Primer to collecting vintage pocket knives

vintage knives


Growing up in the South there is no shortage of all things vintage, old and antique. It’s sort of our thing. One of my earliest memories is being in Charleston, South Carolina on a family trip. If memory serves, I was in giant warehouse. All manner of bath fixtures, doorknobs, bannisters and wood doors were in piles, every one of them ranging in date from the Belle Epoch to the Colonial Period. My mother had hoped to find some kind of ornate wood front doors for our new house. Ultimately she didn’t find what she was looking for, but needless to say she found plenty of pieces of furniture for the house. It was from her that I received a master class in spotting the difference between “Mission Style” and “Arts and Crafts.”

By the time I was old enough to have my own money I already knew a thing or two. I also grew up in a town that is one of several key meccas for the antique trade in Florida. At any one time there are at least three stores in operation. At the time I already was a “knife guy.” I admit I am not at all attracted to oil cans, license plates or shot glasses. So when it came to the vintage and antique world, I went right for pocket knives, mostly because so many of those great American-made brands are vintage, and many are going out of business, or overseas. I also view them as both works of art and functional tools. And yes, I even use them on occasion in my EDC.

The world of vintage knives

The world of vintage knives can be a rather weird place at times. There are some who view them as an income source. I call them investors. Then there are others who are just collectors, such as myself. The two never directly collide, but on occasion they can create a bit of friction. An investor may buy up an entire lot of “new old stock” knives on eBay, and put it away for years then sell it at a percentage. Where as the collector will buy one and most likely spread the word to other collectors. Quite honestly both sides need each other. You cannot have one without the other I have come to learn. But you will meet some interesting people.

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The source

Thanks to the marvels of the internet, it isn’t very hard to find a source of vintage knives. But that isn’t my first place to look; it’s actually my last. For me, there’s the thrill of the hunt, spending countless hours going to antique malls and looking through dozens upon dozens of unorganized and uncategorized display cases. That’s how I like to do my hunting. You’ll cross paths with people who might be looking for something different, but have information for you, and vice versa. At the end of the day, these are my go-to sources

+ Antique Malls/Shops
Most will have a display cabinet of pocket knives. If not, then ask if they have a military display case. I’ve found plenty of great knives lumped in with worthless bayonets. Talk to the staff. Let them know what you want. You will be dealing with sellers who often know what they have and charge you for it. If it’s a multi-seller consignment style shop, then you’ll find people who have no clue and selling well below value.

+ Estate Sales
I really enjoy estate sales, probably because they’re a yard sale on steroids without any of the useless crap. Often the prices are fixed, but still negotiable. You’ll be going through decades of someone’s life and collected miscellany. There’s always at least a handful of pocket knives among other treats to be found. It also pays to become friends with the indivual or company doing the estate sale.

+ Pawn Shops
Depending on where you live, this can be a sketchy thing to do. But people do put stuff into hock; anything and everything to pay the bills. You can find some good pieces.

+ Yard Sales 
These are hit or miss. Most yard and garage sales are admittedly places where people try to dump their junk off onto someone else. But not everyone has the money or enough stuff to necessitate an estate sale. There are always plenty of these in any town and worth the five minutes to quickly browse. Every now and then you do hit the motherlode.

+ The Internet 
On occasion, this is interchangeable with #1. Sometimes when I am looking for a specific piece, I know there is no way I’ll find it at a physical location. The chances are just too low. eBay is a great place. I’ve found $50 knives selling for $5. But I’ve also found the opposite to be true as well. Also, European knife collecting is often only possible due to eBay.

What's acceptable?

Here’s a scenario: you come across a vintage, late 60s Scout-style knife. There is no blade wobble and everything snaps perfectly. But the blades have been sharpened down to ice picks and the brass is pitted. The price is okay. Most times? Keep on walking. But if it’s that exact knife you were given when you were in scouts that you lost once upon a time? Yes, get it.

There are two knives in my collection that I hunted near to the ends of the Earth to obtain, all because they were from a milestone in my life. But some people want value, form and function out of their vintage knives.

Personally for me, when I am looking through a cabinet of knives I want several things in regards to condition and age.

+ Patina
I want some age on the brass bolsters and liners. Never rust, but patina–a sign that it was carried, used and has a story. When it comes to this there is a fine line between cleaning and ruining the history.

+ Walk & Talk
This is knife slang for no blade wobble, a tight lock-up and a good snap when closing.

+ Blade Condition
I won’t buy a knife if it’s been sharpened so many times it’s turned into a knitting needle. It could be argued that this is another sign of the use and back story, true. But it’s a no-go for me.

+ A Made in USA Tang Stamp
On the main blade of each knife is a stamp of the manufacturer and, in some cases, the year. In recent years many American knife companies have gone overseas, but continue to make traditional pocket knife designs. It’s important to educate yourself. This is where a simple Google search for “knife tang stamps” will help you greatly.

Case Knife tang stamps.

Case Knife tang stamps.

+ Abnormalities
It’s not unheard of for flawed knives to get out of the factory after not passing inspection. Maybe one scale was thicker than the other, or maybe someone put on two of the same blade design. I’ve only found one knife like this. They’re not really more valuable than other knives, just a little more interesting.

+ Rare or Commemorative Pieces
Every year knife companies come out with a catalog of their products. Fortunately, old school collectors have scanned them. This is where a Google search for “knife catalogs” comes in handy. If you thumb through them, you’ll find anniversary releases or rare knives made for a limited run. This will give you an idea of the more hard to find pieces.

You're halfway there

Most people who collect knives are likely already in possession of vintage knives. Your grandparents or family members may have handed their collection down the line. Some of my best pieces actually came as gifts from older relatives or older friends. My best piece is from a situation like that. So, chances are you already have a foundation to build on. It’s a fun hobby. Most of the pieces are at or around the $50 mark so it’s not going to break the bank. Vintage knives make great conversational and display items. I’m by no means a professional or master at this nor do you need to be. It’s a great hobby for young kids, too, and you’re preserving a piece of American history; things from a time when items were made to last. That, I feel, is a very important thing.

So, next time you’re out of town pop into a junk store and look around. I bet you’ll find something pretty cool.

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