Editor's Note: This article was originally submitted as one piece. Due to its length and the large amount of information involved, it's been broken into two parts for publication. This is part two. A link to part one is at the bottom. - - -
In Part One of this article series we opened our discussion about folding knives and which design characteristics should be taken into consideration when you're purchasing such for duty use. The topics we discussed in part one were:
- Fixed-Blade or Folder?
- Blade Shape
- Blade Length
- Serrated or Plain Edge?
- Manual Opening or Automatic?
- Lock Types
- Comfort and Fit
- Handle Material
Now let's take a look at a few other items you need to consider as you make your knife purchasing decision.
Manufactured vs. Custom vs. Branded
There are thousands of custom knife makers out there today, many of them making absolutely jaw-dropping, gorgeous pieces. Their knives start at hundreds of dollars and go up - way up - from there. But custom makers have the same steels and other raw materials to work with that the large-scale manufacturers do. So what can you get when you spend a couple weeks pay on a custom knife that you can't get with a good manufactured knife? You get a true custom design - a one-of-a-kind or a one-of-a-few. You get exotic materials for the scales or handle if you want, and you can get Damascus steel - an "art" form of steel that's folded over and over on itself, much like a pizza crust is folded and stretched over and over. You may get an extra measure of fit and finish, but that's questionable. Modern knives from the majors are CNC machined to tolerances that NASA can live with. The fit of these manufactured knives can be extraordinary. A lone maker, working in his or her shop, may be able to duplicate that level of fit, but it's difficult to exceed it. Of course, a custom maker can always add an extra measure of polish or cosmetic finish to the materials, but that's not functional. Bottom line here: custom knives are for their "art" value, their collectible value, or for someone who is a serious knife geek and can truly appreciate the intangibles of the piece.
Manufactured knives from the major manufacturers are of extremely high quality these days. A $60 folder today far exceeds - in materials and construction - anything that your grandfather could even envision. Go with a manufactured knife, as a rule. (As the best of both worlds, many manufacturers are now collaborating with custom makers to mass produce their designs, with some very nice knives as a result.)
Now there are two kinds of manufactured knives. These that are sold under the manufacturer's name (Cold Steel, Spyderco, Columbia River Knife & Tool, Benchmade, Gerber, Buck, Kershaw, Camillus, KA-BAR, Emerson... the list is extensive) and those that are manufactured by who-knows-who and branded by a company that clearly does not make their own knives. Harley-Davidson does not make knives. Most gun manufacturers don't make knives. Ditto with ammunition manufacturers. These companies license their brand name to a knife manufacturer who then distributes and sells them, and these licensees have to add a little cost to each knife to cover the brand fee. So brand licensed knives are, just on the economics of the situation, always going to be a little more expensive for the same quality of knife than you could get without the brand name attached. Moreover, branded knives are often (although not always) targeted at a non-knife market that buys them for their brand association rather than for the knife's inherent quality. Bottom line here: some branded knives are actually quite good - I carry a Smith & Wesson Rescue Tool on my duty belt - and some are not. Be careful.
Folding knives consist of a blade and a handle into which they fold. That handle can be made of a metal body alone, materials such as fiberglass or plastic alone, or fiberglass or plastic scales with metal liners. The liner method is more expensive, and can, but doesn't always mean a better or stronger knife. All three methods can give you a very good knife for our purposes.
The knife body itself can be held together by rivets or Torx screws. Rivets are obviously less expensive for the manufacturer, and generally mean a knife of lesser - but not necessarily unacceptable - quality over a knife with screw construction. (Most folders with screw construction use Torx-head screws, because the Torx head provides more torque than a Phillips or slot screw head would on the tiny screws used in folding knives. You will want to go to your local hardware store and invest in a set of Torx driver if you are really into knives - they aren't very expensive.) Either method is OK, with screw construction preferable.
The pivot pin of a folder is usually adjustable, but a rivit is sometimes used for the pivot pin rather than a screw to make a less expensive knife. Such knives can be of acceptable quality or not, but they are clearly not opening-tension adjustable the way screws are.
