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.

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Hatchet by Gary Paulsen - Review

22 April 2013
I first picked up this book as it was recommended on an outdoors website as the reason the writer was interested in small axes. What I hadn't realised at the time was that it was a children's book. Admittedly, this did colour my enjoyment of the book somewhat as it doesn't go into great detail about many things and the main character has a very limited range of emotions. Unlike many children's books he doesn't succeed first time in everything he attempts.

The basic premise is that a young boy is stranded alone after a plane accident and the pilot's death. It's a story of the discoveries and associations the boy makes in order to survive and the skills he develops there.
If I had read this book when I was ten I would have loved it though, as it's a nice story of a young boy who is stranded alone in the Canadian forest with only the coat on his back and a hatchet on his belt. I think that kids would love it for the lack of adult interference (although there is a back story about the hero's parent's divorce) and the fairly graphic and gory descriptions of hunting. The situation he is in isn't a normal one but he comes from a normal background and it's an easy situation to imagine when you're out walking in the woods and can't see any hints of the modern world.

From an adult perspective I have to say the character is a little simplistic and there is a maddening lack of information about some of the things he does. One thing in particular which I did find frustrating is that most of the animals in the story are given nicknames by the boy and none of them are properly named at any point in the book. I have no idea what animal he is talking about at some points. I think a little appendix of the real animals and facts about them would help bring the story and normal natural history together; as a child I loved natural history books and there are many children I know who would love this aspect.

In my opinion, this is a book which is worth a read as an adult but far more valuable to younger readers who already have an interest in bushcraft and survival or who could do with a proper boys' adventure story.

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Parangs and Survival Tins

18 April 2013
The Beginning
It's a cliche but I've been interested in survival skills and bushcraft for a long time. When I was a kid of about 8 I already had some interest in the outdoors and survival, as much through Indiana Jones as anything else. I'd already been given a small black SAK by my Dad as an early birthday present when I was 7 but it was finding a hardback copy of the (old version) of the SAS Survival Handbook in the library which probably set me off on this road. It's probably the book that launched more people to be interested in survival skills than any other until Ray Mears came along.

The Man and the Approach
The SAS survival manual is of course written by John 'Lofty' Wiseman, a sound biography of Lofty is available through his site for Trueways survival school. The courses here, and the approach of his books, are not really bushcraft or woodcraft but concentrate more on long-term survival. The best bet to find out more is to track down the Collins Gem version of the SAS Survival Guide.
There are 2 key features to his approach, the Lofty Wiseman Survival knife and the survival tin.

Survival Tin
The survival tin typically involves a tobacco tin with various items in it to aid in immediate survival. Often included are a button compass, water carrier, snare wire and a wire saw (check out Doug Ritter's take on the BCB version). They are a common idea in all survival books and when I was younger I dutifully made one up. The theory is sound and Lofty Wiseman has no doubt forgotten more about survival than I know but I don't go for the survival tin any more. It is ok to have it in an outdoor coat or day pack but it is simply too big for day to day carry. That's why I tend to carry things such as a firesteel, tinder, magnifying glass and torch on my person at all times. When I'm out I tend to prefer full size items to use rather than miniature one just-in-case. To be fair though this is the difference between survival training and woodcraft. For a thinner approach check out the AOL tin kit. I have built more than a few survival tins but they tend to get left at home when I go out - if you are already taking a first aid kit, knife and fire steel then you're covering a lot of bases for a day out.

The Parang
The next item is one that I am lucky enough to have bought form a fellow forum member of second Hand. He'd even done all the hard work sharpening it too. As seen on his website it is a modern version of an Eastern Parang or machete. The knife is actually a bit smaller and lighter than I expected and chops chunks out of seasoned beech fairly well whilst being able to make feather sticks further up the blade.

The Evaluation
As you can see the front is weighted for a natural swing and is thicker than the edge nearer the handle. The final part of the back edge is sharpened too but I'm not as keen on this - it seems to make it a less safe to use as a draw knife. It is lovely idea for a  bit of kit and were I allowed only 1 tool this concept would certainly be a contender. Unfortunately, the execution is rather poor. The steel is not of good quality - hard to get an edge on and it doesn't hold it for long. It's also heavy and the rubberised handle is not as good on the hands as a harder one would be. The biggest redeeming feature was the collectability - it was easy to sell the parang on. I have seen other blade smiths have a go (such as diving sparrow knife works) and perhaps produce something more along the right lines, but to be honest you'd be hard pushed to beat a Leuku or a real machete
It's a reminder that traditional tools have been through the crucible of daily intensive use for decades, and that trying to reinvent the wheel often creates a lot of work for little gain.
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Fibonacci Sequence of Survival Tools

15 April 2013
There's a universe of zeros. Then, a mutation, a quirk, a digit. One.
From one, the complexity expands rapidly and almost incredibly.

First Tools
Imagine the first tools, a found stick or stone. These are our "1". With them we can make another tool; stone hits stone leaving a sharp edge. This gives us a level 2 tool. 

To use our level 2 tool, our sharp edge, lets us interact with another object - a branch for example - to make a digging stick or throwing stick. In turn, this is logically our third level.

When you think of assembling a bow drill, think of all the levels. Processing cordage, whittling the drill and notch. You're making tools to make tools to make tools. The level or complexity is growing infinitely and exponentially. 

Complexity Comes Quickly
To bring us to the industrial age requires so many levels of complexity and layers withing layers it becomes truly mind boggling. Ores need to be found, mined, charcoals produced and refined, metals forged, each process coming at the end of a huge interdependent chain.    

How does this affect us? When it comes to survival, an essential skill is being able to start at level one. It is in fact, the essential skill. Remember, that all human technology evolved from the same basic level, that same found tool. The study of how to use found items, and combine them into more useful and complex items is at the heart of understanding human cultural development and true survival. Freedom is one reason we study these skills, another reason is connection to our mutual ancestors. Starting with that one tool, that single item in a forest of nothing puts us back in control.

First published on simplyXY
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