How to Clean Pocket Knives

How to Clean Pocket Knives

How to Clean Pocket Knives

A quality pocket knife is a valuable tool that can fulfill many jobs and fit many purposes. However, like with any other tool, cleaning and maintenance are crucial. Neglecting maintenance doesn't simply result in a dirty knife; it risks dulling your blade or causing the folding mechanism to fail. Which is why every owner should know how to clean pocket knives.

Fortunately, pocket knife maintenance is a relatively simple and inexpensive process. Here's everything you need to get started.

Why Cleaning a Pocket Knife is Essential

Pocket knives, especially models with folding mechanisms, can experience numerous issues if not regularly cleaned and maintained.

Besides the risk of dulling, chipping, or rusting your knife blade, a pocket knife's folding mechanism (or retracting for OTF knives) may accumulate dirt, dust, and gunk that can jam it. Deploying and using a dirty pocket knife is more challenging and dangerous because the risk of breaking a small moving part increases the dirtier the knife becomes.

Types of Cleaning and Maintenance Tasks

There are multiple ways of keeping a pocket knife clean and in working order, depending on its current condition.

  • The simplest process is knife cleaning, giving the blade and its mechanism the routine maintenance it needs.

  • After cleaning, it is recommended to lubricate your knife using the right tools and lubricants.

  • If you have an old or neglected pocket knife with a rusty knife blade, you need to learn how to remove the rust and restore the blade to a more usable condition.

  • If your knife has lost some of its cutting power, it may be time to re-sharpen the blade. A dull knife doesn't just cut less well; it also means a more dangerous knife due to the increased force and pressure required to make the same cuts.

Basic Pocket Knife Cleaning and Maintenance

Before getting started, you'll need to gather a few essential tools and cleaning equipment. Here's what you'll need:

  • Cut-resistant protective gloves

  • Disassembly tools appropriate for your knife (e.g., Torx screw set)

  • Paper towels

  • Microfiber cloth

  • Can of compressed air

  • Isopropyl alcohol

  • Cotton swabs

  • Mild dish soap

  • Warm water

  • An old toothbrush with soft bristles

  • Standard kitchen sponge

  • Knife lubricant

  • (Optional) Heat gun or equivalent tool

  • (Optional) Calipers

How to Clean Pocket Knives: A sharp pocket knife lies at an angle on the coals.

Disassembly

The primary objective of knife disassembly is to gain access to your knife's action and clean it as efficiently as possible.

Although you can casually clean a pocket knife without disassembling it first, you may not be able to remove all of the gunk stuck deep inside the handle's recesses or the folding mechanism that way. The best way to ensure your knife is thoroughly clean is to disassemble it first, as it will give you full access to every part.

First, don a pair of cut-resistant gloves and keep them on until you complete the cleaning process. Cleaning a pocket knife requires extensive handling of your knife blade, making it critical to minimize the risk of cuts and possible infections.

Use the toolset most appropriate for taking apart your knife. Most folding knives made by reputable manufacturers employ Torx screws and hardware to fasten the parts together. However, it may not always be the case. Other knives may use different hardware, such as Philips or Allen screws.

Most importantly, take your time and do not force screws. Forcing risks stripping the screw, requiring you to order replacement parts. If you accidentally strip a screw, use a pair of calipers to remove them carefully.

Some knife manufacturers secure the screws and fastening hardware on their products using high-strength thread-locking glue such as Red Loctite. If this applies to your knife, you may need a heat gun, a hair dryer, or an equivalent heat source to soften the glue and complete the disassembly process.

Detailed Cleaning

Once you have disassembled your knife, verify that you have the following:

  • Knife handle

  • Knife blade

  • Blade bushings

  • Mounting hardware (screws, etc.)

  • Pocket clip (if applicable)

If your knife handle comes apart in two halves (e.g., two grips), keep them together. If your knife is multi-bladed or a multi-tool (e.g., Swiss Army knife), separate and lay down every blade or tool and keep them together.

Ensure there are no missing parts, then set aside the mounting hardware and the pocket clip. Only the first three elements must be cleaned, even during a detailed cleaning process.

Pocket knife with rope on wooden table close up

Cleaning the bushings

Lay paper towels on your working surface, then apply dabs of isopropyl alcohol directly onto the paper towel's surface. 

