As the name implies, a fixed-blade knife can’t be folded and is typically carried in a sheath (which is why some people refer to this style as a “sheath knife”). A fixed blade knife has two key advantages: strength and simplicity. Because there are no hinges, joints or locking mechanisms, these knives are very durable and strong. The diagram below illustrates the key components, along with a few additional features.
- Blade: The part of a knife that holds the cutting edge.
- Tang: The part of a knife that forms the structural foundation of the handle.
- Handle: The grip that covers the tang, making the knife easier to hold.
- Edge: The sharpened, cutting surface of a blade.
- Tip: The point or apex of a blade.
- Choil: A curved indentation in the handle or tang, designed to enhance grip.
- Spine: The part of a blade that is opposite from the edge.
- Pommel: The butt or end of the knife, opposite the tip.
A fixed blade knife has three major components: blade, tang and handle. The blade holds the cutting edge. The tang, which is an extension of the blade, forms the backbone of the handle. To create a comfortable gripping surface, a handle encases the tang. When the tang extends the entire length of the handle, it’s called a full tang. This is the strongest and most popular type of fixed blade knife construction. Alternatively, a “partial tang” only extends partway into the handle. This design creates a slightly weaker connection between handle and blade. Below are some common types of fixed-blade knives:
One of the largest and heaviest in the fixed-blade category, the bowie knife was first made popular by nineteenth-century American pioneer James Bowie. Most traditional bowie knives have a large clip-point blade, usually greater than 8" in length. A crossguard is another common feature. Larger bowie knives can be used to chop through small trees and thick branches, making them popular for camping and hunting in the backcountry.
As the name implies, a fixed-blade hunting knife is primarily designed for cutting through meat and skinning game. However, hunting knives are also versatile enough to be used for general cutting tasks around the campsite and wilderness survival applications. Hunting knives frequently have a clip-point or drop-point blade between 3” and 6” inches with a straight edge. A good hunting knife should have a stainless steel blade and a comfortable handle with a secure grip. Specialized skinning knives may also include a gut hook on the spine of the blade.
Although many different fixed-blade knives can be used for wilderness survival and bushcraft, the best survival knives have a strong blade between about 3.5” and 6” in length. A survival knife with full tang construction is also preferred. Some knives may include additional survival tools built into the knife or sheath, such as a firesteel, small sharpening stone, paracord, fishing line and other useful items. Check out our Wilderness Survival Guide for more information on survival kits and tactics.
A combat knife is a fixed-blade knife specifically designed for tactical, self-defense and survival applications. Traditional combat knives, such as the KA-BAR knife carried by the United States Marine Corps during the Second World War, typically have a blade between about 5” and 7” in length. The ideal combat knife is strong, lightweight and well-balanced, with a handle that feels comfortable and secure in the hand. Combat knives usually have either a straight-edge or combo-edge blade with a clip point or spear point tip.
Primarily designed for chopping through thick underbrush in dense jungles and forests, a machete has a long, thin blade with a broad head. Most machete blades range between 10” and 18” in length, but some models can be as long as 22” or more. Some machetes may also include a serrated surface along the spine for sawing.
A kukri knife is a fixed-blade knife of Nepalese origin and is easily recognized by its characteristic, downward-curved blade. Kukri knives have been used as tools and weapons by the Nepalese Army for more than a century. A typical kukri knife has a blade between 10” and 12” in length. Because the blade design has a large “belly,” kurkis are ideal for chopping small- to medium-sized branches and even small trees. Traditional kurki knives tend to have moderately thick blades and are very strong. More modern kukri machetes have a slightly thinner blade, making them better suited for cutting through jungle undergrowth.
Designed to take up less space when not in use, these knives have blades that fold into the handle. Smaller folding knives are called pocket knives. The popular Swiss Army Knife is a good example. A thumb stud, or thumb hole, is a common feature on many modern folding knives, which allows the knife to be opened with one hand. Other knives may have a small fingernail-sized indentation on the blade. All folding knives can be divided into two primary categories: locking and non-locking.
Locking Blade Knives
To enhance safety, many folding knives include a mechanism that locks the blade in place when fully open. To close the blade, the locking mechanism is usually disengaged by pressing a lever, button or bar. The three most common locking mechanisms are:
Lockback: Also called a spine lock, this mechanism has a release lever in the spine of the handle, usually near the pommel.
Liner Lock: This style has a locking mechanism tucked inside the handle, usually inside the blade cavity near the blade’s pivot point.
