How Sharp Does an Axe Need to Be?

22 March 2014
Is this an easy question for someone out there? I've played and played with my Delaronde forge bag axe and dutifully put marker on the edge and sharpened it with a mat and wet and dry paper. The edge is sharp enough to split wood and will chop but when you look at the cuts it makes they are not smooth but quite ragged.

I've used everything I can think of on the axe from paper to stones and strops - it just doesn't ever get really sharp. I'm pretty disappointed with a beautiful looking tool which just can't seem to do its job. Every other tool I have is shaving sharp yet this axe seems to resist all my efforts.

On the other hand I have some cheap Indian tomahawk heads - you can put a good edge on them with a file. They don't hold the edge too long but I'd prefer a softer edge that comes up sharp easily than a harder one that never wants to. There's also the positive aspect that the edge will roll rather than chip if you happen to come across something harder than expected when chopping.

The other reasons I lean more towards the cheap tomahawk heads are the other utility aspects. The handle is relatively easy to switch in and out as it's a friction fit. You can fit a longer handle if you're going to be chopping more, or perhaps go as far as the Polish highlanders' axe, the ciupaga, and add a 4 foot handle and use it as a walking stick. The head can also be taken off and the radius of the cutting edge allows it to be used as a a knife or ulu. It's also good for a small survival kit, a cooking pot, 'hawk head, plastic sheet and fire starter make a quick basic survival or minimalist camping kit. The whold weight comes to less than a kilo too.

I've come across this video from the A-Z of bushcraft on axes.

Here's Dave Canterbury, formerly of Dual Survival extolling the virtues of the tomahawk

Read On

Pitt-Rivers and History of Science Museums Oxford - A Bushcrafter's Take

21 June 2013
On a recent visit to Oxford I took in some of the collections of the excellent and free museums there. The Pitt-Rivers ethnographic museum has long been recommended as an interesting visit but the History of Science museum also has its attractions.

The City of Dreaming Spires is certainly not without its attractions for those interested in survival and primitive living skills.

The Pitt-Rivers

 This is certainly an old school museum with a mix of modern information cards and hand written ones that could be any number of years old. The cases are on the dark side and not everything is always easy to see. The information desk can supply torches and magnifying glasses but I didn't find it that bad.

The highlights for many bushcrafters would be in the case of different fire-making equipment categorised with great detail applied to the technique used. That's not the only case worth seeing though as they had some Sami and Inuit needle cases as well as a seal gut parka and many other items for food processing and hunting. In general, the artefacts showed a tremendous attention to detail and a master level of workmanship

It's always hard with museum collections to tell if this represents the true picture -  they display the best items, and the less attractive and more utilitarian are also perhaps more likely to be discarded or worn out. The cases do contain more than enough inspiration for any number of projects though.
An added boon is that the museum is housed alongside the museum of natural history. Although much of this was being refurbished, there were still some interesting cases on show and it reinforces the idea that a bushcrafter is in many ways a true natural scientist.

History of Science
A smaller museum and much less heralded the History of Science Museum's collection is focussed on scientific instruments. In the first room there were a huge number of fine navigational tools and sundials. For anyone who has an interest in solar or celestial navigation it is a real eye opener. I have a long standing interest in quadrants but I'd no idea that they were quite so small.

I thoroughly recommend both of these museums and I often find inspiration in ancient history, prehistory and ethnography displays in various places.
Read On

"Bugging In" and "Bugging Out" by David Crossley, Review and Author Interview

15 May 2013
Bushcraft and survival are, to some, synonyms. But what about long term survival? Or how to protect your own life in the event of fire or flood? Where does self sufficiency come in?

They're all vital questions, and with 8 episodes of serious flooding in the UK since 2000, as well as various more localised problems, it's no longer possible to hope that someone else will take responsibility for you.
As far as answers go, it's worth getting some expert advice and doing some personal research. Two very good stepping stones to being more prepared for problems are the books "Bugging In" and "Bugging Out" recently released in paperback and digital format by David Crossley. They are available both as digital editions and through Amazon, and paperback copies are available through Lulu; Bugging Out and Bugging In

Bugging In covers what to do if you are cut off by snow, flood or any other calamity whilst Bugging Out looks at what to do in the event you need to evacuate your home.

