Monday, March 30, 2015

THE LAND OF THE MACHETE

This is a busy time of year around the house.  The winter was quite pleasant with a few days dipping into the mid-30s.  I realize that for a lot of folks a winter without freezing temperatures sounds too good to be true but that’s the norm in these parts.  Just remember, however, that come summertime we’ll have heatwaves with an unrelenting sun bringing temperatures into the triple digits.  It’s not uncommon for the heat index to reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit.  Heat exhaustion is a frequent occurrence and every year a few poor souls succumb to heat stroke.  Last summer a fellow wandered into a backyard about seventy miles south of us and collapsed.  The residence is just north of the Rio Grande and this fellow had swum the river the day before.  Like most people who enter this country clandestinely he was from a large city in Central America and had no bushcraft experience.  Of course, he was unaccustomed to the temps we see in Deep South Texas.  By the time paramedics arrived the man had slipped into the long goodbye.  The news reported his body temperature was 109 degrees at the time of death.  With that said, you’ll understand why we approach any sort of outdoor work with a degree of caution.  Some of the most intense exertion is with the machete; and yet, the machete is the most commonly used tool in the ranchlands.  I’ll drive down a dirt road and spot someone cleaning the brush along a fenceline.  In his hand will be a machete.  I stopped to visit a relative and when he reached into his pickup toolbox I spotted a couple of well-used machetes.  The dogs started barking furiously a few days ago and my son looked out his bedroom window and spotted a large rattlesnake slithering onto the front porch.  He grabbed a Taurus Judge stoked with #6s and a machete.  The Judge stopped the rattler before he knocked on the front door and the machete removed sixteen rattlers for the coffee can.  (We have a coffee can filled with rattlers.)  Every March I have to whack the large sunflowers around the graywater pond.  I use a machete.  I’ll walk into the farm & ranch store or perhaps one of the hardware stores in the towns sixty miles south of us and the first thing I’ll check are the machetes.  You can never own too many machetes.  When they get worn out you just bring them back to life with various modifications and start things anew.  I’ve posted a number of articles on machete modifications and over the next week or two I’m going to post another couple of articles on more mods.


 What makes a knife-man a knife-man is hard to say but I attribute it to untold generations of males living or dying by the quality of their cutting tools be they rock, bone, tooth, copper, bronze, iron or steel.  So I imagine that somewhere within a multitude of sinuous cerebral sulci lays buried that collective knowledge shared from one generation to another that the knife is a key to survival.

There are scores of machete styles and it seems that geographical regions around the globe have spawned their own preferred designs be they the Malaysian parang, the Philippine bolo, the African panga, or the quintessential Latin hoja.  But even within the geographical areas variations occur.  In Latin America, for example, the machete has as many morphs and mutations as does the tulip.  And yet, when one thinks of a Latin American machete what comes to mind is a carbon steel tool with a thin blade between 22 inches and 24 inches long with a wooden handle measuring about five inches.  There is a gentle upsweep of the blade near the point and the numbers 1070, 1074, 1075 come to mind when calculating the percentage of carbon mixed with iron to form the steel.  And this, my friends, is the preferred machete style in South Texas.  You see, South Texas is a land made for the machete.  Long ago the Great Spirit looked down on the earth and said I will make a place for the beloved machete and so South Texas was created.  Nearly every plant is blessed with thorns and in between is cacti of a few dozen motifs and patterns.  Outsiders call the region The Thorn Forest stricken as they are—both literally and figuratively—by what seems to them a nightmare of hypodermic interruptions.  But to the people who grew up in this land of varied plant diversity and a stark and yet unruly magnificence it is called The Brushlands or when a great deal of love is attached, El Monte.

Top to Bottom: Tramontina 24" Imacasa 24" and Incolma Gavilan 22"

So it is then that the machete plays a starring role in that saga called Living in the Brushlands.  No one ever asks, “Do you have a machete?”  Instead they say, “Where’s your machete?”  You’ll find them hanging from nails in barns or lying on a bench in the workshop.  You’ll find them tucked behind the seat of a pickup or in the truck’s toolbox.  You’ll walk into hardware stores and find piles of machetes waiting to be adopted.  Or you can just saunter into Mexico a few miles on down the road and buy El Salvadorian, Columbian, Ecuadorian, Venezuelan and Brazilian machetes for pennies on the dollar.  It’s not unusual to buy ten or more at a time then go home only to return a year later and buy ten more.  Machetes see a lot of work in this land and unfortunately they receive a lot of abuse from ranch hands and farmworkers.  A couple of years ago I was walking in the woods about a quarter mile from the house and I saw something leaning against a mesquite tree.  I ambled over to the object and was presented with a gift: An Imacasa 24 inch machete in very good condition.  I figure some long-distance-traveler had lifted it from a barn somewhere along the line and then either abandoned it next to the mesquite tree or forgotten it when he had to skedaddle in the middle of the night.


