Getting what you paid

This is how an obsession starts, refinement of a tool whose elegance is only matched by its ubiquity, and the unessentialness of special details.  The appeal of knives is easy to grasp, and so too is the dizzying extent to which in the internet age they’ve been fetishized into almost nonexistence.  Nothing speaks to the age of endless, curated, sterile viewing like the world’s first and most basic tool spun and narrowed into shelf art.

Unfortunately, I’m falling victim to it.  First I had the Esee Candiru and the Spyderco Dragonfly, two mass-produced and thoroughly functional if equally unromantic tools.  The Candiru did a good job approximating a hatchet in pocket form, but the one dimensionality eventually saw it fall out of favor.  The Dragonfly is in my pocket as I type this, and hasn’t lost its appeal at all, especially after I gave it a convex edge, which I in my hackery find easier to sharpen.  Then, there was the Bark River Micro Canadian, which has lost none of its luster in the past five months; figuratively and literally, the steel has stood up to hard use remarkably well.  The Micro is comically small, and while it is perfectly useful the partial grip doesn’t so much limit dexterity as it does precision.

Enter the Calton Necker.


Bedrock and Paradox reader Collin Amber contacted me this spring about trying out a knife from Joe Calton, who makes custom production knives back east.  As his website will tell you Mr. Calton conceived his neck knife as a general utility knife, the sort of thing that would be just as suited to opening a box as butchering a rabbit, would be sturdy enough for daily use, yet light enough to easily carry, including around ones neck.  As the photos don’t do a nearly good enough job of showing, the Calton is a handsome devil.  The lines are smooth, the red liner between the thumb guard and handle classy, the wood grain bold, and the finish immaculate.  The detailing of the Micro Canadian had for me been a personal high water mark, but the (considerably more expensive) Calton is truly perfect, with an absolutely symmetrical grind and no gaps or irregularities around the handle.

In terms of features, the Calton might be thought of as an ultra-premium Mora.  The blade is thin, and its shape basic, with a scandi-vex edge.  This combo cuts and slices well, and the edge geometry is very easy to sharpen.  This fall I’ve used the Calton as my main and only skinning and quartering knife, taking apart a sheep and two deer thus far.  It works.  The fine, thin edge and generous handle combine with the thumb guard to make for carefree and efficient cutting.  I haven’t missed my Havalon at all, and have better for not packing used, slightly dull razor blades out of the woods.

I do find the Calton too big, though not too heavy, to carry daily.  The Micro Canadian is small enough to fit in my pocket if I so choose.  The Micro Canadian’s fat blade also imbues a different, better sense of confidence when I’m carrying a fixed blade, rather than my Dragonfly, as a heavy use/ just in case tool.  The thicker blade is great for splitting sticks and generally promises to stand up to any amount of leverage one could inflict on a sub 6 inch piece of steel.  And just as with the Candiru, I’ve been annoyed with the 1095 steels speed of surface rust when it gets at all moist.  Between packrafting and being a bit damp or bloody when stored for the hike out this is a frequent problem.  Given that I don’t see any performance disadvantages to the stainless steels used in both the Micro Canadian and Dargonfly I simply cannot see why one would use 1095 or the like.

As of today the Calton will remain on my shelf as my go-to tool for any trip where hunting or fishing features prominently.  Due to issues associated with carryability and blade geometry, it probably won’t head out the door for anything else, while the Micro Canadian will be my choice for any trip where relying solely on an already broken knife (folder) seems like a bad gambit.


So what did I get, given that I paid for neither of these knives?  A clearer, more accessible answer than most to question surrounding global capitalism and production.  I far from need either of these, as in a world of good enough or better overseas production even the 50 dollar Spyderco is a luxury, relative to the function one can in a knife buy for 15 dollars or less.  What I get with the Bark River, and to a much lesser degree the Spyderco, is a more aesthetic tool whose long-term function is also greater in a way that is largely theoretical.  And that is important.  I carry a knife every day, and have since I was 8.  Taking tactile pleasure in the thing you use to solve life’s smaller problems is a high and mighty thing given the banality ubiquitous day to day.

With the Calton I get a genuinely beautiful tool, and a hint of what it might be like if I lived in a world slow and rich enough that my hammers, screwdrivers, window latches, and car parts were hand forged with a distinct end user in mind.  More than with other items the question of getting what you paid for is obvious with something like a knife, that has no moving parts and whose few design choices can be fully embraced in their complexity.  It’s a plainer answer to why you might chose the smaller guy closer to home, than something like a backpack or tent where if you buy from Mountain Laurel Designs, Seek Outside, or Kifaru you’ll get a more niche product that more often than not is actually sewn to a lower or at least more basic standard than something made in China, but along with it the satisfaction that no stretch of the imagination is required for you to identify with the person who made yours.  In the modern economy nothing comes for free.



6 responses to “Getting what you paid”

  1. nice little knife :) visited his site- has some nice knives and reasonably priced imo for custom

  2. Glad it’s served you so well while hunting. Non-stainless is often more common in custom knife making if they do their own heat treat…it’s easier than stainless often times, and if they are forgers (this particular one wasn’t, but Joe does forge a lot), well, stainless doesn’t forge well. Having said all that he does now offer them in stainless.

    I think the blade reflects Joe’s use of a knife…he wants it to cut, and he never batons or the like, so it makes sense where you found it to excel for you. I personally just love the model bc of the size to weight ratio…if you don’t want to pocket carry (which it is too long for that) you get a lot of knife for very low weight.

    Thanks for the review! :)

    PS The custom knife world is crazy…Joe is very economical on a lot of his pieces compared to most. The weirder thing is how knives have become jewelry in so many ways. Very few other practical tools have as much fantasy built up around them.

  3. The Candiru lives on! And did a goodly portion of the work on this season’s muley. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

  4. Dave,
    Good observations.
    I have always preferred carbon steel for my knives for a couple reasons. I think carbon steel takes a sharper edge easier than stainless and as Camber pointed out as a knife maker the heat treating process is simpler.
    My preference for knife steel is either O2, or L6 from commercial bandsaw blades.
    I have one knife that I used a few years ago to bone 4 elk in 5 days with nothing more than a quick touch up on ceramic mini croc sticks.
    As far as the rusting issue, on many of my knives, I have done a forced patina with various materials such as vinegar, lemon juice or mustard. The patina keeps the light rusting from taking place, which hopefully keeps the pitting from happening.
    I also put a light coating of oil on my blades. A beeswax/coconut oil blend when I finish stropping them in the shop and either a dab of olive oil or even as not of body oil from my forehead.

    1. I’ve never had a forced patina be definitive, some spot rusting always ends up happening.

  5. […] I’ve written often about what makes a good knife, and for the past three years the simple fact has been that the Dragonfly is in my pocket 97% of the time, regardless of setting.  Enough that the clip-side end of the handle has faded from sun exposure.  I’ve re-profiled the edge as convex, which makes sharpening a 45 seconds, every couple weeks affair.  Regardless of who sandy, linty, or bloody the knife has been the lock has never done anything other than engage with a crisp snap.  It’s functioned so well for so long that in the last year I just had to tempt fate, and have battened and pried with it a fair bit, out of mere curiosity.  No issues thus far, save some scratches.  I’d still prefer that the rampant dimples and texture be much reduced in the name of easy cleaning, but otherwise I can’t say a bad thing.  And you can still buy one for 60 bucks, a very good deal. […]

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