Frame Lock: Similar to a liner lock, this style uses a lock release that is part of the actual frame, rather than a separate liner.
Many smaller pocket knives include a spring-like mechanism that keeps the blade open when deployed, but does not actually lock the blade in place. This mechanism uses mechanical resistance to prevent the blade from falling open or closing too easily during use.
Multi-Tools and Swiss Army Knives
Along with at least one cutting blade, multi-tool knives also include additional tools, such as screw drivers, bottle openers, files, pliers, small scissors and more. Some multi-tools have the appearance of a pocket knife, such as the well-known Swiss Army Knife series by Victorinox. Others look more like folding pliers, such as the popular Leatherman series of multi-tools.
Knives are essential tools in the kitchen, and kitchen knives are available in a wide range of shapes and sizes for different culinary applications, from chopping vegetables to mincing herbs to delicate paring tasks. For detailed info on the various types of kitchen cutlery, check out the cutlery section of our Kitchen Guide. Also keep in mind that non-serrated knives should be honed regularly to maintain a sharp, efficient cutting edge. Check out the sharpening section of this guide for more information on how to hone and sharpen your kitchen cutlery.
The length and shape of a blade will often determine the best uses of a knife. Of course, some blade shapes simply come down to personal preference.
Also called a straight-back blade, this style has a straight, horizontal spine with an edge that curves upward to meet it. Although other blade styles have become more prevalent, the straight-back blade is still a good choice for general cutting tasks.
Trailing Point Blade
This style is characterized by a curved, upswept blade. The spine and blade both curve upward, causing the point to arc above the horizontal plane of the tang. Most fillet knives feature a long trailing point blade.
One of the most popular blade shapes for both folding and fixed-blade knives, the clip-point has a concave notch or “clip” that curves downward from the spine toward the point. A clipped blade creates a sharper, narrower point, allowing for more intricate cutting tasks. For this reason, the clip-point blade has remained a popular choice for hunting knives.
Another popular blade shape for pocket knives, this style has a convex curve that arcs downward from spine to tip, forming an angled point. Drop-point blades have a broader tip, which some people prefer over a clip-point.
This style has a straight edge that curves up abruptly near the tip. The spine is also beveled into a downward angle at the tip, creating a blunted point, which makes it more difficult to accidentally pierce through softer material.
This style has a spine that curves downward toward the tip of the knife, along with a straight edge. Because the spine curves down, the sheepsfoot blade does not have a piercing point, which makes this a good choice for fisherman, sailors and boaters who may need to use their knife on rough seas without fear of accidentally puncturing their hand or another object.
The shape of a wharncliffe blade is very similar to a sheepsfoot, but with a more gradual curve in the spine.
Modeled after the traditional Japanese short blade, the tanto blade is a popular choice for survival, tactical and rescue knives. The tip of a tanto blade resembles an angled chisel and is usually more difficult to break than a pointed tip.
Spear Point Blade
Resembling the tip of a spear or sword, this blade has a symmetrically shaped, double-edged tip. Spear point blades are typically found on daggers, throwing knives and combat knives.
This style has a pronounced downward curve in both the spine and blade. The shape of a hawkbill blade is essentially the opposite of a trailing point blade.
Designed for skinning and gutting game, the curved gut hook is an additional feature on specialized hunting knives.
Most knife edges are either plain, serrated or a combination of both (called a combo edge). Serrated edges also come in several different variations.
The most common type of knife edge is plain, with no serrations. Plain edge knives are the easiest to sharpen. Cutlery with a plain edge can be maintained with a honing steel. A sharp, plain edge will produce a very clean cut through softer materials, which is why chef knives and fillet knives feature a plain edge.
Designed for cutting through very tough materials (e.g. thick rope or wood), a serrated edge looks similar to a saw, offering greater cutting power with less effort. This type of edge is also a good choice for cutting very soft materials, like bread. Serrated blades require less frequent sharpening, but are more difficult to sharpen once they become dull.
Uniform Serrations are smaller and equally sized serrations, often used on bread knives and steak knives. A uniformly serrated edge is also a good choice for cutting soft vegetables like tomatoes.
Alternating Serrations have an edge that alternates between larger and smaller serrations. This style is a little easier to sharpen, since there are fewer individual serrations. Pocket knives with a combination edge frequently feature this type.
Veff Serrations are a unique style created by Tom Veff and offered exclusively by Columbia River Knife and Tool. Instead of being oriented at 90 degrees to the blade surface, Veff serrations are oriented at a 50-degree angle, which produces a stronger draw cut.
