*Pocketknife Safety for Kids*
By Green

We go to great pains to assure that our children know all about gun safety, but we often seem to expect they will automatically know knife safety once we present them with their first pocketknife.

These are guidelines for safe knife handling that you need to go over diligently with your children before turning them loose with a pocketknife. It covers selecting a starter knife, caring for your knife, safety guidelines, and basic knife skills. When you feel your child has mastered these basic concepts and skills, let them try out their 'wings'. Just remember, instill in them a healthy respect for the power of the tool in their hands. Unlike many of their other belongings, this one can cause serious injury or death if used carelessly. Used properly, it can bring years of service and be an heirloom for your grandchildren later on.

Selecting a Knife

We will look at knives that are used for general camp purposes such as whittling and food preparation. Gerber, Shrade, Old Timer, Case and several other well known pocketknives are fine for camping, whittling and food preparation. These are knives that have been used for years with good success and will last a lifetime if properly cared for. They can usually be purchased for less than $35 at such places as Walmart, K-Mart, Lowes and a variety of other stores.

For starting out, I recommend choosing a knife with no more than 2 blades. Utility knives do not make good whittling knives for small hands as they are bulky and difficult to manuever safely.

If the knife will be used for whittling, select one with a locking blade. Make sure the lock release can be released with relative ease by the one who will be using it. If it is too hard to release safely, select another knife.

The knife should have a handle that fits comfortably in the closed hand of the user. It should be as long closed as the palm is wide including the thumb. There should be room to rest the thumb on the end of the knife handle and not on the blade with all four fingers having room to hold on. A pocketknife that is shorter causes the user to have to hold it with less than the entire hand and encourages the practice of resting the thumb on the blade while whittling or cutting. This can be unsafe, particularly with a non-locking blade or utility knife, as it can cause the blade to close up on the fingers, injuring the user. The thumb should rest no further than the end of the handle when whittling or cutting, never on the blade itself. The knife handle should fit comfortably in the closed fingers without filling the palm significantly. Bigger knives for field dressing and chopping need more substance, but for general purpose camp use, a thinner handle is preferable.  A textured or rubber grip is nice but not necessary. And a forefinger indent is nice too, but not essential. Serrated or half serrated edges should be avoided for whittling knives.

Knife Care

Your knife should be kept clean, dry, dirt/rust free and sharp. There should not be dirt in the grooves when the knife is open. If there is, wash it thoroughly with warm soapy water using a toothpick, Q-Tip or pipe cleaner to remove dirt or grit from the hinged areas. Anytime you wash your knife, make sure to dry it thoroughly (towel dry and then air dry before closing it) and apply a light coat of vegetable oil to the blade. Spray Pam works well. It is edible in the event you use your pocketknife for food later on. Otherwise, plain ole' WD-40 works well. Wipe off any excess and do not leave oil on the handle as it could make it dangerous when using it vigorously later. The blade should open easily with a moderate 'snug' feel. It should be easy to extend, but not so easy that it would close up if pressure were inadvertantly applied to the blade by  the thumb when whittling. If it is too 'stiff', lightly oil the hinges and 'work' it in a bit.

For knife sharpening, purchase a sharpening stone and follow the instructions. Most stones require either water or light oil on the stone when sharpening. To sharpen your pocketknife, lay the length of the blade on the stone at a slight angle. Using a steady circular motion, sharpen the entire length of the blade against the stone. Keep the blade facing away from you. Change hands and turn the blade over to sharpen the other side. The secret to a sharp knife is consistency in holding your angle. You MUST maintain a consistent angle or you will be alternately sharpening and dulling your blade.

Some people prefer to 'shave' the stone with the blade rather than make circular motions. This is acceptable as well but requires slightly more manual dexterity as the knife must be pushed at a consistent angle across the full length of the blade of the knife. With smaller stones, this means holding the stone at an angle to the knife so it gets the entire edge. Push the knife across the stone (away from you as in whittling) starting at the blade edge close to the handle and working towards the tip. Make several passes maintaining a consistent angle until you can see a visible 'edge'. Change the knife to the opposite hand and do the same on the other side of the blade until it has a visible 'edge' as well. Check your work by whittling a stick. It should go through the the wood with ease.

If you get VERY good, you may raise the angle once you have done the shallow sharpening well on both sides. A higher angle of sharpening should only be done on about a sixteenth of and inch of the edge of the blade. If done well, you can actually shave the hairs off your forearm. Wipe the blade clean when you are done and apply a light coat of oil if needed. (Stainless steel blades don't tend to need oiling.)

Knife Safety Guidelines

When giving your son or daughter their first knife, take time to go over these very basic safety guidelines. They may seem like common sense to you, but somewhere along the way, you learned these things yourself...and sometimes the hard way. Many people are given a pocket knife with no training or instruction.