Usually there is a Teflon or brass washer on the pivot pin between the blade and each side of the handle. More expensive knives may use a bushing system, and all of these mechanisms are quite acceptable.
Forged vs. stock removal
Forged steel is steel that starts out as a blob and is beat (with a hammer) into the shape desired, including knives. This is a very expensive process and is usually done only by custom knife makers who believe it gives the blade magical properties (which you can believe if you want to.) Stock removal is the process of cutting and grinding knives from bars of steel, and this is how all reasonably priced manufactured knives are made.
Some blades are polished bright, some have a satin finish, and some have black coatings of various types. The finish on your blade is a purely cosmetic issue, unless you are trying to exercise reflected light discipline (which is futile in uniform with all the shiny stuff we carry and wear, but potentially an issue with SWAT.)
We have saved perhaps the most important item for last. You wouldn't buy a gun and not buy a cleaning kit and learn how to use it (OK, you might have done this but you shouldn't.) Any knife will go dull, and have to be re-sharpened repeatedly. Sharpening a knife is easy with the right tool. All you have to do is hold the right angle (about 20 degrees) and stroke the knife over the hone several times (usually about 10 to 30 times.) Most people manage to screw this up by:
- not holding the right angle
- using a hone of the wrong grit, or
- being impatient.
There are four main ways to sharpen a knife. You can use a stone, and the stone should be as long as the blade is. The best stones are the combination India/Crystolon stones from Norton, and the one to buy for all of your needs is the IC11. This number is 11-inches long, not very expensive, and has the right grits to put a general purpose edge on your LE utility knife. Many custom makers use this stone. It needs to be lubricated with a thin oil as you use it (WD-40 is ideal.)
You can use a rig. Rigs have their hones arranged so that it's easy for you to get the right angle. The original and still a favorite is Spyderco's Triangle Sharpmaker. Just follow the directions and it's foolproof.
You can use a hand hone - essentially a large file. Recommended here are Diamond Machining technology's DuoFold hones. Pick up an Extra Coarse (black) / Coarse (blue) flat DuoFold and a Fine (red) conical file. These are ideal for field use, since they are so light and small. Read the instructions - even you guys, and despite the fact that we're cops!
Finally, you can use an electric sharpener. Chef's Choice makes several models that are not too expensive, and I use them to sharpen everything from my pen knives to machetes.
Yes, you can spend as much on a sharpener as on a good knife, but what's the alternative? You have to re-sharpen your knife sometime and somehow. Besides, any good sharpener will be used by your grandchildren - they are a one-time investment.
You must understand the difference between edge sharpness and edge smoothness. It is conceivable to have a very sharp edge that's rough (that is, micro-serrated.) The edge's sharpness depends on the angle to which it's honed. The edge's smoothness depends on the grit that's used to sharpen it and the kind of steel the blade is made of. Edge smoothness also depends on the size of the carbides and granular structure of the steel (large carbides will always yield a rougher edge than small ones, hence CPM steels can generally be ground smoother than other steels.) You will always want to get your knife sharp, but how smooth or rough you want it depends on what you want to cut. A very smooth edge - no matter how sharp - will have trouble slicing fibrous materials like rope, although it will shave hair from your arm and slice little ribbons of free-hanging paper easily. All of the sharpening systems above will deliver a sharp edge with a working general-purpose level of smoothness, and all have the ability to get the edge even smoother if you want.
Like we said at the beginning of part one: pick any knife that's comfortable in your hand, has a simple blade shape from 2.75 to 4 inches in length, comes from a major manufacturer, and costs no less than $45 (unless you find a genuine bargain.) You can spend more, but once you get past $120 or so, you are usually buying prestige or very subtle performance increases. As cops, we don't have the demands on our knives that the military does, and we'd like to not cry if we lose ours. I have my pick of knives. I have manufacturers knives here in the $250 range, and custom knives costing several times more. The two utility folders I almost always carry, though, are very simple affairs, costing less than $100.