One of the greatest perks of this job is I get to play with knives that are significantly higher-end than I would otherwise. I have always had a love of fine tools, with my prior experience being with hand-planes from Lie-Nielsen Toolworks or Lee Valley/Veritas. You can do plenty of nice woodworking with a well-tuned yet more pedestrian plane, but the synthesis between form and function makes using a higher end tool a joyful experience.
This is true for knives as well, and the Caleb White Penance hits this sweet spot. Any quality knife will cut well, but there are techniques and features that elevate the Penance into the next class of knives.
I do not usually start a review with the aesthetics of a knife, but I am making an exception for the Penance. That is because two of the most noticeable design elements have an underlying function.
The first feature is the Penance’s hamon line. For those unfamiliar with this Japanese blademaking technique, a hamon line is created when a coating of clay is added to the blade’s spine prior to heat treating. This keeps the spine significant;y cooler than the edge, leaving it consequently softer. Not only does this differential heat-treatment affect the knife’s performance by giving it a hard edge and some shock absorption from the spine. It also leaves behind the hamon line which looks cool and is like a fingerprint – unique to each knife.
The other design feature that sets the Penance apart is the taper of the tang. This give the blade a cigar shape from the spine-view that provides a nice symmetry with the taper of the blade portion, but also lightens the tang improving the balance of the knife. The Wilmont Wharny acheives this balance through skeletonizing the tang. The Penance does it with style.
Contrast these features with a simple stock-removal process blade where a bar is just cut and ground to shape and you can begin to understand what separates a custom forged knife from its production brethren. With the requisite increase in price of course.
Diving into the other construction features, the Penance comes with your choice of Micarta, G10, or ironwood scales. In addition to the 1095 carbon steel version I tested, the Penance is available in A2 steel though this model lacks the hamon line of the carbon blade.
The blade itself has a full grind and leaf-point design. It is 3.25″ long with an overall length of 8.25″. It is 3/16′ thick at the widest point of the “cigar”. There is a sizable choil, though it is just barely too small for me to feel comfortable not slicing my finger on the back portion of the blade. It is attractive, but not truly functional for all but very fine work. There is a squared off portion opposite the choil that is suitable for scraping a ferro rod before the convex taper begins.
The aesthetics of the Penance disguise what is actually a quite robust knife. The tip is well supported by both the thickness and height of the blade. You could certainly damage the point if you tried, but it is strong enough to bust a walnut board into kindling, even working around a significant knot.
There is a wonderfully ergonomic palm swell to the handle. To put it plainly, the Penance feels good in the hand. The center of balance is just aft of the hilt, allowing nimble use.
I have never used a knife with scales of polished micarta. I was skeptical, as I was worried that this would lead to diminished gripiness. I needn’t have worried as even polished micarta becomes gripier when wet, and the palm swell comfortably holds the knife in proper position.
There are three sheath options for the Penance. Two leather, a pouch and a “scout” model, as well as the Kydex version I tested. There is terrific positive retention of the knife. In fact it was too much initially, though a summer of use broke it in to the point where it draws and returns nicely with an audible snap.
The TekLok buckle can be adjusted for angle and will easily clip to MOLLE gear or a belt. I opted for an off-side (left) hip carry position, as is my preference. I leave the knife in a vertical orientation, but my wading belt twists slightly, so there is an angle to the draw.
I really like how the Penance rides fairly high on the belt. While the dangling sheath of my Mora is not a problem when I am wade fishing, it gets in the way while sitting in a drift boat. It is also more comfortable getting into and out of a car. In fact, it rides high and comfortably enough that it is a fixed blade that I would recommend for EDC use, even in a vertical sheath position.
I carried it openly on several occasions and never noticed a sideways glance in knife-friendly East Tennessee. If I ever wanted to be discrete, such as picking my son up from preschool, the knife rides high enough that an untucked shirt hides it well.
