Slipjoints and steel: forget makers and factory thinking

Cougar Allen

Buccaneer (ret.)
Oct 9, 1998
Sunfish posted the following in the Automatics forum. It's a thought-provoking post of general interest and he's a new member and doesn't know how to copy and paste things yet, so I'm pasting it in here for him.

-Cougar Allen :{)


I want to break out of the thinking that says knives have to be
tough as hell. I dont want my knife to lock, I wanna put it away
fast. I don't want it to be hard (RC-60),I wanna be able to sharpen
it back up fast.I don't want it stainless, my grandson can buy his
own knife. A knife that lasts forever? What use is it? It might give a
custom maker ego stokes that someone reviwed and abused his
knife design to his credit,but that don't cut my work out. I don't
even know if stainless can be honed enough to equal non-stainless'
greatest sharpness and who wants to pay for the extra alloy and
heat-treat work? If I use my knife I will some day sharpen it and if
I keep that up I will someday need to replace the knife. Which
sounds like an interesting, fun endevour(sic). I must be the one
who designs and cares for my users, only I know what is practical
and essential for my uses and preferences. Why look for some
maker or factory that has an arbitrary list of options they offer and
choose? I only need to bridge the gap between me and knowlege/
experience with steel. Further, I hate serrations! If the knife is
sharpenable,why do I need to put off sharpening it? I'd rather put
the original edge on myself and keep it there myself to suit me and
as my cutting may change. What is cheap and marketable isn't, by
design, whats specialized to me. Now they have say on what they
will offer and can justify doing for me in dollars and cents. Even the
good ones who are genuine still gotta pay their people and that
means wider appeal,that begs the question how many people who
buy have alot of knife knowledge and experience? Most knives are
stainless so it doesn't look good to this one.
Sounds like I am ranting, but I am not. This is my first chance to
enjoy the forum and I have so looked foward to talking knives more
as it is my main interest.
I want more deeper thought and sharing of experience in the world
relating to knives and knife use and safety. Thank you for sharing
with me here!
I must say I agree with a lot there. Excepting that I like locks, and I don't have a problem with stainless. Which is kinda funny, because most of my fixed blades were carbon. Still are, unless you count A2 as stainless.

I wholeheartedly agree on his philosophy of sharpening and serrations. Edge retention has never been a big issue for me. Any good steel well tempered will hold an edge long enough for my immediate use, and even some super steel would likely need touching up anyways. There are other areas of knife design and function I'm more worried about. Somebody in a similar thread said that he skinned out animals weighing several hundred pounds and didn't want to stop half way through to sharpen and get gore all over the place. Well, I skin out 1,000-1,500lbs saurians with hide a heck of a lot tougher than that of any mammal(excepting maybe the shield of a real old boar, then it's a toss-up). Starting with a shaving sharp blade, i can field dress a gator without having to resharpen. Yeah, it gets a little dull towards the end, but so what? I'll re-sharpen it. Then again, different people have different attitudes on hunting and knives, so I guess I can understand somebody wanting a knife that holds it's edge forever. I'm just saying it's not really neccesary.

I have no beef with stainless. Like everything else, it makes trade-offs. I guess I don't even really hate wonder-steels, I'm just sick of hearing them talked about like they were the Second Coming or something. Sure, I'm all for advancments in metalurgy, but there's no need to become a "steel groupie".
Go! Sunfish Go!
Well when I start making slipjoints ILL make one out of 3v(carbon) that will be tough as hell will be easy to sharpen and would be made to your specs with what you want for an edge.

OH yeah welcome to the forums we need folks like you, no bull crap and speaks their mind no matter who's panties get in a bind over it.

Edward Randall Schott


I agree that it doesn't take a super alloy to skin a moose, but I'd bet you use something at least as tough as 1095 in your gator skinner. I would guess you're not using 420J2 or 1050.

When I finish skinning an Elk I'm just getting started. I still want the knife real sharp because I bone it out in the field. I want my knife near razor sharp all the way through the job. I don't need stainless, but I prefer not to go below 1095 for my blade material.

[This message has been edited by Jeff Clark (edited 24 June 1999).]
I like lockbacks because I like my fingers. I like high performing steels because they allow high performing geometries. I don't like stainless steels, because they usually involve a trade-off of something else in order to get the corrosion resistance, but thats probably only because of my enviroment.

