Useful information for knife novices

I freely confess that I don’t know much about fine knives.  I come from Africa, where the most common ‘bush knife’ is a machete-type blade (in southern Africa, we called it a panga), often made out of old car or truck leaf springs (those from Mercedes-Benz trucks being particularly prized).  Here’s how one US backyard blacksmith made one.  His technique is very similar to what I’ve seen in Africa.

A machete like that can serve as a bush knife, and also replace a small hatchet or axe.  (They also make fearsome fighting knives, almost like short swords . . . I’ve seen that, too.)  Smaller African sheath knives ran the gamut from ‘designer’ blades, brought in (often at great expense) from the USA or Europe, to cheap Mora knives from Sweden (my personal favorite).  The latter were regarded as ‘throwaway’ blades;  you used one until it went blunt or broke (they’re not very thick or strong), then threw it away and replaced it with another one.  That approach served me well for some years.

Since coming to America two decades ago, I’ve noticed a distinct difference.  Here, many people who spend a lot of time outdoors seem to also spend a lot of money on name-brand knives, optimized for purpose (skinners, camp knives, survival knives, etc.).  The simple, versatile machete isn’t as widely used, being partly replaced by tomahawks and camp hatchets, as well as more specialized blades.  (If I have to cut down a small tree or prepare firewood, I’m as likely to use a machete as an axe, because that’s what we did in Africa;  but here that’s regarded with misgiving.  Wood is cut with an axe.  Brush is cut with a machete.  That’s the way of things.)

Also, the nature of blades – their steel, their shape and their maintenance – is something of a religion in America, whereas in Africa (at least in my experience) it was much more hit-or-miss.  Need to sharpen your blade?  Over there, you picked up a suitable stone from a stream or river bed and went at it.  Fancy operators used proper sharpening stones, but they were heavy to carry through the African bush for any length of time, particularly if you carried everything you needed on your back.  However, outside that continent, if I offered to sharpen a high-quality blade such as a Randall, Fallkniven or Boker using a river stone, I’d probably be excommunicated from the knife fraternity on the spot – and possibly physically assaulted by the knife’s owner, too!  I’ve been quietly amused by the amount some people are willing to spend on specialist knife sharpening tools and equipment.  I daresay the top-end stuff, such as this electric sharpening tool, does an excellent job . . . but I can’t help thinking I could buy a dozen Mora bush knives for the same amount, which I’d never need to sharpen – I’d just replace each one as it wore out!

I’ve been helped to understand the complexity of the subject by two articles at the Lansky Sharpeners blog.  Yes, I know it’s written to help advertise and sell a commercial product, but it still contains useful information.  The two articles in question are:

If you, like me, aren’t an expert at this sort of thing, you’ll find much useful information there, and in the rest of their articles.  Recommended reading, and a public service for which Lansky deserves our thanks, IMHO.



  1. I think it's more a reflection of social class and income than anything else, and whether you view the use you put knives to as a leisure activity or as work. Thus an upper-middle-class manager who makes more than $100K per year and hunts a couple of times a year only will spend comparatively more on a quality knife that he will use infrequently, whereas a working-class man who hunts every weekend during the season to provide meat for his family and helps his buddies process theirs, as well, will more like buy a cheaper knife and use if far more often, and be less sentimental over using it.

    Likewise a fly fisherman will likely have a nicer filet knife than a commercial fisherman or worker in a fish house.

    Combat knives? When they carried actual fixed-blade combat knives, the grunt, infantryman, whatever you might call him, would be content with an issue knife such as a contract Ka-Bar, whereas a SEAL or Green Beret, with more money and status, would go for a Randall (indeed, it was a stereotype that all Special Forces had to own a Rolex, a Randall Knife, and a star-sapphire pinky ring). These days they more often carry a tactical folder.

  2. While I am not immune to the lure of a beautifully crafted work of art in blade form, for daily use around the house or shop I generally use an eight inch kitchen knife. You can pick one up for a couple of bucks at Goodwill or the like. My main criterion is a tang that runs the length of the handle.

  3. I like Mora knives. They're ugly and cheap, but they seem to work well. I have several that I keep in places I may need them.

    1. You take that back! My Mora is beautiful, tyvm, plastic handle and all. *jk*
      Seriously though, I actually kinda like the look of my two mora knives (companion carbon and companion heavy duty carbon -*very* thick blade on the heavy duty-) but that might be because they're all I could justify spending on a sheath knife right now… But either way, I'm quite fond of them. They don't seem to like being used to "whittle" Ipe though. (Quotation marks because Ipe is not a wood that the term "whittle" really applies to…it dinged the edge of my heavy duty mora. I was a bit startled when I saw that! Devil wood. Beautiful, but…devil wood. *grumbling noises*)

  4. SF guys also tend to own a Jeep and a motorcycle. I can only speculate as to trends in personally owned weapons. That would be interesting.

