Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Gift

Merry Christmas Everyone.
Christmas Eve found me cutting up a pheasant for Hungarian paprikash. Naturally I was using a knife, my wife’s santoku. It’s not restaurant quality, so in the spirit of complete honesty and disclosure, I was also used a poultry shear to supplement the knife.

Pheasant is one of my favor game birds, even if you buy it at the super market. The bird tends to store fat under the skin and paprikash should not be oily. This made skinning and removal of the rich yellow fat was a key step in the process. Its times like this you appreciate non-slip handles! Just one of many attributes of a good knife.

A good knife is always a treasure and yet can be considered a bad gift. My wife’s grandmother was horrified about giving kitchen knives as a wedding present. They could only be a harbinger bad and unhappy times, maybe even death!


Merry Christmas!

My background is central European and a gift of knives was always bad, so traditionally gift knives were given with a small coin like a penny. The gift receiver would return the penny to the giver, turning a bad omen into a purchase. I guess there was no omen attached to inexpensive knives!

I tried to introduce this custom to my wife’s family, but it was like pulling teeth, also a bad omen. The younger crowd looked at me to say “whatever” and the older patriarchs assured me there was no such tradition. So much for my traditions. Still I have a few of my own blade and bullet traditions that seem to be catching on.

I got into a conversation with a stranger about knife traditions (you meet some really nice people at a knife table!). He told me that from his Native American traditions a knife was a high girt and an honor to receive.

I liked that a lot. I still get a warm and fuzzy feeling when I think about the knives I have been given. But in all honesty, it was the people who gave me the knives that I feel good about.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

They say the heart of rock and roll is the beat...

“They say the heart of rock and roll is the beat...” Huey Lew and The News

I was thinking about that that song other day. So what would be the heart of a knife?

All knives have common features, handle, blade and edge. The handle and blade are easily decorated, but not so much the edge. If you turn a knife into an object of art, is it still a knife? I want to say yes, but if its form over whelms its function does it retain it’s core identity. Perhaps it’s the potential. The objet d'art knife still can cut or stab, but doing so would ruin its appearance and function.

I was at a knife auction and several lovely stag handled Hubertus autos were auctioned. The blades were engraved and etched; they were absolutely beautiful. I didn’t bid on them; the blades didn’t have an edge. That’s right, unsharpened blades, or if as I prefer call them, spatulas. I’m not sure you should even call them knives. No edge, no knife, seems simple enough.

So the edge is the heart of the knife? I think so, but it isn’t the soul. The edge depends on the steel. Companies have developed many proprietary steels like ZDP-189 or Sandvik 12c27 for special purposes and niches. Other steels like 1095 and W-1 have been around for years. Any knife discussion group will have their share of steel junkies, all of which are jonesing for another fix of some steel reported to have mythical qualities. Kind of like a doper in search of the ultimate high.

What gives most steels the strength, hardness and flexibility is carbon. After forging or casting steels can become so hard, so brittle they are tempered. Tempering softens the steel at little by allowing a little carbon to go back in to solution.

It’s complicated. Carbon dissolves in molten iron like sugar in hot water, but let the steel cool and on the way to room temperature iron forms austenite and ferrite. These are different crystals of carbon and iron. Ferrite holds very little carbon and austenite a little more. But austenite hates itself and wants to change. Some time, most time it changes to martensite. It can hold more carbon than ferrite, but it’s brittle. Very hard, but very brittle, so brittle that the knife blade can snap. By tempering or heat treating the blade some of the martensite can changed into our old friend ferrite. The extra carbon? Even thro it has paid its bar bill, carbon has been reject by first ferrite, then austenite, then martensite and again by ferrite. Who would blame it if it develops a complex? The rejected carbon forms tiny ceramic-like clusters with a few iron atoms hanging around the property line called cementite. Don’t feel sorry for cementite, it forms the microscopic small teeth that let the blade cut.

I started thinking carbon was going to be the soul of the knife. I’m wrong; heat treatment is the real soul of any knife.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Name an American Knife

Think of France and the laguiole with its bee shaped locking catch comes to mind. Who would draw an image of the Argentina gaucho without his caronera? Let someone show you classic bone-handled stiletto and you can almost see Naples and fields of ripe olives.

Could there be any other knife associated with the United States other than the Buck 110 hunter?

The man standing in frount of my table wanted an American knife to take home to the Orient. I showed him Spyderco’s Native made in Golden, Colorado, I showed him Kershaw’s Leek also made in the states. Those weren’t American enough for him.

I showed him a Buck 110 hunter and his eye lit up. That was his idea of an American knife.   Mine too!

I bought mine 40 years ago. I’ve used and abused that knife. Carried it daily and faithfully for years, it was a part of who I was. Why? Because my Buck 110 never let me down when I needed it. It cuts, stays sharp, cleaned-ups well and went back in its black leather belt sheath without any trouble. I’ve semi-retired it for thinner, faster opening, clip it in my pocket knives, but I still can’t imagine leaving the sidewalk for the dirt path without it.

It’s not a perfect knife. The brass bolsters react with the fatty acids in sweat and leather to produce a green goop you have to clean. The knife is clunky, but that’s not necessary a bad thing. The steel holds an edge, but it takes time to sharpen it with the double bevel edge that gave it keen sharpness and strong staying power. More an a few hours were spent with an oilstone and strop making the perfect edge, only to miscalculate and have to start over. The lock is reliable only if it was kept clean and all knives need a drop of oil.

Al Buck’s gift to knife world was realizing that big knives, clunky knives would sell, if you didn’t have to put them in your pocket. The safety of the locking blade and oversize handle that gave you something to grab, found a home on the belt. I knew people who wore a belt just to hold up their Buck knife.

It is the American Classic.