Purchasing new gear can be a daunting challenge thanks to an internet ripe with strong opinions and the tribal mentality we sometimes develop around the brands we've come to love. Somebody on the internet thinks you have to spend a fortune to get anything worth having, someone else thinks that guy is an idiot, and everyone thinks they know what's best for you.
When it comes to knives, the waters get even muddier thanks to a mind-boggling variety of manufacturers, styles, purposes, and production materials. Whether you're a budget minded-fisherman in need of a decent pocket knife or you're the fanciest of knife snobs with very particular tastes regarding the amount of carbon in the steel of your blade, there's a laundry list of options awash in the sea of internet retailers--begging the question, just where in the hell is a guy supposed to start?
The biggest difference between a knife I made and a knife I bought is knowing exactly who to be mad at if it under performs.
Over the years, my hobbies, passions and professional pursuits have helped me develop a powerful respect for good quality knives, eventually leading me to put together a workshop to start making knives of my own. But don't let my knife-snob credentials fool you; my favorite knife is still the one that does the job without prompting an angry "how much did you spend?" phone call from my wife. That balance of function and budget has led me to develop a simple three-question system to help anyone pick the right knife for their pocket, bank account, and needs.
What do you need the knife to do?
A good knife serves a specific purpose, a decent knife can get you out of a jam, and a bad knife tries to do everything.
Is your knife primarily going to be for self-defense or for opening Amazon packages at the office? Do you plan to rely on it for survival or as a general utility knife? Before you even open your browser and start perusing knives, knowing what you need the knife for will go far in narrowing down your options.
Survival knives, for instance, should almost always be "full-tang" fixed blades. That means the metal of the blade extends all the way through the handle in one solid piece, offering the greatest strength you can get out of the sharpened piece of steel on your hip. If you're looking for a bit of easily concealable utility, on the other hand, a good quality folding pocket knife would do just fine.You'll be tempted to look for a knife that can do it all, but beware: any tool designed to do everything tends not to do anything particularly well.
How and where do you expect to carry the knife?
Crocodile Dundee may have been happy to carry a short sword around L.A., but for most of us, the knives we carry need to fit in with our lifestyles. Corporate environments would likely frown on you walking into HR with a machete strapped to your belt, and a keychain Swiss Army Knife probably won't cut it if you're planning to spend a weekend in the woods with that group of angry old Vets that used to be your fire team. The frequency and way you plan to carry the blade will help inform your shopping.
No matter what Batman says, I've yet to find a way to carry batarangs around inconspicuously.
If you plan to carry the knife in your pocket as a part of your EDC, consider the space in your pocket and how it'll feel when you stand, sit, and go about your normal daily duties. If it's heavy, bulky, or pokes at you… chances are it'll get left on the kitchen table instead of in your pocket.
If, however, you plan to keep the blade in a day pack or your glove box, you have more options regarding size and weight. If you've got to cover a lot of miles on foot, every ounce counts; if you're stowing the blade in your trunk, you can get liberal with the tonnage.
How much do you want to spend?
You may know what you want the knife to do and how you intend to carry it, but the final purchase will always be determined by budget.
These knives range in price from under (to make) to name brand special editions that never hit the market. They're also all just sharp pieces of metal. It helps to remember that.
If you're an enthusiast that loves a carbon-heavy blade that'll hold an edge you can shave with until the cows come home, you can find some knives that cost as much as the used cars high school kids take to class. If you're an everyday Joe looking for a blade made out of 1095 stainless (and you don't mind hitting it with a sharpener from time to time), you'll have options in the checkout line at Walmart.
A good knife does cost more than a bad one, but don't let that mentality guide you into the poor house. I've seen some pretty crappy blades go for a premium just because of the names associated with them.
Read reviews, shop around, but above all, trust your gut. A knife you like carrying will always be more useful than one you leave at home.