a knife and how it will hold an edge,” asserted maker Murray Carter. “There may be a rebuttal out there, but I believe it is a universal truth. If hardness is related to how sharp you can get the blade and how it will hold an edge, the element of carbon is responsible for the hardness you can achieve.”

Hardness is forever linked to heat treating. Blades that are not heat treated properly just won’t stay sharp—and they are likely to fail in other performance metrics as well. Game over!

Heat Treating

Best blade steel for knives
“Unless it is heat treated properly, a steel is an undefined mass of metal with uncertain performance qualities,” custom knifemaker Jerry Hossom pointed out. “In fairness, it should not even be labeled as a specific type of steel because such a label implies proper heat treatment.” The blade material on Jerry’s fighter is the
high-performance CPM 3V carbon steel. (Eric Eggly/PointSeven image)

Proclaimed Britton, “Heat treating is critically important for any steel.”

Added Hossom, “Unless it is heat treated properly, a steel is an undefined mass of metal with uncertain performance qualities. In fairness, it should not even be labeled as a specific type of steel because such a label implies proper heat treatment. I have my blades professionally heat treated by Paul Bos Heat Treating because I simply can’t do it as well as he can, especially with high alloy, high performance grades of steel.”

Carter echoed that sentiment.

“Heat treating is so important,” he emphasized. “All our blades are quenched in water, while some quench theirs in oil. Others are just air hardened. Water quenching is severe, an extreme form, and the only one harder is brine quenching.”

Geometry

Crowell ups the ante with the bold statement, “My strong opinion is that heat treat and geometry are more important to the performance of a knife than the specific type of steel. ­The best steel in the world would not fare well if the heat treat was bad and the geometry poor.”

Stressing edge geometry, Crowell further advises, “Edge geometry is particularly important. If a maker tests his work and is confident about the heat treat but the knife is not cutting well, the edge can be adjusted or ‘rolled’ to a different shape.”

What Factor is the Most Important?

So perhaps the most important takeaway from a discussion on sharpness is the advice the pros give to prospective buyers. Assessing the sharpness and relative quality of the future cutting experience involves a discerning eye and some attention to detail. What advice do custom knifemakers over the buying public?

“I would start by looking at the knife and seeing if the geometry looked good and how well made the knife appeared to be,” Crowell advised. “­That would show the maker was paying attention to detail and would be a positive sign to me. I would ask what kind of steel was used and how it was heat treated, and by whom. ­There are several very good heat treaters out there. If the maker did the heat treat, I would ask how—oven, forge, kiln, torch? I would want to know if the maker tests his work and if he has chopped, whittled, and cut stuff.”

The inquiry is basic, Britton says, and the maker should be forthcoming with reasonable responses.

“Buying a knife from a reputable maker should be simple,” he noted. “My questions would be steel type, Rockwell hardness, and what kinds of tools the maker has in his shop. I’m a dinosaur. I won’t buy a production knife that was made by machines in batches of 20 or 30. I’m a proud member of the ABS and don’t know any steel beaters who mass produce any design.”

The sharpness of a knife blade goes well beyond the steel. The combination of steel, hardness, heat treat, edge geometry and handle ergonomics feeds the finished product. However, these are only as supportive of the knife’s function as the skill set of the maker’s hand in action.

How to Buy Custom Knives Without Getting Ripped Off

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Custom fixed knife collecting
If the knife is well made, it will always have value. Josh Fisher’s bowie features a damascus blade of 1084 carbon and 15N20 nickel-alloy steels, and a handle of curly Tasmanian black wood. (Caleb Royer image)

Thinking of dipping your toe into the exciting world of collecting custom knives? Read these tips first.

What for Look for in a Custom Knife

Don’t buy or collect trends. Buying what’s “hot” today may mean selling at a loss tomorrow. Buy a knife because you like it, not because you think it will increase in value. If the knife is well made, it will always have value.

Decide what the knife will be used for and choose accordingly. Is it pleasing to your eye? Hold it and see how it feels in your hand.

Is it easy to carry? Is the edge geometry correct and are the grind lines even? Are there gaps at joints between the blade and guard? On a folder is there too much blade play—up and down and/or side to side?

Does the knife walk and talk? What about fit and finish?

