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The Role Ergonomics Plays in Premium Knife Handles

Were you aware that the term “ergonomics” encompasses more than just how easy it is to use something? Were you to conduct an informal survey of those around you, most would probably think of it as a marketing adjective or a way to say that something is comfy or feels good when used. In truth, though, ergonomics is its own scientific discipline, a whole field of study with its concomitant experts, advocacy groups, and professional literature. As the International Ergonomics Association (IEA) explains, “The word ergonomics — ‘the science of work’ — is derived from the Greek ergon (work) and nomos (laws). … The definition of ergonomics (or human factors) adopted by the IEA in 2000 is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data, and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.”

That doesn’t sound particularly related to knives, does it? Well, don’t jump the proverbial gun just yet. As we will show in this article, ergonomics has just as much to do with premium OTFs and other kinds of blades as it does factories, farmworkers, and office-bound financiers.

Why Does Ergonomics Matter for the Average Knife User?

For most of us, two of the three areas in which organizations such as IEA specialize won’t have much of an impact. Cognitive ergonomics (defined as being “concerned with mental processes, such as perception, memory, reasoning, and motor response”) and organizational ergonomics (defined as being “concerned with the optimization of sociotechnical systems”) don’t have much to do with blades designed for bushcraft, self-defense, or even just breaking down cardboard boxes. But consider the final area, that of physical ergonomics, which is “concerned with human anatomical, anthropometric, physiological and biomechanical characteristics as they relate to physical activity.” That most definitely has an impact when it comes to using a knife — in more ways than one.

Just like many sorts of devices and disciplines, knives have their own hidden complexities, certain technicalities that aren’t immediately apparent unless you have put in a lot of time with them. This is doubly true when it comes to the different kinds of work you can do with a blade. “Different kinds of work?” you may ask. “Aren’t they simply supposed to cut?” Well, yes and no. Knives do cut, but the ways in which they do so and the pressures they put on one’s body can vary substantially.

The industry magazine Blade provides four examples of how this works in its article on knife ergonomics, and these examples roughly correspond to the main sorts of strain using a knife might place on a person. “First are the simple everyday cutting chores, better known as ‘everyday carry’ stuff. Open a package, cut a string, peel an apple, it’s just EDC. You think any tool with a sharp edge will do—and you’re right; second is where you must open 500 cardboard boxes or a similar job that takes some degree of force and puts a lot of stress on your hand; third is where you slice 10,000 tomatoes. … [I]n eight hours of doing that your hand might actually get some permanent damage. Yes, permanent; fourth is an oft-used example and the pinnacle of all scenarios: defending your life.”

Before we get into the technicalities of these different scenarios, we need to acknowledge an evident axiom: The “right” type of ergonomics for your knife will depend on its intended use case.

Some General Ergonomic Principles

Despite that truism, we can still draw some general ergonomic principles from the way in which the human hand works. At least half of our examples above focused on the challenges of doing a simple task again and again for an extended period. Simply put, the human body needs some special accommodations when attempting these sorts of jobs, and not just when using something with your hand. There is a whole raft of concomitant disorders that can develop when you employ your arms or shoulders or knees or elbows in the same way day after day after day. Strains. Sprains. Tendinitis. Carpal tunnel syndrome. Osgood-Schlatter disease. De Quervain’s tenosynovitis. Even nerve damage. All of these are conditions that you’d want to avoid.

So how do avoid them? We’ll explain greater specifics more in the next section, but some principles apply in every situation. Hand surgeon and knife maker Kyle Ver Steeg explained in Knife News how the human hand is naturally curved and any design elements in a knife handle that fight against those curves will end up causing problems. “Even if you lay your hand flat on a table, there’s still a curve to it,” Ver Steeg noted. “The problem is your hand is going to have to compensate for that angle if you’re using it all day every day. You’re limiting how long you’re going to be able to use the knife under prolonged use.” He also highlights how uncomfortable handles can cause mental strain in addition to physical strain, which may lead to accidental cuts — or just plain accidents.

Ver Steeg suggests avoiding several things no matter the kind of knife you’re using. Extreme geometrical shapes and harsh angles will naturally clash with the hand’s design, causing discomfort and fatigue even over short periods of use. Grooved finger rests also impact one’s grip since they prevent a user from holding the handle as hard as possible, because a significant amount of grip strength comes from the digits clenching together under pressure. Additionally, Ver Steeg points to research published in The Canadian Journal of Plastic Surgeryshowing that grip potency is directly related to the pressure exhibited by the ring and pinkie fingers, which caused him to draw the conclusion that too short knife handles are problematic. So in general, short-handled knives with finger grooves and sharp edges are blades one should generally avoid.

