Leather Sheath Shopping
You’re about to purchase the knife you’ve been eyeballin’ for months. You have had the website it’s on saved on your desktop as a favorite and you’ve watched a bunch of reviews on Youtube. You might have even sat through a horrendous “unboxing” video where the Youtuber spends 3 minutes of your time with the camera focused on the intricacies of the shipping tape and shipping box. You probably added this knife to the cart of a knife-selling website over and over until just now when you finally decided to pull the trigger. You were so focused on purchasing the knife of your dreams, or at least your dreams until the next grail knife comes up, you neglected one critical detail. What does the sheath look like? There are some really beautiful knives out there, fixed and folding, that come with perfectly executed sheaths. Then again, there are some really beautiful knives, easily worth more than their asking price that are sold with cardboard-like leather held together with loose stitching. The sheath is an important consideration as it will be your knife’s “home” when it isn’t in your hand. When you purchase a knife, don’t forget to examine what the sheath looks like. Not sure what to look for, let me help you out with some basic considerations and questions to ask.
There are many good knife sheath designs and some knife sheath styles have become almost as recognizable as the knife they carried. Take for example the “Randall style” military sheath. Just mentioning that name and you can recall the paracord holes for secondary retention, the button-snap sharpening stone pouch, and the distinct stitching. Randall sheaths are legendary and they have stood the test of time because they have been built right. When you look at the design of a knife sheath, it should match your desired method of carry. Large “drop leg” sheaths won’t work as pocket carry and dedicated inverted-necker sheaths won’t work well as belt sheaths.Make sure your knife sheath has the right features for your given purpose. This can be as simple as ensuring the belt loop is wide enough for your belt. If you have a defensive blade, the sheath should have a sweat guard for no-look resheathing. Bushcraft pouch sheaths should be deep enough to protect the majority of the handle as you travel through the backcountry. Depending on the design of the sheath, you’ll be able to access it quickly or the draw will be slower and more deliberate. If your ideal sheath is kydex, pay attention to the location of the rivets, the thickness of the kydex and the snap retention.
According to my friend and leather crafting expert, Marty Simon, there is no machine stitch as strong as a hand stitch. Marty knows a thing or two about leatherwork after running a leather shop for years. Take a look at the sheath coming with your knife. Most of the big companies out there use machine stitched sheaths as standard. Custom sheaths, done by one craftsman, may be done by hand. Hand stitching pulls the stitching tighter than a machine. This translates into the stitching sitting flush with the leather surface as opposed to riding on top of it. Is a machine-stitched sheath a dealbreaker? Not for me. Truth be told, most sheaths are also glued together and that glue won’t separate easily. Whenever I look at stitching, I look for wide stitching. That is, I look for stitching holes separated further apart (4-5 holes per inch) rather than close together that weakens the leather. I also look at the quality of the thread in the stitching of a sheath. Is the thread heavy-duty waxed thread or artificial sinew or is it the inexpensive lightweight stuff? Look closely at one of the sheaths you have your knives in now, you will probably notice these little details.
When you read “leather sheath included”, you should ask, what kind of leather? Leather can be vegetable tanned or chrome tanned. Vegetable-tanned leather is my preference as it is more natural, ages properly, and shows the grain better. Chrome-tanned leather is quicker to make using plenty of chemicals and it’s a lesser-grade product. Let me put it this way, if you have an expensive knife, put it in expensive leather. You should also remember, some leathers are thicker than others (measured in ounces that translate to 1 oz = 1/64 inch) and some are finished with different treatments like linseed oil and or beeswax to make the leather buttery soft or stiff like armor. Different makers will often use heavier leathers for big knives and axes while using thinner leathers for pocket sheaths and neckers. Somewhere in the middle are belt sheaths that are likely in the 8-10 ounce range. Some leather sheaths are universal designs and can be custom fitted by wet molding and others have the leather already formed to the contours of your knife. The process is relatively simple and a universal sheath should not be cast aside if it isn’t fitted yet. Leather is not created and made the same. Some flats may have a distressed look from where the animal brushed up against barbed wire. Depending on your preferences, this will either add to the aesthetic value or detract from it.
As previously mentioned, leather can be finished soft to the touch or rock-hard. It can also be left untreated to pick up a natural patina overtime or dyed in any number of colors. Additionally, leather can be embossed, stamped, or tooled to create a textured surface. Basketweave seems to be the finish most recognize and in addition to looking patterned, it also is stronger than unfinished leather as it compresses the leather into a harder material.. Soft leather can be marred with a finger nail and light pressure. Leather treated with with Obenauf’s will become extremely water resistant. Leather that has been dipped in beeswax historically was used as armor by the Romans. When examining the finish of your knife sheath, don’t just look at the flats, look at the edges. Ideally, the sheath and the welt (also called a “spacer”) will be sanded smooth and they should look uniform. The welt should be at least ¾ of the thickness of the blade being carried. If you find a sheath without a welt, throw it out as your edge will find its way through the seam and cut the stitching. Leather finishes really provide excellent versatility in what you can do with your knife. Again, make sure the leather sheath you use matches your intended purpose.
As a sheath maker, perhaps I am too critical when it comes to what I carry. I’ll often make my own sheaths since I can control all the variables at play. I’m able to fine-tune designs and make them exactly what I want them to be. Afterall, if a knife sheath is a weak link in my survival preparation, it has to go. Call me crazy but I like strong designs and weakness sucks. For those who haven’t picked up sheath making, luckily there are some fantastic craftsmen out there who can custom make sheaths with different angles of carry, drops, firesteel loops, pouches and accessories.If you pay attention to the sites where you can purchase Fiddlebacks, maybe you’ll see an “Estela-Approved” sheath in early 2018. I know it’s easy to get caught up in the design of a knife (I’m guilty of lurking on the Fiddleback Forge website and I certainly have a custom camp and F2 in ironwood on my mind) but I never forget to look at the critical accessory every good fixed blade should have; a quality sheath.