Pack a Pocketknife

Read more about jackknives as a traditional tool among rural folks and some tips for those who’ve never packed a jackknife.

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by AdobeStock/Tiko

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If there ever was a common denominator among rural folks, regardless of the region, it would be the simple jackknife. Maligned and mangled, yet priceless when needed, a folding jackknife is more versatile than most tools. Whether riding in worn overalls, battered barn jackets, or rusty toolboxes, they’re toted by just about everyone who lives out past the town limits. With their basic design, jackknives incorporate a handy cutting edge and sport a conveniently portable shape. The past contains countless examples of jackknives coming to the rescue when folks needed free, easy movement, and a long belt knife was just too awkward. And today, jackknives are just as essential to have while working around your property.

penknife and jackknife next to each other stabbed in to a log

Versatile and Reliable

Traditional jackknives operate with a flat tension spring or slip joint; they don’t lock and can be opened and closed with one hand. While the overall length of the blade can be short, a jackknife can contain multiple blades. This is a feature the heavier locking blade knife doesn’t have, because incorporating a second edge into the strong spring that keeps the blade in place is more difficult.

It’s tough to beat having a good pocketknife while outdoors among the crops. Equal parts pry bar, scraper, screwdriver, and cutting edge, a jackknife steps up in multiple ways. It can cut through rope, leather, and electric wire, and it’s useful for contact cleanup. Plus, it can easily slice up an orchard peach for the grandkids. How can anyone get through a country day without a jackknife?

Few moments in a young farmhand’s memory are as clear as the gruff offer of that first jackknife. Often, it was a simple farm store model you were told to be careful with and keep sharp. You knew you were entering adult territory; a jackknife, just like any other tool, needs respectful caution, and no kid-foolin’.

various jackknives sitting on a log and stabbed in to another

Get Familiar with the Jackknife

If you’ve never packed a jackknife, start with a short model that’s around 2½ to 3 inches long when closed. Handle several models to find a just-right heft. A suitable jackknife should be an effortless, natural extension of your hand. There are jumbo jackknives, but any model longer than 3½ inches will pull you into full-sized styles, the kind you wear in a belt sheath. A useful edge should never be a bother to pack and keep close at hand for quick service. Avoid the clip style, unless you enjoy sewing up your clothes!

jackknives sitting on cut logs

Operating a folding knife is a snap and will quickly become second nature with daily use. Some folks may say the sharp edge can fold back on you, but this would only happen from carelessness or inattentiveness. If you always work the blade away from the hinge, you won’t ever have any trouble. Once the job is over, with fingers clear, hold the jackknife blade-up in one palm, and firmly push the flat back of the blade with your other hand to close it back up. That reassuring snap speaks of confidence and a task completed.

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Understanding the Edge

A quick look at any mercantile display case will reveal jackknife edges suitable for every taste, but probably none is more familiar than the Barlow, the longtime choice of farmhands. Possessing two useful blades, a stout slip joint design, and the look of a working tool, it still sells. A Barlow fits easily in a pocket; offers a master edge with a slim, short secondary blade; and is available everywhere steel is sold.

The Texas Stockman and other double-ended knives are working jackknives with a long rural heritage. These have blades extending from each end, a feature that was once common. Specialty models, such as the carpenter’s jackknife and the grafting knife with its orchardist’s hooked blade, serve their trades well. Other favorites include the Sowbelly, the Canoe, the Congress, and the ever-famous Trapper model, which some adults may recall sitting under a childhood Christmas tree with fondness.

four knives laying in a row

One knife style perhaps best left out of country consideration is the diminutive penknife. Once common on writing tables, they were used for keeping a sharp point on ink quills, and, since they’re so comfortable to pack, many people own one today. But outside of cutting a troublesome thread or facing down an unruly squirrel, you’ll do better to put a larger jackknife into service.

What Determines a Jackknife?

You may have seen the terms “jackknife” and “pocketknife” used interchangeably, and while most of the time this is appropriate, there are some slight differences between the two.