Scalloped Serrations are essentially inverted serrations. A scalloped edge is usually only found on certain types of kitchen cutlery, usually bread knives, and should be sharpened by the knife manufacturer. If it’s only used to cut soft materials, this type of edge should remain sharp for a long time.
By adding oval-shaped indentations on the sides of the blade, thin slices of fruit and vegetables are more likely to slide off without sticking. This feature is called a granton edge, and is commonly found on Santoku knives and Asian-style cutlery.
If you examined the cross section of a knife’s edge under magnification, you would be able to see the grind geometry. Aside from forming the sharpened edge of a blade, the grind also determines the angle that is used to properly sharpen the blade. Most knives are ground or “beveled” on both sides of the blade. However, some Asian blades are made with a single-sided bevel, also called a chisel grind. Some modern blades even have multiple bevels, called a compound bevel.
As you can see in the chart above, there are several different grinds used on modern knives, including convex and hollow grinds. For more detailed information on the advantages and disadvantages of each, check out Knife Edge Grinds and Uses by Lansky Sharpeners.
Nearly all modern blades are created by forging, die-cutting or a combination of both. The biggest difference between a forged knife and a die-cut knife lies in the structure of the metal. When done correctly, forging produces a cohesive grain flow within the metal, creating a stronger finished product.
Hand-forged blades have been created by blacksmiths for centuries. First, a rectangular piece of metal called a billet is heated in a forge until it becomes red hot. The heated billet is then malleable enough to shape using a hammer and anvil. Once shaped, excess material is removed and the new blade is cooled. Additional processes like annealing, sanding, cold forging and quenching may also be used to enhance the integrity and appearance of the metal. Finally, a grinding surface is used to create the cutting edge. Modern forged knives are sometimes made using a drop-forging machine, which may also include a die or mold. The heated metal is pressed under great pressure into one or more molds, quickly forming the metal into a new shape.
By placing a metal sheet onto a cutting die, a hydraulic or pneumatic press can be used to cut out a knife-shaped piece of metal (kind of like a cookie cutter). The die-cut blade and tang can then be tempered, annealed and ground. Unlike forging, this method does not alter the structure of the original piece of metal. Some manufacturing companies use a combination of forging and die-cutting. This process typically uses a machine to create a forged handle and bolster, which is then fused to a piece of sheet metal. The final blade shape is then created in a die press.
Carbon steel is an alloy of iron and carbon that is easy to sharpen and holds a very keen edge. However, carbon steel has very low corrosion resistance, so it must be kept dry and clean to avoid oxidation and discoloring. Because it rusts easily, carbon steel is frequently laminated with stainless steel when making cutlery or coated with another corrosion-resistant material to protect the finish. To protect uncoated carbon steel blades, apply a light coating of mineral oil after cleaning.
Stainless steel contains iron, carbon and a percentage of chromium (the industry standard is around 13%), which makes it much more resistant to corrosion and discoloration. Proprietary stainless steel alloys may also contain other materials like vanadium, molybdenum and manganese.
There are many different proprietary grades of stainless steel. Below are several of the most common variants currently available on the market.
- 410 contains 11.5% chromium and has good corrosion resistance.
- 416 has the highest machinability of all stainless steels.
- 420 has a high carbon content and a chromium content of 12%. Although not as hard as 440 steel, 420 is still quite durable.
- 440A is the most rust-resistant 440 grade stainless steel and is most often used for knives that are subjected to saltwater or other highly corrosive environments. However, 440A has the lowest carbon content, giving it the lowest edge retention of all 440 variants.
- 440B is a compromise between the excellent rust resistance of 440A and the superior edge retention of 440C.
- 440C is the premier grade of 440 stainless steel, offering higher carbon content and better edge retention than A and B variants.
- AUS-6 has a carbon content of 0.65%, making it similar in quality to 410 or 420 steel.
- AUS-8 has a carbon content of 0.75%, offering better edge retention than AUS-6.
- AUS-10 has a carbon content of 1.10%, giving it the best edge retention of all AUS steel variants.
- VG10 is a type of high-carbon stainless steel manufactured almost exclusively in Japan. Aside from iron, carbon and chromium, VG10 steel also contains molybdenum, vanadium, manganese and cobalt. Many knife aficionados consider VG-10 to be a premium-quality steel with outstanding edge retention and durability.
