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What makes up a good knife

Discussion in 'Non-Firearm Weapons' started by 12GA00buck, Mar 13, 2008.

  1. 12GA00buck

    12GA00buck Well-Known Member

    Evening Gentlemen,

    It’s been awhile since I last posted; I’d like to hash out what makes a good knife.

    Blade steel: Stainless or carbon doesn’t really matter; if you use carbon steel you just need to be careful to keep a light coat of oil on the steel in wet environments. Modern stainless steels are often harder than old carbon steel blades. That being said the high end carbons steels generally have the potential to be hardened to higher Rockwell numbers. Given the choice I’ll take carbon for no other reason than to be traditional, however, it does not really effect my choice. Any steel hardened between 58-62 HRC is about right for a good knife. Stainless steels I prefer are VG-10 and 154cm/ATS-34, 440C is also good. With the advent of diamond hones I don’t see any reason to use anything softer. If I was limited to natural Arkansas stones I would prefer something in the 56-58 HRC range.

    Blade Geometry: This is as, or more, important than the brand, steel or anything else. Flat ground blades work best for just about everything, it’s the reason good kitchen knives cut so well. The spine should be just thick enough to be durable, too thick a knife will limit it’s cutting ability; this is one of my primary criticisms of ‘tactical’ knives. Saber grinds are durable, however, they get wedged trying to cut anything thicker than the primary bevel. I ran into trouble using a spyderco delica when cutting potatoes; I used (and wore out) a course diamond hone making the blade flat ground; it now cuts very well. Hollow grinds are used because they’re cheaper to produce. The only real use I see for hollow grinds is on shaving straight razors. There okay on hunting knives, but will need to be reground after time. I have not tried them yet, but I gather the Swedish mora knives, although they have a saber grind, cut well because of the thin edge and acute angles. I plan on trying one of the larger Moras for skinning knife. For blade length 3-4 inches works well for me. I know very little about fighting knives so I’ll let someone else talk about those, I think about 6 inches should be good. I usually choose about 20 degrees for my primary bevel on knives. Drop point knives are a good general purpose/ hunting design; they have a good belly for slicing. Clip point blades are very useful when you need a fine point. I find the combination of a larger drop point and a smaller clip point serves all my needs. I have not used a convex blade, although I here there very good also, maybe someone else can comment. I think its best to save chopping for a more efficient tool like a hatchet/axe and save your knife for finer cuts, hence I don’t see the need for large heavy knives. I haven’t been able to decide on the issue of serrated knives. I don’t mind having an inch or so of serration at the heel of the knife; they do save the main blade from cutting through cartilage; that being said I prefer the more traditional plain edge. Anyone else use a partially serrated knife for hunting?

    Diamond hones take metal off fast and will sharpen even very hard blades quickly. I was able regrind a VG-10 blade using only a course diamond hone. Diamond blades do not polish well though; for polishing a ceramic or water stone works very well. I used a guided rod system for years; I now prefer to sharpen knives free hand. The right stroke will keep a good angle; it can be described as a curving arc starting at the heel of the blades and ending at the tip. After you work a bur up on one side, flip the knife over and repeat the same number of strokes on the other side, you have now honed a new edge. Proceed with finer stones until the edge is polished. Serrated knives can be sharpened by using a cone shaped diamond rod on the serrated side, after you work a bur up, hold the knife flat and work the bur off on the flat side using a regular stone. Stones need to be lubricated to keep them clean of metal fragments. As the name implies, oil stones need oil and water stones… I find diamond hones, although can be used with water, last longer when using oil (probably less friction than with water). You can often revitalize an old stone by soaking it in oil and cleaning off the metal buildup. I have not used a loaded leather strop yet; I’m curious to here what other people have to say.

    Brand: If you pay attention to the steel and geometry, there is no reason to worry about the brand. Most companies manufacture both good and bad knives. For example the original Gerber Gators are drop point, flat ground and use 154cm steel, I’ve been using one for many years now. The “new” Gator II has a saber grind, and uses 420 steel, look at the steel and blade geometry, not the brand. I like the steel spyderco uses and the overall quality, although I do insist on grinding the saber blade into a flat ground blade. I don’t have a lot of preference between folding and fixed blade knives, I have never accidentally closed a quality-folding knife.