Price custom folding knives
Is the edge geometry correct and are the grind lines even? Are there gaps at joints between the blade and guard? Don Hanson’s folders exhibit tight fit and finish from stem to stern. (SharpByCoop image)

On a linerlock or framelock does the lock engage too late or too early? Is lockup tight? Feel the knife all over for hot spots and evaluate it in terms of quality construction and materials, creativity, etc.

If the knife is a fixed blade, a sheath can add value. However, the knife needs a sheath only if it is important to you, though it may affect resale value. A good sheath can cost $75 to $150 to have one made, so this is a good benchmark of value detraction.

On the other hand, some sheaths can be distinctive works of art that can add significantly to the knife’s overall appeal and value.

Buying custom fixed blade knives
If the knife is a fixed blade, a sheath can add value. However, the knife needs a sheath only if it is important to you, though it may affect resale value. Zac Camacho offers a sheath with his zesty fixed blade in damascus and a handle of stabilized ancient bog oak. Overall length: 13.875 inches. (Caleb Royer edited image)

Commissioning a Completely New Custom Knife

Be wary of custom orders, as many things can go wrong, including long wait times before delivery, and makers who shun lengthy dialogue over what might be a healthy monetary investment on your part. Moreover, the finished knife may not meet your expectations.

Custom orders may be best for makers early in their careers. Veteran makers may wind up making a custom order that doesn’t represent their style, so the knife may not increase in value.

Place an order with enough time to pick the knife up at a time that works for you, such as during BLADE Show.

Determining Price of a Custom Knife

Tips for buying custom knives
If you pay a high price for a knife, see if the maker has been in business for a number of years, has a strong following and that the knife is something special. Such a knife should be made of materials of a higher quality/more in demand than a less
expensive model. An art dagger by Dennis Friedly with engraving by Gil Rudolph would appear to qualify on most all of these counts. (SharpByCoop image)

Never be afraid to ask a maker, purveyor or any seller why a knife costs what it does. Ask him/her for some background and history on the knife, both of which can embellish a knife’s value, especially if the knife is a vintage one.

If you pay a high price for a knife, see if the maker has been in business for a number of years, has a strong following and that the knife is something special. Such a knife should be made of materials of a higher quality/more in demand than a less expensive model.
If the maker is just starting out, be sure his knives are priced reasonably.

If the knife appears to be underpriced, be sure there’s not a mistake in its construction.

For a guide, check the prices of like knives on the sites of purveyors who have been in the business for a long time. They wouldn’t still be in business if they didn’t offer reasonable pricing.

Are Deposits Necessary?

One purveyor said you should never pay an upfront deposit on a custom order. No exceptions. Watch out for makers who claim to need the deposit to buy materials, etc. You are not a finance company.

Besides, as one purveyor said, “It’s unfortunately very human that it’s hard to get work done that is already paid for.”

Warranties

Ask for a written guarantee regarding what the maker will and will not cover in terms of damage caused by use/abuse, flaws in workmanship or materials (excluding natural materials that chip and crack), etc.

The warranty should last for the remainder the maker’s career.

What U.S. Military Members Look for in a Knife

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  • Easy to maintain
  • Simple construction
  • Versatile in a number of environments

While the definition of the “perfect” or “4.0” military knife is subjective, those who have been there know well how their knives perform and what it takes to build confidence that the indispensable tool can deliver.

So, with a clean slate, how would veterans of the military and the knife industry construct the finest knife for their own use?

1) Easy

“Durability and maintenance are primary, as they are with any tool or gun,” assessed Rob Cude, who spent 24 years in the U.S. Navy and retired in 2006 as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Chief after completing tours in Africa, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq, with combat duty as a member of the CIF (Commanders in Extremis Force), a group of exceptionally trained Special Operations personnel.

Military Knives
Retired Navy EOD Chief Rob Cude prefers any of the “SV” stainless steels such as CPM S30V and paper or canvas micarta with a thread exposing finish on his military knives. Stellite® 6K—such as that on this fighter by Kit Carson—is another Cude favorite for blade material. (Cude image)

 

“The knife must be easy to maintain and built of quality materials that stay sharp, are easy to sharpen, and strong,” Cude continued. “Any of SV [CPM S30V, etc.] series steels are really good, and Stellite® for some uses such as diving. High carbon can also be used as blade steel, but it’s all about finish and coating. My handle choice is paper or canvas Micarta with a thread-exposing finish, but the aggressive G-10 textures on fixed blades like those by Strider Knives are really good as well. The material needs to be durable and chemical resistant with a slip-resistant finish when wet.”

