Knives have been with us for thousands of years. They have been useful for hunting, camping, and crafting, as well as for defense and offense. It is hard to imagine human beings living entirely without cutting tools. Over the years of their use and development, different types of materials have been used to create useful sheathes for knives.
A sheath is necessary to own and keep a knife safely when not in use. Traditionally, knife sheaths have been made from leather, wood, or fabric. Today, there are a number of materials in addition to wood and leather such as Kydex and ABS plastic.
The best knife sheath materials can be determined by the availability of materials, the desired size and weight, aesthetics, method of carrying, user expectations, and environmental considerations. We will explore the different materials, various use cases, and try to help you determine which knife sheath material is best for you.
How to Choose the Best Knife Sheath Material for You
Just as the best knife is usually the one you have, the best knife sheath in most cases will be the one that comes with your knife. Of course, if your knife did not come with a sheath, if you have made your own knife, or if your sheath has been damaged, you’ll need a replacement.
Carrying a knife of any length without a sheath is inadvisable. Answering a few simple questions will help us determine the best material for your knife.
The 5 Most Common & Useful Knife Sheath Materials
While there are probably as many types of materials that could be used to make a sheath as there are stars in the sky, just five common materials are used today. They are:
Durable, functional, and attractive leather may be the oldest sheath material used on earth. It can be made to be thick and rigid or soft and pliant. Often layered and stitched at the edges, it can be made to accommodate any blade thickness. Leather can offer excellent protection from the weather, especially when combined with oil and natural sealants which can help your knife endure harsh conditions.
Leather is often the most expensive sheath material. But when it is well made, it can last a lifetime, and it is one of the best materials for aesthetic purposes by far. We would recommend this plain leather sheath if you prefer leather covering your blade.
A popular material for modern, survival, and tactical knives, Kydex is extremely durable. It can be made very thin for easy storage and it can easily accommodate multiple features such as clips, lanyards, and more. It is also ideal for both excellent retention and ease of draw.
This high-impact material is made from thermoplastic resin. It is possibly the most durable sheath material available. It is as versatile as Kydex, but more difficult to work with, in a DIY kit. ABS usually comes from a factory with complex designs, logos, and advanced features.
The material of choice for traditional Japanese-style blades with fine edges and curved spines. Wood scabbards can be as ornate and beautiful as the maker intends them to be. Anyone can learn to make a wooden scabbard, but the best wooden scabbards are true works of art.
Often used on budget and surplus machetes, Cordura is inexpensive and offers the least resistance to wear. It is usually preferred for use on items that will see hard use in rough conditions or that will be stored in a garage. Cordura is generally not expected to hold up well, but the low cost makes it well worth short-lived use.
How quickly do you want to be able to draw your knife?
Whether at home, in the wild, or on the street, there is always a chance you may need to use your knife to defend yourself or another. If you anticipate this situation and want to use your knife for defense, then you should be able to access it quickly. A sheath for this purpose should be light and thin and will often feature clips or other methods of attaching the knife to your belt.
It can be hard to conceal when kept so close to hand. For that reason, you might want your sheath to look good. If however, you will keep your knife in a bag or pack, it should be securely stowed so that it does not become a hazard.
Leather has always been a popular choice for all types of knives and it looks good. Kydex and ABS are both common for fighting knives and utility knives. These plastics create slim profiles and can be made to suit almost any use case. Cordura is inexpensive, relatively flimsy, and can be a good choice for its low price.
How do you wish to carry your knife?
While all sheath materials can be made to affix to a belt, fit in a pocket, or elsewhere, the way you want to wear or stow it might affect your choice. Leather and wood are usually the bulkiest options. Kydex and ABS can be quite sleek, but belt clips for them also tend to be bulky.
How exposed to the elements will your knife be?
While unusual in this day and age, if your knife will be outdoors for extended periods, sealing it off from the elements will help you to keep it in good condition. If you expect to be outdoors for days or even just a few hours in wet conditions, then the plastic sheath materials may be a poor choice.
Unless you can seal it, an ABS or Kydex sheath will usually expose the blade to moisture. This can sometimes be better than trapping moisture in with your blade. But if you want to try to seal your sheath using rubber or beeswax, a wood or leather cover may be best.
What type of knife are we sheathing?
The shape of the knife you have can also determine the best sheath material. Blades with prominent curves, such as traditional Japanese fighting knives, are best served by a high-quality, wooden sheath. Especially fine edges can be damaged by Kydex and ABS.
Leather may be damaged by blades with aggressive grind angles. Serrated edges may also need special consideration when choosing a sheathing material.