Notes From The Skinning Shed – Choosing A Skinning Knife
November 21, 2012
Notes from the Skinning Shed is a very occasional column, based on topics generated while I’ve been helping out as a skinner at the local game processing shop (Nueces Country Smokehouse). Maybe it’ll roll on, or maybe it’ll dry up when the local deer season ends in January. We’ll see.
In the hunting community there are a handful of topics that are guaranteed to generate discussion and debate. Best caliber for hunting X. Best rifle action. Best shotgun action. Best load. Best bullet. Best scope. Best reticule. Best binoculars.
And so it goes.
A topic just as full of contention is the choice of skinning knife. Like every other piece of hunting equipment, there are as many opinions about skinners as there are styles and brands of knives. Arguments range from the best type of metal to the best level of hardness. Blade design is another common thread, as is the debate over fixed-blade or folding knife.
Personally, while I’m definitely no expert, I’ve always been intrigued by knives and the knifemaking art. I once fancied myself a collector, but the idea of spending hundreds of dollars (or more) for a knife that will never cut so much as a loose thread never sat well with me. Since then, my tastes have run to the practical… especially when it comes to hunting knives. I have had the opportunity to use several different knives for skinning a wide variety of critters… from little stuff like upland birds, squirrels and rabbits, to bigger game including deer, hogs, elk, and even bison. I’ve also hunted with a diverse collection of individuals who carried and used a dizzying variety of blades.
The first thing I’ll say now, is that they almost all work. Some certainly perform better than others due to various features or flaws, but when it comes time to disrobe a creature, they pretty much all do the job. I have skinned deer with my pen knife, and I’ve used a US Marine Ka-Bar fighting knife to skin squirrels. I know a guy who does all of his hog skinning with a carpenter’s utility knife (and he swears by it).
I don’t suppose this is much help, if you’re reading this in hopes of discovering the perfect skinning knife. I’ll make it even murkier, though, and tell you that there is no one, single, perfect skinner. There’s not a one-size-fits-all contender out there. To repurpose the same advice I give people who are looking for a new gun, the best knife is the one that suits you the best. It’s all about what feels best in your hand, what your fingers go to naturally, and what works with your unique kinaesthetic.
Having said that, however; I do have some thoughts about criteria you might consider in selecting a knife. These are, largely, my own opinions, but they are opinions shaped by my own, firsthand experience.
Before we go on, let me be clear about what I call “a skinning knife”. This is the knife I use for everything from the time the animal falls down dead (and I have used my skinner to finalize that part of the deal too) until I’m ready to start butchering. The skinning knife should be the singular tool for field dressing, skinning, and boning out my game. Yes, you can go out and buy various kits with specific knives or blade configurations for every step of the process, and if that’s your choice then more power to you. For me, it’s easier to hang onto one tool than to keep up with several… especially in the back country.
It’s all in the blade
I’m not a metallurgist, and I’m not going to bog us down in discussions of Rockwell scales, edge profiles, or any of that sort of thing. If you want it, you can get it on most any good knife blog. It’s useful information to know, after you’ve got the basics, but for most hunters it’s not really necessary.
But I will say that there are pros and cons to the hardness and composition of your knife’s blade. In simplest, general terms, a harder blade holds an edge longer, but it’s also much more difficult to sharpen when that edge is gone. Of course, excessive hardness can equal brittleness, and with some of the super-hard blades, you’ll see issues with chipped edges and possibly broken points.
On the other end of the scale, softer blades can be made razor sharp with much less effort, but those edges are more easily blunted… especially when cutting through hide and hair. If you’re only dealing with the occasional deer, or small game, the sharpness and easy upkeep of a softer blade can be a nice thing. On the other hand, if you’re looking at tougher skinned critters like hogs and elk, or if you’re skinning multiple animals in one day, constantly having to resharpen that soft blade is probably going to become a hassle.
What the blade is made of is important too. Most of the more popular (mass market) hunting knives these days are made of some version of stainless steel. Stainless tends to be on the harder side, but if you want a hunting knife to go into the field day in and day out, with minimal need for maintenance, it’s definitely the way to go. There are some really nice knives made of variations on carbon steel, but without maintenance these blades will usually discolor or rust.
There are several other materials used to make knives these days, and I can’t begin to address them all (I don’t know them all). If they’re interesting to you, do the research before you spend the money. The Internet is a wonderful thing.
By the way, if you’re one of these guys whose hunting knife only comes out to show off to your buddies around the campfire while the guides are out in the skinning shed tending to your trophy, I’d highly recommend a fine knife with a damascus blade. Damascus is made by folding and re-folding the steel, and it results in some really beautiful and unique looking knives. These are generally pricier, custom-grade knives, but they’re guaranteed to spark envious stares… and maybe some drooling from the guides. (Oh, and truthfully, a good damascus blade can be sharpened to a scary edge, and if you’re willing to use something this pricey, it makes a great skinner.)
