A Folding Knife, Your Pocket Companion
Wanting a good knife in your pocket is nothing new. Archaeologists have found evidence that the earliest people not only had stone knives, but also were working to improve them. Ancient people on multiple continents would heat treat the stone in a fire before flaking it so that it was easier to produce better quality edges. Even the idea of the folding knife is nothing new, with Iron Age examples being found that date back over 2000 years. Quite surprisingly, the Romans had a multibladed folder. Today, a good knife is still one of the most useful tools that you can keep in your toolbox, or even better, in your pocket.
That said, the modern folding knife has advanced drastically in the last fifty years. New locking mechanisms are safer and more reliable. Advances in materials allow the creation of much stronger, lighter and more durable designs. Modern, computer controlled production machinery has brought the cost down and consistent quality up to the point that a mass-produced knife can be an excellent tool with a long lifespan.
The first real knife I ever bought was the Kershaw Black Gulch Boy Scout model from the late 80s. It was crazy sharp out of the box and clearly a quality tool to be treated with respect. That knife was in my pocket or pack for years, on many an adventure. Things have certainly changed. These days, Kershaw has a new high-end series of knives, the Zero Tolerance line. They are premium items, with titanium and G-10 handles, as well as ELMAX steel blades that run on a ball bearing assembly so they just glide open.
The ZT 0561 will set you back around $300, but it is a beautiful piece of work.
The blades are laser cut from premium steel.
The high end models are hand assembled in the USA. Even though the Zero Tolerance knives are top of the line tools, they aren’t something that everyone can just run out and buy one of today.
After my original Kershaw, I picked up a fair assortment of knives over the years. After a while, they all seemed to end up in one of three categories: the knives I didn’t like for one reason or another and got rid of, the knives that had either collector or sentimental value, so they didn’t get used and the working knives that went with me everywhere. As far as emergency preparedness is concerned, you want to make sure that you have at least one knife from this last category, a good tool that will be there when needed, but won’t leave you broken hearted if something bad happens to it.
Having a sharp knife at hand will let you cut a rope to make a clothes line on the back porch when the power is out, turn a garbage bag into a poncho so you don’t get soaking wet in the cold rain, cut your jammed seatbelt to get out of a car after an accident and at least a few thousand other useful things. There are a lot of cheap junk knives out there, but with a little hunting, you can find a good working knife at most any price point.
What if your knife budget is only the money you found in your car’s ashtray and under the couch cushions?
The classic working knife on a budget is the Opinel Model 7 in Carbon Steel. This is the blade carried by countless backpackers into the woods over the years. Opinel is a French company that has been making these style knives, with few design changes, for around 120 years. There are multiple models, with the biggest difference being the size. The smaller ones, with the lower model numbers, are just folding knives. The higher numbers, starting with Model 7, incorporate the locking collar.
This knife is less than twelve dollars, shipped, from Amazon.com. There are more expensive versions available if you go with a fancier wood or a larger design, but the #7 with Beech wood handle is a classic. The rotary metal collar locks the blade open or closed with a twist. The round shape of the handle fits well in your hand, but can feel a little bulky in your pocket if you go with one of the larger knives. The Opinel does not have a pocket clip and is designed to keep your spare change and keys company.
A few minutes with an Arkansas whetstone and the carbon steel blade is sharp enough to cut paper. It came with a pretty keen edge from the factory and only a little finish work was needed to get it scary sharp.The blade is not made from stainless steel, but can be with an optional upgrade to one of the fancier models. Keeping a thin coating of oil or wax on the blade will help prevent rust from being a problem. For less than twelve bucks you do not get everything, but what you do get is sharp.
The Opinel is sharp enough to shave fatwood. As you might already know, fatwood is the resin saturated wood often found in the stumps of fallen pine trees. It is also known as lightwood or pitchwood, depending on where you grew up. The good news is that small pile of fatwood sticks or shavings is enough to get any proper fire started. It lights very easily then burns hot and fast. But, a whittling away on a good chunk of old fatwood can almost be like trying to cut a piece of glass, since the resin hardens with age.
What if you found a twenty in your jeans pocket after doing the laundry?
Gerber’s Bear Grylls Survival Series Scout Knife puts you right at the twenty dollar, shipped price point on Amazon.com. It is a small, lightweight design that is big enough to actually cut stuff, but small and light enough to carry well in your pocket. Even though it has “Survival” in the name, this is a lightweight knife. One of the tradeoffs with keeping the weight low and the price down is that the handle does not have any kind of a metal liner. It is largely made from the plastic scales on the sides. It is not a super heavy duty tree chopper that will help you build a life raft, but it works just fine as a general use pocket knife.
The handle is very comfortable in the hand and I like the grippy rubber inserts. If you have large hands, certainly try one before buying it. The pocket clip is well designed and holds the knife in place. The blade is half sharpened and half serrated. There is a thumb stud on both sides for one handed opening. The bright orange handle color would be hard to loose and the rear lanyard hole gives you another option to keep it from disappearing.
According to Gerber, this knife was designed with Boy Scouts in mind. I don’t know if one of the design decisions was to ship it “sharp enough, but not too sharp” from the factory, but the one on my desk didn’t show up as sharp as other Gerber models I’ve seen in the past. But, with a little work, the Gerber B.G. Scout Knife can be brought up to paper cutting standards.
It passed the fatwood cutting assessment as well. The handle provides a firm grip while the front half of the blade certainly works better than the back half for this task. The rear part is designed for cutting through things like nylon seat belts and rope, where the serrations excel at tearing through the multiple fibers of the material.
