Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Guest Post: Regarding Altoids Tins and Sodbuster Knives

by Garry Hamilton

The "Altoids Tin Survival Kit" has been done to death, yet here I am offering to expand on a specific niche of a specific tool.

One of the basic precepts of the Altoids Kit is that it should (must?) contain at least one cutting tool. I've seen as many as three in a single tin, including a tiny knife, a razor blade & handle, and a two-dollar credit-card-sized multi-tool with a sharpened edge.

I've recently been doing some sampling of current sodbuster knife designs, builds, and quality. During this exercise, I stumbled over an Altoids tin while holding a sodbuster. That was all it took.

Why Sodbusters?
Short answer: More than ten years of trying out different knife designs.

The longer answer: As I've tested and tried dozens and dozens of knives over the last decade and a bit, I've had more than a dozen "favorite" designs. I've fallen in love with some old patterns and some new patterns, some simple designs and some complex designs.

However, every time I have to think about what kind of knife I'd be willing to a) bet my life on, b) buy and hide against the day I "might need it," and c) recommend to others for that same thing, I find myself leaning strongly to the simple ones.

What are the defining characteristics of a sodbuster? Are there actual rules? Well, like the pirate said, "they're more like guidelines."
  1. Slipjoint, meaning a simple folding knife having a backspring which holds the knife either open or closed. The traditional slipjoint has no locking mechanism. There's usually a nail nick on one side of the blade to make it easy to open.
  2. No bolsters, meaning none of those cool metal end pieces that so many traditional knives have. Some knives have two bolsters (see most stockman patterns, as well as most folding hunters), some have a single bolster (certain "gentleman's" knives), and some have none (most sodbusters).
  3. A straight, slightly broad, plain-edged (non-serrated) blade, with a tip more rounded than pointy. It turns out that this is one of those "guidelines" I mentioned. This blade will typically be either a mild drop point or, more olde skool, a trailing point profile. However, I've seen some that undeniably have a clip point. Them be "guidelines" for sure.

In general, a sodbuster is a working knife and, therefore, typically robust. They will often have somewhat thicker spines than other knives the same size. The blade will typically be a little broader than other the same size (although in my photos, you'll see that's also not always the case) and, being a working knife, its design lends itself to very good cutting characteristics and versatile applications.

In the hand, I have found that a sodbuster is bigger in application than the tape measure would suggest. I've used a 3 5/8 inch blade to make a complete salad, cutting up all the veggies and the head of lettuce with it. That's normally a job for a five or six inch blade, but the sodbuster was happy to do it. And then, just to prove I could, I used the smaller 2 5/8 inch Sodbuster Jr. to do the same thing.

So we have a mechanically simple knife with a working blade that's bigger than its measurements, which is also lighter than similarly sized knives because no bolsters means less metal.

What else is attractive about sodbusters? Well, there are more than a dozen good brands and many of them have very comfortable price points. Sure, you can blow a hundred bucks on a Queen Cutlery piece, or one from Great Eastern Cutlery but, unless you're well heeled, that's not what you'll want to "buy and hide" against possible future need.

Conclusion? Simple, inexpensive, generously proportioned, remarkably effective knife that's small enough to tuck away for that unlikely day when, somehow, you have suddenly lost your trousers and need to cut some fishing line or tent cordage or maybe a rope belt for that makeshift kilt (and what the heck happened to your pants??).

Which Sodbuster Do I Use?
To begin with, let's have a look at some sodbuster designs. It should be understood that W.R. Case & Sons (Case XX Knives) owns the trademark "Sod Buster" and "Sod Buster Jr." so that other knife companies have to use other names, like "Range Buster" or "Dirt Buster" or "Ranch Buster." Historically, "sod buster" has been a slang term for "dirt farmer," often used disparagingly by their contemporaries. Today, those who work with their hands have accrued some rear-view-mirror respect, and naming working tools after them has become acceptable, even popular.

