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My younger brother (14 years old) has recently expressed interest in joining my outdoor escapades (hiking, camping, backpacking, etc). As part of this interest, he has asked me to teach him how to correctly use a knife for various tasks. I'm alright with teaching him some of the basics, but would like him to figure it out for himself while reinforcing safe habits and correct technique.

What are some simple tasks and activities that teach knife safety and proper technique? I am interested in information regarding fixed-blade knives, but welcome answers including information regarding folding knives.

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As a kid we often went on hiking trips and I got my first knife when I was around eight to ten years old. Below are some of the things my parents looked out for when I was a child. Obviously this is addressed at an even younger age than OP described, so you might have to adapt it accordingly...

General advice

  • For beginners either get a fixed blade, or one with a sturdy lock - not one that freely folds together (e.g. not a Swiss Army Knife). A good example would be: Opinel kids - My first Opinel

  • If you chose a folding knife, first teach how to safely open and close it and how the lock works. And obviously you should only use it properly locked.

  • Never use a knife when standing on uneven footing (i.e. some slippery tree trunk) or in a moving vehicle.

  • Teach beginners to always work the knife away from their body. Whether cutting fruit, carving wood, ... --> never cut towards you or your extremities. That way if you slip you're far less likely to cut yourself.

  • Also teach a beginner to always cut away from other people. For the same reason as above really.

  • For kids it can be a good idea to get a knife with a blunted point: using the point effectively requires a lot of skill, and at the same time a knife without a sharp point is really a lot safer. Btw, if you can't find a suitable knife with blunted point it is quite easy to grind it blunt yourself using any file.

Less about safety, but still valuable advice when dealing with kids:

  • Choose bright colors so the knife can easily be spotted when it's lying around.
  • Put the knife on a cord or chain that attaches too the belt (or similar) to avoid loss.

Activities/Techniques

  • Cutting a branch of green wood (where appropriate of course). Teaches efficient cutting techniques.
  • Peeling the stick. Teaches control of the angle of the edge and cutting away from the body.
  • Sharpening the stick (to roast sausages/marshmallows/...). Teaches about controlling the blade in relation to the wood you are cutting.
  • Advanced: Carving patterns (e.g. rings/dots) into the stick (or into a stick which still has its bark). Teaches detailed control of edge and/or tip.

Generally I'd try to find some kind of useful 'project' that involves knife work and just try and do it together with whomever you're trying to teach. Examples that come to mind: make a simple bow & arrow, make a walking stick/spear, build some small shelter, build a rack that allows you to suspend a grill/kettle for outdoor cooking.

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    Opinel has a nice collection of blunted point knives for children: opinel.com/en/pocket-knives-and-tools/kids-my-first-opinel – Akabelle Jul 8 '15 at 8:14
  • @Akabelle: Those might be a good option, or a normal Opinel might do as well. It would perfectly fit the "sturdy lock" requirement. – anderas Jul 8 '15 at 8:31
  • Hehe, my very first knife was an Opinel which my father had grinded the tip blunt... Back in the day the kids version did not exist yet, but good to see it does now. :) – fgysin Jul 8 '15 at 8:34
  • The tip would be my only reason to hesitate a bit. It is really useful (and basically the point I pay most attention to when sharpening the knife), but it could be kind of dangerous. E.g. I once hurt my finger a bit when I didn't notice that the lock opened while the knife was in my pocket... But I guess this is getting off-topic... – anderas Jul 8 '15 at 8:39
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    and back to the Opinel kids series: bright color is useful to find them in the grass :) – Akabelle Jul 8 '15 at 8:49
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This answer is going into a slightly different direction than fgysin's one since I just noticed that your question is about activities, not technique itself.

My suggestions might be obvious to some, but this is what I would teach (and how I learned handling knives):

  • making a "spear" (or improvised trekking pole, if you prefer) from sticks, i.e. remove the bark, make it pointy -> Especially useful to teach correctly handling hard(ish) materials, cutting away from one's body etc..
  • other kinds of simple wood carving
  • cutting food when cooking. This might be especially obvious, but arguably one of the most useful things to do with a knive.

