Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Pen Knife Story

Image from Elementary Sloyd And Whittling, by Gustaf Larsson – Publisher: Silver, Burdett And Company 1906. (

One of the great benefits of owning a pen knife, or a pocket knife, is its flexibility and versatility. It is so compact that it can easily be carried around in a pocket, handbag, backpack - just about anywhere. It is one of the handiest tools of all. The following is a story written by my father-in-law, Bevan. He tells us how exposure to this small tool as a young boy influenced his life.

“ It was Christmas time and I was given a present of a small pen knife by my stepfather. It was one of the neatest things I had ever seen. The way it looked, how it opened and closed, this was my idea of a miniature masterpiece. As a young lad, I would venture outdoors and enjoy the craft of whittling away at sticks with my pen knife, I became completely lost in a creative spirit. I remember clearly one day we had a few visitors at our home and one of the visitors told me I was far too young to have such a dangerous tool. The fellow decided to fix the problem by taking the knife outside where he blunted the edge with a rock. He then returned it to me. To this day, I believe that fellow was attempting to impress my mother as he mentioned to her that he probably saved me from dire consequences. Mother was not impressed. When I tried to use the knife again, it was useless and of course more dangerous, as a blunt tool would be.

My mother was widowed at this time and decided to take a course in welding. She started work at the shipyards for Victoria Machinery Depot, or VMD, they were very busy building Liberty ships for the war effort. I attended a small boarding school named St Michael’s, I remember it was a wonderful school with super teachers. Though the teachers were not paid well, they loved to teach there. I recall Saturday mornings when old KC Symonds, the headmaster, would often take half dozen of us boarders to the beach in his 1928 Chevrolet. Driving with KC was a real experience. I remember after we arrived back at the school one Saturday, one of the teacher’s commented, "Well you fellows cheated death one more time!"

This wonderful piece of industrial art shows Edie Cross (Bevan's mother)
in her welding gear at Victoria Machinery Depot Shipyards, Victoria B.C., circa 1941.
The painting was done by Ina Uhthof

The highlight of these beach trips for me was a small pen knife with a mother-of-pearl handle that KC loaned to us that we could do some whittling. Each of us would wait our turn to use the pen knife and most of us searched the beach for a shingle, some sticks and some paper - usually discarded cigarette packages -  and made small sailboats. We had such happy times sailing and racing our creations. In 1948, I was fifteen years old, my mother bought me a Norman auto-cycle which was powered with a 98cc Villiers engine. In those days we were able to get a license at fifteen years old, with a good reason, even though the legal requirement was sixteen years old. I required the machine to ride the forty-five miles to school and back from where we lived at the north end of the Saanich Peninsula (Vancouver Island). We also required permission from the school as they were concerned about starting a precedent. We were happy to have received the necessary approvals. 

A boy whittling a boat from a piece of wood. Source: Wikimedia Commons

At that time, part of the route was unpaved and my average travel speed was approximately twenty miles an hour, it would take me almost an hour and a quarter to travel one way. It turned out to be a bone chilling experience during the winter. The classrooms each had a wood or coal burning pot-bellied stove where I placed my chair next to in the morning. By noon I was warm again, then we toasted our  cheese sandwiches on top of the stove.

Along with an auto-cycle one would want to own a screwdriver and a small crescent wrench. An absolute must was a pen knife. In those days string was another necessity, it was used for tying up and tying on almost everything. The stores had balls of string in special holders, some hung from the ceiling or in cast iron beehive shaped containers placed on the counter (which have become a very desirable collector’s item today). The pen knife would cut a tire patch to the right shape, or a piece of leather for a repair.  I do not remember the make of my pen knife, or where I procured it, but I do remember it had a high carbon steel blade that would sharpen to a  razor's edge. The only piece missing on my old knife was a screwdriver which is included on my present one which has a stainless steel blade that will not rust. The new one is no match for the cutting ability of my old knife.

