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What can one expect out of a camping/survival knife?

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Hello everyone,

Didnt know how to frame this exactly, but Im interested to hear your experienced opinions on what a knife can and cant do. What is sort of expected of a knife?

Let me explain:

Obviously, the first thing would be that it doesnt bend or break easily or at all, but what about edge retention?

Can you cut regular mild steel nails with a knife and expect it to still shave afterward?

Im mainly asking because Im insecure about my heat treatment...

I can get my knives shaving sharp and do bushcraft or skin animals, even shave without any problems. The edge dulls after a while, of course. But nothing really serious that a few passes on a clean leather belt wont fix.

But trying to open a can of beans for example, the edge will get visibly dull immediately and will require sharpening. Touching any type of steel, be it food containers, nails, what have you, there is always visible damage and some rolling, sometimes little micro chips of the edge and considerable dulling.

Im constantly seeing people using their freshly HTed blades to chop nails in half and shoving no edge damage at all!

Is that even possible or do they leave their edges beefy on purpose as to pass the steel nail test?

They usually shave to show all is well, but Im doubtfull to what degree is that "shaving" edge ground...

Imma tell you, whacking a nail (or a rock, which happened more than once,when trimming weeds) with my knives, its not pretty...

I have to mention that the edge is a relatively fine full flat with a slight convex without a micro bevel, usually shaving sharp.

I get that there are tools that are made to cut other, softer steels, but those have a way different geometry and shape in general. Knifes are not dedicated tools for that obviously, but sometimes you really need to get that can opened or there is a nail stuck in a log youre splitting and Id like to not ruin my edge after an encounter like that every time.

Im just afraid my knifes are not good enough...

Im actually terrified to even give a knife to my friends because of this.

I dont actuaoly mind any of this for my sake, Im used to it and I take care of my knives, but giving it a s a gift or some day selling a knife like that? It just doesnt seem like a kind thing to do...

Im using old files and leaf springs mostly and I HT with a magnet, wait a couple dozen seconds past magnetic and quench in regular cooking oil. No problems with warps or cracks whatsoever, nor getting the steel hard. I temper to straw in the forge or in a kitchen oven.

Maybe its large grain, but Id have to do a separate test on that to confirm.

Im basically following any guide you can find for beginner knife makers and using the very same steels and methods.

I bought a piece of 1075 to try and see if the problem lies with my HT or those mystery steels. 

If thats not the case, can the problem actually lie in my bevel and edge geometry?

Ive never owned a knife made by a renowned blacksmith or some high end company to be able to see what a properly made knife can do.


So to sum up, Im asking can a knife that is made for firemaking, general camping stuff and skinning/shaving if needs be, so a relatively sharp blade with a thinner edge be expected to get in contact with other steels like I mentioned above, albeit not hardened, and survive?

By survive I mean that it will not suffer any noticeable edge damage so you can continue to do what you were doing...


Sorry for the long post, Im just trying to understand what seems to be the problem with my knives. Am I simply expecting too much of a knife or is there really some sort of a problem?

I dont expect much help without you all being able to inspect my work or actually watching me work in person, but the best I can do is show you what I have done in photos. Maybe some of it can help?


Thank you all for your time and help.


P.S. Ill be posting an imgur link to my albums so you can see some of the stuff I made so far.






Here are the albums. Im always having trouble with imgur, hope they all work this time.

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So you are not normalizing? Is the oil warmed before quenching?  (And was that can of beans AL or Fe?   Aluminum oxide is something you can get grinding belts in to grind hardened steel!)

What people expect in a survival knife runs an extreme gamut.  Some folks want ones you can use as a spear, others one that you can use as an axe, still others want one they can use as a crowbar.  For myself  I want one that it light and small enough that I *am* carrying it when I am put in a survival situation and not a heavy clunky one left in the truck. (It used to be that my survival knife was a swiss army pocket knife because I could carry it on me on plane trips, yup I'm that old!)

If I run into a nail in wood I am most likely NOT in a survival situation and would use an axe.


