Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Pocket Knife

Any Boy Scout will tell you – one of the most useful items to have on hand is a good pocket knife. Pocket knives are also a great holiday gift, even for the person ‘who has everything’. The variety of patterns, manufacturers, and materials available means that a knife can be a very personalized gift, and having more than one doesn’t mean redundancy.

There has always been a great variety of tools that fall into this category, but with the advent of multi-tools, one-handed opening knives, etc., there are more to choose from today than ever before. The field is so broad, in fact, that for present purposes I’ll only focus on the more traditional pocket or pen knife, and leave the multi-tools, locking knives, custom-made, and fixed blades for future discussion.


Modern pocket knives trace their lineage back to the English Jack or Barlow pattern. A ‘pattern’ is a style of knife, generally distinguished by the number of blades and their shapes. Patterns have names such as Whittler, Muskrat, Pen, Doctor’s, Gentleman’s, Trapper and Stockman - sometimes alluding to their intended function, their intended user, or their appearance. Traditional pocket knives are also sometimes called ‘slipjoint’ knives, referring to the fact that they generally do not have a locking mechanism, requiring release before the knife can be closed.

Schatt and Morgan English Jack from Cumberland Knife Works

The Barlow, the most basic pocket knife, consists of one or two blades that fold into the handle. Both blades are hinged to the same end of the knife, and open in the same direction. The handle of the knife is reinforced with a metal collar, or bolster, which is usually made from nickel silver, stainless, or chromed steel. An English Jack knife is essentially the same as a Barlow, but often has bolsters at both ends.

In fact, the English Jack knife is one of my two favorite patterns. It is simple, nicely sized, and has a pedigree back to the earliest pocket knives made. My other favorite is the equal-ended Whittler, which we’ll look at next.

Schatt and Morgan Equal-End Whittler from Cumberland Knife Works
In addition to blade configuration, other considerations in buying a pocket knife include manufacturer, materials, and aesthetic appeal.
There are many pocket knife manufacturers out there – but fewer than there used to be. Old stand-by companies like Schrade and Wenger have folded or been bought by other companies. It is probably safe to say that the most collected maker is Case, with a huge following and well documented production history. At knife shows, Case collectors easily outnumber collectors dedicated to any other single brand.

My favorite brand is Queen, and their premium subsidiary Schatt and Morgan. I feel that their design and value is top notch, and that their knives both work well and are attractive. They are located in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and are made in the USA.

Other collected makes include German Eye, Hen and Rooster, Boker, and Buck, to name a few. Swiss Army style knives from Victorinox and Wenger are also very practical and highly collectable, and are also a good low-cost entry point into the hobby.
Different makers often employ different materials. Pocket knives can have handles or ‘scales’ made of antler, bone, wood, polymer, or other synthetics. Many collectors prefer stag antler, or bone that is ‘jigged’ or grooved to look like stag. Bone and stag are very attractive, and work well, but cost a bit more and may be more prone to cracking or shrinkage than wood or synthetic materials. Bolsters that reinforce joints can be silver, nickel-silver, steel, or other metal – and again, more expensive materials are often desirable but come at a premium.

Blade steel is often a topic that can bring out long discussions of minutiae among collectors. In general, reputable makers and dealers carry knives that will perform well. Better makers make reasonably priced knives with blades of stainless 440 series steel. Some brands also make available higher grades of stainless steel, such as D2, ATS-34 or S30V – or carbon steels like 1095.

While a hole that can bury a budding collector, developing collectors might take more interest in steel. A great resource is Joe Talmadge’s Steel FAQ. Steel formulation for knives is a tradeoff between three factors: corrosion or stain resistance, edge holding, and strength. A rule of thumb for beginning collectors is Buy well regarded brands from a reputable dealer, and you’ll be fine.

On that note, where do I get my knives? I prefer to shop from Cumberland Knife Works. They carry Case, Queen, Schatt and Morgan, and others. Their website is a great place to browse, because you can search by brand or pattern, to get a good idea of what is out there. They are a dealer who stocks reliable knives, and can be trusted to sell you a good-using knife.

For collectors looking specifically for Swiss Army knives, I recommend Central Valley Wholesale, an authorized Victorinox dealer who has patterns you can’t find at the local discount store.

In my pocket? That Schatt and Morgan equal-ended Whittler up there. Nice shape, sharp blades, bone scales, and only 100 made in that color. The green is gone, but you can still get Amber and Winterbottom colored scales. Although it set me back $69, I’ll likely be passing it on to the next generation. Not a bad deal.


Blogger jgodsey said...

SInce I became a binder, I have never been without a pocket knife. Sometimes several. I can NOT simply walk into a gov't building anymore. once time i think i had 5 in my purse. My favorite above all others is the simple Stanley 10-049. If i loose it - no sweat. I have 8 others. the blade can be sharpened or replaced and WILL hold an edge. So If i need one to do the duty of an exacto, I simply hone it finer. the only drawback is that it doesn't have a loop ring. but it's so slim, it fits in any pocket comfortably.
all that for 8.99

6:51 AM  

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