Saying "I like my steel soft so its easy to resharpen" makes little sense to me. Harder steel are easier to resharpen as the edge tends not to deform. They can be maintained also indefinately with a steel and a strop. Now if you somehow manage to chip out a high performing steel you are going to be awhile removing the chip - but if they happens on a regular basis you made a design flaw somewhere.

Jeff, funny you should mention 1050 carbon steel. When I was hunting Africa recently I notice most of the skinners were using a local South African brand of pocket knife. I made contact with the factory (yes there will be articles to follow in a couple of publications.)and asked, among other things, what type of steel they used. 1055.
These guys are skinning elk and large size game on an everyday basis. Lots of practice tends to make up for the low quality of their cutlery.

Very, very thought provoking post here!! Sunfish's thinking mirrors my own on many levels. I like well engineered tools, sharp knives, fast computers and cars that start reliably, that said I find a lot of "tactical" knives to be overkill in size and perhaps materials. I don't much like G10 handle slabs and chisel grinds. Serrations leave me shaking my head for the most part.

I do like jigged bone, nickle silver bolsters , wharncliffe blades and DMT diamond sharpening tools. I don't pry with my folders and if I need to chop stuff I've got a variety of options, hatchetts, axes and if need be a dandy Husquevarna chain saw at my cabin. I don't believe there is "one" knife that could satisfy all my needs - sometimes I need an Exacto knife, other times a machete. Around my canoe stainless makes sense but an oily rag has kept my father's 8" Marble Ideal/4 1/2" Woodcraft from corroding for over 60 years around water and blood, so carbon steel will endure if cared for a bit. I don't really see knives as defensive weapons in Chicago either but perhaps I'm naive - a cell phone, a Colt .45 Gold Cup and a Remington 12 gauge 870 Pump (ok that's stainless) seem more useful when such thoughts enter my mind. I guess I just like old knives more than a lot of of new knives.

I do appreciate the ingenuity and workmanship that goes into all these new knives BTW.

1095 is one of my all time favorites. Right now I'm using A2. I bought a Project 1, not a knife made from A2 if you know what I'm saying. I skinn'em, gut'em, and chop'em into little pieces so I can pack them out. In all fairness, I go for smaller ones when I'm by myself or I can't haul the carcas out of the water. But anyway, I have no need to re-sharpen before it's done. The serrations help a little, but honestly don't get used much, and none of my other knives ever had them.

I'm not knocking you, I'm just saying that it has not proven itself to be a problem, at least for me. Australian Aborigines(sp?) clean kangaroos with the sharp part of their wooden boomerangs.

Still, people have different tastes, and often use different techniques to do the same thing. So the tool is not only tailored to the job, but also the user.

High performance is also subject to interpretation. Everything is trade-offs. Everything will be trade-offs for the foreseeable future. You just gotta find what works for you.
Cliff Stamp- I think you misunderstand me. I don't want the knife as soft as a throwing knife. I don't want the edge to fold or curl over as I am working- what's the use? I just wanted to say that in the trade offs of steel and making, I would lean towards sharpenability, which is away from edge-holding and what most or all seem to want in a knife today. I hear more about what production knives don't have or use than what they do. It seems that if memory serves me only the past year and a half have the factories really pushed ATS-34 and now we're hearing it's limitations. I would trade ease of care and edge holding for the things I look for in a knife. Thanks for your replies, Everyone!
Hey Sunfish,

It's good you have an opinion, it's also good that someone else noticed you have an opinion. If you lurk around here you'll find other peole with opinions here too. Welcome!

Sunfish :

I don't want the edge to fold or curl over as I am working

Neither do I which is why usually I go well over 60 RC unless the knife is going in for heavy impacts, in which case I will trade off high abrasion resistance for high impact resistance. And have the steel tempered low enough so that it will not chip out (usually 56-60 RC) depending on the steel.

Edge holding in and of itself is not of great importance. What difference does it make really if you sharpen your knife once a month instead of once a week if sharpening only takes a few minutes? However having good edge holding means that you have other things as well which are far more important. If you don't have good edge holding then you don't have these things. Some designs for example are not practical in softer steels.

I guess I have to ask is,is sharpenability a function of some mother-concept that also makes a knife useable as a cutting instument? I thought the harder the knife, the less sharpenability. I've heard that alot of knives are made "glass-hard" today and what good is that? Cliff, you sound like there is a very small range that knives can even be in and still be a knife. Is this personal opinion or preference, or can I read more somewhere? I am a lay-man when it comes to metallurgy(sic). I couldn't get through Greco's booklet on steel a few years ago, very technical. I long for simplicity, not milking every last once of performance out of a steel, knife or man. That is not in my realme of values and enjoyment.
Sunfish :

is sharpenability a function of some mother-concept that also makes a knife useable as a cutting instument? I thought the harder the knife, the less sharpenability

In general, the harder steels are difficult to sharpen with certain equipment like files and some of the softer hones. However diamond pads eat into even ultra hard (62+ RC) steels with little difficultly.

