Seems like a simple question right? In some instances, it can be, but this is also a question that can take people down a rabbit hole from which there is almost no escape. There are hundreds of knife companies and/or knife makers in the world today all attempting to make the “best knife for you”.
No. This is not a knife buyer’s guide, and it is also not a top 10, top 5, or top anything list. This is simply meant to get you thinking about what you actually want in a knife so that YOU can make the decision about what is right for you.
WHAT DO I "NEED" IT FOR?
If you’re a knife enthusiast, it’s unlikely that you “need” a new knife, but the same concepts can apply to you as for those people who are replacing a lost knife or had one break and actually do need a new knife. The most important question is, “what will this knife be used for most frequently?” If you work in a field where you’re regularly opening packages, mail, or cutting a lot of paper-like material, you’re going to want something different than if you’re looking for a concealable self-defense knife. If you work outside the city in rural areas or in nature, you’re going to want something totally different than someone who works in a restaurant. If you’re a hunter, you’ll probably want something different than a military guy or gal about to be deployed overseas. Those are obvious callouts, but it’s the right place to start.
HOW OFTEN AM I GOING TO CARRY IT?
Now that you know exactly what it’s going to cut, think about how often it will be on your person. The same adage a lot of people use when buying a new gun is true for knives: the best gun (knife in this case) is the one have with you. So if you’re buying a self-defense knife, and you live in Miami, and it's summer, a fixed blade with a 7-inch cutting edge is not the right knife. An exaggerated example, but you get the point. Consider how the knife will fit on your belt, around your neck, or in your pocket. Also, think about how it might show under a shirt; is it going to dig into your body when you sit; is it even legal to carry in your city/state, or where you work. Since most of the time it will be in the sheath, it’s got to be comfortable to carry or you won’t carry it.
HOW OFTEN AM I GOING TO USE IT?
This is where you start looking at things like ergonomics and steel choice. A knife that you will be using regularly has to be comfortable to hold. There are some knives out there that look amazing (in terms of aesthetics) but are rather unwieldy and uncomfortable to use. There are numerous materials used for knife handles today from classics like wood and bone to high tech like carbon fiber. If you require a solid grip at all times, you’ll want to select a textured G10 or Micarta over polished wood and slick surfaces. If you are doing simple tasks and are interested in aesthetics, a nice burl, exotic hardwood, or some good looking carbon fiber might be a great option. Micarta that is sanded to a polish is going to look and feel quite different from Micarta that is left with a rough texture.
Steel choice, in general, could be its own standalone topic and a broad one at that, but suffice it to say that you should know the basic properties of the steel on the knife you’re going to get. Is it stainless, tool steel, spring steel, or basic high carbon steel? Or is it Damascus or San Mai type steel?
Consider hardness, toughness, wear resistance, and edge retention. Some steels will hold an edge for a very long time, but require a very skilled person and time investment to re-sharpen. Other steels, such as 1095 have great edge retention when heat treated properly, but are still simple to re-sharpen when the time comes. Some steels can take an edge better than others in the first place. Some steels can be hardened to a very high hardness, but are left brittle, so hard use will chip edges. Some may not get as sharp or as hard but may be very impact resistant (great for chopping knives, hatchets, etc.). Remember, the more advanced the steel, the higher the cost.
HOW MUCH AM I WILLING TO SPEND?
This, like many aspects of purchasing a knife, is extremely subjective. Some people aren’t willing to spend over $100 (some won’t spend more than $50) on a knife no matter how good it is. Some are willing to shell out over $1000 for a custom knife made with exotic materials by a well-known knife maker. Then, there are people everywhere in between that will spend whatever it costs to get the knife they want. None of these people are wrong. You just have to decide for yourself what a knife is worth to you.
Some of those $30-$40 folding knives look good and work well, but many lack a proper heat treat, which can lead to rolling or chipping on the regular, which will make the knife more hassle than it’s worth. Some of those really high priced knives look so amazing that they never get used or carried, which is fine if collecting is your thing. Some people would rather spend $100-$200 for a knife that will last forever instead of just buying a new one every time the cheap one fails. Of course there are some diamonds in the rough, and some overpriced paperweights out there, but in general, when it comes to knives, you get what you pay for.
WHAT ELSE SHOULD I CONSIDER?
As if that wasn’t enough, there are many other considerations:
Blade thickness - thicker blade stock typically equals stronger knives but can sacrifice sharpness. Plus, how much weight are you willing to carry around?
Edge geometry - axes tend to have wider blade edges (up to 30 degrees or so on each side of the edge) and slicers tend to have narrower (say 17 to 20 degrees) for good reasons. Wider edges are less prone to chipping and rolling than thin edges. Thin edges are sharper and cut better (more cleanly). There is always a trade-off.
Blade type - Each has its strengths/weaknesses and preferred applications (again, it's all subjective). There are drop points, tanto points, Sheep's foot, clip points, and many more to choose from.
Cleaning and Maintenance - Do you want a worry free stainless steel that you never have to worry about cleaning, but may be very difficult to resharpen, or do you want a carbon steel blade that will rust when wet, but sharpens easily (keep in mind, many modern carbon steel blades are coating to protect from rust).
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