Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Woodcraft Knives, The Old, The Bad, and the Best


Before capitalism, marketing, advertising, and yes, even blogs, people seemed to manage their lives in the woods without the latest in commercial gear and minus what some have referred to as the desire to define quality in quantitative terms.

Frontiersmen, trappers, woodsmen, woods rats and a hodgepodge of hermits and nature lovers tended not to be people of endless means or limitless desires. They lived frugal lives either because it was their way or they had no other choice. Examine old woodsmen’s knives and you’ll likely be either amazed at their simplicity or dumbfounded by their fragility. “Kitchen knives” oftentimes became woodworking knives, and the idea of some dedicated “bushcraft” knife costing a month’s wages would have been as foreign to them as the idea of living with one knife, a single pair of pants or just one car is for many of us today.

The knives I’ve seen pressed into service in remote places—and somehow made to work just fine—always amazed me and would have amazed some of you as well. Tips of broken machetes were either re-hafted or simply wrapped in cloth to use for everything from preparing meat to making traps to castrating young bulls.

All knives were precious commodities and concepts like steel type, bevel grind, blade length or shape were considerations the majority of backwoods types, no matter where they lived, found too luxurious to consider seriously.

Before the steel knife came along living off the land meant using rocks, bone, teeth or sometimes glass. As kids we’d always knap a flake off a suitable rock or snap off a piece of glass from a discarded bottle to gut out everything from rabbits to deer. We carried pocket knives and invariably had a machete or axe nearby but never saw the need to smear up those items when handling game. Besides, who wanted to stain their favorite carbon steel folder?

Even so, ninety percent or more of the things we made—or saw others make—at any makeshift camp was accomplished with a machete or small axe. The small knife, whether fixed blade or folder, was a tool for dainty tasks: food preparation, fine woodcarving, or just sitting around the campfire whittling on a stick and listening to the old folks tell stories about ghosts and goblins.

And while I’ve touched on that subject let me say that the most fascinating story for those living far from television and radio (because they have no electricity) is the ghost story. Whether in the jungles or far out in the desert the locals love to talk ghosts, spirits and the unknown.

Glowing eyes appearing at night or fire emerging suddenly from a tree top or strange lights levitating off the ground are the types of stories that make their way across the globe in revolutions rivaling the internet. It would seem that when humans are not engaged in dealing with reality they love to discuss the things they cannot explain or even remotely define.

Here then are some photos of ancient and new knives, at least in my life, that emerged from the vats of oil emersion and fire to become woods tools. Some were purchased while others were made. Some were failures but others served their purpose in places where the nearest village was six to ten hours away and a doctor was at least a day’s journey beyond the closest hamlet.


 Four small knives purchased from a blacksmith who worked his trade in nearly 100 percent humidity on days with no wind and temperatures in the 90s. At least the smoke kept the mosquitoes away. Blade steel is unknown but they will strike a spark on a ferrocerium rod and seem tempered to about 56-57 Rc. Bevel ground, these knives were either sold or traded to natives living in the jungles. The maker used any wood available for the handles and usually cut a branch on the spot, drilled a hole and inserted the stick tang then painted the wood with varnish or shellac.


This knife was purchased at a market and is made from a broken machete blade. The knives were made directly behind the store, actually more of a “shack,” where the maker had hundreds of broken machete blades stacked one atop the other awaiting their turn. Machete blades, while excellent for whacking away brush and limbs, make poor small knife blades because the steels used are soft and tempered for chopping impacts. Despite their shortcomings many indigenous people use machetes for almost everything and make adequate use of the tool. I was told the rivets were made from brass cartridge cases melted and recycled. I made an exact copy of this knife but gave it to a friend.


 This was one of my earliest attempts to make a woods knife using a worn-out file. The original blade was shaped differently but over the decades the blade has been sharpened thousands of times and thus worn down. The knife fell out of its sheath and into a canyon once and was not retrieved for several weeks. It was nary the worse for ware. This knife is officially “retired.”


 Two more old woods knives: Top knife was made from a scrap piece of 1095 steel and the bottom knife from an old file. Neither knife proved suitable for woodworking and both made marginal woods knives. The top knife ended up as a kitchen knife and the bottom knife was far too thick along its spine. It did make for good baton use but overall the design was flawed and I never cared for it. I guarantee someone living in the brush or jungles would have made these knives work far better than I could.


I made this knife about 10-12 years ago and used it for a short time. Another file knife, I realized the handle was too small after I’d completed the knife. It sits in a drawer and will probably never be used for anything other than slicing apples.

So what is today’s inexpensive, reliable, and as near perfect woods knife as a person can find? Here are my two contributions to this seemingly endless debate.


Mora model 510. Most readers of this site know the Mora 510 was discontinued not long ago. But it’s not the end of the world, folks. I consider this knife a representative of a line of Mora knives, some with wooden handles others with plastic handles that essentially serve the same purpose: They work! These are not knives to baton on extremely hard wood, and perhaps the notion of whacking a knife’s spine with a club in order to split a small log isn’t exactly prudent. A small axe (mini axe) works better, and for that matter so do other things like bone or antler or the little pocket adze I wrote about in another post.


The Marttiini 571, in my opinion, has a more comfortable grip than the Mora 510. The Martiini is only a couple of dollars more expensive than the Mora. By the way, I bought my Mora 510 knife from Ragweed Forge a few years back and I bought the Martiini pictured above from Bens Backwoods. I believe the Mora 510 cost me ten dollars and the Martiini cost fourteen bucks. Not bad for a couple of knives that when coupled with my pocket adze or a machete or mini axe will get me by.

Now I’ve got to be honest here. If given my druthers I’d use a crooked knife instead of either a Mora or Martiini knife. That’s just my preference and when woodcarving or making anything at camp I nearly always use one of my crooked knives for the detail work. I’ll post a flock of crooked knife photos soon.

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