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Anke and I live aboard WAYWARD, and wrote about it's design and construction at

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Dave and Anke
triloboats swirly gmail daughter com

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Good Knife, Bad Knife

Our Knives currently in service On Board and at the Work Site

Son, when ya gotcher bollocks snarled o' the mainsheets, 'tis no time to be fumblin' in yer pocket fer a knife!
-- Old Salt Advocating a Sheath Knife in Characteristically Declarative Form

Good Knife, Bad Knife

The Good Knife has been a boon to our species since the first flint was napped. A keen edge and stout blade have been the sailor's friend since the first line was spliced. To a boatwright, it's the first tool in hand and the last to be set aside.

Its edge is the stuff of legend... forged in the fires of Vulcan hisself, it must only be sharpened on stones quarried by the full moon, using potent unguents, trigonometries and incantations. It's virtue must be guarded against the coarseness of base matter and the corruption of oxidation. Purified and preserved, it may be drawn in the day of need to slay the Dragon.


Hyperbole aside, a Good Knife can mark, slice, part, shave and – in a pinch – perform minor surgery. Its virtues and minutia are compared and contrasted down to the least degree. It's design and creation are the hallmarks of art and mastery.

But the BAD Knife... who has sung its praises? What sailor hath come forth to speak on its behalf? Plenty with high standards come forth to diss it. Life's too short, and all that. Well, here once again, to give voice to the down-trodden...

Since my early days as a sea-faring wood-butcher, I've carried two knives on my belt. One is a Good Knife, and the other Bad.

The Bad Knife, as you might expect, handles the dirty work. You know... scraping paint, cleaning fouled screw threads, cutting cardboard patterns, excavating a fastener, paring wood of dubious provenance, cutting down to a metal backstop, working around glue, a cautious bit of prying, working where a bump or slip will send it to Davey Jone's... in short, 99% of the jobs around the water.

The Bad Knife is the jack-of-all-trades. Johnny-on-the-spot. The tool at hand that saves you that return trip up and out of the bilge, down a ladder to rummage through the toolbox for that specialized tool that claim to do a momentary job a mere fraction of a bit better. The Bad Knife sneers at all those sissified tools populating those glossy catalogues. Sniggers at that prissy Good Knife, come to that.

It's got to be cheap. One step up from disposable. If possible, bought in quantity. If you don't run through them, so much the better. If you do, a Zen/Amazon non-attachment is a fine thing (AmaZen?).

It needs to be able to take a reasonable edge without putting too much time into it. Zip, zap and git 'er did. If it takes more than five minutes to restore the edge, it's too hard, and treading on the Good Knife's territory. Forget about removing minor nicks and notches. If it has to be sharpened more than once a week (barring the occasional, kamikaze mission), it's too soft.

Or thereabouts... your call. Point is, its steel must be bad enough to abuse, but not so bad it's useless. Where those endpoints lie is up to you.

A thickish blade is fine, in theory, as we'll want to beat on it, often with a hammer or axe. But we're most of us sailing small boats, so we won't be parting giant hawsers. Unless we want to chop the mast down with our blade, a thin-ish one will do. A little less than 1/8th inch (3mm) has been plenty for all I've ever asked of them.

For the Bad Knife, I've personally come to like full-tang, drop-tip style, without handle cheeks and no serration. This type lies flat and unobtrusive as possible... easier to wear without hanging up on every durn thing, and to stow several cheek-on-jowl If it comes with a paracord wrap, I don't take it off, but if not, I don't add it. All things being equal, a simple handle is cheaper without the extra materials and labor costs.

Two blades of a single make can be used, one designated as Good, the other Bad. In this case, I'd err on the side of better steel. I can live with abusing a hard edge, but not with abuse from a soft one! Seriously, a dull blade is dangerous... we're looking for one that can stand up reasonably well to insult and injury.

Ironically, the humble sheath merits more mention than it generally receives.

Personally, I like to make one sheath to fit my standard Good Knife, Bad Knife and marlinespike. I like one sheathed inboard and riding a bit high; the other outboard and a bit lower... enough difference that I can pull my choice by feel alone. In-line works okay, too, with relatively slender blades. I like the marlinespike aft. All three snugly fit to expose only enough 'hook' to get a good finger grip on it. If one has handle cheeks, it goes outboard. If the handle has no hook at its handle end, I like to add one (don't care for lanyards which hang up).