    Despite my rumination, I’m still curious what other people think makes up a good blade. What qualities do you like in a hunting/kitchen knife? I use a gerber gator and spyerco delica.
  2. coelacanth

    coelacanth Well-Known Member

    I'd say you summed it up pretty well. . . . .

    Carbon steel works well for everything I've ever tried it on and since I don't live or work around saltwater the maintenance of non-stainless blades has really never been an issue with me. O1, A2, 1095, are all ok by me. That said, I am partial to my Victorinox SAK and the fact that it can spend all day in a sweaty pants pocket with no ill affects is a plus.
    I agree with you about flat ground blades but a well executed convex grind runs them a very close second and I actually prefer that type for a pure big game skinner. Your point about thin blades is also right on the money as far as I am concerned. Far to many knives of every description suffer from an excess of blade thickness that renders them marginal performers at best.
    Blade geometry is a complex subject that is best described as an applied science. Whatever task the blade is supposed to excel at will determine how it looks and I am constantly amazed at how many variations there are on a given theme especially from the custom makers. Drop points are nice when field dressing game but apart from that I prefer a trailing point or a clip point for most jobs. Serrations strike me as a solution in search of a problem but if I spent a lot of time cutting rope I might change my mind.
    Sharpening is a chore for some people and a labor of love for others but I must admit to a sense of deep satisfaction from producing the best edge a particular knife is capable of. Norton India stones are my standard tool for general sharpening but Japanese water stones produce a superior edge if you are willing to learn how to use and care for them properly. Diamond hones and carbides are generally reserved for stuff with a lot of abrasion resistance or garden tools. Your technique sounds similar to mine but I will vary it some depending on what the task is.
    I'm not stuck on any particular brand of knives but I've never owned a Case I wasn't happy with and the same goes for knives from Queen Steel / Schatt-Morgan. I'm partial to Sabatier kitchen knives but there are a several Dawson blades and a D'holder that I would not willingly part with either. I never leave the house without my Victorinox Super Tinker so I guess it's official - I'm a knife nut.:D
  3. alaskanativeson

    alaskanativeson Well-Known Member

    I'll disagree on the steel, I have to say I've yet to find a stainless that's up to the challenge. Of course the "challenge" is to be the blade my Randall with the carbon O-1 tool steel blade is. Good luck with that. While some of the modern steels like 154CM or S30V are much better than the old 440C that took over the market and destroyed knife quality for over a decade it's still not up to Cold Steel's Carbon V or Chris Reeve's A2 for edge holding and ease of sharpening. I'll admit the knives I use most have stainless baldes: My Spyderco Centofante and my Leatherman Wave. Why? Because they don't offer them with carbon blades, and they work acceptably.

    Which brings me to the next most important thing to me: Ergonomics. Does it fit in my hand well? Does it fit in my pocket well? Those are very important to me.
  4. Pontif

    Pontif Active Member

    Specific needs and requirements are the key

    A knife, just like any other tool, usually has either a specific purpose or a specified number of tasks that must be accomplished if it is to be labeled "a good knife." This is fairly self explanatory, but a brief example/comparison might be between a chefs primary kitchen blade compared to a battle knife.

    The Chefs blade will be used to cut food. Although differing in textures and consistencies, most meats, veggies, etc cut best with an extremely sharp, steep bevel edged blade that is thin, light, easy to "rock" (a method of cutting quickly) and typically appears somewhat flimsy compared to sporting or military knives. A military/sporting/survival blade is usually heavier and thicker, with a blunter edge bevel to deal with more extreme cutting conditions and handle and sheath materials (as well as construction methods) will differ.

    The 2 blades exist for different purposes. Because each blade must accomplish a dis-similar cutting task, what makes them successful is the maker's understanding of the needs of the user. The chef would not be served well by the geometry of a typical battle blade, and the soldier would find the finest kitchen cutlery quite out of place in the field.

    The only real disagreement that I might have with your description of the ideal blade is in the thickness (insofar as military blades or "battle blades" are concerned). I have been making battle knives, survival knives and combat knives for the military for the last 4 years. Although I understand the premise that the width of the spine can cause a type of "binding" (most often associated with a hollow grind), when the thickness of a blade is coupled with the appropriate flat grind - and the flat grind covers a wide enough area to allow the bevel not to "wedge" - the weight and thickness of a survival type knife is extraordinarily important. Note: I am referring to the heavy use military/survival type blade.