The Penance was a solid performer through the TTAK battery of tests. The edge sliced ribbons of newsprint. The blade is not ideal for cardboard, as this test favors thin blades of high HRC steels. The Penance gave it a game shot, making it through 125′ or so before tears appeared.
With its relatively short and plain edged blade, the Penance does not excel at rope slicing. Above is a single slash, which does little to the 1″ manila rope. It took 5 slow draws of the blade to completely part it.
I spent a lot of time culinary testing the Penance. Both because it works well, but also because it is a very photogenic knife. I took a lot of pictures for our Instagram page.
I canned a lot of salsa this summer. I documented this in a post earlier this year. I used the Caleb White Penance for one 8-pint canning session, which meant breaking down about 7 cups of tomatoes and the corresponding amount of onions, garlic, and peppers.
I also used it for a batch of curry, as well as for making pickles. The flat grind tracked well through the cucumbers.
While it is considerably thicker than a paring knife, the Penance can hold its own in a culinary setting. The only task it seemed to stuggle with was peeling and slicing an apple. It did an acceptable job for snack use, but its thicker blade wedged a bit and it wasn’t a great peeler. There are knives that leave cleaner results.
Lets face it, you probably aren’t going to take this knife with you in a survival situation. That isn’t its niche. But it is feasible that it might be used out of convenience if it were your everyday knife and you needed to break up some kindling or similar. The Penance is a robust enough knife to do an acceptable job on smaller piece of wood.
The squared portion on the spine opposite the choil has a sharp enough corners to scrape a ferro rod. I did it once to prove I can, but this has a tendency to leave marks on the blade so I didn’t actually build a fire, though the Penance could toss sparks with the best of them.
Ratings: (Out of 5 stars)
(I’d give it 6 if I could)
After my Damscus Kim Breed, the Penance is the most beautiful knife in my collection. I simply cannot overstate how much I admire the form and craftsmanship in this knife. The fit and finish are incredible. There is no perceptible ridge between the scales and the tang. An absolutely smooth transition.
Caleb has a cool maker’s mark as well.
The blade shape is not ideal for all tasks and the 1095 steel isn’t the most amazing in terms of performance. The artistry of the hamon line and the precision of the grind make up for this in that it is flawless execution of the maker’s vision.
It is a wonderful knife to hold. It is nimble in the hand with great balance and a comfortable palm swell. Only the choil dings an otherwise 5 star rating.
I admit that I didn’t go out of my way to abuse this knife. But I did subject it to all common tasks that my knives face in the course of guiding. I carried it for probably 2 dozen trips to the river while guiding. It met my expectations for every task I put it to, and shows no damage and minimal scratching in the blade.
It is carbon steel, and if you live in a humid area or use the knife around water, you are going to need to take care of it. I recommend Froglube. You can read more about how froglube saved my butt when I forgot to remove the knife from my waders for a couple of weeks.
If you take care of the Penance, and don’t set out to kill it, it should serve you well for a generation or more.
If the Penance were not constructed with its beautiful styling it would be a solid 4 star/80% knife. Add in these artistic details and the knife reaches the superlative 90% mark.
It is a jack of all trades, good for EDC use. Despite its beauty, its solid construction is enough for one to not be afraid to actually use the knife.
A great melding of form and function.
The Penance is what I would call a “Gentleman’s Fixed-blade”. It isn’t a cheap knife. It is meant for someone who appreciates a fine tool. I imagine the Penance would be the perfect EDC for a Montana rancher who would wear it into the local diner for breakfast before heading out for his days work.
Caleb gave me the Penance at Blade for use as a testing loaner. However as time has passed, Caleb generously informed me that the Penance is mine to keep. I am extremely grateful, as it brings me great pleasure to wear and use this knife.
- Overall Length: 8.25″
- Blade Legnth: 3.25″
- Steel: 1095, diferentially treated. Also available in A2
- Micarta Scales
- Tang: Full, tapered
- MSRP $375
- Country of Origin: USA