Alexander Lyman Holley
How to Select and Use a Pocket Knife
Published Saturday, August 24th, 1850 in the American Railroad Journal
Note: I've hand-typed the below words from the original publication as the text, at times, is difficult to decipher and has proven impossible to perform OCR on.
This is the tenth and final installment of Alexander's essays that appeared in the American Railroad Journal.
Having prescribed pen and pocket knives, and given a detailed account of the manner in which they and their materials are made, we next naturally look for some means of ascertaining what kinds and varieties are the best “stuff,” and best adapted to certain purposes. Every one who purchases a pocket knife, if the assortment is large, can usually select just such an article, apparently, as he wishes. The farmers can find their stout jacks, and the ladies their more delicate pens - the horticulturist can obtain his budding, grafting, and pruning knives, and the book keeper his pen and erasing blades; but no one knows certainly before a trial, whether his instrument will cut or not. It is the bounden duty of every one who carries a knife, to carry a good one, not only for his own sake, but for that of right and justice - for those who make and traffic in cast iron blades and pewter knives, should not and will not be patronized by a whittling and intelligent people. All that American cutlers wish is to convince the people that a good knife is better than a poor one. This is self-evident - but some persons are so blinded, as to really believe that it is better to agonize over and wear out a dozen soft and miserable blades, for which they have paid 12 cents apiece, and not finally accomplish their object, than to pay a dollar for a good knife, which will outlast the dozen, and do twelve times the execution. Hence, the Sheffielders take advantage of this defect of the Americans, and export great quantities of trash “which the more you whet, the more it will not grow sharp.” These are the great stimulating blocks in the way of the farther progress of the science of “Whittleology,” against which we wish to warn our readers. To those who use jack knives exclusively, the advice is given in three words, viz: use American Cutlery. No such trash, is made in America, as the best English steel is used in the cheapest and coarsest knives. There is no way of certainly ascertaining whether jack knives are good or not, except by feeling of the edge and using them, (though the former is often very uncertain,) without it is to notice the manufactured stamp on the tang. It is usually much more easy to judge in regard to the merits of fine knives, by their general appearance and finish, though this is not always the case.
Before purchasing a fine knife, (without it is of American manufacture, in which case it is of course supposed to be perfect,) it is necessary to open the blades, feel of their edges, notice if they “walk and talk,” and keep the springs exactly even with the scales, when open or shut; - to hold up the instrument to the light, and form your inferences, if you can see through very distinctly between the springs and the scales; to look at the matching, and to notice if there are small creases (which indicates stiffness) running across the blade from the back to the edge, as a fine knife that is sold for a good article is usually well put together. Beware of double covering, or two pieces of yellowish pearl matched in the centre, on the same side of the knife, and of “slitted springs,” or a half split spring, and no slip in a three blade knife, for these are unmistakable indications of poor work and poor blades. Some persons cherish the very erroneous idea, that blades are good if they dry quickly, when breathed on. Nothing is more absurd, for moisture will evaporate from the surface of highly polished silver or brass, as quickly as from steel, and even were this not the case, what effect could certain degrees of hardness in any body have on a superficial coating of moisture?
Many inexperienced whittlers, as soon as they have purchased a new knife, go and grind the polish entirely off from the blades, and often ruin their edge and shape, which barbarous process they term ‘sharpening up.’ It is not best to grind a new knife, but if it is dull, (as new American knives never are) a fine and substantial edge may be put on, by honing it, not by laying its face directly on the stone, but by slightly elevating the back, and moving the knife evenly across the hone. This will render the edge more obtuse and less liable to break, and quite as sharp, without removing the finish. It is best to avoid whittling with pen blades, as much as possible, for if slender, and good, they will prove that they are of excellent material, by breaking. It is often necessary to oil the joints, or they will wear away, open hard, and at length, cease to be affected by the spring.