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JOEL Joel's Blog

The Victorian Pocketknife


The Victorian Pocketknife 4I'm a sucker for tools. All kinds of tools. I routinely carry a pocketknife with me because working in a warehouse it is incredibly handy to have. I use other pocketknives for slicing my sandwich and other stuff.
Personally I prefer a traditional knife.
(Incidentally if the knife has blades at both ends it's a pocketknife. If it has multiple blades coming from one side it's a jackknife).

These days of course people don't need a pocket knife as much as they used to but in Victorian times a gentleman needed a knife at all times to (among other things): sharpen his pencil, file and trim his nails, and even tighten up the laces of the shoes at the time which had lots and lots of hooks. In earlier times silverware was not common and everyone traveled with an eating knife. (Now we use plastic, how unromantic).

The knife above, by Baxter, from around 1900. is a fancy example of this style. The hook is for pulling laces, the scissors is for paperwork, the nail file has a ridge in it for your nails, it is a very very well made knife.
The Victorian Pocketknife 5What a really want to call your attention to is the decorative metalwork. The brass liners (which separate the blades) have decorative mill marks. The back and blades are covered with "file work" where decorative patterns are filed into the springs and blades in a pattern. The trick is making everything line up properly when the knife is assembled. There are many styles of filework and this type of knife is known as a "workback" because of the file work on the back.

This particular knife was very fancy and there are even remnants of gold plating on the inside of the liners.

This is pretty much the apex of production knife making in Sheffield. Sadly, as an antique this knife is too valuable to be causally used and carried today, but fortunately there is one modern maker of classic Sheffield knives left, Taylor Eyewitness, and we are going to be getting some fancy knives from them. I like this idea, most knives sold today are either really inexpensive and sort of a commodity, or really super special and end up in a collection, never to be used. Very few of the modern makers are interested in Victorian decoration, the very high cost being instead justified by exotic materials.

I am really looking forward to these knives precisely because they are high end production, not one off collectibles. We will have them in time for Father's day and I expect to keep a few myself for "carrying around".

While I freely admit there is a certain commercial slant to this post I hope you appreciate the elegance of the antique in the photos. I'll post more pictures of other knives in the next weeks as I finish writing more "how to" woodworking material.

Join the conversation
03/29/2011 Simon Frez-Albrecht
I was a knife nut in the not-too-distant past, before I became a woodworker, and I'm always surprised at how little woodworkers seem to care about knives. I use my belt knife (a Mora or other similarly simple knife) all the time as a marking knife, to poke pilot holes for precise boring, to trim dovetails while fitting, and many other small tasks. Having a cutting tool tied to my side is thoroughly convenient, not having to hunt down a chisel, marking knife, or scissors on my bench. When I don't wear it, I find myself frequently reaching for it, only to find its not there.

I have always taken for granted that the button hook (as it is commonly called on the message boards that I used to frequent) was used for pulling buttons through the tiny button holes of the era. I hadn't considered that it might also be used for laces.

I appreciate seeing this post, and thank you for sharing that beautiful knife.
You are probably right about the button hook. I suppose that's why it's called a button hook.
03/29/2011 Jack Edgar...AKA
I have loved and carried pocketknives since I was about 8 yrs. old..I "collected" them for many years and had a sizable number in that collection..many of them from the Victorian era...As such, they were too rare and valuable to carry everyday, so I usually "made do" with modern pocketknives...I carry a rather large "spring-assisted" knife with a Tanto Blade these days and keep it razor sharp, as I did all my other knives except the collectable ones, which I did not sharpen..

I have purchased two exceptional pocketknives from TFWW made by Queen that have D-2 blades and I am convinced that D-2 keeps it's edge longer than any other knife steel with which I am familiar...
03/29/2011 Andrew Gibson
I have to say I am a lover of folding knives. I carry a single blade knife all the time. my First knife was a mini stockman. A birthday present at the age of 10 to carry on a family tradition.
I must admit I am not that great at sharpening a knife. Some times I can put a razor edge on in a few minutes and other times I could work forever and not be any sharper them when I started.
03/29/2011 Mark Beardsley
Ah, you should see Trevor Ablett's pocket knives. I was lucky enough to visit his workshop - and be thoroughly terrified of his colleague's Bowie Knives - to buy the two that I use both at home and in the garden. Take a look here -
I appreciate what Trevor Ablett is doing but I personally like a more "formal" classic looking knife. I own a Stan Shaw knife which is pretty recent. A very nice knife, but not as complicated as the Baxter above.
03/29/2011 robert
Every gentleman should carry a small folding knife.

You won't know that you need one until you forget to put in your pocket after having carried it for a while.
03/29/2011 Lewis E. Ward, Figure in the Wood
Very nice article on knives. Of course as a boy in the late 1950's to the mid 60's I carried a pocket knife. Through the 70's I carried several wonderful little pocket knives and jack knives when Schrade Cutlery and Case still made carbon steel pocket knives and alas they were all lost because I didn't have a sheath. I do have a wonderful 1930's Schrade carpenters knife that I only carry in a sheath. Settled for a cheap SS Schrade. When I took up serious wood carving I found that J.A. Henckels-a Congress style and recently a Queen Cutlery-Oar Carver (O-1) tool steel and I did have a very nice SOG VG-10. The steel is critical to a properly functioning knife and then developing the sharpening skills. Please try to carry working knives.
03/29/2011 j. pierce
I'd love a folding knife with either a single bevel edge blade, or large bevels with no secondary (like the style of blade on some chip carving knives, I guess?) for use as a marking knife. I know you can mark with traditional knife edges, but I've grown so accustomed to using single bevel edges that I forget to how to mark with an exacto or a pocket knife until I've made a sloppy line...
I have had a Victorinox pocket knife since i was about six years old. My dad made sure he taught me how to use and handle it carefully so as not to insure myself or even others with it. Helped a lot when i was out playing in the woods with friends - and nowadays, it's still helpful in many situations, even tho I wouldn't slice sandwiches with it either.
I get a victorinox pocket knife with 14years, original from switzerland :) It was the best present ever!
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