by Kevin Estela December 04, 2023
I think we all have a box or bin of knives at home that we purchased, regretted, became disappointed with, and stored away for safekeeping never to be lusted over again. I know my friends and I joke about this all the time. We’ve probably spent (or wasted) more money on knives that didn’t ultimately meet our expectations than most people will spend on knives they actually want. Perhaps we should have exercised a bit of expectation management or maybe the hype around a knife clouded our judgment. Whatever it was, we should have had more clarity in our decision making process and a formal way to determine if a knife is quality and suitable for our purposes. Much like a game plan that falls apart under stress from our opponent, how we examine a knife can be influenced by carnival-esque knife demonstrations, blade bunnies, the cash-laden mob around a booth, or countless other factors. Before you pull out that card, tap the electronic payment on your phone, or whip out the Benjamins, follow this advice when you are considering another knife at a show.
Zoomed Out View
Before you even walk up to a table at a show, look at it from afar. Are there a number of paid influencers surrounding it hoping to lure you in with their personality? Look for the quality of the booth and what images they are attempting to present subtly or with a hard sell. Often makers will attempt to speak to the fantasy version of you in your head. Think of the “Survival knife ads” of the 1980s and 1990s mags. Exercise caution and know what you are getting into. Sometimes, it is easy to get lured in with the glitz and the glamor around the knife industry. Instead of focusing on the image and style, take a look at the substance. Read what people are saying online about the knives. See the terms of the warranty if there is one. Take a look to see who is making the knives and where they are being made. Many times, the best makers will be at their booths solo and will openly discuss the knives they are displaying. That’s one of the things about Fiddleback Forge knives that drew me in. I was able to chat openly with Andy Roy about his designs and his process. Here’s the bottom line, be an educated customer before you walk up to any booth.
In The Hand
The first impression you have with a knife is important. Just like when you meet a person and know immediately if you’re going to like them or have a gut feeling you won’t, you can say the same about cutlery. It’s easy to let someone convince you something works when it just doesn’t feel right. It’s hard to deny what you sense from that initial interaction. Sometimes you struggle with pinpointing what you don’t like but there are some key attributes you can check by rolling the knife in your hand and getting a better sense for it. The first is the shape of the blade and the shape of the handle. Your hand is not the same size as the next person’s and while some smaller grip diameter knives work well for smaller stature folks, those with bear claw hands will want a more grip-filling handle. Fiddleback Forge knives are butter smooth and there isn’t a single hot spot you’ll find from the initial inspection to years later in the field. You also have to determine if the size and shape of the blade match the handle and how your hand wants to hold it. For example, some knives meant for chopping may have handles that make a secure purchase more difficult. Also, in hand you’ll get a sense of the knife’s heft. Knives meant for extended carving need not be heavy in hand and knives meant for chopping shouldn’t be featherweight. Last but not least, in hand you’ll be able to gauge how a knife balances. Do you want the weight forward, neutral, or handle heavy. There are times when one balance point will be more preferable than the others such as a neutral or handle heavy balance for a defensive blade with a fine tip.
The Micro Details
Truly discerning knife users will go beyond the simple in-hand test. You may recall seeing people looking at a knife straight down the edge or against the light. If you’ve wondered what they are looking for, it is any number of micro details most will overlook. Perhaps one of the most easily recognizable common flaws is poor symmetry. You want to examine the primary grind on the knife and see if it starts at the same point on the left and right side of the blade. The same is true for when you look at a knife handle. If you are purchasing a knife with synthetic handle slabs, there is no excuse for the knife to be ground asymmetrically. This isn’t likely on a handle made from natural materials like horn, antler, or bone as the curve of the handle from natural growth may make it impractical. While you are looking closely at the handle, take a look at the junction between the handle slabs and the tang (assuming you are looking at a full-exposed tang knife). There should be no gaps or spots where the glue has come undone. Andy uses multiple layers on some of his knives and they hold tight even after the most punishing use. Additionally in your inspection, you should see if the handle has been finished properly to an appropriate grit or polish. Looking at the blade more closely, notice if the plunge line and grind is even. A knife can perform and still be deemed functional if the maker was more heavy-handed on one side of the blade than the other but aesthetically, the knife just looks off. A reputable maker will scribe a line along the steel where the edge will ultimately be ground. Like the old expression goes, measure twice and cut once or in this case, the maker should measure frequently and grind accordingly.
At The Precipice
We’ve all been to the edge of a decision. We’ve had to decide to move forward and make the investment or walk away. If you’ve done your part examining a blade, you should know if the knife is quality or if you should move onto the next candidate. What happens though when you’ve decided the knife you’re holding is worthy of a place in your collection? For a long time, I was an impulse buyer. I would often say to myself “I’ll find a use for this” when the reality was, I didn’t have one. Over the years, I’ve gone from collector to user and collector again and have settled on a hybrid of both. Now, when I reach that precipice of pulling out my wallet and making room in my safe for another knife, I ask, “What is the value added for this piece?” In other words, how much better will it do the job of something I already have. The problem is, when you already own a quality tool, the value added may be insignificant. Then again, if you have the means to acquire a blade and just like it, you are not at liberty to follow my recommendations at all and you can do with your money as you please.I personally have a thing for Fiddleback Forge blades for their visual appeal, hollow handle survival knives for 80s nostalgia, and readily available/cheap knives for their utility. There are plenty of people who will purchase and collect knives for reasons only known to them and I’m totally fine with that. The only one in charge of making the decision to buy is you.
I’ve been a knife user and collector for decades and a fan of Fiddleback Forge Knives since the inception of the KE Bushie that bears my namesake. Andy’s knives are beautifully crafted, designed to perform, and they pass my inspection time and time again. I’m partial to desert ironwood on my Fiddlebacks and Andy always uses amazing handle slabs that are equal parts beautiful and durable. You won’t regret any Fiddleback and you’ll be glad you bought one or 10.
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