Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Brushland Machete

For those of us who live in the rural areas or ranches of the American Southwest or on into Mexico and Central America and amidst the jungles and savannahs of South America the one cutting tool considered the mainstay by which woodcraft or bushcraft plays out is the machete. Whether commercially manufactured or the product of a lone blacksmith’s forge the machete in all its variations and styles is the tool you simply cannot do without. With a machete you can survive assuming you have amassed the skills to acquire food, make a shelter and deliver first aid should the need arise. A pocket knife is nice and a typical bushcraft knife is even better. But neither the folder nor the small fixed blade can do what the machete will accomplish. In all my years of living close to nature whether on ranches or in isolated cabins and throughout a myriad of adventures and explorations I’ve accepted the dictum—as if literally stamped onto tempered steel—to always carry a machete. Walk into a remote village or stumble upon an encampment of native hunters or trappers and you’ll immediately notice that most of the men and boys are carrying machetes. The  average blade length hovers around 24 inches but I’ve seen blades that looked more like European swords while others were no more than about 12 inches long.

The machete is the common man’s multi-tool.  Clearing brush is but the simplest and most menial of the machete’s tasks oftentimes relegated to the lesser skilled amongst the group. Where the machete comes of age is in the hands of the accomplished woodsman who builds his bows, arrows, traps, shelter, furniture, and even creates artwork with nothing more than the long blade and perhaps a piece of bone or the odd canine tooth rummaged from a former kill. Years ago I watched a man fashion a pig trap with a worn down machete he sharpened on a rock and protected with animal fat to keep the blade from rusting in the humid climate. Before I left I gave him a new machete (I had an extra one in my boat) and in return he gave me an intricately carved walking stick. With his machete he’d cut the sapling, shaved off the bark and scraped the wood nearly mirror smooth. Then using the blade’s tip and a broken piece of glass he’d carved out a handle section that reminded me of fine checkering on a French walnut gunstock.

I have no recollection of when I first started using a machete but surely I was in grade school at the time. In the decades since I’ve probably gone through several hundred machetes and like most men who grew up with “un machete” I’ve acquired my preferences. First, I’m not enamored with ultra-long blades. They’re cumbersome for me to carry and use. My ideal blade length is about 18 inches though lately I carry shorter blades primarily for convenience. While I enjoy the lightweight blades produced by Imacasa, Hansa, Tramontina and a few others I realize the more robust or thicker blades as seen, for example, on machetes from Ontario Knife Company are more universal in all applications. But it really comes down to ones intended uses. Unless purposely making a trail (una brecha) through brush most people from the southlands use their machetes sparingly. Hunters, trappers, explorers and woods roamers aren’t keen about making a lot of noise. So they negotiate the path in an independent sort of way weaving left or right or headlong through the monte only using their machetes to slice off an aberrant sapling, cactus or vine. The object is to conserve energy and uphold the silence. The adage says, “Destroy little and preserve a lot.”

Here are some much used Ontario Knife Company machetes I’ve altered to fit my needs. The top two are known as their “military” design and blade lengths were formally 18 inches long. A few years ago I re-contoured the blade tips for reasons both aesthetic and practical. The tips as derived from the factory can catch things like wandering souls who aren’t watching where they’re walking or what the other guy is doing. Besides, I like the way they look now. The blades now measure 15 inches for the rounded tip and 15 ¼ inches for the angled tip.

This is a close up of the smaller machete from Ontario Knife Company, one of two I’ve owned since the late 1980s. Both small machetes had hand guards that I removed because those god-awful things crunched my little finger to the point of being painful. I re-contoured the blade tips to 9 5/8 inches long. Ontario Knife Co. machetes are made of 1095 steel tempered into the lower 50s Rc in order to thwart chipping when whacking stubborn wood. These, my friends, are exceptional machetes but they aren’t cheap especially when compared to some of the Latin American varieties. Because they also weigh more they can wear down the user during prolonged chopping. That’s something to keep in mind when considering your machete and its intended use.

Here are a couple of re-contoured Tramontina machetes. The one pictured on top is probably my most carried machete though lately I’ve used the lower machete on my woods roaming forays. Both machetes received my altered tip treatment and work fine for my needs: slicing away the occasional prickly pear pad or removing thorns from twigs or saplings for making impromptu bows and arrows or building camp chairs, cot frame and pot holding devices. I used the top machete to build four entire bows from rough cutting and shaping to scraping the bellies smooth into final tiller. I’ve done the same thing with a small axe so I’m not trying to imply that the machete is in any way superior to an axe. The blade length on the top machete is 10 3/16 inches and the lower machete is 9 ¼ inches.

Tramontina machetes are inexpensive and we buy them by the case. I took these two out to photograph. Both are 17 inches long with 12 inch blades. Every ranch pickup carries at least one machete; every vaquero slings a machete along with his lasso; and every ranch hand carries a machete oftentimes tucked under his belt. Ranches go through machetes like corporate types run through office paper.    

Because ranches use up machetes there are often shelves or barrels in the barn or storage room filled with ancient and worn out machetes. Periodically they’ll be hauled off to the recycling plant and sold as scrap. Or someone like me will come along and take the lot and bring them back to life. Remember a worn down machete is usually not much wider than an inch or so. But I like to anneal them, reshape them, heat treat and temper the blades then wrap the handles with parachute cord. I usually temper the blade higher than it was in its youth but that gives me an option to use the new “machete” for other tasks like gentle woodcarving. I’ve refurnished dozens of old machetes and given them to friends or family. One of my boys must have at least half a dozen at his place. The one pictured above doesn’t weigh much more than a feather and is kept tucked between the seats in my pickup. Yes, machetes make fierce fighting tools if need be and when I was a newspaper man in a former life I witnessed the outcomes of several machete fights. In a word, nasty. The small machete above measures 12 3/8 inches long and the blade measures 7 7/8 overall. The parachute cord can be unwrapped and used for other purposes if need be.

I bought this Condor golok machete about a year ago. It came sharp and is well made. Sorry folks, I just can’t bring myself to use it—at least not yet. She’s such a pretty thing.

Here’s a sneak preview of a project I hope to have completed by late summer or sooner if the Great Spirit allows. A leaf spring destined to become a parang machete. I for one can hardly wait!


  1. Brilliant machete mods, I've been after the 10" tramontina but they seem very hard to come by.

    1. I haven't seen any of those ten inch Tramontina blades either. Most of the local hardware stores have Tramontina machetes but they are usually the 24 inch models. Lots of other brands too but also in the 24 inch range.