Cutting to the chase with knives — primal, pure, and simple

— Photo by Frank L. Palmeri

Four knives: One from the author’s ex-girlfriend, a classic Buck hunting knife, a whittling and carving knife, and a throwing knife.

I had an argument with a girlfriend one time — I can't even remember what it was about — and to patch things up she gave me a nice Buck pocketknife. Well, the girlfriend is long gone but that knife is still one of my favorites. The knife was easily the best part of that relationship.

I'm a big fan of knives. A knife can be so primal, pure, and simple in design and execution. Think of our primitive ancestors honing a flat piece of stone on a big rock to make a sharp edge — the first real manmade tool.

A simple knife is not much more in concept than that. Knives may be the best all-around tools ever designed by humanity.

I know hunters and outdoorsmen need knives to field dress game. Same with fisherman, chefs, and many more — knives serve a specific purpose for them. I camp a little but I don't ever need to cut back brush or dress an animal. Still, I love my cheap machete. Every time I hold it, I feel like I'm ready to tackle the wild.

There are many ways to enjoy a knife. Pride of ownership is one but there are so many more.

A good large knife will have a heft to it, a solid feel in your hand. That's a wonderful feeling. Even smaller knives, many jewel-like in their construction, can be very satisfying to hold and admire. Craftsmanship never goes out of style.

Of course, knives are for cutting, whether something mundane like breaking down cardboard boxes for recycling or more fancy like preparing dinner. Knives are very useful in so many ways.

An interesting thing about knives is that sharp ones are much safer than dull ones. That's kind of counterintuitive, I know, but, if you think about it for a while, it makes sense. A dull knife is dangerous because you have to force it so hard to cut something.

Any time you're forcing a knife, there's a chance you might slip and that's where you get into trouble. Conversely, a sharp knife makes cutting smooth, almost effortless, so there's much less chance of an accident.

You have to handle sharp knives with respect. A quality knife will come with a sheath of some sort that protects the edge from harm and you from the edge.

Good kitchen knives come with a wooden block that keeps the knives safe from you and from each other. Despite knowing all this, I still have a drawer in my kitchen with random knives just banging around in there. Surprisingly, they still work for many tasks. Serving butter and opening letters don't require much of an edge.

Speaking about sharpening, there is an entire industry of knife-sharpening gadgets. Many of them work so poorly as to be just about useless. A lot of them are V shaped pull-through things that work for a while, but then wear out right in the spot where you need them most.

To truly sharpen knives well and consistently (assuming a clean, straight knife in good condition) requires you to be aware of the edge angle (and know how to alter if it necessary); to thin the knife (the secondary bevel) if it needs it; to use the appropriate abrasives in a consistent fashion; and to remove the burr with a final stropping step.


Ready, aim, throw: Frank L. Palmeri made this knife-throwing target and finds it “surprisingly satisfying to throw some knives around.” — Photo by Frank L. Palmeri


When you think about all that, it's easy to see why they sell a lot of cheap knife sharpeners. A lot of folks don't have the time or interest to really learn to sharpen knives the right way.

One thing you can do to prevent dulling kitchen knives is to try to avoid glass cutting boards; glass is very tough on a knife edge. Instead, use boards made of wood or a manmade material (and go easy when cutting that steak). Your knife edges will thank you very much (and don't forget to keep your cutting boards very clean so harmful bacteria doesn't become a problem).

There is an article on Wikipedia titled "Scary Sharp" that describes a simple and inexpensive method to sharpen things like chisels and planer blades relatively easily (you can use this method for knives in general but you might need a guide of some sort to hold a consistent angle until you get good at doing it freehand).

All you need is a piece of thick glass or another smooth surface and some sandpaper. Attach some coarse sandpaper to the smooth surface. Then place the blade on the sandpaper, bevel side down, and start to move it around. If it's wet-dry paper, you can spray some water on it as you go.

