A Lifetime of Carrying and Caring for a Pocket Knife

One man's reflection on an indispensable tool – and the proper way to keep it in good shape.

A menagerie of pocket knives has always been strewn in a heavy drawer in my grandparents’ farmhouse kitchen.

I remember watching with admiration on the first of many fall seasons I worked on their farm, when Grandpa pulled one of the folding knives from his back pocket to cut a loop of baling twine. The chill from the air made my hands clumsy and slow, but feeling the twine give way to the sharp blade made me feel in control, like a kid from the country who knew exactly what he was doing.

A quick-release folding knife that flicks open smoothly – when it's properly cleaned.
A quick-release folding knife that flicks open smoothly – when it's properly cleaned.

My first knife of my own had a two-inch blade and a black plastic handle. My brother and I opened matching ones Christmas morning. Eventually, I started collecting more and more. Bigger ones, smaller ones, ancient ones whose owners were long forgotten (and probably long dead), and one with a serrated blade with a razor-sharp point that snapped open if you flicked your thumb right.

I grew up between a cornfield and a few acres of woods. I knew how to clean a squirrel rifle by the time I was ten years old, and routinely followed a creek through the brush and gnarled trees to an abandoned barn where gaping cow skulls sat half-covered by brown leaves.

An ancient fixed blade with an antler handle. It was a gift from my grandfather.
An ancient fixed blade with an antler handle. It was a gift from my grandfather.

Nobody thought disappearing in the woods for hours on end was unusual during the long stretches of summer vacation. And even though strings of houses were only a 20-minute walk in almost any direction, the undergrowth towered above my skinny, four-and-a-half-foot frame. For a kid raised on a continuous loop of Davy Crockett movies, it felt like I was on my own out there. A pocket knife with a three-inch locking blade and a brass handle inlaid with dark, chocolate-colored wood always weighed down a back pocket of my Levis.

The trusty folding knife that saw me through a childhood's worth of adventures.
The trusty folding knife that saw me through a childhood's worth of adventures.

Today, that same knife constantly comes in handy to slice open a package, strip a wire, or pare an apple.

Men have carried pocket knives forever. Since the Iron Age, farmers, laborers, sailors, hunters, artists – anyone who undergoes any kind of regular physical effort – have all carried their own small blades to help with daily tasks.

To me, the feeling of using one brings back how I felt on that fall day with the baling twine: I was fully and maturely in control of the situation. Someone who has what it takes.

That said, there's not much good in owning a pocket knife if you don’t take care of it. If you want your knife to be ready for action when you are, you've got to clean, oil, lubricate, sharpen, and give it as much respect as you would any other tool.

Cleaning Your Knife

Pocket knives are meant for rough conditions. Smears of sap, fruit juice, adhesive, dirt, and bits of pocket lint will all make their way onto the blade. And eventually, the joints will get gummed up and difficult to open, and the steel will get rusty. Fortunately, getting it back into good shape is pretty straightforward.

  1. Get an old toothbrush and bowl of warm, soapy water. Grease-fighting dish soap like Dawn works great.

  2. Use a toothpick to flick out any visible pieces of lint or sediment in the knife’s workings.

  3. Wash the entire knife – blade, handle, and especially the joints and workings – with the toothbrush. Don’t worry about getting soap in the workings themselves. Just make sure to rinse everything out thoroughly. And don’t soak your knife to loosen things up, especially if you have a wooden handle.

  4. Use a blow dryer and paper towels to dry the knife quickly, so water doesn't sit on the metal too long.

Oiling the Blade

The number one enemy of a good pocket knife is rust. Knives tend to be used in wet environments, like camping trips and outdoor work, and even stainless steel can get rusty in those conditions. But keeping a protective layer of oil on the blade will help shield it from damage.

  1. Using a rag, apply a thin layer of 3-IN-ONE lubricating oil to the blade. It essentially works like WD-40, but doesn’t smell as strongly. It'll be available at any decent hardware store for about five bucks.

  2. Use a dry part of the rag to wipe off any excess oil from the blade. That's it.

If your knife already has rust on it and the area is accessible, spray some WD-40 on there and let it soak for a couple minutes before scrubbing it down with a coarse nylon pad.

Lubricating the Moving Parts

A knife that sticks when you try to open it is as frustrating as... a sticky knife. Bad comparisons aside, it sucks, but it’s easily fixed.

  1. Use either 3-in-1 oil or a more upscale, precision lubricating oil like Sentry Solutions Tuff Glide with the needle applicator. Alternately, you can use a dry or spray-on lubricant, which tends to attract less pocket lint. Super Lube and Miltec are good examples.

  2. Apply the oil (a drop or two) where the knife folds. Then work the knife back and forth to spread the oil around. The one thing to remember here is that a little goes a long way. Go nuts, and all kinds of crap will stick to the oil in the workings, and gum up the action all over again.

Sharpening the Edge

Knife people tend to say wise things like, “A dull knife is a dangerous knife.” What that means is if your knife isn’t sharp enough to just slice through something, you’ll exert more force, and when it finally does slice through, you have a lot more power behind that blade than you should, and it’s just gonna keep on going, right into your hand meat. So keep your hand meat safe, and sharpen your damn knife.

To do it right, just follow this video of proper stone-sharpening technique.

There are plenty of knife-sharpening stones of varying coarseness, as well as handheld and electric knife sharpeners, all with their own merits. With a small, single pocket knife, you’re best off just buying a stone or two and sticking with those. It’s part of the fun anyway.

And that’s really what owning a pocket knife is about: fun. It was fun when I was ten, it’s fun now. It’s part of home, and it’s something I carry that makes me feel like I have a little more control over what comes at me during the day.

And if you can’t think of anything you might need a knife for in your daily pursuits, maybe you should consider bolder daily pursuits.

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