Monday, 8 July 2013

A Brief History Of The Bushcraft Knife

A bit of Recycled SBW for you, I first posted this a couple of years back, and its stood the test of time quite well.

In a recent email exchange with LSP (the lone star parson) he mentioned he was feeling a little 'under knifed'.Never being one to shy away from lecturing my friends I promised him a post with some of my ideas about what really makes for that most elusive of purchases -

'The one knife to rule them all.'

First up, it's only fair that I give you a bit of background to these opinions. I've owned and traded loads of knives over the years. I'm not a collector, but I am an enthusiast and my stuff is put to hard use.

Most production knives are way over priced, and the semi-custom knives I've owned weren't finished to a high enough standard for the money. I've never been able to justify the cost of a real high end custom but I've handled a few and while there are plenty of other things to spend the money on, yes I do covet one.

'Any job is easy if you've got the right tools' As the guy with a hardware store says. But 'easy' is an entirely relative term. Your favorite might be the most cack-handed thing I've ever held. My 'utilitarian' might be your 'plasticy'. Price too has an effect on perception, 'fantastic' at $20 might be 'substandard' at $100.You need a tool that fits your hand and your requirements. There I've made it sound easy haven't I? If only.

The traditional designs have developed as responses to different environments and needs. The flex in the blade of a fish knife isn't what you need when battening firewood. The 2 mm flat ground Lekeu is a perfect tool for daily use [and sharpening] in the Birch forests of the Sub-Arctic, but something a little thicker with a convex grind suited in the Sweet Chestnut forests of southern Italy. One of your needs might be resale value. I'm more a 'wont snap if hit with brick hammer' kind of guy. Only your choice is going to give you the confidence the 'right' tool gives.

That well known outdoorsman, philosopher and blogger of this parish Mr Albert Rasch heartily recommends the Randall Model 18 Attack and Survival knife, never owned one myself, but I can remember seeing one as a lad and thinking them the mutt's nuts. The handle is hollow giving you room for firelighting kit, a few bucks, or whatever you feel should be in your mini survival kit. It's a bit 'tactical' for my current taste, but may well be just the thing if you've got a lot of hogs to impale.
Inspired by the style of the Randall, but seeking something with even more drama, the producers and props buyers of the Rambo movies helped sales of small swords with a saw back, the Rambo knife was held in high esteem for a few years in the 80's, then came the inevitable backlash. Dour Finns and Sardonic Swedes honed their cold hard stares, and cast scorn on the big knives of 'Hollywood'. Around the campfire anyone who produced a blade longer than 4 inches was mocked as an inadequate .
The Scandinavian Tradition has it that a small light blade is all you need for most jobs, practice in it's skillful use will be of more help to you than the brute force of the 'sharpened prybar'. My favorite iteration of the concept is this Desert Scandi by Todd Hill who writes Primitive Point. Todd's people came to the US from Scandinavia, he has harvested the Mesquite for the handle from the area where he lives, and smiths the blade from scrap steel from the area's disused wood mills. Links it all together rather nicely don't you think?

On the east coast of the USA: That contemporary outdoor legend Tom brown jnr had a look at the 'one knife to rule them all' conundrum and, it would appear, decided to take the 'utility creates form' approach to design. He thought of the jobs he used knives for, part saw, part hide scraper, and part tillering tool for bow making, and tried to carve all those different knives out of one piece of steel. I admit it, there was a brief infatuation, but nothing happened. Phew.
On my side of the pond: a chap called Ray Mears looked out upon the feast of 'survival knives' and sighed, his travels had led him to the campfire of one Mors Kochanski. An ingenious chap, who thought you could thrive where others sought only to survive in the boreal forests of the northern hemisphere. In his company Mr Mears had become a believer in the 'not too long, scandinavian flat grind, not too thick, just make sure its 'double bastard sharp' school of thought. After a while he commissioned a knife of his own, called it a Woodlore, pronounced it the 'perfect bushcraft knife' and a whole industry was born, with most custom makers offering a variation on the design. The last time I looked the endorsed maker was able to charge the price of a new laptop for one.

More recently a cheerful young chap called Bear Grylls was wondering how to make the TV racket pay out [a little more] so he launched a shockingly expensive 'survival knife' and kerching! I'm told he really does have people queuing up to give him £350 for one. I rather like it, but for the money? Well there's fly rods, wool camo, guide fees, wining and dining northern tarts, ammunition, that new compound bow, child support, need I go on?
Of course all this had happened before, almost exactly a hundred years before. When George Washington Sears AKA ‘Nessmuk’ was writing about the outdoor life in the 1880's.

