Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Essential Knife

Since the day I started wearing pants with pockets I’ve carried a knife. From elementary school in Arkansas to college in Chicago to writing about plane crashes in South Carolina, the only thing that has remained the same has been the presence of a slim blade of steel.

So it should come as no surprise that I carry a knife in my shop apron. What is surprising is how essential it has become to my woodworking, as important as a block plane, combination square or tape measure.

I bought this Swedish shop knife 10 years ago from Lee Valley Tools. I recall that it cost a bit more back then, but perhaps that’s because they now sell it with a plastic sheath. That’s a shame because the leather sheath is very well made and embossed with geometric patterns , the only decoration on this simple, stout tool.

Its details of the Erik Frost knife are what set it apart. The tang extends all the way through the birch handle, ending with a small black nub at the butt. And the knife is laminated from both mild and hardened high-carbon steel. The construction and materials allow you to strike this knife with a mallet or hammer and never worry about the handle splitting or the 2″-long blade deforming.

No other tool I own splits drawbore pins as well as this knife as a result of its toughness.

I sharpen the knife constantly. It takes a fine edge and is the tool I use to shape the ends of drawbore pins, to chamfer a through-tenon, to taper a wedge before it gets knocked home. I use it as a scraper, holding it vertically on the work with two hands , one hand on the stock and one at the tip of the knife.

The act of sharpening a knife is not precious, like a plane iron or chisel. I use a diamond hone from DMT that looks a bit like a butterfly knife itself. Occasionally I’ll stone it with a fine-grit stone, but I actually like the knife to have a little tooth to it.

I sanded the handle smooth several years ago as the wood began to look beat up. And now, as I examine it this afternoon, I can see clearly the marks of hundreds of jobs on the yellowed surface. Despite the fact that birch has a closed grain, the handle is impregnated with grit through-and-through. There’s a dab of epoxy in the shape of a fingerprint on one side. Small dents and creases are everywhere.

It’s like looking closely at your face in the mirror one day and finally seeing that it’s not the same face that started back at you at 16. The handle could probably use another sanding, like my face could probably use some dermabrasion (were I a pretty boy).

But no, I think it’s just fine as it is.

, Christopher Schwarz

2 thoughts on “The Essential Knife

  1. dave brown

    I think all of us have a special, well used tool like that. The favorite tool you always turn too — sometimes using it in ways its inventor might never have imagined. And, you’d feel lost if you ever misplaced it. If you had to buy a new one, it wouldn’t feel right in your hand.

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