Some of you may remember as a child watching your father carefully clean and sharpen his hunting knives in the week before hunting season started. This instilled in many of you a love of knives and the process of caring for them. An old, well cared for hunting knife will not have the brassy shine of a new knife, but rather, the aged patina the British hold in high regard.
Before we begin to clean the knife, one should look at the sheath. Most modern hunting knives come with a Cordura or nylon sheath. If the sheath is dirty, a simple hand or machine washing will clean it. For the traditionalist, or someone who owns an old knife, the sheath is usually made of leather. Inspect it carefully for weak points where the stitching may be starting to come apart or the snap is wearing out; if either of these is a problem, the local cobbler (shoe repair person) will repair your sheath for a small fee. If your knife lacks a sheath, the local cobbler may be willing to make you a replacement. For cleaning and maintaining your leather knife sheath there are four options. Saddle soap, Neatsfoot oil, mink oil, and bear grease. There are thousands of products for leather care sold by shoe retailers around the world, but those four are the best. If your local supermarket does not carry them, you can purchase them from the local saddler or cobbler. Saddle soap will clean, protect, and condition leather, Neatsfoot and mink oil will condition and waterproof leather and bear grease will waterproof leather better than anything else will. As a final addition, one quick squirt of WD40 on the inside of the leather sheath will help to protect the blade and prevent rust.
Now we will turn our attention to the knife blade. Stainless steel blades require the least amount of cleaning but must be sharpened more frequently than other knives. A new high carbon steel knife will be almost as shiny as stainless steel but will slowly become darker over the decades. A well-maintained high carbon or Damascus steel blade will gleam only on the freshly sharpened edge. After sharpening your knife with a hone or sharpening stone, mineral oil should be rubbed into the blade to prevent the formation of rust. Should you find rust on your hunting knife it should be removed immediately. Rust never sleeps. For a light case, it can be wiped off with mineral oil or an automobile rubbing compound. For slightly more desperate cases, steel wool or scotchbrite pads work well. As a last resort, a wire wheel must be employed. When using a wire wheel, extreme care must be used. Not for nothing is the wire wheel considered the most dangerous tool in a shop. Wear eye protection and heavy leather gloves and take care not to let the wheel grab the knife. More than one person has been badly cut or stabbed by their own knife when this happens. As a final note, when hunting, always clean blood off the blade before sheathing it. Not only is this hygienic, it will prevent the blood from staining the steel or causing premature rusting.
How one cleans the handle depends on the material used. In most cases, Bar Keeper’s Friend is also your best friend. All metal parts, which on hunting knives is usually brass, silver or stainless steel can be restored to their original beauty with a rag, Bar Keeper’s friend, and a little hard work. Wood handles should be rubbed with mineral oil to waterproof and restore the luster of natural wood. Bone, horn, antler and ivory handles require special care. Extreme or rapid changes in temperature and humidity can cause cracking and swelling in these handle materials. Liquid cleaning solutions and water can also damage these natural handles. When cleaning bone, antler, horn and ivory a light rub with a slightly water dampened cotton swab is usually enough to remove grime and dust. Immediately dry off the handle after cleaning. Plastic or micarta handles can be cleaned with a little soapy water and a rag. Never immerse your knife in any cleaning solution, even water. If you really want your hunting knife to stay at its most pristine, carefully wrap it in acid-free jeweler’s paper before returning the knife to its sheath.