Growing up on a farm, the only reason I’d not carry a knife was if I mislaid it. One morning, finding my pockets bare, and with the twine on two dozen hay bales to cut, I fell back on an older technology, a lot older, stopping the Land Rover mid field to bash a flint nodule with a hammer. The resultant flake was far sharper than the blade on my missing brass and rosewood handled lock knife.
Even as a small boy at school I carried a knife. Far from an infringement of the innumerable rules, this was a requirement. I believe there was an expectation that all pupils would be ready and able at any moment to sharpen a blunt pencil. Then again, with a headmaster who might start a summer morning by stating that the lower sixth were scheduled to build a zip wire tower in the afternoon, from scratch, using poles and hemp rope stashed near the mower sheds, a knife was really an essential tool in our day-to-day learning kit.
And an essential tool it has remained. When it comes to kit, a knife is still probably the most important possession for anyone working or travelling outdoors.
So here is my blog about knives – part reminiscence, part informative (I hope)… and part rant.
Heading back one year from a canoe camping trip in Scotland, it was only after I’d walked up to a fuel station counter alongside the M5 that I realised my knife still hung from a cord around my neck. Returning to our red van, shoulders hunched in expectation of a yell of alarm, I struggled with whether to leave the Finnish puuko dangling and very visible, or to risk trying to remove it. Might some holidaymaker interpret this horrifying move as a sign that I was about to go berserk?
Working around a campsite, the uses for a knife are near endless. When afloat, where a potential mishap and tangled foot or arm might be very nasty indeed, an easy to reach blade is a vital piece of safety kit. To any outdoorsman (or woman) this is all pretty obvious, and perhaps I’m only mentioning this to cover the next time I forget to remove my knife in public, perhaps bumping into some nervous or officious individual. It might be useful to be able to refer any enquiry to this post.
We live in strange times. Yes, a knife can be a weapon. Yet so can a chair… in the hands of an idiot. We don’t ban these handy items in public though. If an idiot uses a knife, or a gun… or even a chair to hurt someone, then they should be punished… severely. Penalising anyone who might find a knife handy is beyond me. Yes I know that small pen-knives are fine, and I’m aware that even a fixed blade is ok, should you be able to provide a convincing reason for carrying it – it’s just that I don’t see the need (and the fact that it might come in handy, may well not be seen as convincing enough). So, if any politician should read this – please feel free to come down on the idiot like a ton of legislative bricks, just leave the other 99.8% of the adult population to behave like the grown-ups they are.
Not only do I still carry a knife at all times, I often carry at least two or three. Like all tools, subtle differences can make all the difference, depending on the task.
To try to keep within the law (I really don’t want to be labelled a criminal) my standard knife accompaniment is a small Swiss-Army knife. Without a locking mechanism, the short blade ensures that this handy tool can be carried legally in public (I think – please check the detail of any of these constraints yourself, just to be sure). This is the only knife I have with a stainless steel blade. Although, as the name suggests, these are resistant to rust and staining (due to the addition of chromium), and hold an edge well, they’re not as easy to sharpen as a carbon steel blade. Stainless is all a little cold and clinical, and just too shiny for my liking too.
A blade that can move isn’t always a good idea either, and for any task where I suspect a degree of risk, I also carry an Opinel (in my personal kit bag though – not on me). First made in 1897 by Joseph Opinel, these wonderful French knives are still produced by a company owned by the original founding family. Opinel knives are simple, cheap and extremely effective. With their beach handles and well-crafted carbon-steel blades (0.9% carbon), they are also very beautiful. I consider them a design classic. The locking mechanism ensures that the blade cannot close on your fingers under the strain of a tough or tricky job (yes it can happen, easily at times).
Opinels make fine general camping knives, with the thin blade perfect for cooking. Available in a range of numbered sizes from the minuscule no. 2 (the no. 1 is no longer made) to the crazily huge no. 13, I like the 8. I bought my first in a French market, aged about the same.
In the old days, all Opinels came with a carbon steel blade. Nowadays, these seem to be seen as something of a speciality, named the ‘Carbone’ range. If you don’t want stainless, avoid the Inox blades, inoxydable being the French word for stuff.
The only problem with an Opinel in the camp kitchen is the difficulty in cleaning food residues from the blade slot in the handle. Not much of an issue with spinach or seaweed. Something to have concerns about when cooking fish or chicken.
This is where a good plain fixed blade knife is preferable, the simple shape easy to clean. A fine flexible blade is also a good idea when preparing food, and for camp cooking I have an old K-series Sabatier paring knife, made in the 1950s. Well, cooking is what these iconic knives were designed for after all. This knife usually hangs around my neck in a birch-bark sheath.
All these knives are pretty lightweight though, with obvious restrictions in use. For more demanding work, such as carving, wood-splitting or removing scales from a perch, something more robust is required. For years I employed a cheap (but very well made) Finnish sheath knife, a puuko.
This curly-birch and reindeer antler handled tool was great… it still us, but I’d made the slight mistake of picking a very short blade. I had my reasoning – “If I had intended to hurt anyone, would I really have choosen the shortest blade on offer m’lud?” Paranoia perhaps. The trouble is, a two and a half inch blade really is pretty short.
So, to my latest purchase.
I wanted something simple, but good-looking, with a longer (and less crude) blade than my trusty puuko. As I’ve mentioned, carbon steel is my preference, and the right material would provide the perfect balance of durability – soft enough for easy sharpening, but sufficiently strong and flexible for or all (sensible) tasks. If I could afford it, I also wanted something made by hand, preferably by someone I knew. The result is a 4-inch Woodlander – the knife made by Ben Orford, the leather sheath by the talented Lois. For those in the know, the blade is forged from of 01 tool steel, hardened to 58 Rockwell.
I still use the puuko, especially on or around the sea. Despite the frequent addition of a smear of protective oil, I still worry about spoiling that stunning Orford blade. Not that I’ve marked the puuko blade like this, but better safe than sorry.
And on that theme, a final comment on knives. Try to keep them sharp. Working with a keen blade requires much less force, and should something slip (and it will one day), the painful repercussions are much reduced as a result.