Zen and the Art of Knife Safety

Blades Actually I’m not a Zen person. It’s a ripoff of a book title from the 80s and I figured it was a bit more eye-catching that just “knife safety.” I threw together a few knives from the kitchen with some others for this photo. I wanted to talk a bit today about knife safety. It’s important right now while we’re all “safe and sound” and “it” hasn’t happened yet. Whenever “it” does happen, you’ll be glad people have been talking about topics like this. The longer you can go without injuries in a long-term emergency situation the better your chances.

Every injury I’ve ever had with a cutting tool happened because I didn’t have my mind on what I was doing and because I was unable to see the blade and where it was going. I follow certain rules for safety with cutting tools. I didn’t take a class. Most of what I’m covering here I learned growing up. I don’t recall my parents and grandparents getting any careless cuts. The rest are thoughts from things that have happened to me over the years and from watching the aftermath of things happening to others.

Practice conscious cutting.
Know what you’re doing and why, then do only what you’re doing. Take off the headphones. Stop talking. Kick people out of the room if you need to. When you’re using tools like these you want to apply some wisdom from aviation. Pilots use the phrase “sterile cockpit.” This comes up a lot in training. They are referring to working in an environment of zero distraction.

NEVER try to cut something when you cannot see the blade.
Even if you’re distracted, if you know where the blade is you run less of a chance of injury. Always try to cut above the material and away from your body. When I’ve tried to hold something in one hand and cut from behind it and towards myself I’ve ended up fumbling through a box of Band-Aids.

Always hand any tool, especially bladed tools, handle first to another person.
This is a basic tool safety rule which I’ve seen people ignore in an annoyingly cavalier manner.

Sharpen.
Do I really need to elaborate? If you start out easily slicing through something you end up putting a lot more elbow-grease into the same task. If you stop to sharpen your blade the entire task can take less time and be less tiring. That’s just talking usefulness. What about reducing chances of injury? Since the blade is sharp you are applying less pressure. There is less chance of it slipping, getting stuck, etc.

Know your blade.
When I was a kid I got my first pocket knife when I joined the Cub Scouts. The handbook talked about not using the knife improperly. We were told, for example, not to use the blade as a screwdriver. Those beginner Scout knives did not have locking blades. This knife was we commonly call a folder and there were times, in little hands, when it did exactly that. Not every blade is made for every purpose. They’re not all ground as finely. The steel varies in hardness. The shapes differ. There are some that can cover most tasks. But you would never carry a hunting knife into an operating room nor would you start field-dressing an animal with a scalpel.The blade has its abilities and limitations. A blade that dulls quickly may not be suited for certain work, just like one that is more difficult to sharpen.

Know the thing you’re cutting.
There are types of wood that are so porous that the dullest blade will slice off pieces like it’s moving through air. Others are quite dense and the sharpest blade will barely make pencil shavings. Sometimes you may be using the wrong tool. You may need some type of saw. Check the thickness of the material. How easy is it to tear? How does it feel? Is it slick? Rough? Porous? You may only have one blade or a couple of different ones. Knowing what material you’re working with can at least give you some idea how the job is going to go.

If you carry a knife daily you should consider carrying a pocket sharpener. I’ve seen these go for as little as $3. This doesn’t need to be on your person. If you carry a brief case or pack it can go in there. I also carry a folding utility knife with me. I use this for the slop work, cutting paper, etc. I think of them as extending the time between sharpening sessions for my pocket knives. The blades are pretty cheap and I don’t go through them very often. Again the rules I’ve listed apply for all cutting tools.

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