Different types of knives have various strengths and weaknesses, and understanding them will help get rural tasks done safely.
Among the most versatile homestead tools, the knife really shines. From cutting hay bales open to whittling marshmallow sticks for the campfire and processing any number of livestock and wildlife, this is one tool that is irreplaceable in country living.
I’ve carried pocket knives all my life for help with everything from cutting baling twine to processing deer and cleaning quail. I still remember the first pocket knife my Uncle Fred gave me as a young boy learning to whittle wood around a hackberry campfire. Along with that knife came one of the first lessons I remember about paying close attention when using some of the most useful, revered tools around us.
Knives have been with us in some form since at least the Stone Age. Look in any knife catalog, and you’ll find a bewildering array of options. If you thoroughly consider your cutting needs, there’s a knife category that has you covered.
Our primitive ancestors first used wedge-shaped rocks, shells, bones and other materials to fashion the earliest hunting knives. They could attach these sharp edges — often sharpened using stone, a sharpening tool we still use today — to wooden handles and other materials, and use the tool for hunting itself or for cutting up meat and skins after successful hunts.
No doubt, this innovation was an important tool for the human race, and knives continue their evolution today.
The four types of knives you’ll typically encounter are the fixed blade, folding knife, butterfly knife and sliding knife, and styles, sizes and uses are as varied as the bladesmiths who make them.
Probably the most famous of the fixed-blade variety is the Bowie knife, and the fixed-blade style is considered one of the most reliable styles in our repertoire. You find these on the dinner table, at the butcher shop, in the woodshop, the list goes on. The steel blade consists of one piece of metal that either dovetails into the handle or runs the length of the handle — or even beyond. The “tang” is the term used to refer to the part of the blade that connects to the handle, and much of the quality and durability of the knife depends on the style and material of the tang. The best fixed blades are solidly constructed knives that offer no surprises and good durability.
What the fixed blade lacks in convenience, the folding knife offers, since it can be folded and slipped into a pocket or other carrying space. Folding knives often have a locking mechanism that aims for the same stability and confidence of a fixed-blade knife. Individuals select locking mechanisms based on things like ease of use, stability and safety of the locking system, and durability of the mechanism.
Butterfly knives, also known as balisongs or fan knives, are a type of folding knife with two counter-rotating handles around the tang of the blade that can lock into place and conceal the blade.
The most common form of the sliding knife that most of us have encountered is the sliding utility knife, or the box cutter.
Here’s where the category of knives becomes far more specialized, and it’s also where knives take on a lot more meaning to the owner. Knives are obviously a diverse group of tools, and there are designs for such things as weapons, sporting equipment, religious implements and more. I’ll primarily focus on the utensil and tool categories, and a few of the specific types for our purposes around the homestead.
A favorite tool that has been with me for many years is my skinning knife. It’s significant to me because none of my other knives is as well-suited for the task of field dressing and skinning a deer as that knife. Others may feel this way about a special boning, chopping, filleting, carving, paring or coring, peeling, or bread knife.
Skinning knives often carry the blade profile known as trailing point, where the back edge of the blade, the spine, actually curves up as you reach the point. Because of this, the point is situated out of the way and since these knives have a lot of belly, the curve created concentrates the cutting edge and allows it to be more maneuverable and able to conform to complex curves — characteristics that make it effective for separating hide and fat from meat and bones.
Boning knives are regular kitchen utensils that feature a sharp point and a narrow blade. They usually take on the normal or straightback blade profile. The slender blade makes precision easier, especially when dealing with deep cuts and holes. Most prefer stiff boning knives when boning out beef and pork, and more flexible boning knives when dealing with poultry and fish.
Another among my favorite types of knives is the fillet knife, and I actually prefer this to our boning knives when I am cutting up deer meat. When working with venison, it’s imperative to carefully remove all the sinew, which helps prevent some of that gamey taste people sometimes notice. The flexibility and strength of the fillet knife are perfect for this since it’s similar to working down the backbone of a fish.