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Sounds to me like your edge angle is too acute for heavy work. A cold chisel has a bevel for cutting steel. A straight razor is effortless shave sharp but needs to be dressed between shaves. 

Try less acute bevels and yes convex is good but don't get carried away. I don't hear any real mistakes other than edge angle in your description. You can get virtually any edge angle shaving sharp but not necessarily good for shaving. I had a wood shop teacher who taught us to sharpen scrapers to razor sharp and they had 90* edges. 

Don't take the videos you see online at face value, the ones where guys chop bolts then shave all seem to have a break in the video between the two demonstrations. Plenty of time to sharpen the knife or switch it for an undamaged one. That's the trick the guy demonstrating how good RR spikes are for making knives makes it LOOK like they work. If you watch the shadows behind him you can see the sudden shifts when he stops the camera to change RR spike knives for the next demonstration.

Any for all that I think you only need to make your edge bevel less thin. Work up on it a step at a time till you get what works for you. Sometimes you just need to sneak up on these things.

Frosty The Lucky. 

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Posted (edited)
1 hour ago, ThomasPowers said:

So you are not normalizing? Is the oil warmed before quenching? 

I didnt understand normalizing at first, for no good reason. Since I started normalizing, things have improved, but I still get some damage if I contact steel.

Regarding the containers, its some type of steel for sure. Its magnetic and not stainless per say. Ive seen the same cans rust after a long while...

Id ideally like my knife, labeled survival knife in the albums, to be able to do almost anything I might require of it, which it does. But there is that little problem of having an easy to "break" edge if Im not careful.

I have whacked my knifes into rocks numerous times. When there is a flood, paricles of sand and larger rocks get wedged in trees close to the rivers and after it grows for a while, the tree owergrows it and then I come along and chop a branch hitting the rock and ruining my edge...

I have also found pieces of metal in this way... Not to mention splitting pallet wood for example, on a camping trip or something like that.

I always can find a nail it seems :lol:

Edit: yes, I warm up the oil with a scrap piece of mild steel each time.

The steel always gets hardmartensite formation is clearly visible in some of the pictures :)


Could it also be that Im over or undershooting with my tempering?

I swear, my small survival knife seems to always chip while my other large survival knife tends to roll, other than a direct rock hit. Then it chips as well.

Either way, Im really sensing some kind of weakness/brittleness in all my edged tools. And Im not really sure is it simple geometry or grains being somewhat enlarged. It they were outright massive, I guess my machete would be the first to break in half. But Im not lighty using any of my knives as well. I chopped more wood with those three than with an axe in all my life.

True, my small survival knife lost its tip, but thats because it got used as a throwing knife a bit too vigorously. I can vaguely remember the grain on the break site. It wasnt perfect, but it was a long time ago. Back when I didnt really understand the meaning of that...

Ill try my best to fine tune my HT as much as thats possible with my methods, might even try sending a couple of pieces for HT amd then finish it my way and do a comparison.

Edited by Mod30
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It doesn't matter what you do when you make a blade you can damage it. Who on earth makes a knife that isn't damaged if you hit a rock with it? Being more careful solves that one. 

"Nothing that does everything, does anything well," is an old saying I've never found to be wrong.

In the bush I carry my Old Timer folding pocket knife, a hatchet, sharpening stone and draw file. My stone and file weigh maybe 3oz. total so I can sharpen my tools anywhere. Oh, I do take a garden hand spade if I'm not back packing. 

If 'm whacking brush I use a machete or chain saw. In a survival situation the hatchet isn't ideal but will do the job.

Frosty The Lucky. 

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Some of the high tech steels will get so hard that you need a diamond hone to touch up the edge.  Luckily they hold the edge a long time generally.  Often they require fancy heat treating. 

I actually prefer my knives in an older style, like the 1956 Kabar butcher knife my Mother gave me---it was her anniversary present the year I was born! A couple of years later I chipped the edge trying to cut rocks with it as a toddler...