While on active duty, Cude carried a Spyderco Police, Benchmade and Emerson folders, and Gerber fixed blades.

“In 1996, I contacted a few custom makers to help us with a fixed blade that met a variety of needs,” he remembered. “Later, I carried Kit Carson, Jones Brothers, Strider and R.J. Martin, all excellent knives that withstood the test of time and extreme conditions.”

Both folders and fixed blades have their places in military use, Rob says. He carried folders in Kydex® sheaths with assisted-opening mechanisms like the Kershaw SpeedSafe™ designed by BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame© member Ken Onion mounted to a holster, along with small, light sheath knives in blades under 5 inches with recurves to increase the cutting edge, attached by a fabric fastener behind his chest-mounted magazine pouches.

His friendship with Cutlery-Hall-Of-Famer Kit Carson and contributions to a military knife design resulted in variants of the U2, which Buck Knives picked up as the Intrepid.

“Kit was not only a friend but a mentor in military career,” Rob noted.

2) Simple

Fixed blade military knives
A Pacific Cutlery Fer-de-Lance designed by the late David E. Steele was always with Kim Breed on deployment. Breed also carried a Swiss Army knife Champion in no small part for its tweezers and scissors for removing thorns. (Breed image)

Retired 5th Special Forces Master Sergeant and BLADE field editor Kim Breed makes knives and has done design work for Spartan Blades. He applies the KISS principle, always keeping it simple.

“The more moving parts, the higher the chance of failure,” he reasoned. “I make it a point to serve the military by providing the best knife with the soldier’s interest in mind. They provide me with important feedback on how my knives have performed, which allows me to tailor their needs into my designs.”

While serving with the Special Forces, Breed preferred lightweight knives that could perform a wide variety of tasks since most of his active duty time was spent living out of his rucksack.

“A Ferde-Lance designed by David E. Steele was always with me on every deployment. I also carried a Swiss Army knife Champion, as the tweezers and scissors were the best for removing thorns.”

For Kim, experience still points to the multifunctional blade style with a comfortable handle, and high carbon steel and Micarta are the most requested materials from active service personnel. Comfort, edge-holding ability and ease of sharpening are the top priorities.

“The fixed blade will always have a place with the soldier,” he asserted, “and some folders will be used for smaller tasks. Kydex seems to be the sheath of choice, as it is approved for airborne operations and securely holds the knife in a variety of positions. Blade shapes run the whole spectrum, but most are a version of a drop point or slightly upswept blade. A few soldiers like guards, but as long as the knife has a finger notch to keep the hand from slipping, it’s good. A bead-blasted finish is a favorite. A non-reflective blade is a must.”

3) Environmental Versatility

Spartan Blades Military Knife
The steel of choice for Bill Harsey (inset) is CPM S35VN, which he says mimics the traits of a true tool steel but with stainless characteristics. S35VN blade steel and a handle of another Harsey favorite, Micarta, help complete the Harsey-designed Difensa from Spartan Blades. (Spartan Blades
knife image)

William “Bill” Harsey Jr. has been around military-style knives for decades and worked in design with legendary Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Col. Rex Applegate, as well as Chris Reeve Knives and Spartan Blades.

He says canvas Micarta handles are tough to beat for control in harsh conditions, including wet and cold and even in darkness. They have been approved for cleanup after exposure to chemical or biological weapons, too.

“I also believe that a knife must be able to retain its sharpness in hot and humid conditions such as marine, riverine and jungle environments,” he commented. “This takes some amount of stain resistance, as an edge can ‘go away’ in the sheath without ever being used.”

The steel of choice for Harsey is CPM S35VN, which he says mimics the traits of a true tool steel but with stainless characteristics. While he adds that good makers can utilize a range of blade steels and produce outstanding knives, non-stainless steels require more maintenance.