The Maxpedition Ferox Plain Edge is just under thirty bucks, shipped from Amazon. It was our all around favorite for an affordable work knife. Maxpedition is well known for their high end packs and nylon gear, but they are just starting to get into knives. The Ferox is a surprisingly good first attempt. Rather than just put their brand on an existing model, they started from scratch and built their own. It turns out that Tim Tang, who owns the company, has been a “knife guy” for a while. He was able to work with the factory to get some of the better features of high end knives brought into a folder at an affordable price point.
The scales are fiber reinforced nylon backed by stainless steel liners. There is a lanyard hole on the rear of the knife and a strong pocket clip to help you keep up with it. For opening, there are thumb studs on both sides of the blade and a flipper sticking out of the top. If you haven’t used a knife with a flipper before, it gives you another option to quickly get the blade out with one hand. The easiest way I’ve found to learn how to operate one is to point the closed knife down at the ground, while gripping both sides of the handle, with your finger on top of the flipper. Hold your arm straight and your wrist bent, the just quickly straighten your wrist and press down on the flipper at the same time. After a few tries, you’ll have the technique down.
The Ferox uses a modern liner lock to secure the blade instead of the lockback style that Ron Lake popularized from back in the 1970s until fairly recently. The liner lock is a simpler design, with less moving parts. Which style of lock is the “best” is largely a matter of personal preference, as both work great if done well. The Ferox has absolutely no wiggle in it, either front to back or side to side, when the blade is locked open.
Although it came from the factory with a good cutting edge, a few minutes with the sharpening stone and the Ferox is truly paper cutting, take a few hairs off your arm sharp.
It did well with cutting fatwood and was able to produce some nice curls. The thicker handle really gives you something to hold on to while you cut, while the scalloped edges of the scales keep it comfortable.
The SOG SJ-31 SlimJim for just under forty bucks, shipped from Amazon. This is a hard model to categorize, but I think of it as a “industrial themed gentleman’s knife”. If it came with a brass handle, it could be steampunk. The one piece stainless steel body is based on a classic French design. It has a simple matte finish instead of exotic wood scales and fancy scrollwork, which keeps it affordable. The thin profile is a tradeoff, like everything else in knives, though. The handle is about as thick as two quarters, so it is carries exceptionally well in your pocket. But, that skinny profile gets uncomfortable with constant use. That said, this is a good knife to keep in your pocket or laptop bag if you want a knife on hand just in case, and not one that you will be using all day long.
The pocket clip extends up over the top of the SlimJim’s body and has a large center cutout. This lets the knife disappear in your pocket, yet be handy. This is nice in situations where having a knife is perfectly legal, but swaggering around like Rambo or Crocodile Dundee would be socially acceptable. Since SOG makes this model entirely out of stainless steel, you aren’t going to be sneaking through a metal detector, even if it might work in the movies. The blade has the standard thumb stud on each side, but this is an assisted opening knife. If you lay the knife flat against the side of your index finger and push the thumb stud up in a flicking, “thumbs up” motion, a spring in the handle will give the blade a push open. It takes a little practice to get the technique down.
The SOG was the sharpest factory edge we tested and cut paper without a hitch. It came out of the box sharp enough to shave a bald spot on my arm. The SlimJim also has a sliding rear lock which lets you secure the lockback blade open or closed.
The fatwood test was a non-issue for making paper thin slivers. However, the textured edges of the handle, which make the otherwise smooth stainless steel body safe, become more apparent to your hand, the longer you work. But, for a super thing carry knife, it is certainly worth a look.
What if it turns out that some of that junk in your closet is worth around $50 on Ebay?
The Spyderco Delica runs around fifty bucks from Amazon, depending on which handle color you choose. It has been around for long enough to become a classic lockback knife. This is an older model that I’ve had long enough to be the baseline that I compare other folders against as a basic “is it any good” test. It is my “vanilla ice cream”. When these first came out about a dozen years ago, they were at the cutting edge of knife design and these days just represent a good, fairly basic lockback folder.
The large hole in the handle serves the same purpose as a thumb stud, to allow for one handed opening. The body is a highly textured nylon that is quite stiff. The rear of the knife has a lanyard hole. On the newest models they have improved the pocket clip to make it ambidextrous, so you can mount it to either side of the knife. They have also upgraded the blade to a slightly fancier stainless steel. There have been multiple small changes over the years, as they keep making small tweaks to the same basic design.
After a touch up with the Arkansas whetstone, it was one again sharp enough to cut paper.
The fatwood test was passed with flying colors. The Delica had no problem making a nice little pile of shavings.
All of the knives tested were able to take a sharp edge and hold it well enough to be useful. None of these sub $50 models were perfect, but that is to be expected when looking at knives that balance out features with price point. The trick is to consider what your needs are and then pick a model that has a feature set designed to match. If money is the main issue, then you can’t beat an Opinel for simple and sharp. If you are looking for a simplistic gentleman’s knife that will feel invisible in your pocket, then the SOG Slim Jim is worth considering. If you want more of a heavy duty folder with some features from higher end knives, then the Ferox fits the bill.
In emergency situations, having some basic tools and the knowledge to use them in the proper and sometimes creative manner can make a huge difference. A simple pocket knife can make it much easier to get a fire started when things are cold or damp and you are down to your last match. No matter which folder ends up in your purse or pocket, there is a lot of truth to the saying “the best knife in the world is the one that you have on you when you need it”.