If you really want to get in deep on heat treating I suggest you take a good automotive coil spring, cut it on a diameter and make about 1 to 2 dozen ( pieces and make them into knives and test your heat treat , tempering temps, edge holding, etc and breaking them and looking at grain size.   Number each one and write up all the details and find out what works best for you for that steel.

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Posted (edited)

I ought to do just that...

I reckon it would be easier with commercial 1075 I have.

I cant be 100% sure with unknown files or springs that they would be the same every time. Europe has and my country in particular have more variety of different makers from all around the western and old eastern block xD

You cant tell which is which so its less reliable to just assume each time that leaf spring are 5160.

I mean maybe, but I doubt the soviets used the same exact alloy as the rest of Europe :D

Edited by Mod30
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As TP pointed out “survival knife” means different things to different people. 
making the bush/woods craft folks Mora is a brand that stands out, but they are relit ivory light blades and are backed buy a good axe for the ugly work. 
my old kitchen knives can be brought to thin slicing ripe tomato sharp with just a pass over a smooth steel, but need to be steeled just about every day, and I can shave with an axe. Rumor has it TP has seen a guy shave with an aluminum can. 


y’all post to dang fast!

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So find a steel you like and stick with it.  I pretty much bought out the local fleamarket's  supply of old black diamond files---before they were nicholson stamped!  I have about 50 pounds of them which will likely see me past my retirement and into the afterlife!

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1 hour ago, Charles R. Stevens said:

As TP pointed out “survival knife” means different things to different people. 

I use either an axe or a machete for nearly aything if I have them at hand, but if I dont, well... The knives are perfectly fine for almost anything save chopping and splitting large trunks.

But theyre are still lacking in some ways.

Maybe Ill get better over time, I should hope! :D

44 minutes ago, ThomasPowers said:

So find a steel you like and stick with it.  I pretty much bought out the local fleamarket's  supply of old black diamond files---before they were nicholson stamped!  I have about 50 pounds of them which will likely see me past my retirement and into the afterlife!

I used to avoid files because theyre usually too thick and narrow for knives. Now that I started forging, its a different story altogether :) 

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Yup; the old black diamonds were 1.2% C and so great for juicing up a billet or doing san mai with.  With forging you can pick up a piece and judge whether it's *mass* is sufficient for a blade; derating it of course; if it will need to be folded and welded a couple of times before "using".

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Here's the process for heat treating. You will find this for most steels with few exceptions.


Normslize: same process as you described, then air cool. 

Anneal: same as you described, then cool in lime or clean filtered wood ash. Remove all hard stuff and only use the fine ash. Hard bits, no matter the size creat spaces. You want the ash to naturally surround your work completely.

Cold work: 

Harden: bring up til you lose magnetism, and quench in either oil or water. With 1075, water quench will give you a harder edge whilst oil will give you a tougher edge. The difference is think what a knife or wood chisel does vs what a hammer does. Oil is "safer", meaning if you mess up your heat treat, oil is more forgiving.

Temper: This actually determines "best use" of your tool. With 1075, a water quench and drawing to a straw will give an excellent cutting edge. However, if you do it correct, it should chip if you try to hammer it thru a nail. If you temper to a purple/blue color, you should be able to hammer thru a nail, but with a knife profile, it won't hold a sharp cutting edge as well as a straw color. It will wear quicker, but should not roll. If your edge rolls, you missed your heat treat at one or more of the above steps. I prefer the reserve heat method when I temper my tools, no matter if it's a knife, hammer, or cold chisel. This means heating the back edge of your knife and letting the colors run towards the edge and transition of knife and tang. This way you get a narrow temper(3/8") for the job on the edge, a spring temper in the body to give some flex,, and a relatively soft back end to absorbed shock.

Final sharpening

There's a lot more that can be said, but the above will work for most steels with a blacksmithing setup no matter if you use a known or unknown steel, or are making anything from a knife to a hammer. If it doesn't work with unknown steels, and assuming you are confident in your HT process, you have a known point to start experimenting with your mystery steel until you find the correct temps and times 

Since you are on line, if you can get to either the android or iphone app stores, I highly recommend a free APK called " Heat Treaters Guide Companion". 



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