14 October 2012

Blades: Practical Tools for Outdoors People

I lost a dear friend a few years ago: it was a Case XX "Stockman" pocketknife that my grandfather carried in the years before he died in 1979. There was nothing remarkable about the knife: dark bone handle and blades of carbon steel (a patent Case variation called "chrome vanadium steel") stained dark by deer blood and other strong oxidizers such as apple and peach juice. It was hard but tough steel, easily kept razor sharp with a small pocket whetstone:

Having carried this knife for 30 years, I used the sheepfoot blade to scrape carbon from the spark plugs of my old Land Rover (1972 Series III). I think I left it on the radiator before setting the points,  shutting the bonnet and driving off. I never saw the knife again.

I grew up in Bradford, Pennsylvania, where Case knives were made. Everyone, it seems, had a relative who worked at Case Cutlery. And in those days, every boy above the age of 10 and every man carried a pocket knife. Carry a Schrade, Buck or Gerber? Heresy! So, after I lost my old knife, dear Mrs Rover didn't have to think too hard when it came to my Christmas gift. Though my new friend is made of stainless steel, it has most of the qualities I like about Case XX knives (2.5" main blade):

For day-to-day chores such as cleaning fish, field-dressing deer, or cutting apples, a pocketknife is all you need. On the few occasions when I have killed an elk while hunting mule deer, my pocketknife could do that job as well. Shortly after moving to Butte, Montana, I realized a larger knife would be a good thing for field dressing elk. A local knife maker, Harold Podgorski, used L6 (a very tough low alloy carbon steel) from old circular sawmill blades to make his knives. I like the sense of craft and common sense he brought to knife making (no pretentious B.S. about exotic stainless steel alloys, high-tech "Damascus" steel etc). After field dressing, quartering, and skinning about two dozen elk, I'd say Harold's knife has given a pretty good account of itself (4.75" blade):

You can quarter an elk or make do around camp with just a knife, but a hatchet is a good tool for snicker-snacking (as does the vorpal blade in the Lewis Carroll poem Jabberwocky) the ribs away from the spine and for other heavy butchering work, as well as for cutting branches or small firewood. I bought a Norlund hand ax when I was in college, about the same time I bought my first aluminum-frame backpack. Ten years later I replaced the original handle (after it broke) with a shorter, sturdier one made of white oak and shaped to fit my hand (3.25" blade):

Two other knives in my more-or-less random collection deserve special mention. One is a Russell "Green River" blade--my favorite skinning and thin-bladed, light-duty kitchen knife. Again, the blade material is nothing special--just good old carbon steel. The handle, though, is very special--a fine piece of local Mountain Mahogany (a dense, hard wood) fitted to the blade by my friend Dave Carter (4.75" blade):

The other special knife is my most recent acquisition. My graduate student and friend Oliver gave it to me while I was in China (3.25" blade):

Oliver is a Uyghur, a Caucasian Muslim minority in China, with the population centered around Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Thousands of years ago, the Uyghur people spread along what became known as the Silk Road. They were famed for making (and carrying, and using) weapons -- including knives -- and closely allied with the Khan Dynasty in the early middle ages. To carry a Uyghur knife is to be part of this tradition, and I honor this culture and hope the Uyghur people are granted greater freedom from the Chinese, Russia, and other countries that have subjugated them. Here's Oliver, "driving" a Willy's Army Jeep at the Stilwell Museum in Chongqing:

In a world where we often become obsessed with "high tech" -- whether cellphones, sneakers, or boutique cutlery -- it's nice to know that traditional craftsmanship and materials will still do the job. Better yet, in using such tools we connect with culture in ways that give meaning to our lives.


Janie said...

This must be a guy thing, because I've never craved a pocket knife. My husband and sons are never without, though. Except when they travel by air and lose them to airport security, or have to mail them home...

Secret Agent Woman said...

I appreciated the warning on the last post - I knew better than to scroll down and was patiently waiting for you to post again.

My son is a big fan of knives - (machetes and smaller knives) they are scattered all over this house.

troutbirder said...

Most interesting knife dissertation, Pat. Unfortunately I too lost a long treasured knife. My Boy Scout one.
On another track I be more curious to see & or read some information on the Stillwell museum in China. Is he favorably remembered? I know he did not think highly of the leader he called "Peanut".

ZielonaMila said...

The interesting post and fine illustrations. I am greeting

Wolfy said...

Nice essay on blades - I'm a little bit of a knife junky. Favorite is a Camillus Yellowjacket Muskrat skinner.

I didn't know you were originally from Bradford - I still have a cabin on Kettle Creek in S. Potter Co.

Merri said...

Such a bummer you lost your grandfather's pocket knife! you can tell just by looking at it it's one of those good old ones. Working on a ranch, and going out hiking, i have no shortage of knives. you never know when you're going to need one. in fact, a pocketknife almost got me arrested in Heathrow (!!!!!!) but that's another story.
- The Equestrian Vagabond

Unknown said...

I enjoyed all the pictures & comments on your hunts. Met you at Matt & Jen's Wedding Reception This Fall.