Monday, April 21, 2014

PART ONE: Replacing the Plastic Handle on a Malaysian Parang

Most people think of the Malaysian parang as a short and somewhat portly machete.  But that description is misleading because parangs come in different styles with varying blade lengths, width variations and contours.  Depending on the locale a parang’s blade is either straight or curved upward or it might have a distinct angular cast near the handle that sweeps outward into the blade proper.  There is, therefore, no archetypal parang pattern with the exception of two design elements, one of which remains unseen and the other is a product of its manufacture.  Allow me to address the last element first.  Unlike machetes that are mass produced in large factories and buy steel from mills in significant quantities, the Malaysian parang is usually derived via a cottage industry.  In other words, villages may produce parangs for their own needs or in some instances a small shop might be set up with several bladesmiths to produce parangs for sale.  Regardless, the steel used for most parangs comes not from wholesalers but the junkyard.  That’s not to suggest that parangs are of a lesser quality than Latin American machetes but instead one might infer that the parang serves as an excellent example of metal recycling.  Typically, the parang maker seeks out leaf-springs made from 5160 steel and then forges them into shape.  This steel by-the-way produces a robust blade that, if heat treated and tempered properly, makes an excellent backwoods or jungle tool useful for everything from chopping small hardwoods to butchering game.  As such, the parang has become a sought after survival tool in regions where the blade design compliments the environment.

I purchased a 12-inch blade parang about a year ago because I wanted to examine the parangs manufactured at a shop in the town of Bidor, an industrial and farming community in the Batang Padang district of Perak, Malaysia.  I’m not sure what type of steel is used on the Bidor parang but I suspect these semi-mass produced parangs are not made from leaf-springs and may not be 5160 steel.  Perhaps someone will comment on this for us if they have further information.  The Bidor parang is not particularly heavy and on average the blade is about 4-5 millimeters thick at the rear tapering gracefully to about 2-3 millimeters at the blade tip with most of the blade in the 3-4 millimeter range.  The blade is of a type popularized by British survival expert Ray Mears who uses a parang in many of his BBC programs.  Mears parang looks to be handmade and is shaped slightly differently at the tip but that variation is of no consequence and is merely an aesthetic interpretation.

Here’s a quick note about this type of parang shape: When a piece of flat bar stock steel or a vehicle leaf spring is heated and then pounded on an anvil it begins taking a crude U-shape.  Therein lies the parang’s silhouette and the knife maker need only square off the tip or round it off and then either cut out a handle or, as in the case of the Malaysian parang, make what is called a stick tang.  Which brings me to the second design element—the one that remains unseen unless one removes the handle.

When my Bidor parang arrived I did what most knife aficionados do and that was to give the knife a thorough inspection.  I examined the blade noting the types of tools used in its making.  After having made quite a few knives I can look at a blade and tell you if an angle grinder, belt sander, hand file and even a Dremel tool was used in its manufacture.  Mind you the Bidor parang is a classic Malaysian working tool and as such not meant to be cute or fancy or as a fellow I know puts it, “Made for the mirror shiny bunch.”  The blade is painted black to protect it from rust, and tooling marks are left where they fell.  There is the “mirror shiny bunch” and then the parkerized, covert, stealth bunch.  You can include me in the latter group as I’ve never liked shiny knife blades.

When the stick tang was finally unearthed and measured I was surprised and a bit in disbelief.  The tang is 2 7/8 inches long and is only ¾ inch wide at the front or nearest the blade.  Now reason, logic and physics tells me that is way too flimsy.  But then who am I to argue with Malaysians who have employed this tang style for a very long time apparently with great success and few failures.  Even so, when I make a stick tang for my Woods Roamer knives and Brushland Choppers I have a tang that’s from 4 ½ to 5-inches long and does not taper as radically as the Malaysian parang.  It just gives me a bit more confidence when I use the knife but without disturbing the overall balance.

The actual hand-hold section on the plastic handle is a tad over three-inches before melding with the curved down swell.  That's far too short in my opinion.  Every time I used the parang I was frustrated and after a while I relegated the blade to what I call, “The Box.”  That’s where I keep a lot of blades.  But last night I was not in the mood to be inside nor was I very sleepy so I went out to the shed with camera in hand and the Bidor parang.  Within a few minutes the plastic handle was gone and I set out to make one with a more comfortable handle.  A few days ago a mean-spirited north wind blew a small mesquite tree down near the cabin and so with pruning saw in one hand, a flashlight in the other and a pistol in my back pocket I set out to cut a branch from yonder fallen tree for my new handle.  Now mind you that walking out in the dark searching for a suitable parang handle is crazy.  One must always be looking out for rattlesnakes and then when sawing off the branch it’s unwise to grab things without inspecting them for pamorana ants and scorpions.  Even in my little shed I’ve got to watch constantly for scorpions, centipedes, and the occasional rattler that will slither in looking for a meal.  Trick to it is sit on a high stool with feet off the ground and when a fat wind-scorpion, regular scorpion, giant centipede or ill-tempered rattlesnake comes to visit then watch and wait.  I usually kick the wind-scorpions out and step on the regular scorpions.  Best let the centipedes go their merry way because those things are nasty.  As for the rattlesnakes: Take a guess.

To make a new handle one needs a piece of wood, a ferrule (I’ll be using a ¾ inch copper tube that’s about ¾ inches long) and a couple of brass pins.  When I removed the plastic handle I drilled out the cheap nail that the manufacturer placed as a pin and opened up the hole a tad.

Regarding handle design: First of all, the best handle for any sort of chopping blade is one with a graceful curve that allows the hand to shift comfortably as the blade is used.  Think of this along the lines of the great Colt Peacemaker handle that rolls during recoil.  I examined several branches looking for just the right shape and at last found a section that I could use.  I took several measurements then using a hand drill made a hole about three inches into the wood.  I find that for me the ideal handle length is about 6-inches long.  The handle on the Bidor parang was only 5 3/8 inches long overall.  Using a series of round rasps and files I carefully opened the hole until the parang’s stick tang was set to the desired depth.  Now I’ll wait a few days allowing the wood to dry a bit before I continue.  Stay tuned, folks.  Part Two will arrive in less than a week.

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