We're very fortunate that David has agreed to answer a few questions about his books and about preparing in general for Woodcrafter's log.

David, there's a lot of literature out there about preparedness, why did you decide to write your books?
There were 2 main reasons. Firstly, almost all of the existing books are written by, and for, Americans and I couldn't find any modern texts written by a British author relevant to Europe in general and the UK in particular. The information in some of the American books is good but very much centred on the culture, laws and geography of North America and really doesn't apply to our situation.

Secondly, although some of the existing books are good many, especially those intended for e-publishing, contain very little detail. I believe that people shouldn't be told what to do; they should be given information on the facts and the various options they have, with the advantages and disadvantages, so that they can choose a path that is most suitable for them, their family and their individual circumstances. All the information in my print books is also there in the e-reader version.

Thinking about Bugging In, what sort of scenarios does the book cover? What other sections does it have?
In most scenarios the preparations that you make and the actions you have to take are very similar. Most of the information about power, shelter, warmth, food, water, cooking and preserving, health and medical care, security, communications, finances, education and maintaining morale is therefore applicable to a wide range of potential events. However, there are some situations, such as pandemics, industrial accidents or terrorist attacks involving biological, chemical, nuclear or radiological releases that require some extra equipment and knowledge, so I have provided additional guidance on dealing with those.

When do you think Bugging Out would be appropriate? Does it have a degree of overlap with more bushcraft oriented survival skills?
Bugging Out becomes appropriate whenever life cannot be maintained at your Bug In location, whether that is your usual home or somewhere you have moved to because of the emergency. That might be because of imminent structural collapse, flooding, fire, radiation or attack by an overwhelming force.

Although heading for the woods might be one option for people who have the kit and skills, there are usually many other choices. You might, for example, move to be with family or friends, to a hotel, or to a boat or caravan if you have one. For most people, hiking into the wilderness and depending on bushcraft skills would be the most difficult and therefore least desirable option. In Bugging Out I also cover the extra information people might need in a disaster because not all of the other people evacuating will be fellow bushcrafters just wanting to share your fire and a friendly chat. Think of bushcrafting in the American west or African bush before they were settled but after we had really pissed off the natives and you will be closer to what you might expect.

Do you see these preparations as a form of insurance?
That's exactly what they are! Except that with this insurance there is nobody trying their hardest to find an excuse not to pay out; if you do this properly your preps will always there and there will be no wait when you need them.

Have you ever been in any of the situations you've mentioned?
Unfortunately yes! As a soldier for 22 years, serving in some remote places, we were sometimes forced to Bug In by being under siege and at other times had to Bug Out with only what was instantly to hand. Elsewhere, it wasn't me that was in the firing line but others I was there to support or rescue, after natural disasters or conflicts in Central America, Indonesia and Africa. For many of them, the difference between being mentally and physically prepared or not decided whether they lived or died.

Back in the UK I once had to evacuate from a hotel fire in the middle of the night, while at home I've been snowed in with no power and local roads blocked, and had times of injury and unemployment. Our lives were not at risk, as mine and those of others were overseas, but our preps certainly made a huge difference to maintaining our quality of life.

What would you say to people who think it could never happen to them, (or those who think survival is stock piling ammunition and learning ways to kill a ninja with a pair of socks)?
Very little in life is guaranteed, that is why we have house insurance, car insurance, life insurance and, when possible, savings. Unfortunately things we never believed would happen do; ask the people of Cyprus or Iceland who lost their life savings, ask the people of York flooded out twice in two years from areas that had never known it in living memory, or the residents on Arran who were snowed in and without power for longer than they have ever before experienced.