'A word as to knife, or knives. These are of prime necessity, and should be of the best, both as to shape and temper. The "bowies" and "hunting knives" usually kept on sale, are thick, clumsy affairs, with a sort of ridge along the middle of the blade, murderous looking, but of little use; rather fitted to adorn a dime novel or the belt of "Billy the Kid," than the outfit of the hunter.'

Not being unduly impressed with what was on offer, he had a chap make one to his design and the 'Nessmuk' we know today was born. They now come in 57 varieties from the littlest 'Neckmuk" by Guy Stainthop,
Rik Plam's faithful realization of Washington-Sears' line drawings,made from an old file,

this deep ground version by Dan Koster

and you can get a sense of the idea in Chris Reeve's 'Ubejane skinner'. Which also features a hollow handle a la Randall. Chris Reeve's knives are extremely impressive, being machined from a single billet of steel. He also makes a large range of tactical styled knives, but this is the one I'd go for.
A few years after G W-S was writing the unfortunately named Mr Horace Ke-Phart was afield, and thought a simpler style would be more suitible to his needs. In the first edition of The Book of Camping and Woodcraft, he outlines his thoughts [and echoes a few others].

“On the subject of hunting knives I am tempted to be diffuse. In my green and callow days (perhaps not yet over) I tried nearly everything in the knife line from a shoemaker’s skiver to a machete, and I had knives made to order. The conventional hunting knife is, or was until quite recently, of the familiar dime-novel pattern invented by Colonel Bowie. Such a knife is too thick and clumsy to whittle with, much too thick for a good skinning knife, and too sharply pointed to cook and eat with. It is always tempered too hard. When put to the rough service for which it is supposed to be intended, as in cutting through the ossified false ribs of an old buck, it is an even bet that out will come a nick as big as a saw-tooth…. Such a knife is designed expressly for stabbing, which is about the very last thing that a woodsman ever has occasion to do, our lamented grandmothers notwithstanding."
The American Bushman owns this glorious re-creation by ML Knives.
“A camper has use for a common-sense sheath-knife, sometimes for dressing big game, but oftener for such homely work as cutting sticks, slicing bacon, and frying ’spuds.’ For such purposes a rather thin, broad-pointed blade is required, and it need not be over four or five inches long. Nothing is gained by a longer blade, and it would be in one’s way every time he sat down. Such a knife, bearing the marks of hard usage, lies before me. Its blade and handle are each 4 1/2 inches long, the blade being 1 inch wide, 1/8 inch thick on the back, broad pointed, and continued through the handle as a hasp and riveted to it. It is tempered hard enough to cut green hardwood sticks, but soft enough so that when it strikes a knot or bone it will, if anything, turn rather than nick; then a whetstone puts it in order….”
His design is still being made today. I've never owned one, but chad is a big fan of the Bark River Knife & Tool Co. version, elevating it to his list of 'things that don't suck'. Should be worth a look.
By the 1917 edition of Camping and Woodcraft Kephart had found a production knife he liked, the Marble’s Woodcraft.
“For years I used knives of my own design, because there was nothing on the market that met my notion of what a sensible, practical sheath knife should be; but we have it now …. It is of the right size (4 1/2-inch blade), the right shape, and the proper thinness.”

Back to the present day: While Mors had the temerity to be able to do it all with a $10 knife from the hardware store himself, he took the time to outline a style guide for what he thought would make the perfect bushcraft knife. One of his students used the style guide to create the Skookum Bushtool.

Basically it's a scandinavian style blade, a full tang with a sturdy pommel welded to it, the the slabs of the handle are secured by hollow rivets. Not Cheap but VERY NICE, and even though the man himself is still using the cheap jobbie from the hardware store, it establishes Mors in the firmament of outdoor writers whose knife designs will still be made a hundred years or so after they've gone to the happy hunting ground. There are alredy lots of makers doing their own 'bushtool clones' and some of them are very nice too.

What is the best shape for a knife?
Is a bit like asking who is the most beautiful woman in the world, or which is the best car for over 100K, assuming you have to good sense to buy a knife designed for the jobs you do, what speaks to you?

Serrations and gutting hooks?
The bushcrafters tend to sneer at serrations, I speculate that that's because either
A: They use mainly natural materials, serrations come into their own on man made materials.
B: They enjoy sneering at everything not used by their heroes or in their favorite book

If you're going to be cutting a lot of multi stranded ropes of man made fibres, you could do a lot worse than carry a serrated blade. Where I do agree with the bushcrafters is that most of the time knife makers put the serration's is TOTALY THE WRONG PLACE. The part of the blade nearest to the handle is bit I use most, the bit with the control needed for the delicate tasks. If cutting manmade rope is one of your requirements, carry a rope cutting folder - I'd look at Spyderco first. When you need to saw wood a Laplander is only £20 and is a far better tool for the job than a serrated back to your knife. If I wanted a gutting hook I'd have one, but it wouldn't be on my main knife, it'd be a tool in it's own right.

