Filson Fundamentals: The Anatomy of a Knife & Choosing the Right One



“My name is Robb Gray and I’m a knife maker, gun engraver, and leather craftsman. I have a business in South Seattle called Graycloud USA. I have made many hunting/fishing and “EDC” knives for Filson here in Seattle. I’ve made kitchen knives for the chef at Canlis Restaurant, as well as the steak knives their customers use.

I’ve made over 3000 knives in my shop and I get a lot of the same questions from my clients. “I want a knife: I’m just not sure which one I need!” To help them answer that question, I first ask them to describe what they want to use it for and how they want to use it. I make over 30 different types of knives on a regular basis, so there are lots of options.


The first step to buying a new knife is to determine what you need the knife to do, and where are you more likely to use it. A useful pocket knife is not too heavy and easy to carry. Thinking of how you normally use a knife and under what conditions will help narrow down your needs. Let’s take a look at a few categories of knives with that in mind.

Bushcraft/Survival Knife

What is a bushcraft/survival knife and what would you use it for?

• Wood work
• Survival
• Preparing food
• Building a fire

Wood work is not only cutting wood pieces to start fires for warmth, cooking, and safety. It Is also about building shelter and clearing areas to camp and give you a little room to breathe.

You also need this type of knife to cut and prepare food and use for whatever chore comes up around the camp. This may include protection against animals or crazy people.

For all these purposes you need a knife with a full tang. These knives are the strongest of all types of knives because they are solid: you can see the tang of the knife all around the handle. Strength is important because you may need to hit the spine with a rock to split firewood or something. I would recommend stainless steel for the blade. Most people don’t realize that stainless steel needs a higher temperature to heat treat so it gives you a much sharper and stronger blade that will last longer.

Hunter/Skinner Knife

Traditionally, skinning knives have a blade with a narrow tip for precise cutting and a deep belly that offers the longest cut per stroke for increased efficiency. If you are removing the cape for taxidermy purposes or dressing small game like birds or rabbits, you may prefer a smaller, more precise blade. The traditional clip-point blade works well, as does a caping blade, since both of these designs allow you to make fine cuts without damaging the hide or wasting meat.

These knives sharpen easily, are thinner, offer a drop point blade, and are high quality stainless steel for longer sharpness and resistance to corrosion. They feature a handle type designed for “gription” when wet or slimy.

Fillet Knife

A fillet knife features a thin, flexible, relatively short and narrow blade that offers the perfect blend of control, precision, and maneuverability for easy removal of skin, bones, entrails, and fins from a fish. Fillet knives may also be used on other types of meat such as poultry and beef, and are also handy for field-dressing big game.
Not all fillet knives are created equal, however. There are literally countless options available in size, raw materials, design, and quality. It’s important to choose with care, because the wrong knife can waste precious meat, make fish-cleaning duties a slow and frustrating process, and increase your risk of cutting yourself while transitioning your catch from lake to plate.

Blades on the shorter end of the spectrum are great for smaller fish species such as yellow perch, crappies, and sunfish. The 6-, 7-, and 8-inch lengths work well for eater-sized walleyes and trout, while 9- and 10-inch blades provide the extra length and heft to handle bigger fish like broad-shouldered pike, supersize salmon, and various saltwater species.

Flex refers to the blade’s ability to bend under light pressure, and is typically determined by its thickness and construction. Flex is especially important for making delicate cuts, such as when following contours while skinning the fish or trimming around bones and fins.

Camping/Hiking Knife

If you’re just backpacking, you aren’t going to use 85 percent of the gadgets on a multi-tool. If you’re a minimalist, you would have just a knife. If you’re a car camper, or go camping with your family for a week at a campground, it’s nice to have something like a multitool, because you can do so many things with it.
If you need a knife, though, get a knife, complication over quality.

For walking on the trail or hanging at the campsite, a folding blade will do the job just fine, but there are a couple of reasons for getting a knife with a fixed blade: safety, cleanliness, and strength. Fixed blades, for example, do not run the risk of closing on your fingers. Even folding knives with a locking blade—and you should definitely use one with a locking blade—can sometimes fail. “If it slips, it can cut you pretty good.”

A fixed blade is also superior If you’re doing any kind of hard work at a campsite like cutting up wood for kindling or slicing food. (The folding ones get a lot of crud in the hinge.) Fixed blades have no moving parts, and are made from a single piece of steel, so they’ll always be stronger than even the best folding knives.

Folding Knives

Are you opening boxes at work? Or needing a knife for fishing or camping? Pocket knives are not intended to baton wood—the practice of using a baton-sized stick to strike a blade down into a log or branch in order to cut it. That’s more of a fixed-blade chore, if you have no other means to cut wood. Shaving a stick to start a fire is different: that’s a perfect job for a pocket knife.

The locking mechanism is a safety feature to keep the knife from closing when in use. The traditional pocket knife had a slip-joint mechanism, not a lock. There are three main locking mechanism designs to choose from. The liner lock may be the most common. A section of the liner springs out when the knife is opened, falling into place behind the blade, to prevent the blade from rotating back toward the handle.

The modern knife opens with one hand. The opening mechanism can be a thumb stud, a hole, a disc, or a flipper, made from an extension of the blade. The opening mechanism, like the locking mechanism, is something to think about and try before buying. It will help narrow your choices.


Cleavers are a force to be reckoned with, handling tough jobs that could damage lesser knives.
Perhaps you’re breaking down ribs, chopping through lobster shells, or separating a whole chicken. You need a knife that can withstand the impact.

On top of durability, you need a cleaver with:

• Balanced weight for control.
• Tough steel to endure a beating.
• A cutting edge that can slice cleanly without crushing foods.

A kitchen cleaver comes in various shapes that range from tapered, thinner blades (like a Chinese vegetable cleaver), to a wedge-like shape more common in Western blades.

A Western cleaver’s design is thick from the cutting edge to the spine. The edge can range from 13 degrees (thin) to 25 degrees (wide). It can deliver a powerful striking force and is quite durable.

At the other end of the spectrum are cleavers that resemble a Chinese chef’s knife. They have thin blades and cutting edges with a tighter angle. Blades like these are more agile, giving you greater control and cleaner cuts. The major disadvantage is how quickly they can wear out. This happens along the cutting edge with nicks resulting from the thinner construction.

Fortunately, you can find a cleaver that is a blend of the two. Be on the lookout for one with an acute cutting edge (around 15–17 degrees). It will offer you a thorough, clean cut as well as durability.

A cleaver’s weight comes from the blade. This makes the knife fall forward naturally. That’s why they are designed to be blade-heavy.

A cutter with a full tang offers you proper control and balance for knife longevity and strength. If your knife’s weight is evenly distributed toward the handle, you will have better aim and control, which ensures easier chopping.

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