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Knife Storage
How to Store your Collector-Grade Knives

Many questions are asked about the proper storage of knives in a collection. Here are some basic tips. If you follow these, your knives will be well cared for and last without unnecessary degradation and loss of value. Remember that in some cases, you are not just wanting to preserve your knives for the future, to give your kids, or for the sake of their value, but you may also have in your possession a piece of cutlery history, and there are responsibilities to the general public that come along with that. The tips below are more for collector knives of value than for everyday knives. Everyday knives can take a beating, all they may need is a good lubing and cleaning every now and then. For your true collector pieces, read on.

1) What do you have and how should you handle it?

You may be in possession of a fairly common collection of production knives, or you may own rare custom knives and knives that are pieces of cutlery history. If you are being a "historical shepherd," then please take care of your knives and consider following the steps outlined below. The rest of us will appreciate it. Otherwise, you should consider selling the historical knives to a collector who can provide the proper environment for their careful storage.
Some collectors don't touch their collector pieces, allowing them to age in their original state, while others clean and lube them annually to ward off rust and oxidation. Then, of course, there are those who lovingly use their collector knives. That is fine. Knives were meant to be used. It doesn't matter a whole lot which method you adopt: yearly maintenance vs. no maintenance; but keep an eye out for discoloration and rust.
The "no maintenance" argument is that the knives stay in their original pristine state, with no cleaning, silicone, or waxing to alter the original condition. Similar to how coin values drop with cleaning and any alterations to the original state, collectors should be careful how much they do to their knives to keep them in good shape. The less, the better, since the closer the knife is to original condition the more value it is to another collector.
The "yearly maintenance" argument is that knives require care to remain in mint condition. Untreated, metals may oxidize or corrode, woods may dry out, and fingerprints from handling can become etched on the blade or handles. So, in order to keep the knives in as close to original condition as possible, some collectors employ a yearly routine of light cleaning along with rust protection, lube, and conditioning of some natural materials. Keep in mind the knives may not need to be cleaned, and perhaps another light coat of wax is all they need to keep the protection layer intact. Such light care, if done carefully and properly, does not generally affect the value of the pieces, and, in fact, is done by museum curators for their own cutlery collections.

2) If I chose to perform "yearly maintenance," what should I use?

A light coat of Renaissance Wax, a mycrocrystaline wax favored by discriminating collectors and museum curators, and used by the Smithsonian, is a great choice. Some collectors use oil, but I don't recommend it since it attracts dust and dirt, and does not create a uniform layer of protection on the specimen. Silicone is OK, but silicone has some negative effects. It degrades, can react with other materials, and alters the original state of the cutlery piece more than if a coat of wax is used. If you pay attention to the environment the cutlery is stored in (see below), then maintenance is not as important, and you may even be able to skip it, and not worry about altering or scratching your collector pieces.

3) IMPORTANT: Always use white cotton gloves when handling collector pieces.

This will save you alot of trouble in the future. You would be surprised how a single fingerprint can create a major blemish on an otherwise mint-state knife. Skin acids etch metal, and a fingerprint you apply today--and may not even see--can become a permanent engraving on your knife tomorrow. Save yourself that potential problem by always handling your collector knives with white cotton gloves--available at any coin collector shop as coin collectors also understand how to preserve metals. If you buy a used knife, you may want to clean it and protect it, then handle it from then on with gloves, since you don't know if print were applied before you received it. Probably, some were, and by the time they show up it may be difficult to erase them.

4) Environment: Very Important!

Environment consists of many variables you should keep an awareness of. Smells, air quality, mildew, humidity, reactive materials, and temperature swings are some of the things to keep in mind. Below is a brief guide to making sure you have your knives in the best environment for them:

A) The Macro-Environment. The macro-environment is the larger environment the knives are kept in, like your living space, for instance. High humidity is the enemy of metal. Do not store your knives in an un-insulated garage, a basement, or an attic. The best place for them is in a space that has some temperature and humidity control, where humidity is low and there are no major fluctuations in temp. or humidity. Try to keep light, especially direct sunlight from a window, off of them. Smell the air: Is it clean? Does it smell lightly like mildew? Do you smoke? If so, take extra precautions to shield the knives from the odors in the air. You may want to use an air filter in the storage room and not smoke in there, or use cabinets that seal along with dessicants inside it so the mildew smell is minimized in the cabinet. Whatever is in the air will transfer onto your knives.

