Thursday, November 25, 2010

On the Quality of Cutting Tools

Just like any self respecting woodsman, I spend a lot of time thinking about my tools, in particular my cutting tools. :) Perhaps because we all think about our knives and axes so much, we all have strong opinions on the matter, and love nothing more than to fill the internet forums with them. Here I want to touch on a few things, just so you know my thoughts on the subject, and consequently can better judge the statements I make.

Even though metal working has been part of our society for a very long time, it still carries a certain sense of mystery and magic about it. Perhaps that’s why we see so many unsupported statements about the products that metal working produces. We all fall into the trap of believing that someone has a magical way of making tools, and that is why they are so much better than anyone else’s. This is nothing new. It reminds me of a story of a blacksmith in the middle ages who would only quench the swords he produced in the urine of red headed boys in the belief that it made the blades stronger.

The reality is that considering the level of technological development today, just about any manufacturer can produce quality cutting tools with respect to materials. Production of good steel is nothing new, nor is the process mysterious. Similarly, with the existence of computers, the tempering process is just as well documented and transparent.

But, you say, there certainly are differences between tools. Of course there are. The differences however are more often than not the result design characteristics rather than steel quality.

There are three separate things to consider when judging the quality of a tool, and they often get mixed up:

The first is the actual quality of the metal-is it too soft, is it too hard, etc.

The second is the sharpness of the tool. This is of prime importance when it comes to knives and axes, but very often a person’s inability to properly sharpen the tool is attributed to the quality of the metal.

The third is the design of the tool. A thick blade will always have a harder time cutting through a material than a thinner one, even if equally sharp. This says nothing about the metal or the sharpness of the tool, but is rather a design characteristic.

We very often ascribe characteristics to the quality of the material, which in fact should be attributed to the design of the tool, or the fact that the tool has not been properly prepared/sharpened. So, we will take a dull knife, try to cut with it, and conclude that the steel is not good. We will similarly take an axe, try to use it and conclude that it is not made of good steel, when in fact the inability to penetrate the wood is a direct result of the thickness of the blade.

Another source of confusion is the fact that people love to make unsupported statements. We often hear about how one type of steel is better than another, how carbon steel is better than stainless, how one knife is “garbage” when compared to another. 99% of the time, those statements lack any support. The people making them have done no testing, but are rather regurgitating what they have heard from someone who heard it from someone else. Any level of investigation will show that the statements lack any support. Most of the times, all of the comments can be traced to one person who says that he saw something happen at some point, or did some type of test, but all the pictures were lost.

That is why when I test any tool, the first thing I do is sharpen it. The fact that it came dull is a noteworthy issue, and may demonstrate the degree of care that has gone into the product, but does not make the tool bad, and it certainly does not make the material from which it is made bad. I believe that all tools should be tested only after sharpened to a comparable level. Don’t compare a dull axe to a sharp one and then talk about how the sharp one is better than the dull one. That goes without saying, but says nothing about the tools. I personally do not put much weight into which tool comes sharp, because if you are using a tool, you will have to know how to sharpen it any way.

I also try to specify when the lack of performance of the tool is a result of a specific design characteristic. Don’t try to chop down a tree with a splitting maul and then complain about the steel quality.

That is not to say that there aren’t bad tools. There have always been, and there will always be manufacturing defects. On top of that, you have certain manufacturers who for financial reasons limit the quality controls of their products, so you get a wide variation in quality. Even others, simply have poorly designed products, which will not perform well no matter how much care is taken with them.

That said however, don’t buy the hype. Look for sources of information which are actually based on some empirical research, not just the word of a bunch of guys fighting to make their way on to the bandwagon.

Well, it’s been a while since I did one of my rants, so this should hold me over for a bit.