What’s the point?
What about blade shape and point? Is that important in a skinning knife?
I’d answer that with a solid… sort of.
First, understand that there are a bunch of blade shapes and configurations. You can find a graphic that lays them out here.
If I think about it, there are really about three key functions a skinning knife blade has to perform. It has to be able to puncture and slice skin, to start the process. It has to be able to slice membrane between the skin and muscle. And it has to be able to cut muscle (meat). If the shape of your blade allows you to do all of these things, then it’s a good shape. If any of these processes are a challenge with your blade, then it’s not a good shape.
Personally, I’ve found that I lean toward either a clip point or a drop point in my skinning knives. The clip point usually offers a sharper point, which is handy for puncturing the skin. However, that sharp point can be a little bit of a detriment when it comes to opening the abdominal cavity, as you don’t want to poke holes in the paunch, bladder, or intestines. Of course, all you have to do is be careful… but sometimes, like kneeling on a 40-degree slope with one knee holding the animal to keep it from rolling into the abyss while trying to get the insides on the outside, being careful isn’t such a mean feat.
The drop point still has enough point for puncturing skin, but it’s not as pronounced as you can see in the photo of my Uncle Henry clip point. This makes it a little easier to avoid accidentally popping something that you don’t want to pop while working in a slippery, gory body cavity.
Some skinners like a blade with a lot of belly, such as the swept or “trailing point” blade design. The belly allows the edge to follow a curving stroke as it passes along the membrane. For the hunter who is used to this type of blade, the skinning process can certainly go more quickly. I have a custom knife that I sometimes use for elk and big hogs that has this design, and I do like it a lot. Unfortunately, this knife is a little too bulky for my regular skinning and field dressing work (although I’ve used it on several deer and smaller hogs). It’s also made of commercial saw blade steel, which is very durable, but also extremely hard to sharpen. I’ve had to send the knife to a professional sharpener to put a good edge back on it, which makes me hesitant to use it. That’s something to consider… remember what I said about hard steel?
Bigger is not always better
Like many of the other kids I grew up with, when we thought of a hunting knife, nothing short of a Bowie would suffice. Our imaginations were full of dark, dense jungles and hand-to-hand combat with wounded game or predators. Those of us who could packed Ka-Bar fighting knives, survival knives, and the occasional Arkansas toothpick. Those of us who couldn’t, tagged along in envy and shame, hiding our little Marbles camp knives, or Buck Folding Hunters from sight as best we could.
These big knives all carried sufficient “cool factor”, but their practicality was very limited… especially when it came time to skin game. The large, heavy blades were unweildy when it came to making some of the more delicate cuts, such as opening the abdominal cavity without puncturing the paunch. For skinning small game, or dressing birds, the big knives made for sloppy work. With a little practice, some of these knives could be considered serviceable, but I wouldn’t consider any of them ideal.
The other thing about these large knives is their simple bulk. Of course, strolling around with eight or nine inches of knife strapped down to our legs made us look like our movie and television heroes, but when it came time to humping our gear through the woods, the big sheaths were a bit of a detriment. And they were heavy, which was something we didn’t really notice until it came time to backpack and we learned that under the right conditions, even a few extra ounces could make a big difference in comfort.
Once we moved past the desire to look cool, those of us who took hunting seriously began to look for more suitable equipment.
Don’t go too small
As I mentioned, I’ve skinned deer with a pen knife. That wasn’t meant to imply that a pen knife is the best choice, or even a good choice. It just happens to be all I had handy at the time.
A small knife has some appeal, particularly when it comes to fine work like caping. The short, light blade is easy to maneuver. It allows you to get in there around the tricky places without butchering the skin or poking holes that the taxidermist will need to repair. It’s also useful for small animals and birds, where skins are usually thin and the entrails are easy to reach and remove.
But on bigger jobs, the tiny knife simply makes more work. At some point, I received a package of Z-Blade knives to test. The Z-Blade is essentially a scalpel on a large, plastic handle. It’s insanely sharp, and when I first received them, I thought they were one of the greatest ideas going.
And then I tried to use one on a wild hog.
If you’ve never skinned a hog, you should know that the skin is thick. Older hogs, especially mature boars, are practically like cutting through a couple of layers of hard leather, bonded to a dense layer of greasy fat. The little blade made the cuts across the skin well enough, but when it came to removing the skin and fat the effort was painstaking. As the knife dulled (which it did fairly rapidly), the work became even more difficult. Unlike a larger knife with which I could make long, sweeping movements between the skin and hide, I found myself holding the thin handle like a pen, and making a number of short movements with my fingers.
I had a similar issue using a caping knife to skin a large boar. It was a beautiful knife, sharp as a razor, and it held an edge well. But the tiny blade required me to work twice as hard to peel away the thick skin and fat. I can see where the caping knife may have been a little handier on something like a deer, with thin skin that is relatively easy to remove, but even then I think I’d want something with just a little more of a blade.
