A Comprehensive Guide to Cleaning Your Pocket Knife

If a dog is a man’s best friend, then the pocket knife is his second best. These handy tools have been around for many years in one form or another, and there’s a good reason they’ve stuck around so long. Whether you’re a city-slicking everyman, a suburban craftsman, or a seasoned outdoorsman, pretty much every man in the world can benefit from having a trusty pocket knife on hand. A good pocket knife can do just about anything, from uncorking a nice bottle of red out on a romantic picnic to gutting a fish for the fire after a long day relaxing by the creek. But with all that wear and tear, even the best pocket knife can get a little roughed up.

That’s where this handy guide comes in to save the day. If your knife is a little less than squeaky clean, there’s no need to worry. Here, you’ll find everything you need to know about cleaning it up and keeping it clean in the long run. Rust, muck, and lint be-damned; if you follow the steps laid out here, you’ll soon be left with a knife that looks and feels brand new.

What You’ll Need

First things first, you’ll want to gather up a few basic pieces of kit, no matter what kind of knife you’re cleaning or what sort of condition it’s in. A bowl of warm soapy water is a must for getting started, and you should have some cloths on hand for drying your knife off too. You’ll need a brush for scratching away goop and gunk and picking out detritus from narrow areas. Q-tips and toothpicks can help remove lint and bits of dirt that are jammed inside tight mechanisms. Meanwhile, a good pair of tweezers can help extract wood splinters if you use your knife for carving, and a can of compressed air is an excellent tool to have on hand for blasting out tiny grains of dust and detritus.

Lubricant is a key piece of kit to bring along for the sake of keeping everything working smoothly and also to prevent rust. Vegetable oil will do for most knives, while WD-40 and other rust-removing lubricants are great for deeper cleans. Meanwhile, if your knife has a wooden handle, it’s a good idea to pick up some linseed oil from the hardware store to keep it polished and clean. Beyond this, if you’re restoring a really old knife, you’ll need a pin for scratching tarnish away, white vinegar for soaking off rust, and maybe even new screws if your old ones have suffered from a good deal of corrosion. And if you’re disassembling your knife at any point, you will, of course, need some specialist screwdrivers for the job – check your screw heads to find the appropriate screwdriver to match. 

Your Pocket Knife Cleaning Kit Checklist:

  • Warm soapy water
  • Stiff brush, e.g. toothbrush, Soft brush, e.g. paintbrush
  • Toothpicks, Q-tips
  • Lubricant, e.g. vegetable oil
  • For wooden handles: Linseed oil or Beeswax oil
  • For rust: White vinegar, Sandpaper, Popsicle stick

How To Clean Your Knife

Regardless of what sort of knife you own, the basic cleaning process is as follows. First off, you’re going to want to remove any surface dirt by soaking the knife in warm, soapy water, wiping away anything that comes off easily. From there, dry out the knife and open up the blade. Now, use your cleaning tools (toothpicks, tweezers, Q-tips) to remove any bits of lint or foreign objects stuck in the knife or its mechanisms. If you’re disassembling your knife, unscrew each screw and place them in a pot or cup to keep them safe. Remember, disassembling a knife will probably void its warranty, so only do this if you need to perform a deep clean, and you’re sure you can put your knife back together again afterward.

Once you’ve gotten rid of all of the exterior dirt, you can work on cleaning the metal parts of the knife. Apply some soap to a toothbrush or stiff paintbrush and gently scrub any surface dirt from the blade and joint/tool mechanisms. If you’re finding damage caused by rust, now’s the time to break out the sandpaper and popsicle stick for a rougher scrub – you’ll find some specific advice on this later in the article. After removing all of the dirt that you can, it’s time to give the knife another quick soak before drying it off with a cloth and allowing it to air dry further. 

How To Clean Your Knife

Once your knife is completely dry, you can add a few drops of lubricating oil, either with a dropper or via a soft paintbrush, to all of the metal joints of the knife. Use a food-safe lubricant like vegetable oil if you use your knife as a culinary utensil, and once finished, wipe everything down with a cloth. If your knife has a wooden handle, apply some linseed oil to it for a shiny, protective finish. 

The Role of Lubricant

You might be wondering why lubrication is such an important part of cleaning a knife. The answer lies in that almost every pocket knife uses rotating or moving mechanisms to open up. As such, oil is key to keeping everything turning smoothly. It allows for smooth opening and closing of joints while also preventing the associated damage that would otherwise occur with parts catching together or grinding on one another. Lubrication also aids in preventing rust by repelling moisture and dirt from whichever mechanisms it is applied to, ensuring your knife remains clean and works properly in the long run. After all, more rust equals more dirt caught in corroded areas, so lubrication is absolutely key to maintaining both a knife’s cleanliness and its functionality.

Cleaning Different Types of Knives

There are, of course, many different types of pocket knives, and some knives will be in much worse condition than others. So if you’re wondering how to clean a Swiss army knife or how to clean a rusty pocket knife, simply read on to find out.

How to clean a pocket knife

If you’re just looking to spruce up a regular slip-joint style pocket knife, then you’re in luck. Traditional slip joint knives are some of the easiest to clean, and you can complete the job with just the simplest of tools. Owing to their simple design, slip-joint pocket knives rarely require disassembly to clean unless they’re seriously rusty. As such, follow the guide above with none of the extra steps. That means washing the knife in soapy water, brushing and picking it clear of debris, lubricating the joints with some oil, and polishing the handle afterward if it’s made of wood.