“One thing I’ve learned about discussing knives with members of the military is that the topic elicits strong responses, kind of like which handgun is the best,” said Harsey, who has made knives individually and in collaboration with U.S. Army Special Forces, U.S. Navy Special Warfare personnel and Canadian Special Forces.

“Many of the warfighters I know carry several knives in the field and when not in the field. Folders, fixed blades and tools all count.”

Harsey sees the basics as the most important aspects of the ideal military knife.

“I think the requirements for a good military use knife, which can be mission and region specific, are that the blade has a point, cuts and can be carried in a good sheath that works with the rest of the kit carried by the warfighter,” he concluded.

Forget the Movies

Military Knives
An Army veteran of the 7th Infantry Division (Light) during the invasion of Panama, the 82nd Airborne Division during the Gulf War of 1991, the 173rd Airborne Brigade during the Balkans air war, and a special mission unit in Special Operations during the global war on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jack Stottlemire retired with the rank of sergeant major. (Stottlemire image)

During stints with the U.S. Marine Corps and Army, Jack Stottlemire, who makes custom knives for military personnel at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, near his home, has seen many a global hotspot.

A veteran of the 7th Infantry Division (Light) during the invasion of Panama, the 82nd Airborne Division during the Gulf War of 1991, the 173rd Airborne Brigade during the Balkans air war, and a special mission unit in Special Operations during the global war on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, he retired with the rank of sergeant major. Jack also has carried numerous knives.

He put away his Gerber Mk II after carrying it briefly and went with a KA-BAR that performed well in multiple functions. He also has used a Buck 110 folder, M7 bayonet, Leatherman multi-tool, Air Force survival knife, Benchmade Stryker auto, and a Horrigan Fighter made by his squadron mate, Bob Horrigan, who was killed in action June 17, 2005.

“Unlike what you see in the movies,” Stottlemire explained, “soldiers and Marines do not carry large crew-served knives like in Rambo or The Expendables. A knife is a cutting tool for everyday tasks. For silent killing when warranted, a spike hawk is used more often than not in lieu of a knife in Special Operations on today’s battlefield.”

Stottlemire’s custom knives are made under the Rustick Knives brand, and word of mouth drives his sales. He has a large following among Navy SpecWar Teams and Air Force Combat Control Teams.

Military Knives
One of Jack Stottlemire’s best-selling knives for military personnel is the 6-inch-blade Kraken. The blade is finished in Cerakote™ with a flat-dark-earth color. The handle is G-10. (Stottlemire image)

“Carbon steel knives that are treated to 57-59 Rockwell are easier to sharpen in the field than most stainless steels,” he remarked. “Carbon is more affordable for the average ‘Joe’ also. I was surprised when a SEAL platoon ordered knives from me and did not want stainless. They preferred carbon with a Cerakote™ finish. Now, stainless does have its place, especially in a humid environment like Central America where you can actually watch an unprotected edge rust. But with proper maintenance and protective finishes, carbon can excel in these areas.”

Jack’s handle material of choice is G-10 and he uses that on all the custom knives he produces.

Army Knives
Another of Jack Stottlemire’s best-selling knives for military personnel is the 4-inch blade utility/combat knife. The handle is G-10 and the blade is finished in a flat-dark-earth Cerakote™. (Stottlemire image)

“It’s very tough and durable stuff that stands up to any abuse you throw at it,” he said. “Micarta would my second choice.”

From a military man’s perspective, Stottlemire says a knife needs to do one thing well—cut. Added options such as wrenches, screwdrivers or bottle openers are unnecessary in the field. A good point with a blade of 4-to-5 inches is usually more than enough to do the job well.

It Comes Down to Individual Preference

Overall, both fixed blades and folders useful in the field. Handles of durable synthetic such as Micarta are the top choice, while blade steel is a toss-up between carbon and stainless.

A blade length of up to 5 inches is ideal. Personal preference, though, remains a major factor, and the individual has the opportunity to decide what knife or knives to employ.

The Pros and Cons of Paracord-Wrapped Knife Handles

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of BLADE. However, the information presented is still relevant and useful to anyone interested in paracord-wrapped knife handles.

