The Total Package
By David Rhea
As Printed in BLADE magazine and reproduced with the permission of the author.
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When people talk about knife maintenance, they tend to think of keeping the blade razor sharp. However, you can have the sharpest blade on the block and still have a junky knife—that is, unless your maintenance regimen involves more than running the blade over a stone every few weeks.
There are several factors to consider when pondering long-term care for your knife. First, what is the knife's lot in life?
Let's say you inherited a Randall Smithsonian bowie from your dad. It has a brass guard, collar and buttcap, with a flawless elephant ivory handle. It came with the original leather sheath, but you want to display the knife on your wall, next to the handforged camp knife you picked up at the BLADE Show last year. In this case, who cares how sharp the blade is if the guard is turning green? And, if you throw the leather sheath in the bottom desk drawer and forget about it, it will look like King Tut's dried-up old kidney by the time your kid inherits it.
The gentlemen quoted in the following story are long-time collectors and experts at maintaining knives for use and storage. They constantly encounter the problems of storage, display, fingerprints, corrosion control and material conditioning. They all insist that the best thing to do is what works for you, and all their advice is just their opinions. Our thinking is, what works for the experts is worth passing along to you.
Keep and Store It Dry
Generally, knives are low maintenance. They are just like anything you care about—easy to keep in a good condition if you simply apply basic common sense. Keep the knife dry and conditioned, lubricate the mechanism, wipe the knife down before you put it away, and keep any leather conditioned.
Moisture is the main enemy of knives. Be it a letter opener or King Arthur's Excalibur, the singular, universal piece of advice when it comes to taking care of anything edged is to keep and store it dry. Moisture attacks steel, leather, bone—you name it. Maybe the only thing that is unaffected by moisture is synthetic materials such as G-10 or Micarta®, and, given enough time, moisture would probably wear them away as well.
"I think the No. 1 thing any knife collector should do is prevent moisture," said Larry Oden, a long-time collector of Buck knives. "It's bad news for leather, steel and most natural materials. I understand those who live in extremely dry climates have trouble with [knife materials] shrinking and they need to add a bit of humidity. But for most [knives], humidity is trouble!"
Dan Magrino, a long-time tactical knife collector, keeps his knives dry with the help of a safe with a built-in dehumidifier. The set-up draws the moisture out of the storage area for carefree, long-term upkeep of his knives, such as his prized "First Blood" Rambo prototype by Blade Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer© Jimmy Lile.
"Another one of the greatest eaters of steel is fingerprints," Magrino observed. "The oils on the body, if left on a blade, will deteriorate and stain it over time. Any steel—even stainless—if not maintained, will corrode in one way or the other."
A veteran collector of fine custom knives, Paul Lansingh added an unpleasant yet very real hazard that some knife collectors encounter.
"If you display knives at shows, you won't believe how much spittle goes across the table," he said. "You don't see it but, after a half day of people talking to you across your table, unless you have the knives under glass, you've got to clean them."
Maybe your knife will never see a display table. Instead, perhaps it is something you use to field dress a deer and get covered with blood, guts and hair. Or, maybe you like to fish and you drop your knife in the bottom of the boat. In any case, there are steps you should take to ensure the long-term care of both collectible and regular using knives.
A quick note from Lansingh: "[Animal] blood doesn't affect steel too much; just wash it off. You better be using stainless if you go fishing, and you want to dry the knife off when you get home. If you go deep-sea fishing, you have to take care of [the knife] daily because of the salt water, which is even more corrosive [than fresh water]."
Cleaning is the first step. Get all the dirt and gunk off and out of your knife with a towel and some cotton swabs. Magrino shot down my usual trusty way of cleaning folders—a can of compressed air. "I don't usually use compressed air on any knife," he offered, "because moisture builds up with the tiny moisture droplets [emitted with the air]. Also, I tell people not to use their own breath. Your breath is wet, so you are basically spitting on the knife."
If you must use water to remove stubborn debris, make sure the knife is fully dry afterward before storing it. Lansingh recommends wiping the knife down with a clean towel first, then lightly blowing it with a hair dryer to ensure complete dryness before storage. However, he stressed not to heat the knife up too much, which would be bad for a myriad of obvious reasons.
