Pocketknives – Bygone Era or Everyday Essential?

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At one time, every man in America worth a nickel had a pocketknife on him. He had it in his overalls out in the hayfield, carried it to work in the front pocket of his blue jeans, and had it securely in his pants pocket at church. He was a hard worker who earned an honest living for his family. My dad always carried a knife with him when he was working in the oil fields of West Virginia (and still does). “I used it for everything,” he said.

Young men following the tradition would often be given their own pocketknives in a rite of passage at an age when they were deemed mature enough to handle the responsibility. Lads took their pocketknives on excursions in the woods, riding bikes around the neighborhood, even to school.

It was an honor to be given a grandfather’s pocketknife upon his passing to carry into the next generation. A friend told me, “I remember getting one from my grandpa for Christmas. I knew how special it was to be at that age because all of us cousins got one from him when we were eight.” Another friend commented, “One of my favorite possessions is the Old Cutler three-blade knife my dad gave me when I was about 10.”

Why were pocketknives such an American staple? “You never know when you might need it” was the philosophy, and a man always wanted to be prepared for any situation. A guy without a pocketknife probably couldn’t change a flat tire, grow a garden, or run a tractor either. So he was pretty much as useless as a football bat.

Carver and author Tom Hindes shows off his whittling skills with a pocketknife. His book 20-Minute Whittling Projects is available at Woodcraft. 

Hearkening to a Simpler Time

On an average summer day, you’ll likely find more kids inside attached to their smart devices than playing outside or exploring. Pocketknives are no longer allowed in most schools. My dad used to comment that it was “a shame a young man couldn’t carry a pocketknife to school anymore.” In the 50s and ’60s when he was growing up, his pocketknife was an apple slicer, a stick whittler and a twine cutter, not a way to hurt someone. Some of my family said they used to play a game with their classmates involving knife throwing called “root the peg” or “mumbley peg” every day at school during lunch. While that certainly wouldn’t fly today, in that era it was all in good fun.  

Read how to play mumbley peg in this article from The Art of Manliness called Fun with a Pocket Knife: How to Play Mumbley Peg

Mumbley peg was a common schoolhouse game that involved knife throwing. 
This handsome young lad (my father) was perhaps hanging onto the pocketknife in his coat. 

Now, in a time when nail clippers are considered a potential weapon and everyone is offended, carrying a pocketknife seems like an “a bygone era” to many. After 9/11, airport security was ramped up so such “dangerous items” as gel shoe insoles, matches, Magic 8 balls (really?), cooking spray, knitting needles, sewing scissors, too many liquids, and yes, pocketknives have been known to be confiscated. (Check with TSA if you have a question about flying with any item.)

My woodcarving friend Dennis Bixby said that pre-9/11 he would carve on long flights and trade his small carvings with the flight attendants or give them to well-behaved children. He wore his carving apron with a pouch to catch all the wood chips.

Tradition Stands

I recently shared an article on my Facebook page called “The Kind of Men Who Carry Pocketknives” from Appalachian Magazine. This story seemed to strike a chord with quite a few people, as several men quickly chimed in on my post. “I have a 3-blade Old Timer.” “Single blade, Made in the USA Gerber in my pocket.” “I carry Benchmade pocket knives.” A few ladies responded that they, too, carried pocketknives. One friend said her grandmother carried a paring knife. My Granny had a cute little pearl-handled pocketknife she carried in her purse.

A long-time friend of mine commented, “With the passing of the Greatest Generation, the men in this country need to pick up the slack and do their best to emulate men of past generations. A good place to start is by carrying a pocketknife.” He considers his pocketknife a reminder of great men past and also how a man should conduct himself.

I soon realized that there are still plenty of folks out there who consider a pocketknife as critical as a cell phone. One friend said, “When it’s not in my pocket, it’s because I’m asleep.” A few others replied, “I’ve carried a knife ever since I was old enough.” A typical morning routine heading out the door might include grabbing these four things: wallet, phone, keys, pocketknife. And maybe a cup of coffee.