I'm not going to go through the gymnastics of trademark and copyright for this study, rather, I'm just going to call them all "sodbusters."

The first picture is a collection of full-sized sodbusters. I've marked it up to indicate maker and country of origin.

I should mention that country of origin is part of the reason for this essay. I've observed over the last ten-plus years that the build quality coming out of China and Taiwan has steadily climbed, given the steady knowledge transfer and manufacturing discipline resulting from some of America's top knife manufacturers taking some of their operations overseas. We will leave the discussion of the economics driving that trend for another time.

Gerber took many of their designs to China, and suffered a huge hit to their reputation when the resulting quality of builds and materials and heat treatment fell off sharply, to the point where many cutlery stores would no longer carry the Gerber line. Schrade, Camillus, Frost, Buck, Spyderco, and others have all gradually made a similar move, but some of them learned from the mistakes of others. It didn't take long for Buck and Spyderco to grasp that you have to put your own people on the ground where the knives are being made to enforce QC and process rigor. Other big names followed suit -- Boker, Kissing Crane, Linder, etc. -- and now there are Chinese builds of a broad selection of brands.

It didn't take too many years for smaller brands and for the Chinese themselves to take advantage of these newly mastered technologies and produce their own lines of surprisingly high-quality, low-cost, often attractive knives. And it was noticing this which first led to me taking a new sampling of current builds.

(By the way, not all countries have caught up. One of the samples I got was from Pakistan. The build quality seemed okay, but the fact that its handle turned anything it touched red rendered it unusable. Had to send it back.)

So, back to the sodbusters. We won't be discussing the full-sized sodbusters beyond noting that they came first, and the smaller "junior" designs came later. That, and noting that a large, or even a medium, sodbuster won't fit in an Altoids tin.

See the frame comparing the three basic sizes of sodbuster. Also the two showing the actual measurements.

 An Altoids tin with all three stuffed into it, just to show it can be done.

Just for fun, I've also included a couple of frames with "sodbuster-like" knives (Swede 38 by EKA). They would be a viable replacement if the tins were a little bigger.

Then we have a spread of several sodbusters along with two which are sodbuster-like and which will also fit in the tin.

My Finalists

So, let me talk about these three pieces. Two of them are sodbusters (yellow Case, orange Boker), and the other is this oddball Italian thing (yellow MAC). It's a promotional item that's not listed on their site.

I picked it up on eBay as more of a curiosity than anything else. Don't know what I expected, but I've been carrying it for a week and it's doing a good job of being a lightweight, sharp, very pocketable knife, so it got invited to the show.

In this photo, the Case sodbuster cost around $28. It was an eBay buy, so that price is kind of a plus-or-minus five bucks thing. The orange Boker cost $11, also on eBay, so allow +/- $5 slop factor. And the Italian MAC was $1, plus $7 shipping & handling, so $8 total.

Given that the Boker is only $3 more, and given that its design is substantially better and its build quality is outstanding, coupled with the fact that of all the sodbusters evaluated it is the most compact, my conclusion is that it's probably the best compromise of quality and price and form for this application.

However, I should mention that I think I now have a source for the Italian MAC folder where I can get them for a couple of bucks each and buy, say, ten of them and only pay shipping on the single package. That's $2.25 x 10 = $22.50, plus $7.00 shipping for a total of $29.50, and if you split that out, it's about $3 per knife. So if I'm looking to put together a real bargain kit, $3 is a pretty compelling alternative. (Of course, if I buy 20, that's $45 and, allowing $10 for shipping, that's about $2.75 each.) And I've verified that it's an adequate build for "unplanned camping" adventures.

Am I going to feel bad about sequestering $11 to $16 worth of blade in a seldom-if-ever used tin? Nah, not really. But $3 for that same application? Heck, why not?

And remember, if I have my pants on when the "bad thing" happens, I'll already have better options on my person. Still, the kit might have loaner or exchange value. You never know.

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