For conditioning, the hands-down winner for Oden and Paul Lansingh is Renaissance Wax, a semi-synthetic, microcrystalline, fossil-origin wax from England that is gentle and free of acids. The great all-around restorer/conditioner is especially good on wood and stag handles, according to Oden. "Some of my friends also use Mothers® car wax and say it's great, though I've never tried it," he noted.
Knifemaker R.J. Martin introduced Magrino to Sentry Solutions' Tuf-Cloth, which combines state-of-the-art dry-film technology with a lint-free fabric that forms a waterproof shield, will not attract dirt and is dry to the touch.
"It will clean the blade if there are fingerprints, blood, grease or dirt," Magrino explained. "It prevents rust and it also lubricates the blade. I always have [a Tuf-Cloth] with me, and I constantly wipe the knife down with it." He added that after the Tuf-Cloth dries up, he still finds it useful for wrapping blades before storage and for carrying in his pocket at shows. "If I go to a maker's table [and pick up a knife], as a courtesy I'll wipe it down and hand it back to him. It's good etiquette," Magrino opined.
You do not have to condition knives very often with Renaissance Wax. Lan-singh said once a year is enough for stainless, twice a year with non-stainless blades. Magrino recommends using the Tuf-Cloth "every time your friends put their grubby hands all over your knife."
For lubrication, Magrino uses another Sentry product called Tuf-Glide, which comes in a bottle with a needle-nose applicator. It is a dry-film lubricant much like what is on the Tuf-Cloth, except you can inject it down into the knife's working mechanism to ensure smooth operation and protect it from corrosion and debris.
"It's not like a thick oil that collects dust and lint and acts like glue," Magrino explained. "It's a good lubricant without the hazards of making [the mechanism] all gummy. Cold weather doesn't affect it. Usually you don't need much. A tiny bit will last you a very long time."
"I like Break-Free®," said Oden of his choice for lubrication. "It's also my understanding that sharpening oil should never be used as a joint lubricant. I think [that's because] it's too abrasive."
A good starter kit for proper all-around knife maintenance is the one by W.R. Case and Sentry Solutions, which comes with a Tuf-Cloth, a small bottle of Tuf-Glide and assorted cleaning utensils.
"I never store a knife in its sheath," Lan-singh observed. "A lot of people do and they're asking for trouble." Storing your blade in a leather sheath is bad news, something with which all the collectors quoted in the story concurred. Leather can harm a blade because, being a natural material, it can sweat and attract moisture. Also, acids that get into the leather during the tanning process can leech out and damage steel over the long term. For conditioning and to fight the acidic effects, sheathmaker Kenny Rowe uses a 50/50 concoction of an English product called Ballistol and mink oil.
"The bad thing about leather and carbon steel is getting any moisture in there between them," said Rowe, "and that moisture feeds those acids, which in turn attack your blade material. Ballistol really helps out with that, and it's also pretty much a preservative."
As noted, Magrino uses his dehumidified safe for his tactical collection. Lansingh, however, said such a safe would not necessarily do for his collection of customs, many of which have handles made from natural materials that could dry out and crack.
"I'm not a big fan of dehumidifying anything," he said, "because I think that a normal humidity range doesn't seem to bother my knives. Just normal household humidity is fine. The [atmosphere in the] house doesn't fluctuate like it does outside. The basement, however, is a horrible place to store knives."
To fight moisture, Oden keeps silica bags in his fire files with his knives. "About once every two or three years I stick the bags in my pre-heated, 300-dcgree oven, with the oven turned off," he noted. "I leave the silica bags in there for at least two hours, usually longer, and that helps renew them. I probably should do this more often, but it rarely seems to be a high priority item. So far, I haven't had a problem."
The collectors interviewed in the story have tried-and-true methods for keeping their knives and sheaths in tip-top shape, and so should you. Even if you are not a collector, you should still consider all-around knife maintenance, because having a great knife doesn't only mean that it is sharp.