A sailors knife and has what appears to be whale markings  or images on the blade

Over the years I have collected a few decent old pen knives.  Almost a year ago I selected one similar to my old knife and decided to do some whittling and carving. I became quite good at it and it took me into a creative realm, I find it such a  peaceful pastime. I made a couple of Christmas gifts which I believe were appreciated. My son at his work uses his pen knife every day. Many years ago my son Richard and my wife Joy travelled a long distance from home en route to Savary Island (British Columbia), they soon discovered the old car they drove had a gas leak. They happened to be at a ferry dock with only ten minutes to spare before the ferry was to leave. Richard opened the hood and saw gas dripping fast from a ruptured line. Thanks to his knife he was able to cut out the bad piece of line and reconnect it. They made the ferry in time.
In some of the old hardware catalogues are pages of pen knives that were available. Many folks must have used them. Maybe in the future pen knives will make a comeback and give others the great pleasure I have experienced with them. “

These are folding pruning knives or basically pen knives

This may be a military issue, most likely navy. WWII

Knives 1 and 3 are ivory, 2 and 4 are French ivory, or celluloid, which is an early form of plastic. 
They are all pen knives

Here is a great article on pocket knives - a fun read. Please click on link to view. Thanks. Michelle 

Hail, The Mighty Pocketknife

 Knife Anatomy at

  Knife - Wikipedia

Characteristic parts of a knife - Image from Wikipedia

Parts of a knife

Modern knives consist of a blade (1) and handle (2). The blade edge can be plain or serrated or a combination of both. The handle, used to grip and manipulate the blade safely, may include the tang, a portion of the blade that extends into the handle. Knives are made with partial tangs (extending part way into the handle, known as a "Stick Tang") or full tangs (extending the full length of the handle, often visible on top and bottom). The handle can include a bolster, which is a piece of material used to balance the knife, usually brass or other metal, at the front of the handle where it meets the blade. The blade consists of (3) the point - the end of the knife used for piercing; (4) the edge - the cutting surface of the knife extending from the point to the heel; (5), the grind, the cross section shape of the blade; (6) the spine - the thickest section of the blade; (7), the fuller, the groove added to lighten the blade; (8) the ricasso, the flat section of the blade located at the junction of the blade and the knife's bolster or guard; (9) the guard, the barrier between the blade and the handle which prevents the hand from slipping forward onto the blade, and (10) the end of the handle, or butt. A choil, where the blade is unsharpened and possibly indented as it meets the handle, may be used to prevent scratches to the handle when sharpening or as a forward-finger grip. The knife's handle or butt may allow a lanyard (11) to be used to secure the knife to the wrist, or a portion of the tang to protrude as a striking surface for hitting or glass breaking.[4] Single edged knives may uitilze a reverse edge or false edge, in which the forward section of the knife's spine (opposing the sharpened edge) is thinned and left unsharpened.
 Click link here to view website

 Whittling Chips.
Chubby hands, so brown and small,
Wield the blade and scantling,
Chips, like driftlets, fly and fall,
Wasteful litter one and all,
In flakes about the bantling.
Seventy springs their seed have sown,
Still with knife and shingle
The child, a white-haired grandsire grown,
His life a dream, his memory flown,
Sits whittling by the ingle,
Yet the past held busy years,
Works of wondrous glitter,
But many a loss brought burning tears,
And many a gain regretful fears,
As best a useless litter.
And so methought the hopes and schemes
Of many a worldly witling,
When all is told, are idle dreams,
Mere chips of mortal whittling.

2nd BuyVintage Online Auction: 2012


Le Loup said...

Ah yes, the first knife. I too was fortunate that my parents trusted me at a very young age with knives & later axes.
I did not know then that a pen knife was for making quill pens, it was a name given to all jack knives.
Good post.
Regards, Keith.

Cindy said...

Such delightful tales! My brothers all had penknives and my husband, too. They were always prized possessions.
Hugs, Cindy

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