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Friday, July 20, 2012

Choosing Your First Folding Knife Part 1: Steel

I've learned a lot about knives from the internet, and I'd like to share some guidelines for choosing a knife that I wish I knew when I bought my first blades.

There are a lot of reasons to carry a knife. A package that needs to be opened, yard work, craft/art projects or maybe your profession requires one. There are countless applications. When you carry a knife, you have a sharp, effective tool on your person to meet any of these needs. You get to remove that little piece of your day where you're digging through drawers of crap trying to find a pair of scissors or a steak knife. You have just what you need right there in your pocket.

I'm going to make a multi-part article on some factors you should consider before your knife purchase.

1. Blade steel. 

Choosing the right steel for your application is one of the most important factors. If you really want to get performance out of a knife, you have to be able to sharpen it. That requires good steel and good heat treatment during production. A lot of budget knives on the market are made with garbage steel with bad heat treatment, and they can lose their edge before you even leave the house. This means you have to sharpen your blade a lot, and if you don't maintain the edge your knife is less effective and even less safe. To some people it might not make sense that a dull knife is less safe, so let me explain that. Imagine that you're cutting through cardboard. A sharp knife slices through it with ease in one clean motion. If your knife is dull, you need to substitute physical force for sharpness, and that's where you lose control and slip. Slipping during a cut is what most knife related injuries come from in my experience. When you invest in better steel you get a safer, more effective knife that will last you longer, and if you're smart you don't have to spend too much money.

There are many kinds of steel on the market. They range from budget steels like 420 series steel to premium steels like S30V. If you're unfamiliar with the industry, these names probably mean nothing to you. If I could go back and choose my first knife all over again, I would not have bought a 420J2 stiletto at a gun show. There's a reason most knives made with cheap steel don't put the steel in the description or mark it on the blade, they're preying on people who don't know any better. If you want an entry level knife, AUS8 steel is a beautiful option. It's a Japanese high carbon stainless steel that performs great and is used in knives ranging from $20 to $100 because of its versatility. Steel snobs might not like it for being relatively soft, but that softness translates to ease of sharpening. When I decided to move up from nameless stainless, I chose a Boker Plus Subcom made from AUS8.

I have resharpened this knife dozens of times and I can still get it sharp enough to shave hair of of my forearm (not that I shave my forearms). I was blown away by how much better it was at $30 compared to a $15 knife made from "surgical steel." "Surgical steel" is a term frequently used by companies that don't want to reveal how shitty the steel actually is. The Boker Subcom is an awesome knife for people just getting into knives, and since AUS8 blades are easy to manufacture they're a good balance between value and performance. A comparable alternative is 8cr13mov steel. Some might look down on this steel because it's manufactured in China, but it's commonly considered the Chinese equivalent of AUS8. I consider Spyderco to be the best makers of production knives in the entire industry and many agree, people pay hundreds for some of their knives. Spyderco is an American company, and when they decided to make a budget line they chose 8cr13mov steel. My Spyderco Tenacious in 8cr13 performs like a champ, you'd never expect that it was made in china.

There's a saying I hear a lot in the knife community, "pay for quality and only cry once." What it means in this context is that you cry when you pay but it will never fail you. I upgraded to AUS8 and 8cr13mov blades and I didn't have to cry at all. Knives made from them perform well and are often unbeatable values. Pick a good brand, pick a good steel, and you will probably be happy.

Articles coming soon: Handle material, lock type, and blade grind.

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