General Handling Guidelines:

  1. When using a knife, do not stand/sit within 1 1/2 arm lengths of anyone in any direction. This is considered your 'Circle of Blood'. Anyone coming within this blood circle is at risk of getting cut.
  2. Be aware of your surroundings at all times when using your knife!                                          It is the KNIFE USER's responsibility to keep a safe distance from others when using a knife!                                                                                                                      Others passing by may not know you are using a knife and may wander into your 'blood circle' by accident. If so, just stop whittling and close your knife until they are at a safe distance.
  3. When passing an open knife, offer the butt end of the handle. Make sure the spine of the knife blade is towards your palm with the blade facing away from your skin.
  4. Do not walk around with an open knife. If you need to change locations, close your knife until you are re-situated.
  5. When opening a knife, hold the closed knife in your left hand with the blades facing upwards. Using your right finger and thumb, open the knife holding the spine of the blade until it is in the fully open position. This allows you full visibility of the blade at all times. Get in the habit of doing this every time you open or close your knife.
  6. When closing the knife, hold it in the same position as when opening it...horizontal to the ground with the blade facing upwards. Firmly grasp the knife handle in one hand and the spine of the blade in the fingers of the other. Maintaining a firm grasp on the blade, fully close the knife. Make sure the fingers are completely clear of the blade as it is shut. Do not let go and allow the knife to 'spring' back closed. If any fingers are inadvertently in the way of the closing blade there is no fast way to stop it and you can cut yourself badly. Also, don't use the palm of the right hand or just your thumb to snap the knife shut. You can poke the tip of the knife in your palm or once again, snap it on your other fingers.
  7. When closing a locking blade knife, hold the handle of the knife with your left hand (blade facing upwards again), release the lock with your right hand, and THEN hold the blade with your left hand and close it. Do not hold the blade while releasing the lock or you could rapidly close the blade onto your fingers once it releases suddenly.
  8. ALWAYS MAINTAIN FULL CONTROL OF THE BLADE UNTIL IT IS FULLY CLOSED! Carelessly closing a knife is one of the fastest ways of slicing a finger or palm.
Safety Rules and Horseplay:
  1. A knife is a TOOL, not a TOY! Do not throw it at anything.
  2. Do not carve anything that does not belong to you or for which you do not have permission to carve. This includes trees, bathroom doors and picnic tables!
  3. Do NOT playfully taunt others with your open knife.
  4. Do not use your knife without permission from an adult until you have been cleared to carry unsupervised.
  5. DO NOT TAKE YOUR POCKETKNIFE TO SCHOOL! Many schools will kick you out for doing so.
Whittling Safety:
  1. When whittling, always whittle AWAY from your body.
  2. Do NOT whittle towards your leg, knee, a table or any other object. Spread your knees and whittle directly between your spread legs or whittle towards the outside of your leg. If you are at a table, turn your back to the table and whittle away from it.
  3. Keep your knife clean and sharp. It takes more force to whittle with a dull knife and could lead to a much deeper cut if it 'slipped' because of the extra force being applied.
  4. Before closing your knife, wipe the blade clean. To do this safely, on your pants leg, drag the blade backwards towards yourself, flip it over and drag it away from the sharp edge in the other direction. Make sure to remove shavings/dust/juices/dirt before putting it away.

Basic Skills to Master

  1. Pine and poplar are good softwoods to start out with when whittling. Avoid hardwoods such as oak as they are significantly harder to shape. The first skill you will want to work on with your pocket knife is whittling a point on a stick like a pencil point. You can practice this on a new pencil, a dowel or a stick with no knots or branches. Starting about an inch from the end, shave a sliver off the end of the stick. Keep your supporting (left) thumb at least an inch behind where you are whittling. On each successive pass, cause the knife to go slightly deeper as you near the end. Do not try to 'dig' into the wood....just 'shave' it. Do not try to shave more than an inch or two across the wood in any one pass and no deeper than a thin shaving. Twirl the stick around evenly and shave off slivers until you have a nice point. If you want, flip over the stick and practice on the other end as well. When you are done, stick a marshmallow on it and roast it! : ) Try sharpening your pencils this way and then write with them.
  2. The next skill you will want to master is shaving a stick (taking off the bark). This can be useful when making eating utensils. Once again, you may use a stick, a pencil or a dowel (color the outside with marker if desired to make your progress more visible). Start near the end of the stick whittling slivers off all the way around. If you are not getting slivers, just 'sawdust', stop and resharpen your knife. Remember, whittle AWAY from your body and not towards your knees or shins! When you have whittled your way around the stick, move back an inch or two toward the middle of the stick and continue the process shaving off more bark. When you get about halfway, turn the stick around and begin shaving near the other end, working backwards towards the middle progressively. Try not to 'dig' into the wood for a smooth finish.
  3. A third skill is making a notch in a stick. This can be useful when making field expedient bows, tent stakes or a variety of other projects. CAREFULLY hold the blade perpendicular to the wood where you want the straight part of the notch to be. Press downward and rock the blade on the wood until you have a 'line' cut in the wood. Continue to 'rock' the blade over and over until you have a fairly deep line in the wood. Then move the blade back slightly behind the line and trim the wood towards the line as you did when making the point on the end of your stick. Continue to carefully whittle out a notch alternating between deepening your 'line' and whittling towards it. When it is as deep as you like it, trim up the splinters and loose pieces of wood in your notch until it suits your needs. For practice, try whittling a tent peg with a point on the end that will go into the ground and a notch at the end that will be used to secure the tent line.
  4. Once you have practiced each of these three skills, try to make yourself a butter knife, an eating spatula (like a fork with no tines), a back scratcher, a bow and some simple arrows, a fancy walking stick or whatever other projects you can come up with.
  5. The next skill is peeling fruit. BE VERY CAREFUL and HAVE ADULT SUPERVISION! Take an orange or an apple. Grip the knife with the spine side of the handle inside the bend of your four fingers. Be careful to keep your thumb out of the way since the blade will be facing towards you. Lay the knife blade against the top of the orange/apple, press into the peel and slowly pull the blade towards your thumb while thinly slicing the peeling off in one continuous sliver. Do not 'jerk' the knife through the skin or you might cut your thumb. Turn the fruit in a circle and work progressively towards the bottom, being careful not to miss any slivers of peeling as you go down. Periodically remove the lengths of peeling out of your way and discard them. When you are done, remove the juices using a paper towel, cloth, shirt tail or whatever. Hold the cloth over both sides of the knife blade from the spine side. Carefully wipe the blade from the back side (spine side) working towards the tip being careful not to slice your finger on the blade edge as you go. Close the knife and return it to its sheath or your pocket. At your first opportunity, wash it with warm soapy water, dry it thoroughly, reoil the blade with vegetable oil if needed (non-stainless steel blades) and put it away.
Once you have demonstrated skill in making points and notches, shaving sticks and peeling fruit without injuring yourself or others around you, and you actively practice the safety guidelines, you might earn the privilege of independently carrying your own pocketknife with your parent's permission. Remember, this privilege is earned and can be lost by your own carelessness. ALWAYS remember to use caution when you pull out your knife. It is a tool, but like many tools, it can injure you or others severely. Remember that sober fact. Then...ENJOY! You have grown up just a bit more once you've earned the privilege of using a pocketknife. You have entered the ranks of millions who safely carry and use a personal pocketknife regularly. : )