Then you do the same with finer and finer grits of sandpaper. If you flatten the back of the tool first, then hone the bevel using coarse to fine sandpaper, and finally remove the burr on a leather strop or similar, you will indeed get a "scary sharp" edge.

Of course, there are many variations on this — go to YouTube and search and you'll see plenty — but the point (pun intended) is you can do some really good sharpening with not much of an investment in supplies and some very basic techniques.

I collect those ubiquitous 20-percent off Harbor Freight coupons that appear in newspapers and magazines because you never know when you might need one. I'd been using a little penknife to cut them out.

Recently I sharpened the penknife. The next time I cut out a coupon, using the same pressure as I always do, I cut through three extra magazine pages. The difference between a dull knife and a sharp knife is truly amazing.

You know how yo-yos go in and out of style about once ever seven to 10 years? That's how I am with knives. Something just clicks and then all of a sudden I start buying just about every knife I can find.

Again I don't do a lot of outdoor-type activities; I just really appreciate a well designed and manufactured knife. Don't get the idea that I'm a collector, though — that's a game for investors with a lot of money.

I only buy knives that I will actually use: multi-tools, Swiss Army knives, kitchen, carving, everyday carry, etc. There are so many categories of quality knives available these days that this has to be the golden age of knife making.

I'd like to be able to carry some kind of knife on my person at all times but it's not always easy to do. In jacket-wearing weather, you have plenty of pockets to choose from but lose the jacket and things get harder.

There are only so many pants pockets and those are already spoken for by the wallet, phone, hanky, change, comb, and keys (at least I always have my trusty Swiss Army knife on my key ring). Many knives come with belt attachments, but these don't look right with office, dress, or some casual attire.

Sometimes, when I'm working on stuff, I load up my belt with a knife, a tape measure, a flashlight, and my phone, then I start to feel like Batman with his utility belt. Too much to deal with.

One of the more interesting knives I own comes with a strap that goes on your calf right above your ankle. For dinner once, I took my lovely wife to our favorite restaurant, and just for kicks I decided to bring that knife.

It was quite something to be eating a gourmet meal and drinking fine wine while feeling this knife on my leg, with no one having any idea it was there. I've not carried that knife in this manner since — too much to think about when you just want to have a good time. There's a time and a place for everything.

Some of my knives have sentimental value, like that old Buck knife. Then there's the multi-tool I thought was lost for five years until finding it behind a desk; my trusty Swiss Army knife with its tiny super-sharp scissors; and my cool little black mini-machete (I had a neighbor who felt the need to carry a full-sized machete just to visit relatives on Long Island!).   

The other day I did a YouTube search on "knife skills." As you might imagine, I found many chef's demonstrating their skillful manipulation of kitchen knives. Then there's the Japanese sushi and steakhouse chefs, whose deft knife skills are legendary.

I also found a video from an ex-Israeli Defense Forces member, giving tips on hand-to-hand combat using knives. That guy was so intense I had trouble getting to sleep that night. Amazing that the same tool can be used for so many different purposes.

Of course, the dark side of knives is that they can be used for violence. Still, it's the person, not the knife, that causes the problem. I don't like flying in general but the fact that you can't even bring a little key-chain knife on a plane anymore really rubs me the wrong way. It's the same story as always — the few bad apples always ruin it for the rest of us.

Recently, I've been getting into whittling and knife throwing. Whittling is fun because you can do it almost anywhere. Skilled whittlers and carvers can produce amazing works of art. I'm nowhere near that (if I can just carve a little without cutting myself I'm happy).

Knife throwing is simple in concept but full of subtleties in technique and execution (another pun, sorry). I built a target and it's surprisingly satisfying to throw some knives around. When you "stick" a well thrown knife solidly, it's a really good feeling.

Knives are great to own, admire, and use, and learning to sharpen knives well is a worthwhile endeavor for anyone who appreciates a precision tool. It's terrific that such simple things like knives and such basic skills as sharpening are still so useful in this modern day and age. Now that I think about it, I’ve always wanted a Samurai sword . . . .