The wheel may be the most convenient invention, but it did little to promote humankind’s survival. Cutting tools like axes, spears and especially knives were different. Without them, early humans would’ve had a hard time. With their weak physique and poor dental armament, they needed something to defend themselves and to cut things with. Knives were essential to skin their quarry, make clothes and transform materials into implements.
Today, steel is almost exclusively used for knife blades, but this wasn’t always the case. In the stone-age, one of the materials people used for knife blades was obsidian (volcanic glass). Obsidian is formed when volcanic magma, which has a high silica content, cools down so rapidly that there’s insufficient time for the lava to form crystals. Such rapid cooling typically takes place under water.
When a sliver of this resulting glass-like material later breaks off, the edge is molecularly thin, very smooth and unimaginably sharp. In fact, it’s around 500 times sharper than the finest surgical steel blade. Obsidian is still chipped today in the age-old fashion – not to make knives, but to make scalpels for very delicate reconstructive surgeries and eye operations. It produces a much cleaner wound by cutting rather than tearing, resulting in quicker healing and much less scarring.
Four of the set of 23 beautiful collector’s knives from Louis Naudé. These are ideal pocket knives and several depict famous Boer War heroes. Photo courtesy of Theo Naudé
Although it’s possible to make effective and extremely sharp knives from obsidian, and certain competent knifemakers such as Dr Errett Callahan of Piltdown Productions in America specialise in them, you can hardly carry one around in your pocket for everyday use. For that, you need a folding knife where the blade is hidden away until needed.
Pocket and folding sheath knives
Folding knives are nothing new. Evidence of their use before the birth of Christ came from the ruins of Pompeii. As it’s my favourite type of knife, I own more than 50 folders and if I don’t have at least one on my person, I feel almost naked. There are many types and hundreds of styles, but they can for practical purposes be divided in two main categories: pocket knives and large folding sheath knives, which are usually hunting knives.
The obvious difference is size, bulk or weight, but the dividing line is somewhat vague, with many in-betweens – large pocket knives or smallish hunting folders. The ideal pocket knife should be between 8cm and 9cm long with a maximum of three blades. It should be light, preferably thin and flat, with smoothly rounded ends and no sharp corners or projections to wear holes in your pockets.
It should be so comfortable to carry that you forget it’s there until it’s needed. One such type of knife is the line of 23 retro-knives resembling the famous Solingen-made Kruger knives, from Cape Town knifemaker Louis Naudé (contact him on 082 396 6244). If you need anything larger, carry it in a belt sheath, otherwise it would probably be lying at home when needed. Most of the rather ugly Spyderco-type knives are equipped with belt-clips.
Long ago, large fixed-blade sheath knives were traditionally associated with hunting. But over the past half-century, hunters started to realise that smaller fixed-blade and lock-blade folding knives, preferably with drop-point blades, were handier and far more practical. I’ve always preferred a good high-quality folder and for years almost exclusively used the big Kershaw knives because of their incredible sturdiness, edge-holding ability and ease of sharpening. Due to Japan’s high manufacturing cost, they’re sadly no longer made.
The present line of Kershaw knives are unfortunately not the same, but I believe the factory has now moved to China and the old classics may soon be available again. On thin-skinned animals such as impala and blesbok, I like to use a delightful, but non-locking, Victorinox multi-blade hunter.
Some time ago I received one of Leatherman’s top-of-the-line folding hunter knives, the Klamath, to evaluate. When it arrived in a big foam-lined presentation tin, reminiscent of a bygone era, I could hardly believe my eyes. Nestled snugly inside with its leather pouch was a big futuristic-looking folding knife. It’s surprisingly light for its generous size, and fills even my large hand perfectly. On top, just in front of the locking-latch, is a pleasant hollow for my thumb.
King-sized folders. The Klamath is on the left, then a Muela skinner, four super-tough Kershaws (the blade of one worn away on hundreds of hunted animals), a large decorative folder and a sailor’s knife. The red Victorinox hunter (right) with its curved gutting blade is a delightful hunting knife.
This, together with a deep finger groove on each side behind the substantial hinge pin, provides a remarkably secure grip, even with my hands full of fat and blood from the overweight warthogs I later hunted. With its matt-finish aluminium grip inlaid with strips of resin-impregnated rosewood, the Klamath has a decidedly unconventional appearance, but it radiates quality.
The hard anodised aluminium handle is ultra-tough 6061-T6 alloy, as used for pressure vessels in nuclear reactors.
The 11cm drop-point blade has just about the perfect shape for a hunting knife and was ground from a 3mm thick slab of S30V – probably the toughest stainless knife-steel available anywhere. And the Klamath had more surprises in store. Sliding the serrated portion of the back-strap to the rear pushes a huge gut hook out of the rear of the handle. The right side of the handle holds a tube containing a diamond-coated sharpening rod.
The gut hook, which often comes in contact with acidic body fluids, is made with a different steel – 420HC – famous for its high stain- and corrosion-resistance. Such quality doesn’t come cheap, but neither does a 25-year guarantee. The bad news is that, like many good things in life, it’s no longer made. However, Awesome Tools (contact them on 021 975 2700) brought in quite a few before stock ran out.
So, if you want this top-quality knife, don’t wait. They may all be gone soon.