Cheap vs. Expensive Pocket Knives: Is There a Difference?


Pocketknife on a Stump

Most of us grew up with our fathers and grandfathers wielding the coolest pocket knives. Some of us were even gifted with our own some time in our teens. But now that you’re grown, maybe you’re thinking of buying one for yourself, a family member, or a good friend.

So, cheap vs. expensive pocket knives: Is there a difference? In short, you get what you pay for. Cheaper knives won’t have as many features or last as long as a costlier model. Pocket knives purchased as future heirloom pieces should be considered as investments, so expect to pay more for better quality.

While there are situations where a less expensive pocketknife could serve your needs, investing in one with more solid construction is more likely of benefit to you. Before you make your big pocketknife purchase, there are some things you should consider first.

Generalizing the Difference Between Pocket Knives by Price

As I said, the big difference between cheap pocket knives and more expensive ones is quality. You can definitely spend twenty bucks and come away with a stainless-steel knife in an aluminum casing that may or may not lock in place when it’s open or closed.

Cheaper models are mass manufactured and not given the time and attention necessary to create something great. However, that does not mean that they are totally worthless. If you are planning to go on a camping trip for the first and only time in your life, maybe a less expensive blade suits your budget better.

That said, don’t dismiss the concept of investing in a beautiful, high-quality knife with a well-structured blade, secure locking mechanism, and a fancy handle. It is just nice to have pretty things, and if they serve you better than a cheaper knife, in the long run, you’ll be much happier with your purchase.

Pocket Knives are Not Multi-Tools

If you’re looking to invest in a Swiss Army-style knife that houses a knife with everything from a set of pliers to a nail file, you’re looking at a multi-tool. Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re focusing on here. If you want to know more about multi-tools, here’s a great resource for you.

The difference between a pocketknife and a multi-tool is simple. A pocketknife is constructed as a blade that folds into a grip with a locking mechanism that keeps the knife in place, either closed or extended. A multi-tool, on the other hand, is a pocket-sized assembly of tools that may or may not include a knife.

While we don’t want to spend a lot of time on multi-tools, we do recommend that you purchase a separate pocketknife from your multi-tool for a couple of reasons.

  • The knife in a multi-tool is never well balanced. Since it’s made to fit in with other tools, your blade to grip ratio is never optimal for proper use.
  • The quality is not the same. Even if you purchase a high-end multi-tool, the knife is not the manufacturer’s focus, meaning, the material quality and edge sharpness are lacking.
  • There is less safety. Where a pocketknife blade has a locking mechanism for keeping it closed as well as extended, a multi-tool does not come with those features. This makes your blade less sturdy and less useful.
  • Multi-tools are easier to travel with. While no pocket knife will ever pass TSA, like one of my favorite multi-tool models (Click to see Amazon Listing) are typically safe to fly with. Please check with local officials before showing up at security just to be sure and save yourself some hassle.

What Makes For a Quality Pocket Knife?

Now that we’ve explained the difference between multi-tools and pocketknives, and we’ve discussed why you might consider having both, let’s get back to pocketknife specifics. What exactly are you paying for when you invest in a good pocketknife?

Blade Material

The material that your blade in should, at the very least, retain a sharp edge when it’s tried. You should be able to sharpen your blade easily and without a delicate touch. A cheaper knife may have a substandard blade that chips during everyday use, or worse, breaks. So, here are some materials that qualify for a good blade.

Material What It Is
Stainless Steel High chromium steel that will remain sharp. While rust-resistant, it is not completely rust-proof. Keep your knife dry.
Titanium A lightweight alternative material that fails to hold a sharp edge. Used more in diving knives.
Sandvik 12C27™ Swedish high chromium steel with few impurities. Strong edge retention and corrosion-resistant.
Damascus Steel Supposedly stronger steel with ancient Middle Eastern origins. Note, however, that while the true recipe for Damascus steel has been lost, bladesmiths are experimenting under this name for strong blades. We don’t recommend buying a Damascus steel blade unless you can test it first.
420HC High carbon, martensitic stainless steel that is nickel-free and corrosion-resistant.

