A good folding knife is a little piece of sculpture in your pocket. Many people end up with a box full of knives they don't really use, but won't give up because there's just something about each one they like.
Folding vs fixed blade - A fixed blade knife is very strong, can be very sure in the hand, but is only safe when in use or in the sheath. When you set it down it becomes a hazard, and while you can find knives with plastic sheaths that snap on, the combination must still be mounted on a belt to be accessible. A folding knife, on the other hand, is closed and safe any time you're no using it, can be carried easily in any pocket, many can be used easily with one hand, and are found in almost any size and shape to suit you.
Locking vs non-locking - The 'Old Timer' style knife and most 'Swiss Army' models have non-locking blades, but the vast majority of single-blade folding knives lock open, and some lock closed. The variety of tools available on a 'Swiss Army' knife can make the absence of a lock a good trade-off, but on a single-blade knife, there's just no reason to use a sharp instrument that might fold and cut you in moment of inattention.
Size - In most areas, there are laws regarding the maximum blade length that can be carried, but any blade over 3 inches attracts too much attention for Every Day Carry (EDC) anyway. In the backcountry especially, the most you'll use your blade for is opening packages, trimming cordage, and perhaps digging out a splinter. The 1.5 inch blade on a small keychain knife will get this done. Consider what you'll be using it for, not just what you want it to be.
Opening style - Almost all knives on the market today are designed to be one-hand opening. This is very convenient provided you know how to open, and close it again smoothly. Very compact knives, however, still require two hands to open, which is certainly safer. Most brands now offer 'assisted opening' knives, which are distinct from 'automatic' knives (aka switchblades) in that the user must touch the blade in order for it to open. Assist knives have additional parts that increase weight and can affect reliability and longevity, and the actual opening speed is usually not faster than a good non-assist one-handed knife.
Locking systems - there are many currently in use as designers become more creative, but most are some variation on these three:.
Lockback - A spring-loaded lever engages a notch in the tang of the blade when fully opened. To unlock, depress the lever at the end of the handle, which releases the blade.
Liner - When the blade is opened, a piece of the liner springs up to block the blade from closing. Is very simple, inexpensive to build, and light weight, and can be unlocked without adjusting your grip too much. Can be unlocked accidentally in some situations, notably while using gloves.
Axis - A patented system used only on Benchmade brand knives (but not on all their designs) using a spring-loaded bar that engages a flat space across the back of the blade tang.
A knife blade must do two things: cut reliably and not break. For the majority of tasks around camp and on the trail, your primary concern will be low maintenance, meaning it will stay sharp and not corrode, even with little or no cleaning. 'Stainless' is the category of steel used in the vast majority of knife blades on the market today, but the actual composition and character will vary based on the expected use of the knife.
When used near salt water, very high corrosion resistance is necessary, so the blade is made of 'tougher' steel that is softer, more flexible and very corrosion resistant. It will not break when used as a pry bar, but may need to be sharpened more frequently. A blade of 'harder' steel will stay sharp, but is more brittle and likely to corrode in harsh environments.
For most blade steels, expect to see numbers from 57 to 62. The ideal knife stays sharp forever but won't snap when you really lean on it, and several manufacturers produce steels that perform very well in every aspect, but the materials and skill for their production is costly and so the price will be higher.
The blade life and utility will be defined by the steel it is made of. Some steels to look for:.
154CM: A good general-purpose steel, doesn't need to be cleaned frequently and holds an edge well enough for regular use at an affordable price.
D2: This 'Tool' Steel holds an edge very well, at the expense of lower corrosion resistance and higher brittleness. If you are cutting frequently and don't want to sharpen often, look for a blade made of D2.
440C: Very common, sometimes still referred to as 'surgical' steel, since it was developed for disposable scalpel blades. Most often seen in 'price point' knives, may need to be sharpened with regular use.
Tanto: Originating in Japanese sword designs intended to pierce armor, this angular design features a 'high' point at the spine and full blade thickness almost to the edge. The overall cutting edge length is shorter.
Drop-Point: Very popular for hunting knives, this design brings the tip closer to the midline of the blade and has a comparitively long cutting edge well suited to slicing. While not as strong as the Tanto, still gives good tip strength.
Sheepsfoot: The cutting edge is almost straight and the tip curves down to meet it, minimizing penetration capablity, making sheepsfoot blades very popular in rescue and utility applications.
Clip-Point: Classic profile of the 'Buck' knife, it is named after the appearance that part of the spine has been 'clipped' off. This is the finest and weakest tip design, good for detail work in carving or cooking, but has fewer utility applications.
Pocket Clip - Especially nice because it keeps the knife off the bottom of your pocket, and can be clipped on almost any edge in a pinch so you don't need to set the knife down. Some models have clips that can be repositioned to better accommodate left- and right handers, or change the carry from tip-up to tip-down.
Thumb stud versus blade hole - The thumb stud has become ubiquitous, even though a hole in the spine of the blade is a more natural and simple ambidextrous system.
Multipurpose tool - Invented by the Swiss, the idea of a 'toolkit in your pocket' can be a lifesaver. The classic argument against these tools, however, is that 'they do many things, none of them well.' But you could argue that an undersized Philips screwdriver is better than none at all.
Blade - Cutting end of a knife.
Handle - Non cutting end of a knife.
Scale - Material mounted to sides of the handle to provide shape and improve aesthetics or function.
Tang - Extension of the blade material below the cutting edge into the handle. In a 'full tang' sheath knife, the blade steel extends all the way through the handle to the end of the handle.
Edge - cutting side of the blade.
Spine - non-cutting (back) side of the blade.
Folding vs fixed blade - A fixed blade knife is very strong, can be very sure in the hand, but is only safe when in use or in the sheath. Size - In most areas, there are laws regarding the maximum blade length that can be carried, but any blade over 3 inches attracts too much attention for Every Day Carry (EDC) anyway. Most brands now offer 'assisted opening' knives, which are distinct from 'automatic' knives (aka switchblades) in that the user must touch the blade in order for it to open. Liner - When the blade is opened, a piece of the liner springs up to block the blade from closing. 'Stainless' is the category of steel used in the vast majority of knife blades on the market today, but the actual composition and character will vary based on the expected use of the knife.
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