    Although differentially quenching will add to the strength of a blade, this is most effective with carbon steels. Zone tempering can be accomplished with stainless steels, but the process can be extremely difficult to complete successfully. By using 3/16", 1/4" or even 5/16" thick steel, and a standard combat knife having a blade of 8" long with a 5" handle and 1.5" wide (with a .75" bevel and a .25" blood groove near the spine), the user has the ability to utilize the "mass" of the knife.

    The difference in actual weight of a 1/4" blade and a 3/16" blade is negligible, but the difference in strength can be dramatic depending on the steel, the Rockwell, the manner of heat treating, etc. The strength gained by the thickness, coupled with utilizing a blood groove and a 45% false edge on the back of the "clip point," gives the structure of the knife an "I Beam" type of reinforcement. This further adds to the strength of the blade when designing and making a clip point style knife.

    Many small issues like avoiding right angles on the plung line, right angles where guard or bolster material meets the main body of the blade, full tang construction, hidden Loveless bolts securing the handle as opposed to pinning the handle (some argue that an exposed tang in the handle can give rise to corrosion, therefore they argue that a hidden tang is preferable - I somewhat disagree and like the full tang - Sorry Alan E.!), the finish of the blade needing to be free of even minute scratches prior to bead blasting and final coating if additional materials are to be used - and on and on and on and on - all of these issues, big steps and small steps, give the user the best design and execution of the design. The design must focus on the operators needs.

    Sometimes, a heavy blade is simple not viable. When possible, in a battle blade, survival blade, etc, a "stout" knife can be utilized as a "pry bar," an impact tool, a "bridge" and many other functions that a meaker blade simply cannot address or stand up. This has been my experience, but I am still in a learning curve and I hope I never leave it.

    I use ATS, D2, S30V and O1 - depending on the individual's needs, mission requirement and requests. Overall, D2, when zone tempered (spine spring tempered to RC 50 and cutting edge hardened to RC 62 - 63), and professionally cryotreated, this steel has performed amazingly in all environments. Although it will show corrosion, the Chromium content is high enough to avoid any damaging rust with minimal attention to the blade.

    All the above is to say each blade is needed for different tasks. Each of these tasks requires various qualities in different knives. Having a true and indepth understanding of what the individual must accomplish with their knife is the only way to really achieve "great knife" status.
  5. The Tourist

    The Tourist member

    Well, don't spoil the fun! If there was a "magic knife" we would have to stop collecting all of these wonderful toys!

    Right now I'm holding my latest acquisition, a Graham Stubby. It doesn't even look like a knife in the general sense. And yet, it has out-cut everything else that has challenged it since I received it.

    But as stated, it has all of the best stuff. It's a mirror polish on S30V. It has a premium construction. As for geometry, the hollow-grind angle that the Graham Brothers use is set to be "real world," not some fantasy product.

    And finally, it has a heat-treat from Paul Bos. Lately, I won't even give a knife a smell unless Paul's stamp is on the blade.

    Obviously different alloys need a different heat-treat, perhaps a cryo quench. But Paul knows how to get the most out of each individual steel.
  6. Zeke/PA

    Zeke/PA Well-Known Member

    I like High Carbon Steel knives and my preference is of course those made of the old and venerable D-2 Air Hardening tool steel.
    ANY knife thats used is going to get dull and NO knife is suited to ALL purposes.
    I like hollow ground blades for sheath type knives and on folders.
    I really like the "scary" edge that one can get on a hollow ground blade.
    I use the same stuff around salt water that I do otherwise., my belief being that a using knife ain't got time to get rusty.
  7. GunTech

    GunTech Well-Known Member

    Heat treaty must be match to steel and to requirement. In simple carbon steels, hardness is inversely proportional to toughness. Rc 58-60 is not always appropriate, and many very serviceable knives run closer to 50 than 60.

    One of the huge advantages of the modern steels is that they can be put into service at high hardness without the brittleness of simple carbon steels. But a hard blade, while having good edge retention, can also be a pain to sharpen.

    Geometry is not as much a factor as some people think. It mainly has to do with how the blade will be used. The smaller the angle, the 'sharper' a blade will be, but also the weaker the edge. Blades like axes require a fairly blunt blade angle since the are subjected to impact. A straight razor has a very acute angle because it needs 'sharpness' and does not require strength. One geometry is not better than another - just more useful for certain types of cutting.

