I have a favorite hand tool, one which has been with me (in one form or another) for most of my life. It’s my most-used hand tool, and the one I would be most reluctant to part with. It’s not my smoothing plane. It’s not my drawknife or my backsaw. It’s not even my workbench.
It’s my pocketknife.
The pocketknife is both a tool and a symbol. It represents competence and readiness. Somebody who carries a pocketknife–especially if it’s kept sharp–is the sort of person who is ready to confront whatever problems life might present. Such readiness is always a matter of longstanding habit. Ask an old farmer if he has his pocketknife on him, and he’s likely to reply, “I’m wearing my pants, aren’t I?” If I discover in the middle of the day that I’ve left my pocketknife at home, I’m just as distressed as most younger people would be to have lost their cellphone.
Growing up in the country, it was only natural that I began to carry a pocketknife at a young age. I got my first folding knife at 10. Later I got a Swiss Army Knife that had two blades, a bottle opener, and a corkscrew. Unsurprisingly, I never used most of those features. More expensive models had a Phillips head screwdriver in place of the corkscrew, but I never got one of those. But I carried that Swiss Army knife with pride, and it wore a hole in the right-hand pocket of every pair of jeans I owned.
The pocketknife is the most basic of tools. At its simplest, it’s a short, steel blade attached to a handle by a hinge to allow it to be carried safely. That simple design can be (and has been) complicated in any number of ingenious ways, but however slick or complex your pocketknife is, it’s what the blade can do that’s most important. I’ve used my pocketknife to cut rope, tighten flathead screws, slice sheets of paper into strips, whittle twigs into curious shapes, scrape tape residue off the floor, dig pebbles out of shoe soles, remove staples from walls, scrape a splintering chair rail smooth, and even remove splinters from my hand.
For many of these tasks, the blade doesn’t need to be very sharp, and I suppose that’s why a lot of people’s pocketknives are so dull. After all, a blade doesn’t have to be sharp to be used as a pry bar or even to open a cardboard box. Still, a truly sharp blade is far more useful than a dull one–and much safer, too.
It was many years before I learned to really keep my own blades sharp. The sharpening instructions I saw in books were never adequate, and I had nobody to teach me. I couldn’t reliably keep a knife sharp until I learned to sharpen plane irons and bench chisels. As it turns out, the curved blade of a pocketknife can be one of the hardest kinds of edge to sharpen. And to make things more difficult still, I found that a lot of cheaper pocketknives are made with bad steel, making it nearly impossible to put a keen edge on them at all.
For example, the knife I carried throughout much of high school and college was my “SWAT” knife, pictured below. As soon as I saw it in a catalog, I just had to have it. The design of the knife was clearly superior to the old “lock back” knives I had carried previously. It could be opened and closed with just one hand.
But once I had the knife, I had a terrible time trying to keep it sharp, a problem I could have predicted had I understood the technical language in the catalog specs. It had said the knife’s blade was made from 440 stainless steel, which, as it turns out, is a bad choice for a knife blade. 440 doesn’t rust easily, but it also doesn’t hold an edge.
I’ve tried out many other different kinds of pocketknives since then. In college I got a multi-tool made by Gerber. (It’s a cheaper imitation of the Leatherman, which is what my wife keeps in her purse.) It has several knife blades as well as screwdrivers, a file, and pliers. Like most all-purpose tools, it doesn’t do any one job well, but it’s handy in a pinch. I still keep it in my briefcase.
At some point I also took to carrying the smallest Swiss Army knife on my key ring. I don’t use its blade much, but the scissors are invaluable for little tasks around the office, and the tweezers come in handy for removing splinters from my kids’ hands. It’s also a good knife to pull out in situations where I need to cut something but don’t want to scare people by whipping out a larger blade.
Earlier this year, I decided that I was done with cheap pocketknives. I’m a thoroughgoing cheapskate, but I have realized that the quality of the tools you own should be proportionate to how often you use them. I don’t mind buying a cheaper tool if I’m not going to use it very often, but if I’m going to use a tool every day, I’m going to get the best I can afford.
So I did some research and finally settled on a smaller knife made in the USA by Benchmade. They say that, when it comes to buying a tool, you get a good one and cuss once when you pay for it, or you can get a cheap one and cuss every time you use it. This pocketknife cost more than four times what I’ve ever paid for a pocketknife before, and I’ve not yet regretted it. This knife is light and durable, easy to open and close, and, most importantly, takes and holds a keen edge.
I’m not advertising for any particular company here. All I’m saying is this: if you’re going to use a tool frequently, don’t settle for a cheap one. A pocketknife is the most essential hand tool you can have. So get a good one, keep it with you, and keep it sharp.