Grip Material

As important as it is to choose a pocketknife with a strong blade of quality material, it is equally important that your pocketknife’s grip is constructed of strong supporting material. Here are some that we like (Source).

MaterialWhat It Is
Titanium Durable and lighter weight than stainless steel. Should be machined to provide traction and better grip. Fairly standard on quality pocketknives.
Stainless Steel A little heavier, but very durable for hard work. Common on cheaper knives, but reliable and versatile. Not rust-proof.
Micarta Resistant to temperature, unlike stainless steel. Tough enough to withstand hard drops or shocks. The material absorbs the oil from your hand to develop a patina over time. Comes in a variety of colors and can be machined for a more comfortable grip.
G-10 Light and inexpensive material that can be made in any color, molded for custom grip or aesthetic purpose. Sturdier than polymer, not as tough as stainless steel or titanium.
Polymer Widely variable material spanning nylon and polypropylene. Affordable material, resistant to temperature changes, and easily molded for optimal grip.

Locking Configuration

Even a small pocketknife can do some damage if there aren’t proper safety components in place. So, when you’re looking at knives to buy, assess the locking mechanism. Here are 3 types of lock configurations

  1. Lockback: These have a pivoting lock bar inside the grip with a notch to catch the blade when open and a section exposed near the non-blade end that serves as a kind of button. When you press the exposed bit of lock bar, the blade swings open until fully extended. At this point, the lock bar’s protrusion hooks into a notch on the blade’s tang to lock in place.
  2. Liner Lock: More commonplace in less expensive knives, this lock works by bending the blade liner to hold the blade in place when it is open. A stop pin keeps the blade in line when open, and a decent ball on the lock keeps it from accidentally opening.
  3. Frame Lock: A favored lock on more costly models, this lock is heftier forming the whole handle. A lock bar engages the base of the tang in the open position. Depending on the knifemaker, there may be a series of additional lock bars, detent balls, subframe locks, or pins to improve action.

Why Should I Pay More for a Pocket Knife?

Now that you know a little more about what materials and configurations make up a pocketknife, you might still be wondering why you should invest in a higher priced model. Even if you don’t plan on passing it down to your children’s children one day, we still recommend investing in a good quality pocketknife for a couple of reasons.

Better Aesthetics

There’s no way around it: a big reason for choosing a pricier pocketknife is how cool it looks. The cheapest knives are never going to be as beautiful while still being well made as the higher priced ones.

If you’ve ever felt the need to drool over some absolutely gorgeous knives, you need to look at this list from Sharpen Up. These knives include stunning inlays in the surface of the handle and artisanal finishes on the blade. They’re also going to cost you about as much as a piece of fine jewelry.

And while you may not be going the custom route, the lovelier knives are made with higher quality materials and more time is spent on the design and workmanship. You’ll be paying for the knife maker’s extra time as well as the pocketknife itself.

More Longevity

There’s a reason you can find absolutely gorgeous pocketknives that are still in working order at any antique shop. A quality knife that is well cared for lasts forever. We keep bringing up the concept of your pocketknife being an investment and the possibility of passing it along to future generations, and that’s why.

Even if you decide to hole up in the forest and become a hermit, though, you still want a long-lasting blade to support your isolated woodsy lifestyle. Just think of your cheap pocketknife breaking when you try to strip bark from a log and having to go back to civilization to buy another one. That can be avoided.

Sturdier Construction

Longevity and construction do go hand in hand. With great construction comes extended longevity. If you pick out a blade that is made from high quality and durable materials, it will certainly perform the most rigorous of tasks. It will also stick with you forever.

Supposing you actually do just want a pocketknife for the occasional package opening or cutting of twine, maybe sturdy construction doesn’t resonate with you. However, in this position, remember that you still want a blade with a sturdily built locking configuration, so it doesn’t come open in your pocket or close suddenly on your fingers.

Recommended All-Around Best Knife

I’m not going to beat around the bush here. I advise spending a bit more money and investing in a knife that could last a lifetime if treated right.

There is one model that I am recommending right now that is of really high quality yet won’t break the bank. It’s the ESEE 5P Tactical Survival Knife. It checks all the boxes in what I look for in a knife and is made in the USA. It’s almost guaranteed that you or whoever you are buying this knife for will love it.