The Case for Pocketknives

A pocketknife is possibly the most versatile tool on the planet. It can do a lot of things that may already have a specialized tool (screwdriver, scissors, box cutter, staple remover), but who wants to carry all of that in their pocket? From cutting strings and tags off clothing, to opening boxes and blister packs, shotgunning beer cans (stabbing a few holes in the top of the can) for faster consumption (yeah, boy mom here), sharpening pencils, and cutting fishing line, the uses for pocketknives are endless. I can remember that “ripppp” sound when my dad used his knife as a letter opener to open the daily mail.

Beyond everyday tasks, a pocketknife can be used in a plethora of emergency situations – slashing your seatbelt if trapped in a burning car, stabbing a mugger, cutting kindling for a fire, or ripping up fabric to create a tourniquet. Remember the movie 127 Hours starring James Franco? It is based on real-life Aron Ralston who became pinned by a boulder in a remote Utah canyon and eventually freed himself and saved his life by amputating his own arm. Let’s hope we never have to make that agonizing choice, but I bet Aron was glad he packed that knife “just in case he needed it.”

In the movie 127 Hours, actor James Franco (shown here) plays Aron Ralston, who made the gut-wrenching decision to cut off his arm to save himself after being trapped by a boulder in a remote Utah canyon for five days.

Make a New Tradition

What would be even more special than a knife passed down from a relative? One that was handmade by the original owner! Whether you prefer the classic pocketknife style like the WoodRiver Trapper or something to clip on your belt like the Sarge Liner Lock or WoodRiver Side Lock, you will find a style that appeals to you at your local Woodcraft store.

Knife kits include all of the knife parts except the blank (scale) for the handle. Personalize it by using your choice of pre-cut wood scales from Woodcraft that are milled to sizes that make knife-making easy and efficient with minimal waste. What about a specific kind of wood that means something to your family, even wood from a fallen tree on your own property?

The process is fairly simple: cut the scales to the profile of the knife you choose, attach the scales to the handle with the included pins and some epoxy, shape and sand the scales to your desired comfort, and apply finish! 

WoodRiver - Trapper Two Blade Kit 3-3/4" Closed 

WoodRiver Side Lock Folder Blade Kit 4-1/2" Closed

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Knife kits come with all parts except the blank (scale) for the handle.

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Sarge Liner Lock Folder-Blade Kit 3-1/4" Closed

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Take It To The Next Level

To fancy up your knife a bit, use WoodRiver Mosaic Pins instead of the pins provided in the kit for a decorative knife handle accent. Mosaics come in 4-23/32'' lengths and varying diameters and designs. These can easily be cut to size and provide enough material for up to two knives. Check your kits pin diameter to select a Mosaic pin to work with your particular project.

Using WoodRiver Micarta knife scales is another way to create a knife with a unique look. Micarta is a hard composite material that makes a great choice for knifes as it does not warp, expand or shrink with age or exposure to weather. Similar to G10 laminate, Micarta is made of thin layers of linen cloth that are soaked in phenolic resin, baked and pressed into huge sheets. Shaping these into knife handles creates some really interesting looks with the different layers of material showing, kind of like a topography map. Available in black/gray, black/red, black/blue and black/green. We recommend use of personal protection such as respirators and safety glasses when shaping and sanding wood, acrylic or Micarta.

Black and Gray Micarta

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Black and Red Micarta

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Black and Green Micarta

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Black and Blue Micarta

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Getting Started

Start your knife-making hobby by checking out the array of knife kits at your local Woodcraft store, in the catalog or online. There are some popular fixed-blade styles like the Skinner Knife, Fillet Knife and Tanto Style Knife, along with a large selection of high-quality Zhen kitchen knife kits made from Japanese Damascus steel. Simply choose a material for your handle and begin creating your own one-of-a-kind custom knife. Bet you won’t make just one!

We hope you’ll be inspired!

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