Place your bushings on the wet zones of your towel, and rub both sides of each bushing into the towel to apply the isopropyl alcohol on the metal's surface, rubbing off any dirt or grime they may have accumulated. Wipe each bushing off with a dry towel section, then carefully set them aside.

Cleaning the blade

Prepare a solution of warm soapy water into a cleaning tray or another appropriate shallow water container (e.g., a rectangular plastic bowl).

Start by completely submerging your blade, then let it sit for at least a minute. Afterward, pull the blade out of the soapy water solution and rinse it under hot water.

Once rinsed, dry the knife blade without delay. Use canned compressed air to push off excess soap and water, then wipe the blade's surface using a microfiber cloth as carefully as possible.

Cleaning the handle

The steps to follow when cleaning the handle depend on your pocket knife's type and locking mechanism. Some side-folding models simply use a pair of grips to form a handle, where the most complex part of the action will be the hole at the base of your blade and the bushings. Others possess a more complex locking mechanism, with parts and crevices that are more challenging to reach.

If your knife handle uses metal or synthetic materials, completely submerge the handle inside the warm soapy water solution, then let it sit for a few seconds. Pull it out, then use a kitchen sponge to rub the exterior of your knife's handle to remove any dirt and gunk on the surface.

For more challenging and hard-to-reach surfaces, use an old, soft-bristled toothbrush and brush the parts you can't reach with the sponge. Then, rinse the handle under tap water to remove all excess soap and dry it with a microfiber cloth.

If the knife has a wooden handle or another water-sensitive material like mother-of-pearl, avoid dipping it in soapy water for extended periods. Instead, dip your sponge and toothbrush into the soapy solution, brush the wooden or water-sensitive surfaces, then rinse and dry the knife without delay to prevent damaging the handle material.

Lubricating

Although you can use simple vegetable oil or food-safe mineral oil like wood block oil as your knife lubricant, these may not be the most effective solution. WD-40 is another popular choice, and while it is an adequate lubricant, it is not recommended because it won't coat your blade with a protective film and risks attracting dust, pocket lint, and other contaminants.

The best lubricant products for your pocket knife are premium synthetic oils specifically designed for application on knife steel. Suitable alternatives include sewing machine oil and firearm lubricants. Opt for a product with a spray delivery system, as it is more convenient to apply than oiler bottles or Q-tip application.

Ensure your blade, handle, and bushings are completely dry before starting. After selecting an appropriate lubricant, apply small quantities to the knife's pivot hole, the bushings, the pivots, and the moving parts inside the handle and its locking mechanism.

Once lubed, reassemble the knife and work the action several times to ensure the lubricant spreads between the moving parts and displaces any remaining moisture out of the action.

Everyday Maintenance

Although many knife experts recommend giving your pocket knife detailed cleaning and lubricating at least once a month, the intensity and frequency of your knife cleaning schedule depend on how much and how often you use it.

If a month has passed since your last cleaning and you haven't used it very often, you may be able to give your knife less intensive routine maintenance instead of detailed stripping and cleaning. Of course, you can also follow these steps whenever you're finished using your knife to prevent the formation of rust or sticky debris.

Here are the steps to follow:

  • Deploy your knife blade.

  • Use a clean cloth, paper towel, or microfiber sheet and wipe the blade down without water. Ensure your cloth or towel is 100% lint-free.

  • If you find any dirt on the blade or handle, wipe them off as soon as possible to prevent the formation of rust.

  • Use a can of compressed air to clean the insides of your knife's handle, then wipe the grips off with a clean cloth or towel.

  • Optionally, you can reapply small quantities of lube into your knife's action without disassembling it first, but apply no more than a few drops. Excess oil and lubricants risk attracting more dirt, dust, and grime.

Additional tips:

  • Wear cut-resistant protective gloves even when giving your knife everyday cleaning.

  • Don't allow dirt or mud to remain on your blade for extended periods, as it risks hardening on the metal, damaging the finish, and introducing additional wear and tear to the knife's moving parts.

  • Avoid using water to clean the inside of your knife, especially if you need to remove pocket lint. Doing so risks pushing the lint and other gunk deeper inside instead of removing it.