Apart from that, if he asks you for specific tasks, just show him how to do them. And keep a look on him, to correct mistakes and tell him if he does something wrong/dangerous.

  • Should I remove this answer, now that most of the points are incorporated in fgysin's answer? Or leave it, since it already attracted some upvotes? – anderas Jul 8 '15 at 14:48
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    I say leave it. This answer has its own merits. – Zach L Jul 8 '15 at 15:47
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I have always like the way they thought knife safety in Cub Scouts. It is called the Whittling Chip. Here is a link to the description: http://meritbadge.org/wiki/index.php/Whittling_Chip_Course You would be amazed on how much the kids love the quiz portion: Knife Safety Quiz

Part I: Circle the correct answer

  • True / False 1. A knife is NOT a toy.
  • True / False 2. A dull knife is safer than a sharp knife.
  • True / False 3. Dirt on a knife blade helps keep it sharp.
  • True / False 4. Never carve your initials on anything that does NOT belong to you.
  • True / False 5. When someone hands you a knife you say “Thank You” to show good manners.
  • True / False 6. A knife is handy for cutting bark off trees.
  • True / False 7. A pocketknife should always be closed when it is not in use.
  • True / False 8. It's okay to keep your knife wet.
  • True / False 9. A Cub Scout can take his knife to a pack meeting at the school if school is out.
  • True / False 10. You should carry your open knife in your pocket.
  • True / False 11. You should close the blade with the palm of your hand
  • True / False 12. A Cub Scout should carry a fixed blade knife if it is kept in a sheath.

Part II: Fill in the blank

  • Close the blade with the ________________ of your hand.
  • A __________________ should never be used on something that will dull or break it.
  • People watching you work with your knife should not enter your __________ __________.
  • Your knife should always be kept ___________ and _________.
  • Scissors should be handled with the same safety rules as a ____________.
  • Always ________ when carrying a knife or scissors.

Part III: Circle the correct answer

  • Always keep your knife ( dry / wet ) so it will not rust.
  • When using a knife, do not make ( big / little ) shavings or chips.
  • A ( dull / sharp ) knife is more likely to cut you.
  • A Cub Scout ( can / cannot ) take his knife to a den meeting at school if it is held outside.
  • A knife should be cleaned ( before / after ) cutting food.
  • A fixed blade knife or scissors should be passed to another person ( blade / handle ) first.

The Pocketknife Pledge (fill in the blanks)

  • I understand the reason for ________________________________________ rules.
  • I will treat my pocketknife with the ______________________________ due a useful tool.
  • I will always __________________________ my pocketknife and put it away when not in use.
  • I will not use my pocketknife when it might _______________________ someone near me.
  • I ______________________________ never to throw my pocketknife for any reason.
  • I will use my pocketknife in a safe manner at ________________________times.

Choices: Close Respect Injure Promise All Safety

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You got plenty of good tips already.

I am an Opinel user myself (everyday, not only when hiking); I use it to cut food, open envelopes, fish insects out of my drink, replace dull pizza knifes in a restaurant and whatever else you can think about. What I did with my kids was this:

When they were very young (like 5-7 or so) they were allowed to handle the knife, but I made it an act of importance. I.e., I would not just throw it over to them and let them do their thing. I would hand it to them slowly, while looking at them steadily and talking earnestly. I very much made it an "adult" thing for them.

They would very consciously be allowed to study the knife, open the lock, unflip the blade. I would encourage them to touch all parts of the blade (by showing more than telling, of course). The small pain when putting the tip to skin (without drawing blood, obviously) and the resistance when moving a fingernail across (not along, obviously) the edge. Folding the blade back in.

From there on, they were allowed to do stuff with the knife; maybe cut an apple or some meat etc. on a "need to do" base (i.e., not playfully). As my knifes are very sharp indeed, I would closely watch and guide them.

At any time, it was completely clear that they were never allowed to take the knife without me actively giving it tothem. Not because I said so, but because it was my property, and not a shared item (like you would have with any random bread knife).

With this approach, you do know at every stage whether your child is ready or not, and it is very safe.

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