Everyday Knife Skills
How to survive and thrive in the wild with a trusty knife
You already have a knife that’ll last you for the rest of your life. Now you need to master the knife skills that can improve, enrich, and, possibly, save your life. That means knowing how to start a fire with your knife, how to sharpen your knife to a razor edge, how to survive with your knife, and how to cook a fish on a sword—because you never know what the wild will throw your way. All the more reason to always be ready with a trusty knife.
Carve Fatwood Into Foolproof Fire Starters
Pine fatwood is famed as a fire starter, but it takes a flame to get the stuff burning. A single stick of fatwood, however, can be processed into resin-rich fatwood dust, fatwood shavings, and fatwood kindling. Just add sparks and you’ll have an inferno going in no time. The best knife to use for this is a bushcraft-type blade with a 90-degree squared spine that will file dust and shavings from a fatwood stick, but a sharp knife edge will work too. Start with a foot-long piece of fatwood, about 1-by-1-inch-thick, with squared corners, then get to carving.
- Dust: Hold the fatwood against a firm surface. Place the knife spine or edge along a corner of the stick, at an angle so the squared corner of the spine rests against the fatwood. Use a rasping motion to grind off spark-catching fatwood dust.
- Shavings: Use the knife blade to shave thin slivers of fatwood from the remaining corners.
- Kindling: Split the fatwood into two lengths and break each in half for four pieces of fatwood kindling about 6 inches by 1⁄2 inch.
Sharpen a Convex Grind
Convex grinds can take a beating, so they’re common on bushcraft blades. But they can be tricky to sharpen, since the edge bevel is curved like the rounded shoulders of a bullet. The fix is incredibly simple: Use a mouse pad and sandpaper. Here’s how it’s done:
- Landing Pad: Place a square of 600-grit wet/dry sandpaper over a flat mouse pad—pads with pebbly or textured surfaces won’t work—and trim the edges to fit. Place a wet paper towel on a flat surface with the mouse pad–sandpaper sandwich on top. This keeps the mouse pad from sliding around under the knife.
- Lift Off: Establish the sharpening angle by placing the knife blade flat on the pad. Lift the spine slightly until the edge comes into contact with the sandpaper. Keep it there.
- Learning Curve: Pull back the knife spine-first across the sandpaper, using very little pressure. The weight of the blade itself is often enough. To work the curved edge toward the knife tip, pivot the handle so the stroke is always perpendicular to the knife edge. The mouse pad will depress and conform the sandpaper to the rounded edge bevel. Alternate sides. Finish with 1,200-grit sandpaper for a polished edge.
Transform a Thin Fish Fillet Into a Thick Steak
The inconsistent thickness of many fish cuts can make cooking a challenge. The tail portion of a fish fillet is thinner than the body meat, as are the belly flaps on larger fish such as salmon. A sharp knife and a bit of piscatorial origami, however, will fold a fish fillet into a single piece of flesh with a similar thickness for cooking perfection.
- Full-Length Fillet: Skin the fillet (otherwise, the skin will be trapped inside the fold and create a mushy layer). Make a deep scoring cut a little past the halfway point of the fillet, at a 90-degree angle. Fold the tail portion under the thicker portion to create a single thickness.
- Salmon Fillet: The belly flaps are a fraction of the thickness of the body meat. Score each belly flap at the point where it begins to thin and fold it under the body meat to pin the fillet into a uniform thickness.
- Fish Steaks: Thick, skin-on chunks of large fish are often too thick to cook evenly. Butterfly the fillets by splitting the thick steak lengthwise without cutting through the skin. Then simply fold each piece to the outside to capture the skin in the middle of the steak.
Cook Your Catch on a Sword
Espeto de sardinas, “fish on a skewer,” is a famed Spanish cooking technique, and it’s still commonplace to see fish prepared over an open fire this way along coastal Spain. Some cooks use bamboo and wood skewers, and others use a metal sword-shaped skewer. A knife is the only tool you need to cook espeto de sardinas, and it works just as well with several smaller fish as it does with a single whopper.
- That’s Cold: Keep the fish on ice until it’s time to cook. The cold keeps the flesh firm, making it easier to run a skewer through the fish.
- Prep Work: Assuming there’s no sword handy, use your knife to cut a 2-foot-long green stick with a branch stub near the “handle” end, and enough stick below the stub to stick it into the ground. Skewer smaller fish perpendicular to the spine, like stacking stones one on the other. You can cook a big single fish this way by running the blade of the “sword” into the fish’s mouth, along the spine, and out the tail. The head rests on the branch stub hilt.
- Get Cooking: Prop the skewer over hot coals by sticking the handle into the ground. Toss fresh herbs on the fire to flavor the smoke.
Switch a Pocket Clip
There are several reasons you might want to change the position of a folder’s pocket clip. Most are manufactured to clip to a right-hand pocket, so lefties often switch the clip to the other side of the handle. And most folders are rigged for tip-up carry, but some users prefer a tip-down carry. The tip-up position allows for very rapid deployment. But if the blade were to open slightly in your pocket, a tip-down carry would help prevent an accidental slicing of your fingertips. Assisted-opening and automatic knives should be carried tip-down for this reason.
- Set the Table: Spread out a small white towel. When removing tiny screws, it’s helpful to have something to catch screws that might inadvertently slip from your fingers before they vanish forever.
- Disassemble with Care: Many clips are fastened with Torx screws. Find the size driver that fits, then try the size up to make sure. Back out the screws and place them on the towel.
- Clip On: Move the clip to the desired position. As you replace each screw, use a clean toothpick to apply a tiny drop of blue Loctite to the threads to keep the clip fastened.
Break Out a Car Window
You don’t have to be a first responder to find yourself in a first-responder situation. A truck turns over in a creek or a car skids off a logging road, and you’re the one who’ll need to bash out a window to rescue a trapped person.
- Pick Your Spot: Some knives have a glass breaker built into the handle, but any stout knife can smash a car window. For fixed knives, use the pommel. For folders, use the pointiest part of the handle. Choke up to keep your palm as far from the window as possible.
- Side Exit: Forget the windshield, which is made of laminated glass to prevent shattering. Instead, target a side window, which is made of glass tempered in a way that it shatters in tiny, relatively dull shards.
- Brace for Impact: Aim at the window’s edge—often easier to break than the center—and give it a solid smashing blow. Use the smallest part of the handle to concentrate the force.