B) The Micro-Environment. The micro-environment is the immediate area around the knife. For example, the cabinet it is in and what it is sitting on. There are many storage solutions, and you want to consider your own blend of security, accessibility, showcasing, and long-term care. For the best long-term care, wood is problematic: 1) Because if it is finished you need to worry about off-gassing from the sealant or coating; 2) If it is raw it tends to attract moisture; and 3) Particularly with new construction, you need to to worry about the smell of the glue adhesive used in the joints, as well as chemical reactions between glues and sealants with knife materials. The best kind of wood case is one made from stable wood, with a cured seal, and the joints built with high-quality adhesive used sparingly. Older cabinets are better since they tend to be more stable and have off-gassed more.
Metal is better as a storage medium, since it is relatively inert. A powdercoated metal office cabinet can make a fine storage solution if you don't need to display the knives. Safes are OK, but many come with fire-protection that introduces moisture into the air in the safe. If you want to use a safe, look for one with less fire-protection, although that, of course introduces another risk.
The use of dessicants is debated. Some say they help wick moisture away from the specimen while others say they tend to attract moisture. It also depends on whether your specimen is housed in an airtight seal or in a circulating environment. That is another point of debate, with some folks opting for a sealed environment and others preferring some air exchange. I prefer air exchange myself: I don't have to worry as much about contaminants in a particular micro-climate, and it helps in the formation of patinas. Safes are generally sealed environments, so take care to notice the smell of the upholstery in the safe, and monitor moisture levels in the safe.
Lastly, consider what the knife is sitting on. Think about whether the contact between the knife material and the surface underneath it prevents air flow, whether there could be an exchange of dyes or of material, or whether the surface material has a pattern that could affect the formation of an even patina. You may want to turn the knife over periodically so that both sides age in a similar fashion. I personally think that white cotton--such as old T-shirt material--works well as a surface to lay knives on. Some folks use old cotton socks. Those work well also. Beware of display cabinets with colored foam. Make sure the foam is made with color-fast dyes that will not bleed or transfer. Low-humidity also helps control the transfer of dyes, so pay special attention in high-humidity climates, where materials and dyes are more easily transfered. The best kind of foam is inert PU foam, like ether foam. You can buy the foam separately from an online foam dealer, and re-line those questionable cases.

5) Determining Your Priorities. You should first determine your ideal combination of security, accessibility, showcasing, and long-term care. Security is how safe the knives need to be from kids, family members, house visitors, pets, and intruders. You can opt for cabinet-level protection, such as safes, to room or residence-level protection, such as lasers or alarm systems, or a combination of the two. Accessibility is how often and easily you want to access your knife collection. Do you like to look at your knives once a day, or once a month? Showcasing is whether you want to display your knives to yourself or others. Long-term care involves attention to small chemical changes that can alter your piece over time.

6) Storage Solutions. We have covered a few, like safes, metal office cabinets, and display cases. Here are a few more. Bisley makes some nice, small, metal drawer cabinets, and also sells plastic inserts for the drawers that are useful and around knife-size. Flat-files are great since they provide a heck of a lot of real estate in a relatively small amount of space. Keep in mind that knives and their boxes are not very tall, so with regular shelving (as in those metal office cabinets, unless you order extra shelves) there is alot of wasted vertical space. Flat files solve that, but are wide pieces of furniture, are generally expensive, and like the Bisley cabinets are not secure. If you are providing external security rather than cabinet security, then you may want to hunt around the office surplus places near you for cheap used metal flat file cabinets. You can also order extra shelves for your standard metal office cabinet.
As you contemplate your options, also remember the air-flow vs. air-tight debate, and where you stand with it. I like pieces that allow air exchange, but keep dust out. For the ultimate collector, Delta makes some really nice custom made-to-order metal cabinets. These are often used to house high-end paleontological collections and are museum-grade.

7) Security. I won't cover security in depth here, but you should keep it in mind. One option is where you store knives: Place of residence vs. office vs. safe deposit boxes at banks, etc. Another is choice of cabinet: Locking cabinets vs. safes, etc. Then consider the wide variety of deterrent systems, such as point-of-cabinet, point-of-room, or structure-level. Consider special equipment, and the usual other options like points of entry, alarms, lasers, monitoring services, dogs, self-protection, cameras, and fortification. You may also want to consider insuring your collection, keeping in mind the usual homeowner's or renter's policy does not cover it.

8) The threat of you and others to your collection:

It has sometimes been said that the biggest threat to your knife collection may be yourself, and other humans or pets. Be careful when you handle pieces not to drop or scratch them. Be careful showing friends, since they will often grab what they see before you can ask them not to. And kids may get into your collection and cause havoc. Needless to say, your storage solution should keep pets out. We sometimes care for collections meticulously and then forget the human element. If you show someone your collection, train them beforehand hot to touch what they see.

9) Finally, ENJOY! The whole point of collecting is to enjoy the process. Do what works for you! The above are only things to be aware of. If what gives you the most joy is to use your collector knives, and pass them around at parties, then by all means do so. The nice thing about knives is that they are generally very sturdy, and if you don't mind maintaining them, then a few hands won't harm them.

10) Innovative Solutions. I have mentioned flat file cabinets used by interior decorators and architects. If you have the room for them, and don't require special point-of-access security, they can be wonderful mediums for knife storage. I would look for metal ones over wood ones. Local office surplus warehouses may have some in good condition, or check Craigslist. The typical Office Depot or OfficeMax sells metal storage cabinets of different sizes that can be ordered with extra shelves. These have the advantage of being taller, as opposed to the wide footprint of the flat files, and can be locked with a key. Metal cabinets or flat files, assuming they are free of grease and other odors, will not offgas, and will let air pass through while keeping dust out.

Another innovative solution is to find quality wood display cases with glass tops, and mount them vertically on a wall, much like picture frames or art canvases. You can use layers of foam to press the knives against the glass, or mount the knives on pins or screws. Don't pay too much for these cases. Quality ones can be found for $40 a case.

I have seen at least one collector use a glass-topped coffee table. These are made to display collections, and some may even lock.

An innovative idea I had recently is to keep the knives in a safer, more secure area, that is less accessible, and have a digital picture frame, mounted on the cabinet or safe, that displays the collection. This method can be used to showcase your collection without having to move the actual knives, and can be a way to remember what you have if the collection is in a safe deposit box.

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