A Tale of Three Knives
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Categories: Medieval, Modern

A Tale of Three Knives

three paring knives (two hand-ground with steel blades and one mass-produced with a stainless steel blade) on a wooden table
Top to bottom: the Ikea VÖRDA, Phl Frazer’s knife, and Tod’s bone-handled knife

As a human being, every day I use edgetools to prepare food. This week I want to talk about three of the ones I use most often, and how much and how little some things have changed over the past 600 years. These were all made by the same modern technique (cutting a shape out of a sheet of rolled homogeneous steel and then grinding away the excess)

Scale-Tanged, Bone-Handled Knife TCP8

Overall length: 21 cm
Grip: 9 cm
Blade: 12 cm
Blade thickness (maximum): 3 mm
Blade width (maximum): 21 mm
Cross section: hollow-ground wedge
Material: Carbon steel with a bone grip riveted with brass tube and brass bolsters where the blade meets the handle

Tod’s knife has a heavy spine, a delicate shape in the blade and the handle, and has a pleasing substance in the hand like a Laguiole without being heavy or bulky.

Phil Fraser Horn-Handled Knife E

Overall length: 25.5 cm
Grip: 11.5 cm
Blade: 14 cm
Blade Thickness (maximum): 3 mm
Blade Width (maximum): 22 mm
Cross-Section: half-lens
Material: Carbon steel with a horn grip riveted with copper tubes

I love the horn grips held with copper tube rivets, but both the blade and the handle feel a bit oversized. People buying replicas often prefer things 10-20% larger than the originals, because those look impressive and the practical disadvantages only show up with time and use.  This knife also has satisfying substance in the hand.

Ikea VÖRDA Paring Knife, Black, 9 cm

Overall Length: 20 cm
Grip: 11 cm
Blade: 9 cm
Blade Thickness (maximum): 2 mm
Blade Width (maximum): 22 mm
Cross-Section: Slab-sided
Material: X50CrMoV1S stainless steel with a polypropylene grip

This knife strikes me with its ultra-modern aesthetics (the blade is a flat sheet with one side run along an angle grinder, flipped, and run back along the grinder, the handle tapers towards the butt), light weight in the hand, and the difficulty of sharpening the hard brittle stainless steel when it dulls.  The thinner blade makes it a bit better for splitting onions and slicing ginger than the other knives.

As you can see, Tod’s knife and the Ikea knife have a similar general size, even though they are designed using different technologies and different ideas of what looks cool. They are also close to the size of late medieval knives from wet finds in London, Germany, and Novgorod.

three knives held side by side in the hand over a wooden tabletop
The backs of the three knves (left to right: Ikea, Phil Frazer, Tod Cutler)

Which of these knives do I like best?

Well, Tod’s knife is the prettiest, and is wicked sharp. It cuts medium-weight leather without needing a lot of extra honing. Phil’s is closer to the level of finish and decoration on the vast majority of late medieval knives, and it is the first replica knife I ever purchased. Since its real steel, its easy to sharpen too. And when I am lazy in the kitchen, its nice to have a thin blade for paring that does not rust even if house-mates borrow it for something stupid or leave it in dirty water overnight. A knife which takes advantage of materials like polypropylene and stainless steel has some advantages, even though its also harder to sharpen effectively.

The scabbards have their own pros and cons. Tod’s is built more like surviving scabbards from riverbanks and privies, with beautiful edge-flesh stitches and impressed patterns on the face of the scabbard (its likely that many of the originals were painted for additional decoration). But Phil’s is better at holding the knife when you want it to stay but letting you retrieve it effortlessly with one hand when you want it. I don’t have to struggle with it or pop the scabbard out of whatever is covering it. And the Ikea knife stays in its etui (medieval French) or coltellera (medieval Italian) or its white plastic bin with a removable lid (Merkur Supermarktmundart) next to my cleaver and my table knives.

Further Reading: Jane Cowgill et al., Knives and Scabbards

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