Efficiency In Tool Selection: A Method

Over my years of edged tool use, experimentation, and study, I’ve tried all sorts of items of widely different quality, price, and features. I’m often asked to weigh in on matching a user to a particular tool, and while I’ve often referenced my methodology of tool selection in the process of this match-making process I haven’t written it down formally until now. While this is a “living process” that will continue to see further tweaking and refinement over time, I think it will serve as a handy reference for others, and it’s about time I put it all down in words. 

Note that while this method is written with edged tools as the specific focus, the method may be extended equally to most other forms of gear.

Step 1: Defining Your Purpose

The very first stage in selecting the right tool for your purposes is to very clearly identify and define those purposes. What do you want the tool to do? Note that this can even be so superficial a reason as needing to “scratch the buying itch” to a very wide range of diverse and specific tasks. For instance, do you plan on using the knife or tool for slicing? For carving wood? Food preparation? Batoning? Chopping? Do you need all of the functions in one tool, or can they be spread out amongst two or more? If “scratching the itch” what functional gaps do you have in your present arsenal? It may help to write these tasks down as you think about the situations you might face either on purpose or by happenstance when using the tool.

Once those tasks have been identified, it’s time to put them in prioritized order. Think how frequently you’ll be performing each of those tasks, and number them in order of importance. Since different tasks may have conflicting requirements, this will help you determine how much weight to give each task when attempting to balance between them to establish an optimum compromise.

Lastly, consider the environments you’ll be using the tool in. How are you getting the tool there? How are you storing it? Is it for use around the home, or are you carrying it on extended backpacking trip with a lot of other gear? This will help you narrow in on the ideal balance between function and ease of portability/storage. 

Step 2: Translating Functions Into Features

The next step is to take each of those tasks and to translate it into features that provide the benefits you’re looking for. Don’t worry yet if some of those characteristics are in direct opposition to one another–take each task individually. For instance, if you plan on skinning large game, a lot of belly to the edge is usually desirable for making long sweeping cuts. If cutting root vegetables like carrots or potatoes a very thin blade is desirable for gliding through the resistant and easily fractured material. For drilling, a centered point that isn’t too delicate is of benefit. If prying, lateral stiffness and toughness are both required. If chopping or batoning, shock resistance must be given consideration. For detailed or precision work a shorter blade and/or a very fine point are often useful. Write down as many specifications as you can think of for each task or purpose. 

Do the same for your environmental concerns. Is bigger or smaller better? Heavier or lighter? Is a sheath or edge cover required? If so, what should it be made of and why? What kind of retention method? Carry method?

Step 3: Balancing Your Antipodes

This is where things really start to take shape. Go through your list of features and find any criteria that oppose each other and rewrite them in antipodes (an-TIP-oh-dees) or paired opposites, with the prioritized one of the two listed first. These pairs are your “neither too this, nor too that” groupings and you must consider how to appropriately balance between the two aspects. Each of these antipodes gets 10 “points” you can divide between the two opposing qualities. Assign these points to the pairs in a way that best represents your needs out of the tool and you’ll know the approximate amount of emphasis that each aspect will receive. For instance, you may be looking for a chopping tool for ultralight backpacking, which will result in at least two antipodes: light/heavy and long/short. You may decide that light overall weight is more important than the advantage in use given by greater weight, and choose a 7:3 balance in that respect, choosing to gain back some chopping power by increasing length a little at the expense of the tool being less easy to pack, selecting a 6:4 balance for that pair. 

Step 4: Interpret Your Results

Once you’re finished balancing your antipodes, look over your results and try to think of what a tool that meets all of your criteria would look like. If it helps, try reading the criteria aloud as if describing it to someone else. For instance, based on the limited criteria provided as an example in Step 3 above, we might be looking at something like a long handled lightweight tomahawk. If other criteria were added, like the ability to clear vegetation and brush, the description might more resemble a tip-weighted machete. Once you’ve formed a mental image of the sort of tool you’re looking for (or drawn a sketch if you prefer) we’re ready for the next step.

Step 5: Price vs. Performance

Now that you know what you’re looking for as your ideal, consider what you’re willing or able to spend. Are you able to spring for a top-of-the-line custom that exactly meets your criteria, or do you need/want to look at standard commercial production models? With as many, many knives and tools as there are on the market today, chances are you can find a tool “off the shelf” that fits your purposes nicely. By carefully considering and referencing your list of prioritized criteria you may establish how best to maximize your performance per dollar spent. As with all expenses, there is a point of diminishing returns where each unit of increased performance begins to cost more and more, giving you less and less benefit. In a performance-optimized purchase every area of your criteria will be brought, in weighted proportion, as close to the point of diminishing returns as possible before any excess funds are spent on non-critical features. 

Imagine, if you will, that much like in Step 3 you are assigning points to criteria of the tool. However, this time around you have to buy those points with dollars. In a given area of performance, the points per dollar will actually increase as you buy them–such as the first dollar buying you 1 point in that category, the next dollar spent in that category earning you 3 points, etc. until the points per dollar equalizes and then begins to diminish. That tipping point is your point of diminishing returns. Naturally your overall performance will therefore be very low if you sink all of your points into a single category and neglect others. However, if buying a non-custom tool, all of these points are already assigned for you and the total cost of those points is reflected in the purchase price. If buying a custom tool, by contrast, each point costs more because you are paying a premium for the privilege of being able to assign the points yourself with greater specificity. Research your options with diligence–the more choices you uncover the easier a time you will have in deciding on the best tool to purchase. 

Step 6: Post-Purchase Reflection 

The final step of the process. In spite of the fact that you have now purchased a tool, it must be acknowledged that this choice was made using your best judgment and experience at that one snapshot in time. Upon receipt of the tool, pay attention to how it functions for the intended tasks to either confirm or contradict the forecast you made of the tool’s performance. Depending on the tool there may be some learning curve involved, so reserve final judgment until you have become well familiar with it. Consciously think of how the balance of features could be further improved for your purposes. This information will add to your experiences and observations, allowing you to make better and more accurate forecasts in future purchases.

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