Thursday, August 6, 2015

PERSONALIZING YOUR MACHETE

You might ask why anyone would ever need to personalize his machete.  After all, most machetes arrive from the factory shaped in accordance to how generations of users, be they farmers or ranchers or jungle dwellers or explorers, developed the designs over the centuries.  I assume it was the Spanish conquistadors who initiated the machete’s evolution.  They had swords of various lengths and contours and they used them to whack through jungles and brushlands and across deserts in their quest to find gold and silver and to subdue the natives (more often by the blade than by the Word) into accepting Christianity.  Over time, the machete became that long, thin, flexible knife ideally suited to regions where the underbrush is thick and vines grow long and cactus sprawls along the trail like endless punji stakes awaiting a taste of blood.  But that still doesn’t answer the question does it?  Why would anyone feel inclined to take his or her machete and alter its design ever so slightly?  What’s the purpose?  But then why do people get tattoos or wear rings in the noses or even in their ears?  I’ve never been enamored with any of that; in fact, I don’t even wear a watch.  Of course, living way out here in the woods doesn’t require a watch since only four times are important: Sunrise, Daytime, Sunset and Night.




Before and After Photos of an Imacasa 12 inch machete formerly marketed by Brigade Quartermasters.

When it comes to personalizing my machetes I am as guilty as the next guy.  I can’t seem to buy a machete without immediately thinking how I can modify it for one reason or another.  One of my favorite past times is to locate old machetes and rejuvenate them into something else, be it a camp knife or trail knife or even a fishing knife.  I am only interested in carbon steel machetes and have no interests in stainless steel.  I’ll take it one step further: The only real machetes are made in Latin America (though I’ll allow the Ontario Knife & Tool machete) and those Central American and South American machetes are unsurpassed.  I have a friend named J.R. who recently went to Harbor Freight and bought a couple of cheap Chinese stainless steel machetes.  He took them to his ranch and within minutes of whacking away at some underbrush they both snapped.  So I suggested a store that sells good quality South American machetes and he emailed me saying he’d gone there and found a couple of nice ones.





Before and After Photo of an Ontario Knife & Tool 12-inch machete.

But the need to personalize a machete gets worse as one ages and as one becomes more and more familiar with the terrain one travels.  I am forever imagining scenarios where I’ll need one type of knife or another and even as I drift off to sleep at night I’m often thinking of some new knife design or knife-making project or how I intend to modify my latest machete acquisition. 



Granted, a machete is a specialized instrument.  It won’t chop through heavy logs nor does it do well for fine woodcarving.  But where there are brambles and vines and cacti and where the mogotes are so thick you can only see in about four feet then the machete comes alive.  The thin blade plays with the vines and shrubs and makes short order of cactus pads.  In the jungles I’ve watched the native people make everything from bows and arrows to blowguns to huts to rafts and traps with only a machete.  I think the machete is the real bushcraft knife!  In fact, I read an interview with Jeff Randall who owns Esee knives and Jeff said the same thing.  If given his druthers for the ultimate bushcraft (woods craft) blade he prefers a machete—and this comes from a man who makes what I consider the best woods knives in the world.



Ontario Knife & Tool 12-inch machetes

Choosing an ideal camping knife is one of those subjects where everyone has an opinion, and why not?  People who go camping develop their own criteria as to what works for them.  That’s the critical part.  It really depends on where you go camping.  If it’s in a state park or regulated camping area then the need for anything other than a pocket knife is questionable.  In fact, some of America’s best known hiking trails are so regulated and bureaucratized that they really amount to not much more than a long sinuous walk through the park.  In places like that it’s hard to fathom the need for anything other than a paring knife.  But in places outside the US or in some of our wilderness areas then something a bit more substantial is perhaps needed.  In the northern climes a small hatchet reigns supreme.  The hatchet is better than a large knife or a Mora knife or a hunting knife or a Swiss Army Knife or anything else for that matter.  A man who knows how to use a hatchet will agree without hesitation.  But it’s always a good idea to carry a sturdy pocket knife for small chores like opening a package of food or maybe making a skewer for the fire.