Forget about meteors crashing to Earth or mega-eruptions in Yellowstone Park, the realities are: terrorism; financial incompetence and corruption in government; increasingly sophisticated but fragile technological complexes controlling interdependent ‘just in time’ financial, industrial, and supply systems; changing weather patterns; these and so many other things are increasing our exposure while most people who have never experienced disaster at first hand seem to believe that either they are invulnerable or if anything does happen Bruce Willis will appear to rescue them, because they are entitled to that. Well, with all due respect to Bruce, it isn't going to happen. Governments are cutting back, implementing austerity measures, which means the resources they will have to deploy in a major emergency are decreasing by the day. If you want to survive, you better start taking responsibility for you and your own because that is the only help on which you can rely. Preparations made now will be a major help. Reading Bugging In and Bugging Out is not a bad place to start

My Opinion
Personally, I strongly recommend thinking about making some preparations for your home and family. It's far from the fringe activity many presume and government agencies in many countries are now encouraging people to make some basic preparations. These books will show you how to go about that so in the event of any problem you can take better care of yourself.

Thanks to David for answering my questions and writing the books in question.
Read On

SAK Electrician Plus - Long Term Review

12 May 2013
Having a little bushcraft in your daily life is certainly a good thing, and one of the ways I do that and add to my general every day carry kit for a just-in-case event. Poland has more relaxed rules on carrying pocket knives than the UK and you can regularly see scouts ready to go on camping trips using the metro with a Mora-type knife on their belt. I do travel about the UK too so having a non-locking folder with a sub 3 inch blade makes that a lot easier. Way back in 2006 I picked up a Victorinox Electrician Plus and seven years later it still rides in my pocket every day.

Nessmuk's Pocket Knife
The ever quotable Nessmuk saw his pocket knife as an indispensable part of his tool trio. The pocket knife was for carving and whittling, it's multiple blades being a boon there whilst the easier to clean and larger sheath knife was more for food and hunting purposes. I wanted a knife that ticked several boxes, that could be a stand alone tool as well as part of a trio for longer and more equipped trips.

Whittling Blades
Reading How to Whittle Twigs and Branches you quickly learn the value of having a short fine blade and a larger one on a knife to make carving fiddly items easier. Having a backup blade is always a good idea so i was on the lookout for a knife with at least two blades. The knife I chose came with a chisel ground sheepsfoot pattern blade. After re profiling this to be convex on both sides it's been an excellent carving and detail blade and the point of the blade being in a straight line allows some tight turns and detail cuts. The bigger blade isn't sharpened quite so often and is used for more of the general work - stop cuts, opening packets and even making sandwiches on holiday. It's rare a day goes by without getting it out to fix a little problem somewhere.

Other Tools
There is also the regular urban use element of a knife. Choosing a Swiss Army Knife (SAK) means it's relatively friendly and doesn't look out of place or threatening in any situation. It also allows you to add a few tools. The screwdriver and cap lifter get used fairly regularly and I must admit to using the screwdriver as a pry on occasion. The wood saw makes some bigger bits of wood within reach of a small knife, allows easy carving of notches and generally makes the knife more capable than it's size would have you think.

The final tool and one of the main selling points of this particular knife is the excellent awl. It not only works for boring holes but it's position on the end of the knife, rather than in the centre as on many of plastic handled models, allows it to b used for scribing lines. The L-shaped profile means it makes a tolerable tool for knot work and the slightly sharpened edge is very good at getting sparks from a firesteel.
In over 6 years of use it's never missed a beat and I expect the knife to keep going for many years to come. It's been one of the most heavily used items of bushcraft kit I've ever bought and the best value.
Read On

The Big Knife

28 April 2013

The Debate
Reading many US websites you'll get the impression that you'd need a far bigger knife than those typically favoured by bushcrafters. 6 inch plus blade lengths are regularly mentioned perhaps a hangover from the
bowie knife? There's quite a debate about knife vs axe, and sometimes you get the third tool of machete come into the mix. I've even seen a billhook suggested as being the sine qua non item for work in the woods.

