Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Make a Nessmuk Style Knife from an Old Hickory Skinning Knife....

A drawing of the original Nessmuk Knife from the book, Woodcraft and Camping by George Washington Sears who wrote using the pseudonym Nessmuk.

The knife George Washington Sears aka Nessmuk used is essentially nothing more than a skinning knife.  Sears wrote a book about woodcraft a longtime ago and that book has had a lot to do with encouraging people to learn woodcraft (bushcraft) skills in America.  Sears had both his camp axe and knife custom made and perhaps that reflected his desire to use something unique.  Except, neither his axe nor his knife were anything other than modifications of designs that had existed for decades.  Nonetheless, both Nessmuk’s knife and axe have gained something akin to cult status amongst nostalgic types and the like.  And besides, the designs are timeless and highly functional.

But the classic skinning knife design—despite attempts to discover some unique feature about it—is a product of the forging process and not much beyond that.  Yes, there are some people out there who want to bestow magic to that design and that, of course, always makes for interesting conversation.  But the facts are that a dozen or more designs will serve for skinning and as you will learn at the end of this post a knife (at least as most of us identify one) is not even needed.  Still, one fellow on YouTube even goes as far as to describe the Nessmuk knife as owning the special effect of lifting upwards to enhance the skinning process etc.  But if you take a piece of bar-stock or a steel mill file and start pounding one end then the steel will bend upward into a curve.  Put a bevel on that piece of bending steel and call it a skinning knife if that pleases you.  Heck, shape it a bit at the tip and call it a Nessmuk Knife if that makes you happier.  The metal forger knows better but is content to let people go their merry ways.

If perchance, however, you want to make an Old Hickory “skinning knife” look like a Nessmuk knife then you can do so as follows:

First, buy an Old Hickory skinning knife.  These look to be stamped steel knives and the shapes are simply a matter of the stamping process and not any particular forging operation.

Now you can either remove the handle scales like below or you can work with the existing handle.

Make a cardboard template and draw a curvature resembling the curve as seen on the Nessmuk knife.

If you desire you can remove the handle scales and reshape the tang as seen below.

Caution:  You can cut the steel with a Dremel tool or angle grinder but don’t overheat the steel.  Keep a can of water handy and constantly dip the steel into the water as you work.  Otherwise, you might burn the steel and then you’ve got a real problem on your hands.  You’ll know if you’ve burned the steel because the part that has been burned will turn dark blue.  That’s a no-no!!  So be sure to keep the steel cool by constantly dipping it in the water can.

SECOND CAUTION: Old Hickory knives are made from 1095 steel.  That is an excellent high-carbon steel.  Old Hickory tempers their blades down a bit to make them easier to sharpen and since it’s used to gut and skin game it doesn’t need to be all that hard.  But you must keep it clean or it will discolor or even rust.  So remember to wipe down the blade after you’ve reshaped it to prevent rusting.

THIRD CAUTION: Wear eye protection and a dust mask.  I always wear a respirator.  Work in a well-ventilated area.

A finished Old Hickory Nessmuk style skinner will look like this before you attach the scales.

Afterward, you can attach the scales using either a piece of wood from around your house (all you need is a small, well-dried branch) or you might buy a piece of kiln-dried wood from a wood store.  The knife pictured below has a handle made from Catclaw.  

These knives make great kitchen knives and I’ve altered them into designs of all shapes.  It’s a fun project.

PS: When we were kids we’d gut out deer with broken beer or soda bottles we’d find scattered around because we didn’t want to get our knives messed up.  Then we’d skin the deer using our fists or a makeshift wooden paddle.  That’s something to remember in a pinch.  Remember that humans used rock flakes for thousands of years to skin animals and a broken piece of glass is simply an extension of that idea.