This one is just right
I’ve found that, at least for me, I like knife with a stainless steel blade between three and six inches long. It also needs to have a handle large enough for me to get a good grip. I’m a little shy of six feet tall, and my hands are relatively large. For the bigger cuts and peeling hide, I like to wrap my whole hand around the knife and let it do its thing. Other people may like a thinner grip. There are plenty of knives to suit either taste.
One of my favorite, all-around skinners is my Uncle Henry “Smokey”, which is a folding knife with a 3″ “clip point” blade. It’s small enough to stow in my day pack, or in a pocket, sharp as hell, and sturdy enough to split a breast plate or separate leg joints. If it has a limitation, it’s that the blade is a little small for boning out larger animals. Nevertheless, this is still my go-to knife. If I know I’m hunting bigger animals, I’ll carry a second knife to do the big work.
Despite my love of the Uncle Henry, when it came time to jump in and skin a lot of animals fairly quickly at the smokehouse, I wanted something a little more heavy duty. I chose to carry my Buck 110 for this work. The 110 has been a workhorse for outdoorsmen since 1962, and while it’s certainly not considered anything special, it’s a very good knife. With a folding, 4″ clip point blade and relatively large handle, this knife offers some substance and weight. The extra weight is nice when I’m peeling off the hide, and the thick, sturdy blade lets me break through the breast plate and pop leg joints without too much concern about breaking the blade. The Buck knives have been criticised because the hard steel is difficult to sharpen, but I’ve found that if you keep the edge tuned up with a steel, and sharpen with a quality stone before it gets dull, they’ll hold a pretty keen edge for a long time. Note that the hard steel does have a degree of brittleness, and I’ve busted the point off of my Buck knife (see picture above) a couple of times. It is not a pry bar or chisel.
How sharp is too sharp?
I know a lot of guys (and some gals) who take a lot of pride in the sharpness of their knives. I see folks shaving hair, splitting paper, and some even trying to split hair. I’ve spent a lot of time in skinning sheds watching displays of one-upmanship as guides try to out-sharpen one another.
And that’s all cool. Sharpening a knife well is a skill that requires practice, patience, and knowledge. Putting a true, razor edge on a skinning knife (especially stainless steel) is a good display of that skill, and I’ve seen some truly impressive displays.
But I’m going to challenge “conventional wisdom” and suggest there is such a thing as a skinning knife that is too sharp.
First of all, consider what a sharp knife blade really is. Think of a blank of steel, about 3/8″ thick, a couple of inches wide, and four or five inches long. Now that blank is rigid and strong. You’re not gonna bend it. You can beat on it, and as long as it’s not excessively hard and brittle, you’re not going to break it. It’s solid steel.
Now take that steel and grind it down until it’s, say, about as thick as a sheet of tin foil. Everything has changed. You can bend it, crumple it, and maybe even tear it.
When you sharpen a knife, you’re essentially turning the edge of that piece of steel into a piece of foil (actually, more like wire I guess). True, the geometry of the knife blade provides strength to that narrow strip so that it’s not quite as weak as your sheat of tin foil. But that edge is still delicate, and far weaker than the thick blank from which it was created. The finer you make it, the weaker it gets. If the steel is particularly hard, that fine edge gets brittle and chips easily. If the steel is soft, the edge gets malleable and rolls away from contact. Suddenly, your sharp knife isn’t so sharp anymore and you’ve only just started skinning your animal.
When asked, I propose that a knife should be sharp enough to smoothly and easily slice vertically through a piece of notebook paper, but not sharp enough to shave. This will be plenty sufficient to cleanly cut skin and flesh, but will provide the strength to stand up to the occasional contact with bone. An edge like this will hold up longer under field conditions with less need for honing or touch-up in the middle of the job.
You’d probably expect that here is where I’d insert a segment about how to sharpen your knife. I hope you’re not too disappointed, but I’m not going to do that. There are excellent sites all over the Internet that provide that instruction, and while some are better than others, I just don’t see the value in adding my own voice to the fray.
If I did, the key points I’d emphasize are maintaining the proper angle on the edge (somewhere around 40-degrees), and following up the stone with a steel. The smaller the angle, the weaker the edge. And a steel puts a smooth finish on the rough work done by the stone. A leather strop is a good practice too, although I think that’s sort of overkill for a field knife.
Now go buy a knife!
It’s important to note that my favorite knife doesn’t necessarily translate to your favorite knife. If you’re seriously shopping for a skinning knife, get out to the shops and handle some. Feel the heft. Hold it in your hand and imagine skinning your favorite game animal. Give some thought to what the knife is made of, and your own needs and habits. Can you keep it sharp? If it’s not stainless, will you keep it oiled and clean?