Tuesday, June 27, 2017


Readers have shown an interest in the subject of historic butcher, slicing and boning knives.  These are the knives that have been in families for a generation or two, perhaps even more.  Every homestead, farm and ranch has a collection of these knives.  When a goat, hog, deer or even white-winged dove, Eurasian collared dove, turkey, quail or duck are collected for the pot these thin-bladed knives are invariably pulled from the drawer and called on to do most of the work.  Make a barbecue and these very same knives see all the action.  Savvy campers and woodsmen rely on these types of knives for work around the spit or grill.  So it was a century ago when pioneers, woodsmen, mountain men and hunters lived isolated lives far from established cities.  Woods roamers in generations past sought practical and serviceable knives.  Even today in remote parts of the world the needs remain the same.  People usually can’t afford the luxury of scores of knives nor do they want to burden themselves with needless stuff.  A knife is a tool and almost certainly has one primary purpose: Food preparation.  Vegetables for caldo, thin slices of bacon for the griddle, cuts of cabrito; the list is extensive.  But the knife selection is basic.  The most used knife seems to be the long slicer followed by the boning knife with the classic butcher knife at the ready.

If folks send me photos of their family's old historic butcher, slicing and boning knives I'll post them in this gallery section. It helps if photo submissions are accompanied by a brief (very brief) history of the knife, the make and blade length.

Jordon Marston wrote me the following letter and sent this photo: 
 "I have been a longtime reader of your blog and very much enjoy your content. We share many similar interests.  I live in northern Canada at about 60 degrees N. My wife and I have a small homestead with a garden, pigs and chickens. While we spend most of our time outdoors, we currently reside in a 12'x18' cabin. Heated by a wood stove, a small solar panel gives enough power to run a few lights and powers a laptop computer. We draw our water from a nearby stream for both ourselves and our livestock. We live about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the closest town of around 400 residents. Moose hunting, fishing, wild herbs and berries are very much part of the culture here. My community is primarily made up of indigenous peoples who still trap, dry fish and moose meat and participate in other traditional pursuits. I have learned much from them. [I've included] four of my knives that fit your description. They were used the other day in the butchering of meat hens in preparation for winter. From left to right, the knives are a 6" Lamson Forge, 7" unknown, 8" Old Hickory and an 8" Chicago Cutlery butcher knife. While I purchased the Old Hickory fairly recently, the other three served many years on my grandfather's dairy farm doing who knows what. They serve me well butchering moose, hogs and chicks now while also being excellent camp knives.  As a long time knife lover, part time knife maker and homesteader, I loved your piece on these old working knives. They cut well and sharpen easily. Thank you for your writings! I look forward to more!"
Jordan from the Yukon

Below are two views of JR Guerra's grandmother's butcher knife.  JR says his mother recalls his grandma using the knife on their ranch in the late 40s and 1950s to butcher goats, hogs and even large cattle.  For the record, the knife is a Blackjack 14 with a 7.5" blade and overall length of about 10 inches.  In the photos below the old butcher knife sits alongside one of JR's hunting knives and a Tramontina 12" machete.

Here's a photo of an ancient boning knife that belonged to JR's grandmother. I remember my granddad owned several knives that looked exactly like the one in the photo below.

John Tawes sent several photos of his historic knife collection.  Mind you, these are using knives and the marks and patinas show proof of that fact.  I found one photo particularly intriguing. 

Note the bolster on the large butcher knife. John made no mention of what make of knife this is but it looks to be made of high carbon steel with a full tang. The sheath above this old knife appears to be rawhide. Also note the boning knives to the right. I've seen boning knives that have been sharpened thousands of times.  After years of  use they end up looking like fish filleting blades. The hook knife on top also caught my eye but that's for a different discussion.

Above is another look at John's butcher, slicing and boning knives. All of them filled with character and each telling a story of years of service preparing food for families across the land.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


Note: I’m recovering from surgery, doing much better and hope to get back to my projects and work shortly.

“A word as to knife, or knives.  These are of prime necessity, and should be of the best, both as to shape and temper.  The “bowies” and “hunting knives” usually kept on sale, are thick, clumsy affairs, with a sort of ridge along the middle of the blade, murderous looking but of little use; rather fitted to adorn a dime novel or the belt of Billy the Kid, than the outfit of a hunter.”—George Washington Sears, “Nessmuk”

They want Bowie and “tactical” knives with four or six millimeter spines.  They want flaring clip points.  They are enamored with ponderous blades that serve little purpose other than to look macho.  If they happen to have a sample on hand they’ll attempt to chop with it, even as the angle of blade to handle screams, “This is not a chopper.”  They tote these blades never realizing they are proclamations to inexperience and lack of skills.

But head to far-off homesteads or distant villages where people live off their knives and you’ll see something entirely different.  In those places folks don’t collect knives to sate their boredom; they own knives that function and serve specific purposes.  Used daily they are nearly always an object for butchering, boning and slicing food.  Be it a fat pig or young goat, or perhaps potatoes, carrots and onions, the knives have long blades that are immediately marked by their litheness and perfect temper.  The spines measure in the area of one-sixteenth inch and it’s not unusual to see a blade from eight to ten inches long.  These are not woodcarving blades (the folding knife serves that purpose) and their owners would never stoop to the foolishness of attempting to baton a piece of wood with their precious food knives.  Besides, every woodsman knows how to break up wood without resorting to harming their knives.  Even so, there will always be macho aberrations (what do you think the Bowie knife was/is) designed to represent fierceness in battle, bar-fights and gang disputes, but little use beyond the facade.  Travel to the African Sahara, the jungles of Peru, the ejidos of Mexico, European villages, or just about every corner of the United States and Canada and you’ll find knives similar in design and concept being used as butchering knives, food preparation knives, hunting knives and camp knives.

A few months ago I watched a relative slice up a wild hog roast he’d prepared in his smoker.  The knife he used was a twelve inch, carbon steel knife he inherited from his father who was a butcher from the mid-1930s until about 1968.  Next time I’m over at his place I plan to take a photo of his two 12-inch knives, both Green River meat cutters circa 1940.  I told my relative it was time to retire those two knives.  “Don’t you realize what you’ve got?”
“Not really.”
“Take my word for it; those are valuable pieces of Americana.”

Above is a recent interpretation of a boning knife.  The steel is 15n20 and the blade is six inches long.  I also made the denim micarta handles.

The slicing knife above has an eight-inch blade fashioned from the same stock as the boning knife.

Above is a variation on the same theme.  The blade measures 6.75"

The two knives below are lightweight, 5.25" blade lengths.  The stick tangs are inserted into mesquite handles.  One knife has a two-part handle, mesquite and ebony.

To paraphrase Nessmuk, in order to make a knife suitable for slicing and boning it must be thin.  The Old Hickory slicing knife is a good example at .055” thick.  That’s really all you need.