How to Remove Rust from a Pocket Knife

Whether you wish to restore an old pocket knife with a particularly rusty blade or need to prevent developing rust from spreading on one of your everyday carry pocket knives, knowing how to remove it and protect your knife from further rust is critical.

Before attempting any rust removal methods, you should clean your pocket knife as much as possible. Depending on the amount of rust or corrosion, your knife's folding mechanism and hardware may be jammed or compromised, making it challenging or impossible to open or disassemble for detailed cleaning. If this applies to your situation, do not force it, and simply try to clean the dirty knife as much as you can without breaking any parts.

After cleaning your knife, try one of the methods listed below to clean and protect your pocket knife from rust.

Method 1: Baking Soda

Ensure your knife is clean and dry before attempting this method.

Gather some baking soda and a few fresh lemons. Cut the lemons in halves and squeeze enough lemon juice to make at least 4 tablespoons. Pour 1/2 cup of baking soda and 3-4 tablespoons of lemon juice into a cup, then stir until it forms a thick paste.

Use a toothbrush with soft bristles and apply a layer of thick paste on any rusty areas of your knife. Let the paste sit on your knife for about 10 minutes. Afterward, scrub the rusty patches with the toothbrush until it comes off.

If the amount of rust is significant, you may need to replace the toothbrush with steel wool, an abrasive sponge, or an industrial scouring pad.

After brushing the rust off the blade, wipe it with a microfiber cloth, then lubricate your knife.

Method 2: Oxalic Acid (The Potato Method)

Potatoes are a significant source of oxalates containing oxalic acid, an organic acid and a natural rust-removing agent. An average medium-sized potato contains between 95 and 100 milligrams of oxalates, which you can use to clean a lightly rusted knife.

Find a long enough potato to house its blade's entire length. If you can disassemble your pocket knife, separate the blade from the other parts, then insert it entirely inside the potato. If you cannot disassemble your knife, stab the potato until the blade is entirely inside, up to the base.

Let the blade sit for 4 to 6 hours. The oxalic acid will naturally act on the rust and eliminate it over time. After enough time has passed, extract the blade from the potato, clean it to remove potato residue, and lubricate it.

Method 3: Vinegar Treatment

Gather a cleaning tray or a shallow pan, and fill it with distilled white vinegar.

If you can disassemble the knife, do so and separate the blade. If you cannot disassemble it, you may submerge the entire knife inside the pan instead. Avoid dipping the grips if they are made of wood, stone, or mother-of-pearl, as vinegar is highly acidic and risks destroying your knife handle.

Let the blade soak in the distilled white vinegar for 5 to 10 minutes. The acetic acid inside the vinegar will attack and break the rust down. Then, pull the blade out and scrub any remaining rust stains with a toothbrush, steel wool, or an abrasive pad.

Make circular motions while scrubbing the blade to get as much rust off the steel surface as possible. Once you're finished, wipe the blade dry and lubricate your knife.

How to Sharpen a Pocket Knife Blade

A sharp blade cuts better, meaning it is safer to use. If your pocket knife doesn't cut as well as it used to and no amount of cleaning has helped, it may be time to sharpen the blade again. The more frequently you use your pocket knife, the more quickly its blade may dull over time.

Following the right steps and using the correct knife sharpening tools is crucial to help keep your blade sharp and long-lasting.

Step 1: Pick A Sharpening Stone

There are many knife-sharpening stones (also called knife sharpeners or whetstones) on the market, and choosing the right one for you can be as challenging as finding the right knife.

Although knife sharpeners are available in various types and materials, such as natural stones, synthetic stones, and stones with encrusted diamonds, the most critical characteristic to look for is the grit number. The lower the grit, the coarser the stone. The higher the grit, the finer the stone.

Sharpening stones can be grouped into three categories depending on the grit level: Rough, medium, and finishing stones. 

Each category has different uses and purposes:

  • Rough stones feature a grit level of less than 1,000. They serve two primary purposes: restore or give an edge to a completely dull blade and repair damaged, chipped, or pitted blades. However, rough stones are not suited for routine sharpening tasks due to their high abrasiveness level.