    A good knife is a balance of edge retention, sharpness, durability and toughness. But a 'well-balanced' knife made be poor at specific tasks, as anyone who's tried to shave with a knife can attest.

    After making many knives from 'wonder steels' I have gone back to simple carbon steels, and concentrated on heat treat. The one thing these steels have over others is that they can be differentially heat treated. Monolithic heat treat is for mass production.

    I don;t worry about stainless. I can take care of my knives.

  8. GunTech

    GunTech Well-Known Member

    Unfortunately, Bos' operation is now so big, and has so many customers, that the attention isn't what it once was. They still do good work, but Bos is basically an industrial heat treater specializing in knives. Look at the number of makers who have Bos do their heat treat, and add up the number of knives they turn out.

    This is not meant to disparage Paul, but when you have hundreds of customers, guess how much attention each one gets. I've used Bos for stainless stuff, and while still first rate, the service is different than it was several years ago. The price of success. We should all be so lucky.
  9. Valkman

    Valkman Well-Known Member

    Anytime you have good materials, good heat treat and a good maker you'll get a good knife. But everyone likes different things on their knife so there's a million kinds of knives. I used ATS-34 and 440C but now have a dealer who won't touch those - he wants something new like CPM D2.

    I agree with Tourist - Paul Bos is the best and all of my stainless blanks go to him and get a Bos etch when done.
  10. The Tourist

    The Tourist member

    As with any large corporation, there is always that risk.

    As for the Graham Brothers and their products, (and the market they want), an "off the shelf" service isn't going to pass their Q/C. And ya' know, I worry about the same thing when I saw the Emerson/Benchmade, the Graham/CRKT and the Strider/Buck collaborations. So I opened my big yap.

    Mick assured me that standards were to be kept, period. Mick would rather die than lie. The entire purpose of Buck using Bos was to shore up quality. And despite what your views on CRKT might be, the Graham Brothers are still making knives. In fact, they quit taking orders when the numbers supplant what their facility can handle.

    If Josh says Bos does their work and it conforms to Q/C, then that's gospel. I talk to him at least once per month, he don't lie, either.

    If you know the product, then you know the man. I carry Emersons, Striders and Grahams.
  11. Bendutro

    Bendutro Well-Known Member

    I just bought a Benchmade 615 Mini Ruckus in S30V. Very happy.
    Fit, finish and overall quality are easily worth the price.
  12. 12GA00buck

    12GA00buck Well-Known Member

    Thank you gentlemen for your thoughtful responses,

    You bring up interesting points about blade geometry. Almost all the work I do with a knife is with meat and vegetables, over time I’ve developed a strong preference for thin blades ground at acute angles. In the woods I’ll take an axe if I have to do any chopping and save the knife for more for delicate work. If was ever to put myself in a situation where I needed to chop/pry with just a knife, I’m sure I’d come to appreciate a more robust design.
  13. soccergod04

    soccergod04 Well-Known Member

    Moras actually aren't a saber grind. They're Scandinvian grind.
  14. Colt46

    Colt46 Well-Known Member

    A sharp, short blade and a comfy handle

    That's about all you really need on a knife.
    Puukko is about the perfect sort of blade you could ever hope for in a knife.
    I actually prefer carbon steel to stainless. I'm so fanatical about my blades that I'm always taking them out and wiping them down, whenever I use them.
    I kinda dig that patina of age and chemical action that builds up on them.
  15. JTW Jr.

    JTW Jr. Well-Known Member

    In the eyes of many custom makers ( and customers ), Paul Bos is the man when it comes to HT...period.
    Some guys get popular and it goes to their head , not so with Paul. I know if I pick up that phone I can get a hold of him , and an email will be answered as well... and I am just a hobbyist knifemaker.

    The level of service I was receive from Paul is pretty much non-existent with most businesses today. I find no reason to even research using any one else.
  16. The Tourist

    The Tourist member

    Definitely +1

    I have been playing with this new Graham knife now for a few days. I polished the edge simply because I like the "cut" of mirror finished S30V.

    You can tell when an alloy is hard. When it buffs the glass slides on it like it was greased. Paul did a great job.

    Graham + Bos
  17. JTW Jr.