Big Game means Big Knives?
The utility of big knives was shown a lot in areas where big game was part of life - an example being the American Buffalo Knife (comparable knives)
(Quotes on the usage from Tactical Knives November 2005, pp19-22, Dan Shechtman)

"Here is a knife made to order for the hunter or cook responsible for breaking out chunks of carcasses of the game animals to be served up to the trappers"

"The Edmonton hunters always use large heavy knives for the purpose of cutting through branches when traversing dense fir woods that cover a great part of that country; some of them use extremely heavy ones, half knife, half axe - like a narrow sort of butchers cleaver with a point instead of a squared end"

(on butchering buffalo) "The half breed goes through this whole process with a large and very heavy knife lika a narrow pointed cleaver which is also used
for cutting wood and performing the offices of a hatchet"

An example can be seen here
The big knife of Scandinavian tradition is also from the Sami reindeer herders and is the product not just of butchery but also of the need to take down the small trees that are common there.

The European Way 

Looking for a big knife in Nordic Europe leads you to just that - the "big knife" of the Sami. This knife seems to go by more than one name and I've found it hard picking out which is used by whom. I think that Leuku is the Finnish name, Samekniv the Norwegian and stuorra niibi in Sami. (thanks to wikipedia and the Finnish Puukko blog)
The particular knife I've bought is made by Iisakki Jarvenpaa and I bought it along with my other items from Ben's Backwoods. The knife itself is great - a solid carbon steel blade about 4mm thick with a wide bevel and a curly birch handle with a solid brass butt cap for pounding and cracking nuts. The sheath looks nice but the belt loop seems a little slim and the whole sheath is already a bit dirty and has a few cut lines near the top in only an afernoon's use. It is a prime candidate for hot waxing should I find some beeswax.
One of the reasons I bought the knife is that the majority of the woodland here consists of similar woods, albeit slightly faster growing, to those in Lappland - lots of pine and birch with willow in wet areas. The grind of the knife combined with its seven inch length lets it be used as a draw knife or scraper and when braced against your knee it makes lovely fine shavings - I'm still a little new to this technique for photos but they'll come soon.

The knife effortlessly chopped through everything a fingers width or less and would be great for quickly making and felling poles. It was rapid at chopping through a downed birch and fairly effortless as the swell at the end of the handle means you can hold it lightly and let the knife just do the work. Indeed holding this knife gives you a nice secure feeling that it could handle carving, splitting and chopping as well as felling trees up to arm thickness with a very low expenditure of effort. Much less effort would be expended than using a smaller knife even if a baton is still used. It is also lighter than even my bag axe giving me a good idea why such knives would make excellent survival tools.
The edge bevel of the knife is ground differently along the length. The straight section has a good general grind whilst the curve towards the tip is finer to allow wood shavings to be easily made. The tip itself has quite a steep grind to give the point strength when being used to chip ice, be hammered into trees or pierce anything. As it has only one bevel along its length (after a few minutes with an Arkansas stone) it will be easy to maintain the different gradients on the bevel.
The knives were developed by reindeer herders so it should be good at skinning and breaking open bones should the need arise.

I used the knife to cut up a few birch branches and some bark to make a quick brew fire - I was trying to make a pine needle tea but I underestimated the number of birch twigs I'd need as they were wet. As a result I didn't manage to boil the water as the twigs burned away too quickly without producing enough heat. I wasn't too worried though as I learned to use a match to light a piece of birch bark in my hand and not to try to move the match to birch bark in the fire lay. It sounds simple but I wasted a couple of matches till it occured to me!
I did pick up a piece of birch to try to carve a netting needle out of but as it had come from a downed tree it had begun to rot and broke rather than split - I'll give it a try carving as soon as I can.

An axe may be the tool that lets you "live like a king" but how many of us regularly fell, limb and buck trees? Surely the big knife is better for taking down saplings and bushes, makes a good kitchen too. Mine has seen as much use cutting the necks off roast chickens as it has chopping down trees and has excelled at both. I have made a couple of tune-ups to it. I have oiled the handle with olive oil as well as squaring the spine to make that part a bit more useful - the spine is good for debarking pine roots too. The original grind on the tip was also somewhat obtuse as it could be used for chopping ice and opening cans. I wanted a little more carving ability so I made the tip a little finer.

Read On