Last night I undertook the task of cleaning 2 weeks of accumulation off my benchtop.
Some of the clutter was the remnants from fun projects. But mostly it was the residue of home maintenance – sound familiar? After cleaning the benchtop, I got to thinking about what items I would allow to remain.
Now, there are the tools that we own, and then there are the tools that we actually use (a much smaller list). I like to keep my benchtop clean and not use it as a storage shelf. But, I’ve got a couple of tools that never seem to leave my benchtop because I use them constantly. They include a small square, block plane, dust brush, mallet, measuring tape, a mechanical pencil, and finally a bench knife.
A bench knife can quickly round the edge of a tenon that needs to fit into a routed mortise, clean a tight joint, bevel an edge, and do many tasks quickly and easily. And it is a wonderful companion to my block plane and chisel.
Now, by bench knife, I don’t mean a utility knife. Utility knives are great for straight down scoring and cutting thin materials like carpet, tar paper, matboard, and the like, but, utility knives are not woodworking tools. The blades wiggle about, are too wide, and the handles are designed only for an inline power grip making fine control very difficult.
A bench knife is a woodworker’s tool. It should have an appropriate handle size and shape, one that can easily be gripped and pulled in conjunction with using the thumb to brace against the workpiece, similar to the motion of making a fist, or firmly and comfortably gripped to push the blade away, or make a piercing cut.
A bench knife should have a tapered blade so that the tip can get into tight spaces yet the base of the blade is stout enough for heavy cuts. Also, the blade should not flex (flexible blades are for peeling fruit) and a cross section that can “roll” into and out of a cut.
And forget about A2, cryogenic steel, molecular packing, or any steel-related voodoo you may have heard about. Tried-and-true high carbon steel that has been properly heat treated makes a wonderful blade that has the right combination of toughness and edge-holding ability.
For a purchased knife, my favorite is a 2″ knife by Frost. It’s a plain unadorned knife and the price is reasonable. I used this knife daily for years carving figures as part of my former life as a craftsperson, so, I can vouch that the blade is of good quality with a shape that makes it quite versatile. The center swelling of the handle is comfortable and allows for a variety of grips.
So think about adding a bench knife to your benchtop. There are the tools we own, then there are the tools that we use. A good bench knife is a tool that you will use.
P.S. Off in the future the making of a bench knife may be a project in ShopNotes. My first prototype uses a purchased knife blank to which custom wood scales have been riveted on. The nameplate is a fun addition. (Who doesn’t like to personalize their tools?) I may also custom make a knife blank from tool steel.