  • Medium stones have a grit level between 1,000 and 3,000. The 1,000-grit stone is considered the industry standard for a basic sharpening stone, being coarse enough to restore a dulled blade but not excessively abrasive to the point of unsuitability for regular sharpening. Finer-grit medium stones, such as 2,000-grit and up, are better suited for knives requiring more frequent edge maintenance.

  • Finishing stones have a grit level of over 3,000. The 3,000 to 4,000-grit range offers a compromise between sharpening and finishing, ideal for highly-refined edges. Knives intended for heavy-duty applications like hunting pocket knives should not need stones above 5,000 grit, whereas stones as high as 8,000 grit are best suited for blades primarily used for their sharpness, such as self-defense pocket knives.

Depending on the type and manufacturer, you may need to use lubricant while using your sharpening stone. Most stones require water, while others may require mineral oil instead. While using some stones without lubricant (dry sharpening) is possible, it is always slower and less efficient than wet.

Step 2: Find Your Edge Angle

The edge angle is the angle at which the knife's cutting edge is cut into the blade steel. The lower the angle, the finer the edge.

Low edge angles suggest sharp, fine knives primarily intended for slicing and cutting soft objects. A typical example is the kitchen knife, which features an edge angle of 15 to 18 degrees.

Wide edge angles suggest wider, broader blades primarily intended for chopping, bushcraft, and other outdoor activities. Hunting knives typically feature an edge angle of 25 to 30 degrees.

Pocket knives fall in the middle, usually between 15 and 25 degrees. However, each knife model is different, and each manufacturer may recommend its own range of edge angles for a particular knife. For instance, Victorinox, the official Swiss Army knife manufacturer, suggests sharpening the knife blades at a 15- to 20-degree angle on both sides.

Step 3: Start Sharpening

Select the proper stone. Start with the stone with the coarsest grit possible, depending on what type of maintenance your blade needs. 

For example, for routine sharpening tasks, start with a 1,000-grit stone. Pick a coarser stone if your edge is damaged or has a particularly dull blade.

Next, apply the proper lubricant (water or mineral oil) on the surface of the sharpening stone. Deploy your pocket knife and place the blade so the edge touches the sharpening stone's surface. The blade should be angled as if you are trying to shave slices off the side of the stone. 

Sweep down on the stone so the entire length of the blade makes contact with the surface the whole time. Do not apply excessive pressure, and keep the motion and angle as consistent as possible.

If you can see a thin metal strip form on the side of your blade, pull the knife away, reapply some lubricant, then switch to the other side. Repeat the sharpening motions, then inspect your edge. If your edge needs more finishing or refining, switch to a finer sharpening stone, and repeat this step.

Step 4: Hone the Blade

Honing a blade means maintaining an already sharp edge. You can perform this step alone for everyday maintenance.

Use a high-grit finishing stone, lubricate it according to the manufacturer's recommendations and perform the same sharpening motions as you would with a coarser stone. Don't forget to hone both sides of the edge.

Step 5: Strop the Blade

Stropping means using a piece of leather and a polishing compound or a stropping block to restore your blade's polish and smoothen your blade. This process helps increase your knife's service life.

Cut a piece from the stropping block and rub it on the surface of a leather strop, then rub your knife on the leather surface. You'll want to apply the knife at the same angle as you would with a sharpening stone, but rub the edge backward to avoid slicing the leather strop. Repeat until both sides have received 7 to 10 passes.

After stropping the blade, clean it with warm water, then dry it with a microfiber cloth. Remember to clean your stropping equipment to avoid wearing it out prematurely.

Step 6: Test Your Blade's Sharpness

You may test the sharpness of your blade by cutting a piece of paper with it. A properly sharpened pocket knife should be able to cut through a sheet of standard magazine paper without tearing or stopping. If the paper hangs on a particular spot, it may indicate a burr or a chipped blade that still needs addressing.

Find Your Next Pocket Knife at Uppercut Tactical

At Uppercut Tactical, our goal is to provide you with the best knives and gear on the market at prices you can afford. We do this to ensure you and your loved ones are prepared for anything life throws at you.

Browse our inventory today to find the ideal pocket knife for your collection. Whether you are new to the world of pocket knives and want to buy your first model or need a new knife instead of cleaning up that old one, we have a wide selection of knives and other gear to suit your needs.

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