My First Vintage Pocketknife

When I was attending university a few years ago, for the first time in my life, I found myself doing a lot of travelling and walking around every day. Going to the campus, going to lecture halls, going to classes, the library, the store, the cafeteria for lunch, all kinds of places. And it was during this time in my life that I started to realise just how many things I needed to cut open. Lunch packets, sauce packets, that super-annoying skin-tight plastic wrap that adorns almost every single type of manufactured product these days, from POST-IT notes to writing supplies, and I began to wish more and more that I had some sort of pocketknife on me.

I never had a pocketknife as a child. I never saw the point, I never saw the need, and for almost every cutting job around, I used a pair of scissors. But as I got older, and started moving around more, I began to realise just how handy it would be to have a portable blade on me with which I could do things. And so I started hunting.

At first I really didn’t know much about knives, but with my historical bent, I knew that I’d like a pretty, antique one. The good news was that antique pocketknives are really common. The bad news is that finding a decent pocketknife that you like enough to buy, refurbish, maintain and use can be a bit tricky. There are loads of different styles, models or patterns out there, each one suited for different purposes. After a lot of hunting around, I bought a knife at the local flea-market. As I said, vintage pocketknives are really easy to find, the trick is finding one you like. The good thing is that most of them really don’t cost much at all.

What Did I Buy?

I ended up with a neat, medium-sized ‘Barlow’-pattern knife. It’s rounded off at one end of the knife (designed this way so that it’s easy to slip into the pocket), and has a pair of bolsters at the other end. The scales (decorative panels) on the sides of the knife are covered in panels of polished bone. Would be nice if it was ivory, but we can’t all be that lucky!

The Barlow knife is one of the oldest knife-patterns still manufactured today. And I mean really old! The first Barlow knives were invented back in the 1600s and were owned by such people as George Washington, and mentioned in the works of Mark Twain. Although it was actually invented in England, the Barlow became an icon of Americana by the middle-1800s, and was liable to be owned by thousands of people.

The classic Barlow has a handle with a rounded end, and two folding blades which both pop out of the same end. The style of the blades changes from manufacturer to manufacturer, but in the end, they comprise of one larger main blade, for general use, and one smaller blade, about half the size. This smaller blade was originally intended as a pen-knife, used for sharpening, cutting and shaping pens and pencils, in the days when writing was done with either quills, steel dip-pens or pencils (before the widespread availability of pencil-sharpeners).

The reason the Barlow was so popular was because it was effective, simple and cheap. The two blades did just about everything that most people in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s needed of their knives, and it was also small enough, and cheap enough for most men, boys and probably women too, to own one. It’s qualities like this which have seen it last into the 21st century.

Cleaning the Knife

Any antique pocketknife that you pick up at an antiques shop or at a flea-market is bound to need cleaning. In most cases, the knife won’t have been properly maintained in decades. Cleaning the knife is important for a number of reasons.

First, it makes it easier, and therefore, safer to operate – an essential importance when anything with sharp blades is concerned.

Second, it improves the look of the knife and keeps your clothes clean. Nobody wants to carry a pocketknife in their pocket when it’s full of grime, and liable to transfer that to your jeans or slacks. And for something so small, a pocketknife can come with a whole heap of crap packed into it, and I’m not talking about the blades!

The first thing you’ll want to do, if you can, is to open all the knife-blades and toss it into an ultrasonic bath, ideally with warm water and liquid soap to blast out all the gunk inside the knife. Turn the machine on and watch all the dust and grime and crud come shaking out. You may need to do this two or three times, and change the water in between washes. This should clean out most of the grit inside the knife. Anything extra you can pick or scrape or wipe out with tissues, cotton-buds, or pins (useful for getting into the tiny cracks).

Once you’re removed all the grime, it’s time to remove all the tarnish and rust. This can be done using either hard abrasives like extra-fine sandpaper or steel-wool, or liquid polishes like Brasso, depending on how bad the the tarnishing is. Like the cleaning, polishing and rust-removal may take a few applications to get the look that you’re most comfortable with.

Sharpening Your Pocketknife

Once you’re done cleaning your pocketknife, the last thing to do is to sharpen it. There’s a million ways of sharpening a knife and half a billion ways of testing how sharp it is, so I won’t be going into this in great detail. YouTube is always a great place to find more, if you need it.

But to cover the basics – I sharpen my knives using stones of three different grits – coarse, then fine, then extra-fine, staring with the roughest, and progressing to the finest, with about 20-30 strokes of the blade across each surface on both sides. It’s important to keep the stones lubricated while you sharpen them. If you’re the sort of person who sharpens blades regularly, it might be useful to keep your stones soaking in a bucket of water somewhere, so that they’re always ready for use. If not, you’ll need to soak them for a few hours before you start using them.

Once you’ve given each blade of your pocketknife a thorough sharpening on both sides, now is the time to test it. The classic way is to see how cleanly it slices through a sheet of paper. A well-sharpened knife will produce a clean, straight cut and the paper will have sharp, clean lines either side of it. A knife which hasn’t been sharpened properly will simply tear the paper, or fail to cut it at all. As you cut, make sure that you pull the blade along so that you can test that its entire length has been properly sharpened. If it cuts cleanly, then congratulations, you’ve sharpened your first vintage pocketknife!


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