Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Camp Knives…To Be or Not To Be

No other item used in bushcraft (woodcraft) gets as much attention as the knife.  Some devotees even list specific dimensions for what they consider a bona fide bushcraft or camp knife.  For example, the blade’s length should be the width of one’s hand with the handle of equal size.  The spine should run in a straight line to the rear of the knife, and the tang must extend to the end of the handle.  Carbon steel is favored over stainless and the grind is preferably the Scandinavian single bevel.  In addition the blade must be robust so it can be pounded (batoned) to split wood.  These requirements have spawned an industry of “bushcraft” knife-makers who dutifully shape their blades to these predetermined, if otherwise contrived, requisites.  Market infiltration with its correspondent push to purchase has likewise hatched a catalog of bushcraft “must-haves” that further attenuate the woodsman’s philosophy.  Perhaps you’ve seen the woodcrafter who arrives in camp—like an overburdened burro—carrying a trunk-like backpack into which he disappears to extract all sorts of gadgets from an expensive small forest ax to a high dollar techno stove.

But venture beyond the industrialized world to places where bushcraft is no longer a hobby but a necessity and you’ll be hard pressed to find any sort of knife other than what might be acquired at the corner store.  In some places this amounts to a machete and maybe a pocket knife.  Detailed woodcarving is relegated to the folder and heavier work is accomplished via the machete, parang or golok.  I should note, as I’ve done in the past, that experienced woods people are not prone to chop, chop, chop for the fun of chop, chop, chopping.  They are masters at energy conservation and more often than not go around or under a bush, branch or stalk instead of whacking it in two.  You’ll know the neophytes by their behavior with a machete or ax.  Newcomers like to whack and whack.  Experienced woods people walk silently and slice things only now and then.

Woodcraft cutting tools have traditionally come as a trio.  Perhaps you’ve heard of the “Nessmuk trio” recommended by a man named George W. Sears who gave himself the penname Nessmuk and who wrote the book, Woodcraft in 1884.  Mr. Sears is known not only for his recommendations of what to carry on a wilderness trek but also by his philosophy of frugality and perseverance.  Sears was about 5’3” tall and of slight build weighing a tad over 100 pounds.  What holds me in awe of Nessmuk is not his woodcraft knowledge but his doggedness.  Did you know that at the age of 62, suffering from tuberculosis and asthma, he trekked 266 miles (428 km) in the Adirondacks carrying a light pack?

But let’s get back to camp knives.  Nessmuk was not the first to recommend carrying a small axe, a game knife, and a pocketknife.  That tradition preceded him and has persisted through the years.  In 1973 a fellow named W. Ben Hunt published a book entitled, The Complete How-to Book Of Indiancraft.  Mr. Hunt echoes the pioneer mindset of carrying a knife to serve for butchering game.  Notice I didn’t say the fixed bladed knife is for whittling or making tent pegs or any of the other chores associated with bushcraft.  No, Ben Hunt relegates those tasks to either the camp ax (or machete) and to a folding or pocketknife.  Here’s what Hunt has to say on the subject: “A small ax will serve the purpose of [completing the heavier camp chores.]  While some people may be able to carve with a camp knife, it is best to use that knife for carving meat and to get a pocketknife [for intricate woodcarving tasks.]”  Yes indeed, explorers and old-time woodsmen used their knives almost exclusively to butcher game.

Now we arrive in the 21st Century with a world population at over 7 billion (The world population in 1850 was about 1.2 billion) and we are no longer capable of “living off the land” regardless of what fantasies some out there might hold.  In a future world collapsed by plague, environmental degradation, overpopulation, political turmoil, or war the chance to “live off the land” would be slim considering the sheer numbers of people and the available land on which to forage.  Some areas have had up to 98 percent of their forested land destroyed to make way for cities, highways and industrialized agriculture that will produce zilch if things go south.  In that time you’ll find human numbers plummeting at a rate comparable to lemmings running off a cliff.  A 50 percent reduction in less than 10 years is not out of the question.  Read my novel, The Trail, for what lies ahead in such a world.  It’s not a SciFi text but a story based on the known facts.  It’s also, if I say so myself, a darn good read.

So then what do we make of the knife?  Watch YouTube and you’ll see people heading out to parks, populated countryside, or even in their backyards where they post videos on making a wickiup or basher shelter.  They’ll carve out knife sheaths from birch bark and make bucksaws and then they’ll make pine-pitch glue and brew a cup of herbal tea.  The primordial need to simplify life, “get back to nature,” reduce stress, connect with the wild, experience a more primitive existence—but in the background you’ll hear cars and trucks rushing by and overhead jet planes burn contrails across the heavens.  So we play and pretend and imagine a “survival situation” and watch TV shows that do the same….and then worry about making the car payment, the ever increasing costs of healthcare, rising gasoline prices….

Ah yes, but the camp knife.  A Mora knife, a hunting knife, a butcher knife, a skinning knife, a Swiss Army Knife, a multi-tool.  Let us argue and debate and read “product reviews” and then shut it all off and head for the nearest patch of woods and make a wooden spoon.  But let us not forget (despite the attempts by some media sources to have us look in other directions) that the real need for those who love nature and primitive skills is that we must fight! to save the land from those who will bulldoze it, frack it, poison it, contaminate it, pave it and otherwise destroy it.  Judging from the hundreds of emails I get every week I think we are all on common ground and for us nature is truly our home.

Nonetheless, here are a few photos of one version of a camp knife.  These were Old Hickory blades re-contoured with new handles added.  They cost me about $10 in their original “skinning blade” design and another couple of bucks converted to the shapes you see them in now.  I practiced the art of self-reliance and thus have thwarted the modern economical trend to simply go out and buy super expensive things ad nauseam.  They are bi-beveled; they are made of 1095 carbon steel; they stain when used; they are comfortable to hold; they chop the heck out of onions, carrots and they slice fajitas in a surgical manner.  They are pointed and work wonders on fine detail butchering, i.e. a chicken.  They will last a long time if treated with respect.  And best of all, I had fun working them into shape.

 A semi-Nessmuk design: Those of you who forge metal know that pounding a piece of barstock tends to curve the steel upward and I have no doubt the original Nessmuk was simply a forged blade shaped into what you see above.  This skinning knife has a 12.5 cm blade and a 12.0 cm handle.  The blade is 2.0 mm thick.

Mesquite handle 11.5 cm long with brass pins.

Red Oak handle measuring 9.5 cm with brass pins. Blade length 9.5 cm.

 Osage Orange handle measuring 11.0 cm with a blade 9.9 cm long. Brass pins.

Blade length on mesquite handle knife is 9.3 cm.

 Handle wood is Uña de Gato