Knives are one of mankind’s oldest tools and one of the most versatile. In this article, David Wooley shows how with proper use and care a good knife will last a lifetime or more.
The three major attributes that one wants in a knife alloy are strength, hardness and corrosion resistance. Many metals and their alloys have been tried through the ages, but steels are the only alloys that give a good balance of the three qualities at a reasonable price. Steels have the advantage of being able to be hardened once the knife has been formed to its desired shape. Steels vary widely, carbon steel offers good strength and hardness although it will rust over time unless well cared for; stainless steel is as strong and nearly as hard as carbon steel; and almost impervious to most common corrosives. Most knives on the market are stainless unless otherwise marked, and for most people who just want a good dependable blade, stainless steel is probably the way to go. Wootz steel, or Damascus steel, as it is often improperly called, is quite attractive but has no real advantage and costs much more. (It is often carbon steel, not stainless.)
The next thing that should be considered when buying a knife is style or type of blade. This mainly depends on the use. If you are looking for a knife for whatever need arises then go with something that has a simple design with a slight back sweep, small to medium size, durable handle (synthetics are probably the toughest but not as attractive as wood or antler). And, most importantly of all, consider comfort. If a knife is not comfortable in your hand then using it will be a chore. For a good knife, expect to pay between $50 and $200. In general a knife less than $50 is probably not great quality and most more than $200 are handmade, so you will be paying for artistry not better quality.
Maintaining a knife is important to its proper function. If you have a stainless steel blade then rusting is not a worry, with carbon steel be sure to dry it after use and apply a thin coat of oil to the blade periodically. If you are using your knife to cut food, be sure to use a light cooking oil and not a petroleum based oil. Most synthetic handles should not require any maintenance. Natural handled knives should not be washed in the dishwasher or left soaking in water as it can cause the wood to swell and split. Just hand wash the entire knife with soap and water.
Sharpening is a very important part of maintaining a useful knife. There are a number of different kinds of sharpeners on the market, but many are not worth the time or money. Some are just bad for the blade, leaving the cutting edge jagged and rough. A good flat sharpening stone is the best way to get a good edge on a blade, but sharpening with a stone requires some practice to master. If you do not have the time for a flat stone then there are other options that have many of the same advantages. The kit at left is basically a jig to hold the knife as you run small flat stones over it at a set angle.
Regular flat stones are of two varieties: oilstones and water stones, depending on what fluid is used to lubricate the sharpening action. Oilstones do not wear out as quickly, but water stones sharpen faster and leave a finer edge. Oilstones only need a little oil on top when sharpening, wipe off any excess oil when finished and store. Water stones need to be soaked in clean water for about 10-15 minutes before using. You will also need to keep water on the top while sharpening, store them dry and avoid getting any oils on them. A Japanese water stone is natural stone that has been milled to uniform grit and pressed back together; they are some of the best sharpening stones you can get.
When choosing a stone, consider grit. Grit is the size of the particles that make up the stone. The higher the number the finer the particles; 80 grit(#) is about like beach sand. At the least you need two stones, one around 800# and another anywhere from 3500# to 5000#. Many Japanese water stones have both grits on one stone, one on either side. By sharpening first with the coarse grit (800#) you remove any major dings and grind the edge back to the proper shape. The finer grit (4000#) polishes the edge and removes the microscopic burrs that would otherwise quickly break off and dull the edge.