  5. I think I fall in the collector category. I like knives, so I own a few. I don't own a Randall, but I do own a Fairbarin-Sykes. I have a nice waterstone sharpening set that I use on the good kitchen knives and wood chisels. My daily carry, a Leatherman, and an old hunting knife that lives in the shop get a quick touch with the belt sander when needed. I never thought of Mora as throwaway, inexpensive and good quality, but not throwaway. Maybe I haven't used one up yet 😉

  6. As to an electric sharpener, I have one which I use a couple times a year. My wife is a gourmet cook and uses lots of different knives in her cooking. I also sharpen our steak knives, my fillet knives, hunting knives, etc. I have a Lansky set, but the electric sharpener is so much faster, that I seldom use the set anymore. BIG time saver. Oh, and as to cutting trees? I have a thing called a chain saw–much faster than an axe. Love your blog. Also your books. I think I have read all but the cowboy ones and the last space one.

  7. I recall a story some years ago about a gentleman on his first African safari. The guide helpers carried bush knives to dress out the shot game and would during the processing throw a bit of sand on a flat log to touch up the edge periodically as they worked. Without thinking he offered them his razor sharp custom hunting knife thinking they could do an entire animal without pausing to address the edge. Not so, them being creatures of habit. Every few minutes they paused to touch up the edge whether it needed it or not. His fine custom blade was much the worse for wear before he could get it back from them.

  8. Like virtually everything else, fancy knives have had a huge boost from the US high standard of living. We can afford things that are mostly just pretty variations on a theme. Great, it provides a living (or not) to some guy who wants to make fine beautiful objects. Do they work any better? Maybe. A little. If the owner is actually willing to use them, and then sharpen them
    My almar sere has been sharpened a lot on river stones. Cutting sandy cargo net will dull anything in a few cuts…

  9. Heh. You use the phrase "top-end stuff" then the link to an "electric sharpening tool" goes to a Work Sharp. Cute.

    A real "electric sharpening tool" is a Tormek, and not just any Tormek; it has to have a $400 4000 grit Japanese water stone wheel in place of the proletarian 220 grit wheel it comes with to qualify (one "does an edge" while the other sharpens. Harrumph…). One cannot possibly trim fat from Kobi beef without a $400 kitchen knife artisanally-sharpened on an $800 water stone sharpener also equipped with a leather honing wheel. Anything less and the other members at the country club will make you park your Bentley behind the building, where it won't detract from their Rolls-Royces. (And that $800, BTW, doesn't include any of the sharpening jigs you'll need. Or that $400 water stone.)

    Seriously, though, if one has a chance to pick up a Tormek at a good price – estate sales where the deceased was a big hobby woodworker are good places to look – jump on it, especially if one has other stuff to sharpen,such as chisels, gouges, etc. That it does such a superb job on knives is merely one of the joys of owning fine equipment.

    Were my weekend activities centered around batoning with a $20 Gerber or deer-whittling with a Mora, I'd go with Peter's river rock solution, or maybe a diamond sharpener, but if you've got a really good knife you'll very much appreciate having an excellent edge on it.

  10. Thank you for the knife links. We have quite a few knives, I confess myself to be a knife addict. Far too many to be a favorite, but a SAK is on my keychain and in my pocket. Steel is pretty soft, but the uses of the multiple blades makes it too useful to stay home.

    We live in the thorny south Texas desert, and concur that the machete is the blade of choice for this area. Vast majority of hardwoods, so bushcraft 'batonning' (splitting wood hammering blade into end of branch) will likely only damage blades. Not much need for hatchets for wood (unless you are really in need of conserving space / weight) full size axe. A kukri is a useful blade that replaces the hatchet here – in fact more handy than the hatchet.

  11. Peter,

    The tradition of the knife/hatchet combination can be credited to two men: George W Sears (writing as Nessmuk) and Horrace Kephart.

    These two men were the leading outdoor writers in the late 19th and early 20th century. They wrote and demonstrated that an outdoorsman going light could do quite well with three knives: Folding pocket knife, a small fixed blade for skinning, and a good quality hatchet. Carried with a small pack and rifle, a mas could be self sufficient moving through the woods. Add a full sized ax, and a man could spend a year or more in the wild. Horace Kephart spent a year alone in the Smokey Mountains with just that amount of gear.

    That system of wildcraft was read of and learned by most of the hunting fraternity of that time-and millions of magazine readers. As in all things, it worked well because it was a carefully thought out systemic approach to going light in the woods.

    Moral: good writing influences events even 100 years hence. The thought process and advice of these two writers is quite useful today, particularly in the northern and eastern forest.

    Glen in Texas

  12. Mora knives are very cost effective. Even more so when you buy them by the pallet.

    Some of the businesses with spread-out facilities did a bit of calculation… since a Mora can be jammed into all kinds of things and used as a flat-blade screwdriver or whatever, ONCE… well. With "first world" hourly employee cost, if it saves a walk to the toolbox and damages nothing else, it's almost always worth using and discarding a Mora. So, carry three and refill when next to a toolbox.

    As to the sharpening thing… funny how certain kinds of all-natural river stones can occasionally be sold as very expensive sharpening tools. Yes, I was taught what to look for…

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