How to clean a Swiss army pocket knife

Swiss army knives are a little more complicated to clean than slip joint knives. If they’re in decent condition, to begin with, you won’t have too much trouble, but if you’re looking to clean a dirty old Swiss army pocket knife with lots of tools, then things can get a bit trickier. Still, the basic rules apply – start with a soak in soapy water and whip out the brush and toothpicks for hard-to-reach places. Open up all your tools and clean between them, occasionally moving them back and forth to loosen up any dirt and grime that’s beginning to soften up.

Once you’ve given the knife a good once over, clean each tool individually with a brush and soapy water, keeping your toothpicks on hand for any jammed dirt. After each tool is done, rinse the knife again to remove debris and dry it with a cloth. Once dry, open up all of the tools again and apply some oil to each joint mechanism using a thin paintbrush. If the knife’s handle is made of metal, stain it with oil and wipe it down after letting it sit for a while. If it’s made of wood, apply wood oil. 

How to clean a vintage pocket knife

Pocket knives have been around a long time, and as such, you’ll find some great vintage specimens often being sold on the cheap. And while many of them might look a bit roughed up on the outside, they can be surprisingly easy to clean into a good condition. Your main enemy here is likely to be rust and corrosion, and if it’s set in deep, there’s not much you can do unless you’re a seasoned metal worker. However, if you’re only dealing with wear and tear and surface rust, you shouldn’t have too much trouble.

First off, clean up the knife as you usually would, following the corresponding method depending on whether it’s a Swiss army-style knife or a slip-joint knife. You may have to be a little more aggressive with your brushing for age-old dirt, so don’t hold back, as the metal can take quite a beating without suffering significant damage. If there’s a bit of corrosion damage, a sharp pin can be used to remove it bit by bit. Take your time with this, as you want to scratch away the corroded areas or tarnish sections, not the good metal underneath. 

When done, drop some oil into the slip joint pivot or between tool mechanisms, and wipe everything down. As many vintage knives have wooden handles, it’s a good idea to apply wood oil afterward, too, whether that’s linseed oil, beeswax oil, or whatever other wood oil you have on hand.

How to clean the inside of a pocket knife

As noted, most Swiss army knives and other complicated knives with interior mechanisms can be cleaned with thin paintbrushes and a combination of toothpicks, tweezers, and Q-tips. Compressed air is also a great tool for removing dirt you can’t reach, as it blasts a high-density jet of air throughout the knife, eroding any dust it comes across without doing any damage to the metal. This is a relatively moisture-free process, too, so you don’t have to worry about interior rusting afterward, as you might with leftover soapy water.

Sometimes, though, you won’t be able to reach the interior of a knife without disassembling it. If you suspect your knife is suffering due to interior dirt or corrosion, then read up on its manual or see if you can’t find out how it comes apart and goes back together online. If disassembly and reassembly look like a simple process, then you can, by all means, take on the task yourself with the aid of a specialist screwdriver. If, however, your knife is too complicated to take apart, such as with a multitool Swiss army knife, you can always look into sending it back to the manufacturer for maintenance. 

How to clean the inside of a pocket knife

Many knifemakers offer repair and cleaning services free of charge on an extended warranty program, and you may have access to one of these even if you’re unaware of it, so it’s always worth checking before diving into the deep end yourself. Failing these other options, you can always take your knife to a local bladesmith – most cities still have one or two – or send it off for restoration further afield. 

How to clean a rusty pocket knife

Rust might seem like the end of a pocket knife, but fear not, for all is not lost just yet. Often the rust you see on any metal is surface rust that can be easily removed with some lubricant and a good bit of brushing. WD-40 is a great choice for removing rust, so just apply some to any problem areas and let it soak in for ten to twenty minutes before scrubbing it off and rinsing. Repeat this process to remove as much rust as you can from the surface of your knife and its blade.

If some rust remains afterward, it’s time to move on to heavier methods. One great method for removing stubborn rust or rust that’s hard to reach is to wrap some sandpaper around a popsicle stick. You can use this as a rust removal tool all over your knife, or you can even swap it out for a graphite pencil when attacking rust inside tight mechanisms and narrow areas. Graphite works just like sandpaper, in this case, grinding rust away so that you can wash it out with soapy water afterward.

For more dire cases, you can always soak the knife overnight in white vinegar. This corrosive liquid will eat away at the rust without damaging the knife’s metal, so long as you remove it on time. Lemon juice is another good option for this if you’ve got less time, with a slightly less powerful 2-hour soak. Baking soda paste can achieve good results with a 1-hour soak, and even a salted potato slice can acidify some rust away in a pinch. No matter what method you choose, just remember not to soak the knife too long, as doing so could cause further corrosion and ruin the blade.

Keeping your knife clean

After you’ve spent a long time cleaning up your knife and making it look its best, the last thing you want to do is to let it fall into disrepair again. The best defence against rust and material degradation is regular maintenance, and so it’s important to clean your knife frequently and carefully. If you keep it in good condition this way, you’ll never have to resort to heavy-duty methods for rust or dirt removal, and your knife will remain operable indefinitely.

There are also many things you can do on top of regular maintenance to help keep your knife nice and clean. First off, always dry it with a cloth if it gets seriously wet, and allow it to air dry when possible too. If you keep your knife in a leather sheath, remove it when not in use to prevent moisture from transferring from the natural leather to the treated metal, as this can lead to rusting. Last but not least, make sure you keep the screws of your knife tight over time and replace them if the threads wear down and begin to lose their grip. This is because a tight screw keeps out moisture much better than a loose one, and therefore helps prevent corrosion and any subsequent rusting. 

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