I like to wear it just aft of my hip blade on the strong arm side. Not so far back I sit on it, but far enough that it doesn't get between me and my hip when I'm working on my side. This is more comfortable, and I can still access it from behind. A stiff belt and loop help keep it in place and from flopping.

In practice... I'm between custom sheaths at the prolonged moment, making do with the wretched contraptions contrapted by those who sell the knives. They're just tolerable enough to keep replacing them off any given day's priority. But that's no praise at all.

Any knife with a bad sheath is at best compromised; at worst dangerous.

* * * * *

A Few Bargain Knives

All the knives listed here are inexpensive. 'Gooder' knives can be had, but they cost enough that you would NOT want to lose one overboard. Remember, too... the harder the steel, the more time and trouble spent attaining and maintaining its edge in mixed use!

(Frost) Mora – From Mora Sweden, this line includes mostly Sloyd pattern knives (drop tip on a slender profile; good shape for carving and general) with a narrow, full-length tang. Made for carving, hunting and the fishing industry. Models with laminated blades are exceptional, with a very hard layer sandwiched between two softer layers. This takes a great edge... it is therefore somewhat brittle. The softer layers support the blade as a whole.

Mora knives were once dirt cheap... no longer, but still a bargain. The laminated blades, especially, put a top-of-the-line edge in our hands for cheap (about US$25 as I write). Blanks are often available, but can cost as much or more than the finished knife. Their sheaths vary, but I don't care for any they provide.

The laminated Mora in the leading picture is my Good Knife of choice..

Old Hickory and Ontario – These and similar are generally sold as kitchen knives, and some of their paring knives come in handy sizes with full tang. Larger styles can be treated as blanks to shape your own. Relatively inexpensive and made with high-carbon steel, they can handle most jobs with ease. No sheaths.

Opinel – A French shepherd's knife, these are inexpensive, locking folders (Anke likes them; they're a little bulky for my taste). High carbon steel for a good edge, but the lack of any tang leaves them a shade delicate.

Schrade OLD TIMER Barlow – This is a folding knife well-made to a pattern that combines a general purpose blade with a carving blade in a compact, pocket-friendly shape. It sells cheap enough (about US$15 as I write... cheaper at other vendors) that we get extras as first-knife gifts for children whose parents deem them ready. My only quibble is that they don't have locking blades (nor do any other Barlows I've seen).

For boat-work, it handles the fine end of things that a bigger knife finds clumsy.

US Custom Design SURVIVOR – Dedicated Bad Knife... easily takes an okay edge but won't hold it long. These run about US$7.00 and come in several styles including drop-point (shown) and tanto. The style shown carries a full-thickness back 2/3rds of its length... this takes more abuse than styes which taper the whole length. I file the sharp corners and - if I get around to it - I'll grind off those finger guards. But quite usable as is.

Tiny print declares them to be “hand forged in China”, but 'forged' is stretching it. Cheap Chinese goods can vary wildly in quality, but so far, the batch we got is just about right. Webbing sheath... works. but barely.

Knives of this sort abound, and I did some spelunking around before I found this brand. Nothing too special about them. But be aware that many of these cheap-o's tend to dull at the first swipe. If you find a make that has okay steel, it probably pays to stick with it until a tried-and-true replacement is found.

Good Knife Wanted – What I'd like to find is a moderately priced, laminated steel blade that was a near companion to the SURVIVOR pattern (shown above) and flat-blade style. I'd settle for decent steel with middling qualities, buy two, and use one for Good and the other Bad. If the set came with a marlinspike and a well-thought-out sheath... well... one can only dream.

Like so many things in life, DIY is usually the only way to get exactly what we want at a price we can afford.

Bonus Tip:

We often need to scrape away paint to glue this or that in place.

Fastest method I've found is to draw the contact outline. Use the knife point dragged at right angles to the blade, diagonally across the grain, closely spaced. Cross-hatch the other way. This disrupts the integrity of the paint/primer film. It can now be scraped or sliced away with relative ease.

Bad Knife, of course.