The biggest advantage to very hard steels is that they will not roll. The edge is very resistant to deforming because its so hard so in order for it to blunt the metal has to just wear away. This means the knife will stay sharp for a long time. It also means that when you do want to sharpen it, a couple of swipes with a ceramic or diamond rod will restore the edge. Really, it only takes a couple of minutes. To be exact I usually only use about 10-20 strokes per side with a ceramic rod after a little burnishing and finish with some light stropping.

Cliff, you sound like there is a very small range that knives can even be in and still be a knife. Is this personal opinion or preference, or can I read more somewhere?

I prefer a steel to be that hard that it will resist deforming and yet still be tough enough not to chip out. How hard this is varies from knife to knife based on what you are going to be doing and what steel the knife is made from.

Some very nice knifemakers to talk to about this aspect (and others) are Mel Sorg, R. J. Martin, Ed Schott, Rob Simonich, and Phil Wilson.


Someone who agrees with an anachronism like me. It isn't hard to find cutlery in very good shape that was made centuries ago. If it was taken care of it lasted -- and if it isn't a saw, it doesn't have serrations. It was assumed that the user knew at least enough to keep it sharp. I like things simple and effective. The carbon steels and the traditional edge fit this definition.

Arizona Desert Rat

For me the "Mother Concept" of a good knife steel is small carbide particle structure. Whether you have a complex alloy or simple carbon steel you have hard particles of carbides (carbide=metal atoms connected to carbon atoms) mixed in a softer bulk iron medium.

Large carbide particles make steel hard to sharpen. They are really difficult to abrade to a desired shape. If you use a sharp and hard hone like a diamond plate you can cut the carbides, but much of the time you will break them out of the iron leaving dull gaps. A stainless steel with 15% chromium content is real likely to have trouble with big, hard, chromium carbide particles.

So a good knife steel has small sized carbide particles, either because of alloy composition, or because of mechanical/thermal treatment. Carbon steel has softer carbides (iron carbide) which tend to be small to medium sized. Adding Vanadium tends to make the carbide particles smaller.

Whether your Rockwell is high or low, if your carbide particles are big you tend to have problems. If your Rockwell is low you can remove lots of steel, but the knife either won't get real sharp or it dulls easily. If the Rockwell is high you work real hard and it still doesn't want to get and hold a good edge.

There are wonderful exceptions, but on first blush I look for a steel that is in the 1% carbon range, has vanadium, and only moderate amounts of other alloying elements.

[This message has been edited by Jeff Clark (edited 28 June 1999).]
Postscript to the above. My experience is that high Molybdenum (known as "Molly be Damned" where it is mined) really makes a knife harder to sharpen without equivalent benefits.

[This message has been edited by Jeff Clark (edited 28 June 1999).]
So does anyone else have a better "Mother Concept"? I sure wish I could explain why Spyderco kitchen knives with MBS-26 blades get so sharp.
I would like a minute for rebutal here, I am a firm believer in stainless steels, would you rather have a carbon steel blade or a Talonite blade? (if money grew on trees of course)
Stainless will rust and corrode as does carbon steel, it has carbon in it! So both steels need to cared for and responsibly maintained.
Sure, some steels are harder to sharpen, but that's why there are ceramic sharpening rods and diamond coated "stones"!
With a proper heat treat, certain stainless steels will out-perform carbon blades.

"All of our knives open with one hand, in case you're busy with the other"
There is excellent stainless and bad stainless. My last two knife purchases were to acquire some excellent stainless (BG-42 and VG10). I have almost every type of manual sharpening tool and really bad stainless cannot take a razor edge that meets my standards. Hard bad stainless is a real pain in the rear. Soft bad stainless dulls really fast when a sharp edge gets used.

In my simplistic "Mother Concept" the key element is carbide particle size, not quantity. If you can make stainless (around 15% cromium) steel with small carbides it will take a sharp edge even though there is a lot of carbides in the alloy. This is done, but it takes alloying or processing tricks. These tricks exist, but they are outside the scope of this simple explanation.
And some might suggest that anything with 15% chromium in it can only possibly be about 85% steel.

Arizona Desert Rat