Congratulations and Best of Luck!

Now...take this simple safety test and see how you score!

  1. You are whittling on your porch when a neighbor approaches you. What should you do?
  2. When opening or closing your knife, the blade should feel very loose, moderately snug or very stiff?
  3. True or false? When whittling, you should rest your thumb lightly on the end of the blade closest to the handle for stability.
  4. True or false? A good multipurpose tool is best for young whittlers.
  5. Which is safer for new whittlers, a sharp or slightly dull knife edge?
  6. True or false? When someone approaches your circle of blood, for their safety you should firmly say, 'Watch out.You are in my blood circle.'
  7. When whittling, what part of your body should you whittle towards?
  8. True or false? Oak and poplar are good woods for beginnings to start on.
  9. True or false? It is safest to allow the knife blade to snap shut to avoid contact with skin.
  10. To an adult safely demonstrate the following knife skills:
    1. Pass an open knife
    2. Whittle a point on a stick.
    3. Shave the bark off a stick or the paint off a pencil
    4. Whittle a notch in a stick.
    5. Sharpen a knife.

(Don't peek!)

You need to score 100% on this test to be considered for 'carry' priveleges. Safety doesn't understand an 80% passing score! If you miss an answer, go back and reread the text to understand what you missed.

  1. When you are whittling and someone approaches, stop whittling and close your knife. Do not resume whittling until they are completely clear of your blood circle.
  2. The knife blade should feel moderately snug. If it is too hard to open, oil it lightly and work in the oil. (Pam spray vegetable oil or WD 40 are adequate.)
  3. When you are whittling, do not rest your thumb on the knife blade. It could cause it to shut on your fingers.
  4. Multipurpose knives are wonderful tools, but they tend to be difficult to safely open. Opening the blade often results in other tools or blades coming out simultaneously and pushing them back in puts the child's fingers too close to the blade edge for a novice.
  5. A sharp knife is safer to use as it shaves through the wood with significantly less effort. A dull blade requires more effort to go through the wood, so if  you are forcing the knife through the shaving and it suddenly makes it through, it may rapidly 'fly' out and possibly cut a leg with much force behind it.
  6. False. The knife handler is responsible for the safety of those who are around. When using your knife, be aware of everyone around you. If someone approaches your blood circle, stop whittling and close your knife. You may inform them that you are whittling and they are too close for safety, but it is up to you to stop whittling and close your knife before the risk presents itself. It is best to whittle in an area away from others.
  7. When whittling, always whittle AWAY from your body, especially away from your own fingers, your stomach and your legs.
  8. False. Oak is too hard for novices to begin with. Poplar and pine are better choices.
  9. False. Allowing the blade to snap shut removes your ability to rapidly stop the process if your fingers are accidently in the way.
  10. When doing your projects, have an adult sit beyond your blood circle and examine your technique closely. This may be the only opportunity you will ever receive for direct feedback on your knife safety habits. Make the most of it. It will set you on the road to safe knife use for years to come.
Remember, if you did not score 100%, go back and learn the appropriate sections. You must practice knife safety 100% of the time...not just 80%!


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