- 8Cr13MoV is a stainless steel manufactured in China. According to Spyderco, 8Cr13MoV has properties similar to AUS-8.
- CPM-S30V is a high-hardness stainless steel produced by Crucible Industries that contains 14% chromium, 1.45% carbon, 4% vanadium and 2% molybdenum.
- 154CM is another type of steel manufactured by Crucible that offers high hardness, excellent durability and corrosion resistance beyond 440C.
- ATS-34 is manufactured by Hitachi Metals and is similar to 154CM.
- 14C28N is a Swedish steel manufactured by Sandvik Materials Technology, offering a combination of excellent hardness and corrosion resistance.
In order to create blades that can hold a sharper edge without a loss of durability, some knife makers layer different steels together to form a composite material. One popular type of laminated steel is made by placing a layer of carbon steel between two layers of rust-resistant stainless steel. The steel is then heated and bonded together during the forging process. Several Japanese cutlery brands use laminated steel.
To create modern damascus steel, multiple layers of different steels and iron are bonded together to create a single piece of metal. This multi-layer material is then heated and manipulated to achieve patterns of waves and ripples that enhance the appearance. Because of the added manufacturing cost, damascus steel knives are more expensive than single steel knives.
Although titanium is lighter, more corrosion resistant and more flexible than stainless steel, it does not hold an edge well. However, the excellent corrosion resistance makes titanium blades a good choice for diving knives.
Unlike most metals, ceramic is completely impervious to rust and nearly all types of corrosion, which makes ceramic blades ideal for culinary applications. Because the material is extremely hard and non-malleable, ceramic knives hold an incredibly sharp edge much longer than steel. However, ceramic blades are more brittle and can break much more easily than stainless steel. Also, when they become dull, ceramic blades must either be replaced or sent back to the manufacturer to be sharpened.
Wood handles offer an attractive appearance, especially more exotic woods. However, wood handles are not designed to withstand prolonged exposure to water or UV rays. Even laminated wood handles should be hand cleaned (avoid dishwashers) and kept dry.
Animal bone has been used to make knife handles for centuries and is more durable than softer woods. Bone handles can be polished to create an attractive, glossy surface and may be combined with other materials like wood and metal.
Antler handles are made from the antlers of deer, elk, caribou and moose. Functionally, they are very similar to bone handles, but have a noticeable texture.
Micarta is a composite material manufactured from thermoplastic and a fibrous backing material, usually linen or canvas. Finished handle scales are often polished to create a smooth finish. Micarta handles are durable, lightweight and water resistant.
Similar to micarta, G10 is a composite material made from extremely durable resin with a fiberglass backing. G10 handles are extremely strong, durable and light, and usually have a texturized surface.
Manufactured by DuPont, ZYTEL® is a type of very durable, water-resistant thermoplastic.
Synthetic rubber handles offer excellent grip, especially in wet environments or fully submerged in water. Because they are soft, rubber handles are not as durable as other materials.
Handles made of stacked leather washers surrounding a full tang have been used for many years to make fixed-blade knives. Leather may also be combined with antler, bone or wood to make traditional handles for fixed-blade knives.
If you look at a straight-edged steel blade under a microscope, you’ll notice the edge actually has very small irregularities that essentially act like micro-serrations. Over time, these tiny serrations can become flattened or folded over, making the blade less sharp. When this occurs, the edge can sometimes be restored by honing. If the edge is completely gone, the knife can no longer be honed. A completely dull blade must be sharpened by removing material to create a fresh edge.
The “paper test” is one of the safest and most effective methods for testing sharpness. First, hold the knife in your dominant hand. Hold the top edge of a sheet of notebook or magazine paper in your other hand. Rest the knife blade on the top edge of the paper, about two inches from your fingers. Angle the knife tip upward slightly and draw the blade downward into the paper using one steady motion, called a draw cut. If the blade is sharp, it should slice cleanly through the paper without snagging or ripping, and with very minimal effort.
Knife Edge Angle
Most pocket knives and fixed-blade knives are sharpened with a 22- to 25-degree edge grind on both sides of the blade. This creates a sharp edge that will not dull too quickly. Traditionally, European-style kitchen cutlery is manufactured with a 20-degree grind on each side of the blade. This angle creates a sharp edge, but is still robust enough to cut through thick meats and vegetables without dulling too quickly. Knives made in Asia are traditionally crafted with a thinner blade and a 15-degree grind. This creates an extremely sharp edge, but requires more frequent maintenance. Some modern European cutlery brands have begun using a 15-degree grind, so it’s a good idea to check the specifications before you hone or sharpen a new knife.