Fillet knives come in four standard sizes: 4, 6, 7 1/2 and 9 inches. If you’re typically working with crappie or bluegill, a 4-inch fillet knife is effective and won’t offer much extra blade that could result in unintentional cuts. A good all-around fillet knife, if you can only have one, is 7 1/2 inches. These knives should be flexible, and a good rule of thumb is that it should pass the 1-inch test: If you press the knife straight down on the point and apply pressure, the blade should bend an inch or more in either direction. Fillet knives are often made of stainless steel. Choose a brand you trust that produces blades strong, durable and resistant to corrosion.
When thinking of processing cutlery, some folks may think of the cleaver. Cleavers are large knives designed for sustaining repeated blows to a tough edge of the knife, not necessarily for slicing through meat. The real strength of and intended use for the cleaver is chopping through heavy bones — and coming back for more tomorrow.
Paring knives are another general purpose knife well-used and well-represented in indoor and outdoor work alike. The term “hunting knife” is thrown about generally, and in fact many of what people call hunting knives are also paring knives. Paring knives generally carry the straightback blade profile. They are ideal for small, intricate work like removing pepper seeds, deveining shrimp, peeling an orange and the like. They’re similar to a chef’s knife, in fact, only much smaller and more versatile.
Though the term has taken on new meaning in recent decades, utility knives can be anything from the folding pocket knife one carries on a daily basis, a fixed-blade general utility knife carried on a belt and used for anything from cutting hides and cordage to cutting an apple at lunchtime, or the sliding-blade cutter generally referred to as a utility knife or box cutter today and used in construction settings and factories. Multitools fit into this category, as well as the Swiss Army knife.
Utility knives in general can be our favorites; they’re the jack-of-all-trades knives that get us through our daily routine, yet they’re the master of no task in particular.
No matter the knives you choose to help make life easier on your end, one important thing to note is that it’s imperative to keep them sharp. A dull knife is a dangerous knife, and knowing when to restore your edge could be the difference between a job done well and safely and, well, an accidental slip-up that you regret for years.
Keep your edges sharp, and use knives you trust that are suitable to your application, and these old tools will serve you for years to come.
Managing Editor Caleb Regan has used a Buck Alpha Hunter for years, along with several brands of pocket knives. He diligently keeps the edge on all of them with a combination bench stone and a soft Arkansas stone.
Typically found on light-duty pocket knives. The open blade isn’t actually locked in position, but instead is held in place by a strong backspring that pushes the blade toward the open or closed position.
Mechanically locks in the open position. Sometimes incorporates a rolling lock plate visible on the backside of the knife.
One of the most common types today. Allows for disengaging the lock with one hand. These are the folders where a liner runs inside the frame of the handle, and when the blade is open, butts up against the tang of the blade, locking it in the open position. To disengage, move the liner to the side and close the blade.
Similar to the liner lock, only the lock itself is a tensioned part of the handle frame. When the blade is opened, the frame lock moves into place and locks against the tang of the blade.
Contrary to what you see in the movies and even sometimes on front porches or around campfires across the country, the pocket knife is not the ideal tool for woodcarving.
Most often woodcarving knives incorporate the sheepsfoot style of blade. Length will depend on your style and intended uses. The standard blade size is 1 to 1 1/2 inches, but can vary from 3/4 of an inch up to 2 inches or more.
Edge maintenance will improve with the hardness of the material. The harder the material, the longer a sharp edge stays with a blade, but it’s also harder to create the sharp, smooth edge as the hardness increases. Finding the compromise is key.
Caleb Regan and his wife, Gwen, live in rural Douglas County, Kansas, where they enjoy hunting, fishing, and raising and growing as much of their own food as they can. Caleb can’t imagine a better scenario than getting to work on a rural lifestyle magazine as a profession, and then living that same lifestyle right in the heartland of America. Connect with him on Google+.
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