But What If I Just Want a Cheap Pocket Knife?

If all of this discussion on quality investments hasn’t swayed your desire to get the cheapest pocketknife you can find, let’s really talk about the barest of barebones that you can expect to get for your money.

Recommended Inexpensive Knives

For typically less than a pizza delivery (including tip), you can find an attractive and excellent budget pocket knife like this with an aluminum casing, 440C Steel blade, and liner lock.

However, for less than a nice date night, you could come back with a higher quality pocket knife with 14C28N sandwich steel blade in a stainless steel casing with a frame lock.

While we would not recommend spending less than $20 on a knife that you plan to put through the wringer, that is your prerogative. Just remember to do your research on whatever pocketknife you choose to buy.

Try and find a model in person so you can get a feel for it and make sure it handles just the way you want.

How to Be Safe With Your Pocket Knife

Whether you’re planning to use your pocketknife for survival training or opening packages, it’s important for you to handle it with care and mindfulness.

Opening and Closing

Before you even open your blade, be aware of your surroundings. If you don’t know how much room you have, then you’re creating an unsafe space for anyone near you. Make sure you are alone with a “safety circle” of an arm’s length radius around yourself.

Know how your blade opens and closes. Grip using your non-dominant hand and use the thumb of your dominant hand to slowly pull out the blade. Do not release until you feel the locking mechanism take hold. You do not want to let the blade snap closed as this could cause injury.

Closing a blade can be dangerous if you aren’t mindful of your finger placement (in other words, there’s a risk of chopping into a finger). Never place your fingers over the sheath slit while closing.

Passing

There are only two safe ways to pass a knife to another person. The first safe way to pass a knife is closed. The second is by holding the blade with the cutting edge facing away from the other person’s hand. The receiver should have access to grasp the knife by the handle. Do not let go until the receiver indicates they have control.

Knife Edge and Hinge Care

A poorly cared for knife will not perform optimally and poses a safety threat.

  • Regardless of material, make sure your knife is always clean and dry before storing it.
  • Regularly sharpen the blade. A dull blade requires more force to get a cut and makes you more likely to slip and cause an accident.
  • Maintain stability by doing frequent checks on the screws. Any looseness could lead to the knife coming open when you don’t want it to. Wobbliness in the casing could also lead to the knife slipping during use and causing injury.
  • Oil the hinge of your pocketknives any time it starts to feel stiff. It’s just simply unsafe to have to force your blade open or closed.

Smart Usage

We can keep this short and simple: Never use your knife for non-knife tasks. Your knife is not a beer bottle opener, a screwdriver, or a spinning baton.

While it’s classification as a weapon is determined regionally, you should always be mindful that a pocketknife is capable of serious injury, and you are responsible for the damage it does.

Legal Ownership of a Pocket Knife

Before we wrap up, whether you’ve chosen to invest in a pocket knife that will last you forever, or a cheap model that will get you through that one camping trip you committed to, you should know that some governments consider pocket knives as weapons.

In the United States, laws may vary from county to county even within a state. So, check the regulations of anywhere you travel before toting along your lovely pocketknife.

No matter where in the U.S., though, you cannot carry a pocketknife in a school, courthouse, federal building, plane, or (unless you’re serving) military installations.

This is a good resource on where in the United States it is legal to carry a pocketknife.

Wrapping Up Pocket Knives

Coming back to our premise, there are, of course, going to be differences in the offerings of pocketknives at lower and higher price points. That said, with enough research, you’ll be able to make an educated purchase that you can be proud of.

We hope that after reading through this article, you will consider what materials you want in your knife blade and grip as well as what locking mechanism is right for you. There are a lot of options out there, even beyond what we’ve listed in our tables above. The best place to look is always the manufacturer’s home site.

Hopefully, you’ll also take care to handle your pocketknife safely. Proper care will increase the longevity and effectiveness of your pocketknife, and good safety training will protect you and those around you from injury.

Jim James

Jim James spent most of his childhood outdoors fishing on lakes in his area. Due to his scouting background, he has always been interested in survival, camping, and the outdoors in general. Jim is a best-selling author and has a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. He lives with his family in Charlotte, NC.

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