Advantages of Paracord-Wrapped Knife Handles

  • Affordable: Much less expensive than many natural and synthetic handle materials
  • Customizable: Available in a variety of colors
  • Convenient: Cordage is as near as your knife
  • Versatile: Paracord can be used in countless everyday and survival situations

Disadvantages of Paracord-Wrapped Knife Handles

  • Fixed blades only: Folders aren’t an option
  • Absorbent: Will soak up moisture (water, mud, blood), and may give off unpleasant odor as a result
  • Needs replacing: Wear and tear mean the wrap won’t last forever
  • Ergonomics: Some say gloved hands often find a better grip than bare hands

The Infinite Uses of Paracord

While for some it may be considered just a quick wraparound, for others it has proven to be a lifesaver. The simple paracord handle does more than meets the eye.

Functioning as a handle material that allows for the best fit for the size of the user’s hand, and one that can be added or removed in a matter of minutes, paracord is durable and relatively inexpensive. It also adds a dimension of survivability for those in the field.

Paracord pulls double duty as a bootlace, securing line, snare or even in a first-aid situation.

What’s the Best Kind of Paracord?

Paracord knife
This Yurco model is available from Arizona Custom Knives. (photo courtesy of Arizona Custom Knives)

“The best paracord to use is military 550 cord,” explained custom knifemaker Mickey Yurco, who has employed paracord wrap for handles on as much as 40 percent of his knives. “It has seven inner strands of nylon cord, and the outer shell is tightly braided nylon. If you pull out the separate strands in a survival situation, you can make a bowstring, use it to catch a rabbit with a snare, use it for fishing line, and you can break down the inner core into three separate smaller strands for sewing a rip in a tent or as suture if you cut yourself.

“You can use the outer shell to lash branches together to build a lean-to or tie logs together for a raft. You can even use it to keep a fire lit because [paracord] will melt.”
Yurco also points out that when a paracord handle is unwrapped for another use, the gripping end of the knife is still intact. The entire piece is lightweight and, on the sheath or in a belt clip, as much as eight to 12 feet of additional paracord can be tightly wrapped as backup.

Two Schools of Thought

Paracord Handle Knives
Interested in doing a wrap yourself? You certainly can. The Izula-B Kit includes the paracord wrap (upper right) and cod lock, and also the black molded sheath, large and small split rings, ferro fi re-starting rod, emergency whistle, plastic snap hook and MOLLE lock kit. (RAT photo)

Mike Fuller of TOPS Knives noticed its reputation rising around 2000.

“I first saw it during the Vietnam era, as some guys wrapped paracord around their sheaths just to have some extra cord if needed,” he commented at the time this article was published. “I did see a few homemade jeepspring knives with paracord wrapping.

“There are two schools of thought on the paracord,” Fuller continued. “In an emergency situation, you might have about 10 feet of cord to use for survival applications. In a wet situation, you might have a better grip, and some people feel that it assists when wearing gloves in the field.

“Paracord can in fact tear or become frayed and, if it gets soaking wet in really cold weather, some have said that their handles freeze and coat with ice. Several professional hunters have said that if you are field dressing an animal the blood may get into the cord and it’s difficult to clean and may carry a distinct odor.”

The Secret is the Simplicity

The Yumi (top) and Ya (bottom) from Kanetsune/Kitasho offer paracord-wrapped handles and blades of 15-layer White steel damascus. Each piece comes with a cowhide sheath. Overall lengths: 7.68 and 8.07 inches. (Kanetsune/Kitasho photo)

“People like paracord because it is so simple,” said Justin Gingrich, a consultant with Ontario Knife Co. “It allows them to customize a handle and still have a knife they can carry close to the body. You can wrap, rewrap and even change the cord to match the outfit you’re wearing.

“Paracord allows users to tailor the knife to themselves, beefing the handle up or thinning it out, and, if it gets dirty or frayed or messed up in any way, it’s easy to replace. It will absorb water and hold it, so you don’t want it on an unprotected high-carbon steel knife. You could get rusting issues with water or any other fluids. It will absorb blood if you are hunting, but then again, it’s a give and take since you can change it out pretty quickly.”

Conclusion

As with any knife feature, whether to go with a paracord-wrapped knife handle or not is up to the user. However, many knife collectors enjoy the versatility and customization that paracord offers. Far from a trend, paracord is here to stay as a handle option.

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