    JTW Jr. Well-Known Member

    Met the Graham bros in Vegas at a get together at a lil shindig Cucchiara and McGinnis put on , got to talk with them quite a bit as well as at SHOT show. They had some really cool stuff with them , and both guys are as solid as you can find.

    Between them , Paul , Krein and Carson...what else ya need ? :)
  18. Pontif

    Pontif Active Member

    Really Like Paul Bos

    Mr. Bos has the distinct reputation for not only being the best, but he is also known for being unusually consistent. In a prior post, someone mentioned heat treating as being a necessity. It is not only a necessity, it is as important (some would say more important) as the type of steel you are using.

    Although I am a huge fan of D2 (really would like to work with CPM D2, the partical metallugy does make a huge difference - the grain structure is extraordinary), I am becoming more and more interested in some of the "super alloys" that are actually super carbon steels. One of the most interesting and balanced is 3V. The wear resistance properties and the impact resistant properties significantly exceed that of standard D2. although 9V is extremely provocative, as well, I am a little cautious about the the inevitability of edge cracking. Always, it depends on how it is heat treated, but the chemical make up and the specs that Crucible put out makes me lean toward 3V as a really good mix of edge retention and strength.

    One thing I missed in this discussion was handle material and construction. I like paper micarta, Loveless bolts (or one of the "next gen" types of Loveless bolts) and then a bead blasting to give the paper micarta even more positive texture.

    A lot of time, I think we over engineer our knives - especially customs. Most of it is simple common sense and "simplicity." Unfortunately, it is hard for folks like me (guess I lack the ability to follow my own advice) to adhear to "the basics." There are so many questions and small details that appear between extremely knowledgeable makers and knife users that it is hard not to get very interested and involved in these discussions on the "trillion details" of the most basic of all tools. I have a BUNCH to learn.

    By the way, nice to be here. You guys really are an extraordiary group. My brother put me on to you folks. He has been here since 2005. I am looking forward to learning.
  19. The Tourist

    The Tourist member

    I understand the concern. After all, the "edge" is my focus, as well.

    Granted, a client wants a good knife that performs, but he also wants one that holds up to rain, sweat, blood, etc. The problem here is that we add chromium to the mix the accomplish that "necessity."

    After several decades, I've begun to take a dim view on the level of chromium we use. Now, a metallurgist might be quick to point out the relationship between carbon and "free chrome." Again, I'm not convinced.

    If a pre-designed level of hardness/corrosion resistance is needed for a specific need, we could easily get that performance with molybdenum, vanadium, lower amounts of chromium and a decent HT. Unless the knife was destined for life on shrimp boat I doubt the levels of salt spray would ever be exceeded.

    Now granted, we have to address issues of corrosion and edge retention at some level. After all, corrosion attacks the very edge, as well. I'm not sure dumping 17% chrome (as in 440C) is the answer.

    Most of my stainless knives have 12% chrome. The D2 knives with lower amounts function well and stay very sharp. With a mirror finished edge, my S30V knives perform, and that's an alloy designed by cutlers.
  20. JShirley

    JShirley Administrator Staff Member


    I like your emphasis on mission. The problem with most "battle blades" is that they are set up for a war long past, before the era of modern, rapidly loading and dependable firearms. (In other words, before the US Civil War. If you visit the museum at Stone Mountain in Georgia, you will see several examples of big bowies that Southern Boys had...that littered the side of the road once they started marching.)

    The modern combatant carries a LOT of weight and gear, and in theater, we laughed at guys who carried 8" bladed knives. The one exception was a Marine Gunny Sgt who carried a huge cheap Pakistani Rambo knock-off. He literally used it as a icon- he would pull it out and the Afghan nationals would run the other way. Not the method I would have used, but it worked for crowd control for him.

    A really good "combat knife" should be in the 4" blade range. I used my Spyderco Native and a custom knife made by my friend Shane Justice in combat. The Justice is in one of your favorite steels...52100. :) I blued the blade to reduce rusting. I also tested a WAVed Spyderco Endura and On Scene Tactical's Speed Dialer, and that was an optimal combination, though I never used it during a firefight, as I did the other two.

    The Tourist, when you said
    I thought for a minute you meant "Mick Strider" (Mickey Ray Burger)! :D The guy who makes pretty good knives, but who has a well known challenge to telling the truth. The one who got out of the Army as an E1, and who was convicted of carjacking...


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