Typically, a jackknife is defined as a large pocketknife, with one or more folding blades, that should be able to comfortably fit in a pocket or similar storage. However, some pocketknives might not be classified as jackknives, such as the penknife, because of its smaller size and lack of broad utility. In general, you can use “jackknife” and “pocketknife” to refer to any folding, compact knife, but in certain contexts, one of these words may be more suitable than the other.

four knives sitting with two knife sheathes on top of a coil of rope

Carrying steel can be a touchy thing outside your property lines, and some jurisdictions are quite particular on what’s considered a pocketknife and what isn’t. Blade length can get you in a world of trouble if the law sees it as a weapon, so be forewarned. I once boarded a flight with my trusty farm folder, and it was touch-and-go for a moment. This was decades back, when authorities were less intense, but nowadays, I wouldn’t dream of bringing it, no matter how underdressed I feel!

Investing in a Blade

Jackknife blades themselves are varied, with monikers such as spey, sheepsfoot, whittler, razor blade, and spear blade, along with various rounded tips. Multi-blade models exist, but two blades seem the common country choice.

How long should your blade be? That’s tough to advise; it’s sort of like saying which is the best tool brand or cattle breed. For daily duty, a master blade of 3½ inches long is adequate, with a smaller secondary edge. And don’t discount the short blade too quickly; some folks reshape it as a substitute screwdriver, or file it to a point for pick prying. Blade handles come in hard plastic, horn, antler (known as “stag horn”), various woods, and even metal, with countless kinds of serrations to ensure a steady grip with no slip.

a jackknife sitting in a toolbox with loose sockets

Do you need to lay out some serious folding money for a serviceable jackknife? Sure, if you want to, but price means little when you’re under a tractor trying to fix a problem. Work-ready steel runs $10 and up, but if you’re brand-conscious, the popular makers charge three figures for good metal and fancy wood. Chances are, you’ll wear it out or, more likely, lose it, so why spend a roll of bills? Jackknives are made to be run hard and require simple care.

With crops to harvest and daylight waning, you find yourself in the all-too-familiar position of needing a tool to do a simple but vital repair. The workshop bench is far across the acreage, and the regular tractor tools are no help. You could trudge back to the barn, out of options … or you could dig out a farm store jackknife, make a few quick adjustments, and restore the machinery once again! Score for the reliable country jackknife – the jack-of-all-trades for rural living.

Edgy Upkeep

A jackknife’s working edge sees plenty of action – sometimes a little too much – leading to a dull edge. I recall many an old-timer simply picking up a handy fieldstone and “brushing ‘er up,” with no real thought for the quality of the job. Yikes! Good steel needs care and constant sharpening. Get yourself one of those palm-sized, rectangular sharpening stones you’d find in a store’s display case or online. Some folks prefer a coarse stone grit, while others like a medium grit, but both grits have something to offer. A rough surface will work out the nicks or other damage a rural edge gets; a finer grit will finish the job with a smooth, sharp, ready-for-work edge. A fine grit file, not the deep rasp you use in the shop, will get the sharp side shiny, but a file must be used with caution. No heavy-handed drawing back and forth! Complete a half-dozen gentle, light swipes, and then finish with the stone.

jackknife laying on work gloves with sharpening tools

Avoid using electricity on your jackknife, because if you want to ruin any steel edge in a hurry, nothing will destroy it faster than cranking up the bench grinder. The high rpm will remove the tempering and destroy your country folder. Use elbow grease, not power tools, for this job!
Touching up a jackknife doesn’t have to be a great mystery. Work the edge with reasonable force, no punishing strokes. Hold the edge at a 20-degree angle in relation to the stone, and push the blade from the hinge up to the tip. Make the same number of strokes on both sides, and test the edge often. Use light, thin oil to maintain smoothness during sharpening. Don’t expect to be instantly successful at it; good tool maintenance takes time and experience. Once the cutting side suits you, wipe down the whole knife, check the slots where the blades rest, and remove any debris. And don’t forget to dot the hinge with some light machine oil to keep it working smoothly.


Cary Rideout is an award-winning author whose work is featured in a variety of publications. When not pulling weeds or picking rocks, he’s often found walking his beloved country hills. Cary shares his love of all things rural with his artist wife Lorain.

  • Updated on Jun 29, 2022
  • Originally Published on Dec 6, 2021
Tagged with: audio article, folding knives, jackknife, penknife, pocketknife, tool
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