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Friday, 14 August 2015

Bushcraft Tools: Old vs New

The vast majority of bushcraft tasks we undertake require one tool or another. Most of the tools central to bushcraft are ancient in origin, but there have been developments over time - the development of the main tools we use in bushcraft is discussed in brief here. A few woodland management tools have been thrown in for good measure because this forms a large proportion of our work at Riddy Wood at present.

Trying to describe tasks which these tools are used to performed would be futile - everyone uses their tools slightly differently and for a range of different tasks. Indeed this versatility is one of the features which has contributed to the longevity of these basic - as in essential or fundamental - tools. 


The most simple and versatile of the bushcraft tools. In extremis a knife, and the knowledge of how to use it effectively, could literally be the difference between life and death. Obviously knives have their origins in flint tools, with advances in metal work throughout history then changing the material the tool is made of, although never really changing the basic design principle, nor the uses thereof. Most recent advances in metal alloys or manufacturing methods have changed the knife very little. Aside from the folding knife, which is really a portability innovation allowing a knife to be carried more safely, one difference worth noting in modern tools is the prevalence these days of synthetic handle materials. While there may be some advantages to this in terms on grip, comfort, price and 'findability' - bright handled knives are easier to find if you drop them in vegetation - again, the actual design principles of the knife as a functional tool have not really changed in hundreds if not thousands of years, nor has the tasks it is used for.

It goes without saying that there are many different types of knife, but that isn't a new development either - even during the era of flint tools, specialist versions of 'knife' for want of a better word were used. The advent of metal enabled easier customisation, but also as civilizations have advanced, the number of jobs undertaken has increased, requiring more specialised tools than would once have been needed.

Everyone reading this knows what a knife looks like, here are just a few examples of modern knives,
one folding 'Swiss-army' style knife, and another cheap but perfectly functional fixed blade synthetic
handled knife - perfect for a range of bushcraft tasks.

Another tool which is used extensively in bushcraft, and another tool which has origins in stone. Stone axes again exhibit pretty much the same design principles as a modern axe, with the exception of attaching the head.

The efficiency of axes has probably increased more than knives. Flint edges not being robust enough to withstand the sort of cutting tasks an axe in used for other stones were used which did not hold the same sort of sharp edge that can be achieved using flint. Certainly metal tools would have been a leap forward in terms of both the edge they could hold, and the ability to fix the head onto a handle. Where as with stone axes a hole was typically made in the handle, with metal axe heads it was possible to cast the head with a hole for mounting the head onto the handle. As with knives advances in different types of metal have made little change to the design principle. although different metals would have been able to a) take a better edge and b) hold that edge for longer. Again, synthetic handles are becoming common, typically of fibre glass type materials which provide very strong handles and to some extent potential less vibration than a wooden handle but, for the traditionalists, certainly don't have the same aesthetic appeal.

A modern axe with a synthetic handle, this is in fact a splitting axe and it works fantastically well,
but for the traditionalist, and I must admit in some respects I consider myself to be one, it just doesn't
look right - something like the Gransfors small forest axe (below) just fits the aesthetic bill better.
(Gransfors Bruk Product Illustration: from

'Make-in-the-field' tools
I 'ummed' and 'arghed' about whether this could qualify as a heading; my 'umming' resulted in me deciding that it qualified for an entire post of its own - one which I need to research a bit more to do it justice.  Watch this space...

Woodland Management tools

Bill Hooks

Bill hooks were, and to some extent still are, the basic tool of traditional woodland skills and crafts whether that be coppicing or hedge laying or other tasks. I've let the caption to the below picture do the talking for this section.

The two bill hooks I own, couldn't be much more different if they tried.

The first (above in this image) is a 'hand me down' but 'heirloom' may be more appropriate. It was given to me by my Father-in-law who was given it by his Grandfather. Based on the fact my father-in-law has just turned 70 this bill hook may well be approaching, or even have exceeded, the 100 year mark although with no date stamp I can't be sure. It also serves as an example of the many different styles of bill hook which were once available. While this is slightly off topic this link shows pages from a tool catalogue from around the turn of the 20th century listing all the different styles available. It is fascinating! Based on these pages my bill hook is either a 'Suffolk' or 'Offley' style, and based on the fact my Father-in-law still lives within 10 miles of the Suffolk village where he was born, and always has done, I'll go with 'Suffolk' style I think!

The second is brand new: composite handle, teflon coated blade, different style of bevel, very different blade shape, much lighter weight blade, as well as, I suspect at least, a quite different type of steel. Never the less it works well, in fact if pushed I would have to admit, for some jobs at least, it works better than my old, traditional bill hook. There are three main advantages that I can put my finger on: 1) The thinner blade makes cutting smaller wood easier because there is 'less blade' to push through the cut (does that make sense?) 2) The length of handle gives much greater flexibility in how it can be handled, especially by allowing a longer handed swing, resulted in greater speed at the cutting end and 3) the significantly lighter weight means you don't get fatigued as quickly and it is easier to control.

Click this link for a website dedicated to bill hooks and their history.

As the history of tools goes saws are a more recent development - the cutting edge of a saw is a far more complicated design problem than a knife or an axe and as such are harder to manufacture. To some degree a serrated flint edge could replicate what we now recognise as a saw but wouldn't have had any sort of longevity, especially not if used on harder materials such as bone or wood. Until relatively recently (historically speaking) saws were still made by hand, with individual teeth filed out separately.

These days of course we have saws ranging from 'fold-into-a-penknife' small right up to chainsaw bars several feet long! To a bushcrafter a good folding saw or a small bow saw is a very useful tool, especially when cross cutting a piece of wood, which with an axe requires the removal of a fair chunk of material just to keep the cut accessible.

In woodland management, larger bow saws and chain saws are the weapon (tool) of choice, mainly for their speed in cutting. I would say ease, but even though you are not providing the cutting power chain saws are heavy and can be tiring to use... although compared to the old school methods I think easy could still apply! A chain saw actually works more like a series of small axes or chisels rather than a normal saw - these teeth a link together forming a 'chain' which rotates around a fixed bar. As with any tool there is an element of risk in its use, a risk which is reduced significantly with appropriate use and training. 

Little & Larger... a few chain saws which form the mainstay of the woodland managers felling equipment these days.
Below: the old school option, a two handed saw, requiring a person at each end, and a lot of co-operation and
effort to get the job done, but get the job done it certainly does!

There are obviously other tools we could explore, and other activities linked with bushcraft skills we could describe. Tools, their manufacture and use really does form a back bone upon with bushcraft skills have relied since they were everyday skills. They remain an instinctive fascination to many people (perhaps especially young boys - I don't think that's sexist, though it is a generalisation) along with fire - a link I feel to the days when the survival of human kind as a species relied upon these skills. Whether these skills are 'required' today is a largely irrelevant point, but without question these tools are still required and used today.



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