Thursday, November 19, 2009

Skinning knives

I’m a traditionalist. If things were good enough for hundreds of years, there was a reason they were good enough.

Something new might be better, but I insist on decades of testing before I’ll relent. Then it’s not so new anymore, anyway. But if it is still around and not faded away in faddish fashion, THEN I’ll adopt it.

With firearms, I like 75 years of field testing. It’s why I prefer the Garands and 1911s and revolvers. The AR pattern is coming along, but it still too new-fangled for me. Oh I may get something newer for myself on occasion, (like a SIG,) but my heart is with the old stuff.

When it comes to knives, I need a few more decades/centuries to be happy. The ideal knife, for me is just carbon steel. None of the fancy alloys, thank you. Vanadium, chromium, and molybdenum? Might as well carry a plastic gun.

And forging? Coal, please. Coal has been around long enough that I don’t insist on charcoal forges. None of those propane forges for me. There is just something wrong about them.

Damascus steel blades warm my cockles, aesthetically. Pairing metals for the binary Damascus knife I’ll go with 1095 carbon steel as the primary, and wrought iron for the secondary. If I am feeling modern and adventurous I’ll go with L-6 steel for the secondary. It’s a nickel-steel used in bandsaw blades. It’s been around a while. And it looks handsome in a Damascus blade. It is my preference. And I know this West Virginian blacksmith with a coal forge that makes GREAT knives…

That’s for knives. For chisels of plane blade or wood-carving, the standard O-1 is fine. Damascus chisels are a bit over done. To me. And the Japanese prefer them, which is another reason to eschew Damascus chisels. Nothing personal, Japan, but you killed my grandfather at Peleliu.

No one makes plain Jane carbon steel knives anymore. That’s what Grandma had in her knife drawer and they are black with oxidation if well cared for. Brown with rust if not. The O1 steels are easy to sharpen, but they dull easy too. They take a finer edge than the stainless varieties, but that quality of edge offered by stainless might be all you need. Stainless is tougher, it’ll hold what edge it has longer, but is much harder to sharpen when you need to do that. And you will need to do that.

If you are whittling with a Swiss Army Knife, switching to carbon steel knife is often an epiphany.

There is a new steel out that the knifemakers are hot on. S30V. It’s supposed to be the ideal new cutlery steel, and it requires some fancy production techniques to make the raw blanks. FANCY. (And knifemakers are cuh-razy! Crazy in a good way. Absolutely obsessed in their pursuit of the ideal knife.) It’s stainless with some very good wear/abrasion resistance. And tough. It’s the Glock of knife steel. Perhaps a revolutionary jump forward. But, like Glocks, I’ll need a century of field testing before I get enthused enough to buy one for myself. I don’t think S30V is making much headway in the wood working tool steel world, but I also don’t think it was ever intended to. I have problems enough with HSS and W2 steels in THAT world…

(I'd dread sharpening that S30V. With wear resistance that good it will be tough to get the edge back. O1 steel, plain carbon steel, dull faster, but are easier to resharpen than stainless. And you can get a better edge with carbon steel. But this S30V stuff has a trick up it's sleeve on grain size to get a fine sharper edge than is typical, so that is good.)

And that is just a sample of steel types used for cutting tools. Oh the plethora of metal varieties and variety of fabrication techniques. The mind will boggle.

What does this mean when the rubber hits the road and I am selecting a skinning knife? Well… I can’t afford the fancies right now. I don’t hunt extensively and successfully to justify a knife much north of $100. So when I am helping MBtGE clean a deer (or cutting my thumb bad enough to need stitches) I am probably using an unknown metal-content skinning knife with a Browning label on it. It is almost certainly a stainless variety, and not expensive. I forget the exact price but I'm sure I wouldn't have popped for more than $60 or so. It’s better than the $10 made in China knife MBtGE has with a big ding in the edge, and it won’t get that ding. The Chinese cheapy had it’s place though. It is used to spit the rib cage of a deer at the sternum, and you don’t care what happens to the knife if you mess up. And if it is sharp and all your other knives are dull, you will reach for it, certainly.

If rich I’d get a Damascus skinner and might spend $300+ on it. And my amateurish hunting pursuits would mean I’d have much more knife than I’d need. I would get $300 worth of value out of it. But I’d like it! I better like it, as I’d have to care for it the day after any use of it to keep the corrosion down and to touch up the edge. I could shave with it. The guy with the S30V skinner could rinse off his blade and maybe think about sharpening it in a season or two. He might not (or he might, I’m not super familiar with the metal) be able to shave with it, but this is his skinner. He has a razor for shaving with, after all.

I did sharpen MBtGE’s knives last year for him. They needed it. He comes from a farm background and many farmers are notorious for the poor way they treat their handtools, knives included. A typical farmer doesn’t oil up his chisel and put them away in a fitted spot in a handmade wooden tool chest in a climate controlled indoors like a cabinet maker will. That chisel gets left in the barn, where it rusts. If it needs sharpening a quick touch up on the belt sander with 100 grit paper does the edge up. And that’ll work. After a fashion. The same treatment for knives.

Let’s see, what else do we use on deer cleaning duty? Little disposable utility knives, like box cutters, with a razor blade type strip of metal. It get’s the job done, but no points for style.

So my knife snobbery is not perfect, by any means. But remember, like gun snobbery, the arguments on the knife forums can be as epic as the ones on gun forums. Fun, but trying after a while. And there are MUCH better knife people out there than me. I bet Tam knows as much about knives in comparison to me as she knows about guns.


Sigboy said...

Another thing about S30V, you will need a ceramic stone to sharpen it. I have one S30V blade, and I can sharpen it, but it is a chore. I do prefer a Cyro dipped blade, I have one that almost hums.

Thank you for tolerating my spam comment of the day.

New Jovian Thunderbolt said...


Mark said...

Buck Knife - I think it is model 110. Works just fine for Deer (no gut hook though) and only costs about $30. Comes sharp and holds an edge pretty well. Just my $0.2 but I keep one in my truck just for skinning chores.

Bob said...

Carbon steel knives are still available. Here, for example.

O-1 is a fine carbon steel, but it is hardly the most common carbon steel used in cutlery. 1095 and W-1 are used far more often than O-1. O-1 is popular because Bo Randall chose it for his knives. Other carbon steels used today include 52100, which is a ball bearing steel that ABS Mastersmith Ed Fowler has popularized, and 5160, which is a bearing-race steel.

Case Cutlery utilizes a carbon steel known as Chrome Vanadium (CV) for some of its pocketknives; other companies that still utilize carbon steel in their knives include Blackjack Knives and Bark River Knives.