Steel Recycled, Tool steel or trick steels (or how often will I need to sharpen it)?
Plenty of knives will take an edge, some knives will still have most of the edge after use. Easy to sharpen, usually equals easy to blunt, on the upside a few swipes a day and your good to go. On the other foot; the extremes of skill and diligence required to sharpen the super steels are repaid in edge retention. You pays your money you takes your choice.

There is some awesome steel just lying around out there, either free or yours for the asking. Road crews will usually give you old blades from their cutting tools, old files are also excellent. Todd from Primitive Point uses nothing but found steel and makes lots of soulful knives that look as though they'd last a lifetime. I have a 'Bushwacker Bushtool' on the way and it's made by Black Rabbit from a recycled file.

At the other extreme the VG10 the lamination that Fallkniven are currently using has A LOT GOING FOR IT, on my recent trip to italy I put an F1 to the test called 'one knife for everything', I harvested and debarked burls, cut roots, shaved parmesan, sliced tomatoes, split firewood, feathered fire sticks and ate my dinner with it. After five days use, it had held enough edge to slice tomatoes in one stroke before I fried them for my pre-airport breakfast on the last day. it's taken me a long time to get even half way competent at sharpening it.

To read some people post about this you'd literally think it was a matter far more important than life and death.
I've never owned a chisel grind knife but I have used one in a kitchen, they rock for vegetables but I can't say what they're like for other uses.
Flat grinds are easy[er] to sharpen on a stone.
Convex grinds have some advantages, in terms of robustness and edge retention, but I've found learning to sharpen them a bit of a grind ;-). Here's the case for Convex made more cogently than I can write.

Currently I'm contentedly convex. Ask me again in a year.

Forged or Stock Removal?
Forged means beaten from a piece of steel that was another shape, a lot of fun/hard work at the anvil.
Stock removal means starting with a flat pice of your chosen steel and abrading away material until only the knife remains. things of great beauty and pieces of junk are made using both methods.

Handle Materials?
Um, Errrr, don't ask me. I like manmade materials for their inertness, I admire natural materials for their looks. It's that Angelina or Kate question again. Your choice will mean more to you than anything I could say.

It only seems like yesterday when you could have something really great for $100 or £50, sadly due to the current climate, those days are over, in the UK at least.

Fallkniven are now getting to be pretty expensive, you get a hell of a lot for the money, but the prices are now aproaching that of the work of the more affordable custom makers. From the custom makers you usually don't get the super trick steel, but you do get a realisation of your Knife. These are the standard all production knives should be measured against. You get what you pay for.

Here are a few of my current favorite makers. Todd and Black Rabbit aren't included as they don't actively sell their work. YET.

Wild. Out There. Recycled. This guy is truly a son of Vulcan. When you want to see forge work as high art Tai Goo's shop is where you go. Todd from Primitive Point is making a video of Tai at work forging some knives, keep a look out for it.
Off The Map Outfitters - you may know him as the blogger Backyard Bushman
He's been making knives for a while and recently seems to have hit his stride, developing quite a range of different styles. I love this shocking pink hiker but most are in more traditional handle materials. Get in there now while they're affordable.

Guy Stainthorp AKA Guy Cep
Some great work, I particularly like his 'bushcrafter' design - a little bit different to what others are doing and very well executed.
If time [on the waiting list] and money [a fair bit of it] were no object I'd be popping in to the Sheffield workshop of Stuart Mitchell for a 'stalkers set' much better, both in use and aesthetic than those silly gut-hook knives. His website just doesn't do his work justice. Use this search of British Blades to see more of his work. THE BEST.

On the subject of British Blades this link takes you to a HUGE list of custom makers from all over the world.

Some thoughts about features:
There's a current fashion for hollow rivets, so the knife can be lashed to a pole. They would have come in very handy in Italy when we'd harvested all the low hanging cherries and were under laddered. Just make sure the tubes are wide enough to clean easily.

The distill taper is surely the sign of the high end hand made knife, it means the tang is tapered away from the blade. You still get the strength of a full length tang, but the weight balance of the knife moves towards your index finger. Classy.

In summation: They all cut, some need more attention than others. You pays your money and you makes your choice. I've never found that ONE knife, but I've really enjoyed looking.

Happy Hunting
Your pal
PS For more info on Horace Kephart visit Horace Kephart: revealing and enigma Fascinating.