To touch-up a knife’s edge with a honing steel, place the edge against the top of the steel rod at the proper angle (15 or 20 degrees for cutlery). Apply light, consistent pressure and stroke the blade down the rod, simultaneously drawing the blade so that the entire edge passes over the surface of the rod during the stroke. After three or four strokes, switch to the other side of the blade. Repeat this process, using fewer and fewer strokes on each side until the desired edge is achieved.
How you pass the blade down the steel is a matter of personal preference. Some chefs prefer to stoke the honing steel as if the knife were cutting into the steel (edge facing toward the stroke direction). Other chefs prefer to stroke the steel with the blade facing the opposite direction (edge facing away from the stroke direction). In general, the direction you stroke the edge when honing is less important than maintaining a proper angle. It’s also important to hone the entire length of the edge during each stroke. Use whatever method feels most comfortable and allows you to maintain a consistent angle and pressure.
Knife sharpeners that are designed to hone cutlery usually include two small honing rods placed at opposing angles within a channel. When using this kind of honing device, slide the knife blade through the channel in the sharpener with a draw cut. Use light, consistent pressure. Several passes should be enough to hone the edge.
When a knife becomes dull, the edge can no longer be honed. This is because the micro-serrations that form the thin cutting edge are essentially gone. To re-sharpen the edge, material must be removed using an abrasive surface such as a whetstone or a rod impregnated with diamond grit.
To use a whetstone, first apply a few drops of honing oil or water to the surface of the stone, spreading it evenly. Next, place the knife blade flat against the stone’s surface. Place two or three fingers of your opposing hand on top of the blade for leverage. Lift the spine of the blade off the stone (leaving the edge on the stone) until the proper angle is achieved. Stroke the blade forward against the stone (edge facing toward the stroke path), applying light pressure with your fingers. Don’t press too hard. Maintain the correct angle through each stroke and move the blade in a semi-circular motion so that the entire edge contacts the stone with each stroke.
Continue to sharpen the same side with light, even pressure until you've raised a burr (a very small fold of metal that protrudes from the opposite side of the edge you’re currently grinding). Once you’ve raised a small burr, switch to the other side of the blade. Once you’ve raised a burr on that side, switch to a finer-grit stone (and also switch sides again). Each time you switch to a finer grit, the burr you raise should be smaller. Using progressively finer stones will create a progressively sharper edge. If your knife is extremely dull, begin sharpening with a coarse grit stone. If your knife is moderately dull, begin with a medium-grit or fine-grit stone. After finishing the edge with a fine-grit whetstone, your knife should be quite sharp, but there still may be a very tiny burr. To achieve a truly razor-sharp edge, polish down the smallest burr by stropping the blade across a piece of full-grain leather. Don’t forget to wipe the blade clean to remove any metal particles and test the edge using a piece of paper.
Tip: To keep your whetstone from sliding around on the kitchen counter or table, try placing it on top of a wet hand towel (folded in half). This will also protect your counter top or table from getting scratched.
Electric knife sharpeners usually incorporate small, round grinding wheels that are attached to a motor. A groove or channel is used to guide the knife blade against the grinding wheels at the appropriate angle. Some models offer multiple grooves that sharpen at different angles. Be sure to follow the instructions included with your knife sharpener for the best results. Knife sharpeners that are designed for kitchen cutlery are usually not a good choice for sharpening pocket knives and fixed-blade knives.
To sharpen a serrated edge, you will need a tapered sharpening rod. The best rods designed for this purpose have diamond grit. Carefully place the rod inside each individual serration and use a few steady strokes to reform the curved edge.
Knife Care Tips
- Always determine the correct edge angle before honing or sharpening a new knife.
- For Asian-style cutlery, determine whether the edge grind is double-bevel or single-bevel (i.e. chisel grind) before sharpening or honing. This will determine whether you sharpen both sides of the blade or only one side.
- Periodically oil the hinge on pocket knives to maintain a smooth opening action. You may also need to apply a small amount of oil to the locking mechanism, as needed.
- Keep your knives clean and dry to avoid oxidation and corrosion. Even stainless steel can rust. Most chefs prefer to hand-wash their cutlery.
- Because cutting anything with a dull blade requires more force, a dull knife is always more dangerous than a sharp knife. Regular sharpening will ensure your knife cuts efficiently and safely.