Welcome to Further Details, a series dedicated to ubiquitous but overlooked elements hidden on your favorite products. This week: clandestine codes that reveal origin stories.
Open your pocket knife and take a look at its blade. There's a good chance it isn't a pristine slab of steel, but rather that the area closest to the handle — an unsharpened bit called the ricasso — is etched with numbers, letters and strange words. 20CV. VG-10. Elmax. Conspiratorial treasure hunters might suggest secret codes and hidden meanings, and this time, they'd be right. Mostly.
The markings on a knife blade do indeed signify something. Typically, they appear on the side of the blade that orients the point to the left and the handle to the right; this is called the mark side (the other side is referred to as the pile side, file side or reverse side). The mark side is the traditional location of a maker's mark, also known as a touchmark, which refers back to blacksmith tradition.
As one might guess, the maker's mark is a symbol created by a craftsperson and stamped into the steel to identify his or her work. It's a signature of sorts, and artisan knife makers still use them today, while big brands place their company logo in the same spot. Depending on the brand or maker, you might also find a string of numbers near the logo, which typically refers to a particular knife's model. Together, the maker's mark and model number are invaluable in identifying knives, both vintage and recent, and thus establishing their value.
W.R. Case & Sons provides one of the best examples of a maker's mark in American knife making. Since the company began producing knives in the late 1800s, it has stamped each of its blades with its logo along with small dots and Xs. Taken together, the design of the logo and the placement of the dots and Xs identify the year in which a particular knife was produced, differentiating, for instance, one Trapper — a design the company began producing in the 1920s — from another.
The information you can glean from knife stamps doesn't stop there either. Many producers also identify the steel they used to create the knife right on the blade. If a string of numbers and letters seems inexplicable and random — no, it's not a serial number — chances are it refers to a type of steel (the three examples mentioned in the first paragraph here are all types of steel found in knives).
Steel is the core, literally and figuratively, of any knife. Not only does the type of steel a knife is made of influence how much it costs, but it also determines how resistant it is to rust, how often you'll need to sharpen it, how it'll hold up with heavy use and much more. Understanding the properties of steel and knowing a few different types can help you find the right pocket knife for your needs (check out our guide to knife steel for some Metallurgy 101).
The names of different types of steel can be codes themselves, too. Take CPM-S35VN, for example. "CPM means Crucible Particle Metallurgy," explains The James Brand's Ryan Coulter. "S, in this case, means that the steel is a true stainless, which is defined by the amount of chromium within. The 35 is the model number only and doesn't indicate performance or composition. V means Vanadium in this case, meaning that the steel has Vanadium added to it."
Now, knowing all of that takes more than an enthusiast mentality. Endless types of steels end up as knife blades, each with a different coded name. Thankfully a quick Internet search will turn up the critical information about each one, but if you begin to pay attention to those little number and letter strings near the handle, you might just start recognizing them on your own.
Editor's note: Interested in the two knives pictured on this page? Click the links below to check them out.