If you want to build a knife collection, start at the foundation. These knives will give you a great representative sample to grow your quiver.
A few months ago, someone emailed me a very interesting question. This person was getting into knives and wanted to know what they should look at in terms of brands to have a well-rounded collection. They didn’t really know what they liked but wanted to try a few things to get a representative perspective on production knives.
Below are my answers to this question, with two caveats: (1) I’m avoiding knives that have legal restrictions in certain locations (no automatics or balis) and (2) I’m looking for the good stuff, not necessarily historically important knives.
I linked most of the knives here, but just know, some of these are a little tricky to acquire and are sold out (for now).
Emerson: Mini CQC-7 / Mini A-100
They aren’t pretty — unless you’ve acquired a taste for Emersons (which I have). Then they’re oddly beautiful. And they aren’t the smoothest knives out there. But they are rock solid, always work, and are built like bomb shelters.
I’ve owned four different Emersons over the years, and I finally had one reground to a traditional grind. Notably, Emersons are ground differently than all other knives: on one side, either a full chisel grind or a chisel-ground cutting bevel.
These cut quite well and are difficult to beat as hard-use, American-made, dead-simple knives. The Mini CQC-7 (pictured above) or the Mini A-100 are both excellent, pocketable knives that give you the essential Emerson flavor.
You’ll eventually buy a Sebenza, if for no other reason than the immense pressure within the community to do so. And they’re as great as their reputation would lead you to believe.
The strange but true thing about a Chris Reeve knife is that you only really appreciate how finely made they are once you gain experience with a bunch of other knives.
Start with the basic Sebenza and prepare to be impressed — but not super impressed. You will sell it, buy some other knives, and eventually come back to Chris Reeve. Then you will realize just how amazing it is.
And when the time comes, the second go-around should be with a Mnandi, because that is, in reality, the brand’s best knife.
Spyderco: FRN Chaparral
Spyderco’s fervent fanbase is well-earned. And I don’t think a collection of modern production knives would be complete without the inclusion of a Spyderco. They are so good, so versatile, and so nice to carry that many times when I’m not reviewing other knives, I’ve got a Spyderco in my pocket.
If you want a well-rounded collection, you need a fixed blade. And the place to start is Orleans, New York. While the USMC is an icon, and deservedly so, this list is not about historically great knives (note the omission of the Buck 110). Instead, I would opt for one of the Becker collabs, most likely this really refined camp knife, the BK16.
It’s more refined than the also great BK2, but both give a great taste of what good fixed blades are supposed to be. You can do anything with this knife and it will basically laugh at you. You might scratch it, chip it, or scuff it, but short of focused, purposely abusive behavior, you won’t break this knife. And that’s why you buy a fixed blade.
Victorinox Swiss Army Knife: Cadet
Don’t bother with a pliers-based multitool unless you plan on doing maintenance on your house or car. The added weight is just not justifiable. But everyone that has thumbs can use one of the more svelte Victorinox knives.
I can’t see someone hating a Cadet. They are slim, stylish, and come in a huge variety of scale colors. They are also tough as nails. The steel is softer than I like, but it’s quite stainless and a good steel to use when learning to sharpen your knives.
GEC: Bull Nose
You need a true pocket knife, one that wouldn’t be out of place in your grandpa’s knife drawer. Unfortunately, finding a well-made traditional is not easy.
Case makes a million knives, but they’re generally pretty low-quality. Its Tony Bose line is superb but hard to score. Queen is out of business, as is Canal Street Cutlery. You could opt for one of the Italian slipjoints, but an Italian traditional just seems odd.
The lone torchbearer for this kind of knife that I recommend without reservation is a GEC. I like its Barlows and farm knives, called a Bull Nose (Case trademarked “sodbuster”). These blades will provide a good sample of what’s available and what’s good. The Cadet or the Chaparral are great starting points.