Surgeons are not unfolding their Vics, Gerbers, Bucks, Benchmades and Spydercos when they require a sharp blade, nope, they use a scalpel. Does a scalpel blade have a place on trail?
The word scalpel is derived from the Roman ‘scallepellus‘, a similar tool to the ‘macairion‘; the first surgical scalpel, described by Hippocrates in 400BC. Early scalpels could be made of shells, bamboo or sharks teeth. Metal blades replaced these- copper, bronze and iron. Today’s blades are invariably made from high grade stainless and carbon steel.Wickedly sharp, surgical blades are disposable, being replaced on a handle as required.
Charles Russell Brand and Morgan Parker established that the process of sterilizing blades with heat also dulled them, so they developed a two piece ‘blade-handle’ design in 1915. Handles could be sterilized then fitted with a sterile new blade for each procedure. Their initials were used in the naming of the various ‘B.P. handles’. Blade compatible handles are defined by their size. Type 3 handles are the commonest and are for use with blade No’s 10, 11, 12, 15 and others. It was Morgan Parker who defined the handle and blade numbering system.
Can a scalpel blade be considered suitable for use on trail. Like so many other gear choices, it depends. These blades are very cheap, designed to be replaced rather than sharpened. They are extremely sharp and lightweight. However they have short cutting lengths, they are brittle, they are limited in their use, cannot be used in any manner for levering or prying, blades take a degree of skill and finesse to change and will bite the unwary or careless.
On 22 May 2019, Nitecore announced the release of a new product. Intended to be hung from a keychain or pack, the little NTK05 is primarily intended for occasional box opening, cutting cordage, emergency and EDC. Ensuring that a particularly sharp blade is available for these tasks, the little tool utilises a replaceable scapel blade. A small number of scalpel blades will fit this tool well- It comes fitted with a No. 11 blade, these have a long straight edge with a particularly sharp tip. No.10A blades are similar to No.11 but shorter. However Three Points of the Compass prefers the curved edge of the No.10 blades that also provide a longer blade length yet still fit the tool well. Note that the cutting edges on these blades is far shorter than most knives normally considered for use on trail or when backpacking. Is it time to properly assess requirement?
The Chinese made Nitecore NTK05 is a premium product with a price tag to suit. Manufacture is just about perfect. It is made from motor racing and aerospace grade TC4 titanium alloy. This material has a high strength to weight ratio and excellent corrosion resistance. The tools are constructed by computer, a blank stock piece of metal being CNC machined to fine tolerances in a subtractive process.
The NTK05 is 55mm in length when folded, 12mm wide at its widest point- at the keychain hanger, and just 3mm in thickness or 4.5mm across the pivot. When unfolded it is 85mm long, or 98mm with a No.11 scalpel blade fitted. The weight of this diminutive tool is remarkable- 4.4g with no blade fitted, and 4.8g with a 0.4g scalpel blade fitted. The cutting edge of scalpel blades differ. No.10 blades have a curved cutting edge 26mm long, No.10A has a 17mm straight edge blade and No 11 has a 20mm straight cutting edge length. The tool is supplied with a No.11 blade fitted, as specified by Nitecore on their packaging and advertising.
This is actually a non-locking slip joint knife, the back spring can be seen flexing when opening and closing and there is a smooth pivot action with a slight snap on both opening and closing. It is very much a two handed job to do either. It also falls within UK knife laws.
Nitecore NTK05 is probably one of the smallest and lightest folding single blade knives you can seriously consider taking on trail.
Changing a blade is the simplest of tasks, however it is a skill to be learnt. If this isn’t done correctly you will swiftly experience the primary aim of scalpel blades, it’ll slice easily through the skin of a digit without warning and my blog title becomes all too clear. You will get bloody bloody quickly!
There is another scalpel blade shape that could possibly be considered for the NTK05 though they are an imperfect fit. Round ended dermaplaning (skin exfoliation) blades were developed by Biomedic that have a safe blunt end, this shape led to them being known as ‘butter blades’. The first of these was the No.10S and the similarly shaped No.10R joined the line-up as recently as 2018. A No.10R scalpel blade weighs 0.6g and has a 20mm long cutting edge. The blunt curved end prevents cuts when jabbing. These are smaller than the No.14 scalpel blade with its long 28mm cutting edge. While these will all fit the NTK05 handle and fold sufficiently well to protect the edge, they do not close entirely. The No.14 especially folds barely enough to protect the edge of the blade.
Some blades cannot be removed from the NTK05 if the tool is completely open and no blades can come loose, be accessed or removed when the tool is closed. This is a well machined tolerance and very good safety feature.The only position in which a No.10A, No.10R or No.11 blade can be extracted or inserted is when the tool is at 45 degrees due to a v-shaped cutout in the pivot. However, No.10 scalpel blades can be inserted and extracted with the NTK05 fully open though I have not yet found this a problem in use.
I shall not attempt to explain how to correctly and safely change a scalpel blade on the Nitecore NTK05. A decent instructional film does so much better. A single blade fitted to a tool will last quite some time if infrequently used, which is often the case on trail as blades do not normally see much use. While a pair of surgical forceps or plier tips will enable a safe change of blade, it is unlikely that these will be carried on trail, in which case a pair of serrated tweezer tips will suffice if used with extreme care. Practice at home. Tweezers with fine pointed tips can not be used safely to change blades.
If you considering carrying one of these little tools you may prefer to establish exactly what it is you require from a knife on trail. If it is for whittling, making feather sticks, any form of bushcrafting or preparing wood for a fire, this tool will not handle the work. Even if just for food preparation, this tool isn’t really up to it. But question what it is you want to prepare. Spreading peanut butter on a wrap? Use the handle of your spoon. A spoon’s handle will also cut blocks of cheese and salami. Do you even require a blade for food prep? If all you want is to open the occasional package, or something sharp in case of first aid requirement, then the NTK05 might be just the thing to carry, and will save you a few grams too.
If carrying a Nitecore NTK05 as part of a day kit or for longer multi-day hikes, you could include a sealed sterile replacement blade, or multiples, in a First Aid Kit. A single sealed blade, in its sterile foil wrapping weighs 1.1g. When sealed this also means there is no loose sharp edge rattling around a kit waiting to catch out the unwary.
So, will an NTK05 suit you on your hiking adventures? First determine your needs, then consider. This incredibly light little knife will only suit specific requirments. If not, then Three Points of the Compass has looked at a few alternative knives and multi-tools that may, or may not, be more practical. Links to these can be found here.