Specific Ergonomic Points for Specific Types of Knives

Now let’s put the proverbial pieces together and see what specific sorts of things you should look for when using specific types of knives in the four general types of categories listed above. Let’s start with …

Ergonomics and EDC Knives

When you think about it, EDC is something of a nebulous term. “Everyday carry” simply indicates that these knives are the sorts that you bring with you wherever you go, whether that be when you’re at work or shopping or at the gym or putting around in the garden. As a precise descriptor, EDC doesn’t do anyone any favors, but as a way of communicating a general idea, it excels. The EDC knife is supposed to be a jack of all trades and master of none, coming in at a pinch in pretty much any situation. While you wouldn’t want to employ one to carve a cathedral altar, chop down a tree, or perform open-heart surgery, an EDC will do passably well at whittling a stick, pruning a plant, or (in an emergency) performing a tracheotomy. Also, you wouldn’t typically end up using an EDC knife for an extended period of time.

This last point is why the Blade article noted that even uncomfortably styled knives can serve passably well as EDCs. However, we would urge you to remember the ergonomic essentials that we mentioned previously, no matter how little you plan on putting a blade to the test. Yes, a rarely used knife with poor ergonomics may not put you in significant discomfort. However, it still pays to make sure that it isn’t too short, too boxy, or with a handle too oddly broken off to allow your fingers to squeeze together while gripping.

Ergonomics and Knives Used for Forceful, Repetitive Work

Let’s go back to knives that need to open hundreds of boxes or knives that need to eke out a campsite in the middle of the wilderness. To work effectively, these knives should hold an edge, resist rust, and have a handle that adequately protects one’s hand. Practically speaking, you ought to look for handles with very subtle finger grooves (more like dips in the material, really) and a gently swelling middle that rises to meet the palm. Perfectly flat lines will only cause pain. Also, consider looking for a handle material that maximizes comfort, such as G-10 or wood. Many kinds of metal may become slippery if not properly textured and may conduct heat or cold directly into your hand. Another important element is the length of the handle, and that will vary from person to person. Ensure that it is long enough to accommodate all of your fingers.

Ergonomics and Knives Used for Delicate, Repetitive Work

Sometimes repetitive work requires more dexterity rather than force. The most common kind of knife that fits into this category is the food-preparation knife, although blades intended for whittling should share some similarities. This sort of work is rife with risk for injury, as a article published in Iowa State University’s 2018 Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Conference Proceedings and Posters notes. For example, the article cited statistics related to the meatpacking industry, “where the risk of cumulative trauma is 30 times greater than the average for all other industries.”

In order to ensure that a knife can perform fine work over and over again, look for a dip near the heel of the handle, which will facilitate greater control. Weight is an important factor, too. If it’s too heavy, it may cause users to tire quickly and to not be able to successfully conduct their required tasks. You will also want to carefully consider the way in which the handle has been assembled. Some knife makers fasten their handles with rivets that protrude through the tang. This allows for maximum stability. If you discover that a manufacturer has used adhesive or some other method of affixing the handle. consider looking elsewhere. Steady use may cause the handle to begin to slip.

Ergonomics and Knives Used for Self-Defense

The ergonomics equation changes quite a bit when we consider knives employed to save one’s life. Unlike the other tasks we’ve mentioned, the amount of time during which a self-defense knife gets used is measured in seconds rather than hours. You don’t need extended comfort when confronted by an assailant who wants your wallet, your life, or both. Instead, you need a knife with a handle that allows for the strongest grip possible.

What does this mean in ergonomic terms? The ideal fighting knife is one that will accommodate all of your fingers and have adequate contouring to ensure that you don’t lose it when striking. Handle diameter also matters. Indeed, it is something of a dance between maximizing palm contact and ensuring that the thumb and fingers can continue to overlap. For peak grip strength, a handle diameter of one-and-a-half inches is an ideal starting place.

However, palms and digits vary in size, length, and area, so the best way to get a feel for these sorts of elements is to literally place a knife in your hand prior to purchasing. Here at TACKCOM, we offer top-quality luxury OTFs and a generous return policy. If a knife you have ordered is unused and in its original packaging, you have 30 days to send it back for a refund. So try our small-batch OTFs and learn why we offer a lifetime warranty on all of them.

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