Tramontina 12-inch

To the South the machete replaces the hatchet.  Carry a pocket knife and bring along a machete and hopefully you’ve got a few skills and you should be okay…assuming you also brought water, a tin cup, and a water purifier.  And a ferro rod!  And a wide-brimmed hat….


In my view the best walking, hiking, camping, woods-craft machete has a blade of no more than about 15 inches.  My personal preference is to have a blade about 10 inches long.  A modified machete with a 10-inch blade is feather light and yet has enough mass in the blade to successfully cut camp stakes or make feather sticks or clean away underbrush around your hammock or tent.  A small modified machete makes an excellent tool to make a bow-drill or a spoon or even a bow if needed.  I’ve made dozens of bows with nothing more than a small machete.  The spine acts as a perfect scraper if you define the angle and retain a burr as you would on any cabinet scraper.


A small, personalized machete also makes a good weapon if the need arises.  In some parts of the country it is no less the Wild West than it was 150 years ago and in some respects it’s now even worse.

Woods Roamer Full-Tang Camp Knife 5160 Spring Steel

This is not to say that a thick bladed knife is not needed.  A thick bladed knife comes in handy for lots of survival tasks from making a shelter to building a trap.  But the small machete will do the same job for a lot less money—though the lighter weight will require a little more work.  Allow me to say something in reference to the costs of machetes.  Along the border and on into Mexico you can purchase Latin American machetes for about five bucks or thereabouts.  I cringe when I see what some of these online companies are charging their customers for the machetes they sell.  Prices are exorbitant and sometimes downright ridiculous.  The last 20-inch Tramontina machete I purchased at a nearby ranch store cost me $4.37.  The last Bellotto machete I bought from a vendor at a flea market cost $9.00.  Both purchases were within the last two years.  When I see prices of $25 or more for some of these same machetes in the online stores I get a bit upset.  Okay, forgive the rant.

Pig Sticker: 5160 Spring Steel

About the only bit of knife making advise I can give you regarding any modifications you might care to make to one of your machetes is be very careful not to burn the steel.  If you use an angle grinder or Dremel tool then you’d best keep the blade cool by constantly dipping it in water.  Otherwise, you’ll burn the steel and essentially ruin the project.  If the steel turns blue where you are cutting the blade then you’ve goofed and now you have two choices: Make the blade even shorter or turn what’s left of your machete into a gardening trowel.



4 comments:

  1. There is a pastor who does a number of YouTube videos about bushcrafting in the jungles of Brazil. He goes by Colhane and he has a handful of videos on modifying machetes. https://www.youtube.com/user/Colhane

    I think you and he are of the same mind about modifying good (South American-made) machetes to suit *your* purpose.

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    1. Oh yes, I'm familiar with his videos. My favorite of his videos is the one where he makes a net needle with a Swiss Army Knife. When I was a kid my granddad made all his own nets. He always carried a pocket knife, as did all the men in my family, and he'd sit in his workshop and whittle out a net needle in just a few minutes. Colhane's video reminds me of those long ago days with my granddad.

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  2. Mr. Longoria, as you probably know it already, Bellotto is a brazilian brand... Just read it here and promptly remembered I have a billhook made by them. I didn't know their machetes, but their tools are top notch. My billhook for example is hard and hold a great edge.

    here's the site, if you may be interested.
    http://www.bellotto.com.br/produtos

    Your blog is great and too big to read at once... I'm getting it as a book :D A good book by the way.

    Best regards,
    Victor in brazil

    PS I'd love to see some handloading or firearm related posts. Did you write any already besides that on the Judge?

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    1. Victor,
      I finally got my hands on one. Looks like excellent steel. I'm enjoying using it. Thanks!

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