 So how do the various popular brands of machete compare?  Looking at forums and other websites I take it that in the heartland the three most widely available machete brands are Tramontina, Imacasa and Gavilan.  Other brands are available but I don’t see a lot of reference to them on forums so for this post I’ll stick to the three brands mentioned above.  Besides, brands like Condor have, in my opinion, gotten too expensive and thus are at the upper edges of what your typical machete ought to be.  Nonetheless, in later posts I’ll examine additional brands including the Condor.  Let’s make it clear at the outset that I do not favor machetes made of stainless steel since invariably the steel is of poor quality.  Cheap stainless steel like 420 or 440A will take an edge but will lose that edge even faster.  I am so prejudiced against stainless that I will not even consider 420 HC or 440C.  Others may argue that those incarnations are alright but I have chosen to have nothing to do with them.  And one more thing: Whenever somebody tells you that stainless steel machetes are better than carbon steel machetes then just turn the page confident in the knowledge that the writer is a neophyte without much experience using machetes.  By far the best machete blades are carbon steel ranging from 1070 to 1075.  Tramontina is 1070, for example, and Imacasa is 1074 so it is slightly stronger steel.  The Incolma Gavilan produced in Colombia is also carbon steel but I do not know the grade.  I imagine its numbers fall in the same range as the other two machete makes mentioned above.  All three machetes pictured have the traditional thin blades measuring about 1.5 mm near the handle tapering to about one millimeter at the tip.  The blades are springy and that means they’re designed for whacking light material like herbaceous and woody shrubs as well as small branches or slicing cactus pads.  WARNING: I understand that bushcrafters living north of the 36th Parallel want to mess around with machetes and that’s a good thing…but I’ve seen too many YouTube videos where some reviewer living to the north will buy a machete and then look around for something to whack.  “Whoa!” he says.  “There’s a fallen birch tree yonder.”  So he adjusts his camera and starts whacking.  “Wow!” he gasps breathing hard and sweating.  “This machete can even chop through this birch tree (or elm, pine, maple etc.) and it only took me six-hundred whacks to penetrate….”  But folks, don’t try it.  Get an axe for crying out loud.  Don’t indulge in such frivolous behavior.  God gave us brains to know what tool to use and for tree trunks and mega-branches He gave us an axe.  The machete is for thorn scrub and vines and bamboo and cacti and finger-sized limbs and rattlesnake rattlers.  An axe is for tree trunks and mega-branches.  Besides, you don’t want to destroy the tendons and ligaments in your wrist and elbow and even in your shoulder and that can happen (and probably will happen) if you try the YouTube silliness and whack a tree trunk to death with a 1.5 mm thick blade.  By the way, shoulder bursitis is common when using a machete of improper length.  Machetes blades measure from about 12 inches to 30 inches.  As noted above, the most common machete blade length in South Texas is 24 inches though occasionally you’ll find someone using a 22 inch blade.  The length is especially important for reaching in to thorny shrubs and branches without getting the pin-cushion treatment.  But the 24 inch blade also aids in whacking weedy shrubs where the stem must be severed clean.  If the user has to constantly bend down to whack stems then he’ll become fatigued and that will lead to improper cutting technique.  As a result the user will most likely develop bursitis.  Shorter blades are popular for less strenuous tasks and for use in places where the plants don’t bite back.  They also make good survival tools but that’s another subject we’ll tackle in a few weeks.  ONE MORE NOTE: Wear eye protection!  Don’t think you can whack away and never suffer any sort of eye injury.  One day you’ll be listlessly swinging the blade and WHAM you’ll get a searing pain in your eye or on your eyelid and it will occur to you that you’ve been wounded.  An hour later at the doctor’s office the thought will creep into your mind that had you just been wearing eye protectors this wouldn’t have happened.  So don’t be foolish thinking you are immune to such events.  It can and will happen if you use a machete long enough.  So wear eye protection!


Do I have a favorite machete brand?  Allow me to say it this way: For general work around the ranch I want a carbon steel blade either 22 or 24 inches long with either a wooden or plastic handle that is not too thick or cumbersome.  I want springy steel that’s about 1.5 mm near the handle and about 1 mm thick at the blade tip.  I don’t want the blade too heavily weighted at the tip as seen on some makes.  A rather straight blade is preferred in my opinion.  I want steel that has been properly tempered so that it will hold its edge and yet reasonably easy to sharpen with a file or diamond stone.  I prefer darkened blades to shiny blades but that is not of major importance.  A blade that has a nice ring to it when struck hard with your fingernail usually indicates well-tempered steel of adequate carbon content.  I do not like 1045 carbon steel nor am I that enamored with 1060 steel though I like 5160 steel and if the new Ontario Knife & Tool Bushcraft machete made from 5160 steel did not require a customer take out a new mortgage on his house and raffle off his wife I’d consider buying one.  Only in America do people go bonkers over buying things and they spend and spend and spend and truth be known they don’t need most of the things they buy.  The Gavilan 22 inch machete I bought brand new a few weeks ago cost me $10.00 total.  I dare say it will do just about anything the new Ontario Bushcraft machete will do and I saved over a hundred bucks.  I think it pays to be frugal.

2 comments:

  1. lovely article as always! my father always bought two or three machetes at once then pounded them in farm work for one or two year, after which they would chip blades, break handles, or get lost. I wish I kept some for steel sake (like 3 knives from one) after we left the farm...

    Victor Brazil

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Victor,
      We all have those sorts of regrets. You are not alone.

      Delete