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Friday, 29 September 2017

The latest Bushcraft Basics page is available

The latest bushcraft basics page is available here and for a limited time below;

Knives, along with some other basic tools have become part of the 'uniform' of the modern bushcraft enthusiast. But knives are not just ornaments that set us apart as bushcrafters they are a vital tool of survival, in fact knives are the oldest metal tools known to man. Preceded by stone and bone tools knives make survival in the wilderness possible and are often the key to preparing dry kindling and tinder, preparing food, fashioning other tools and utensils to make out lives in the wilderness possible and comfortable. 

This page of the introductory 'bushcraft basics' section of our website is dedicated to knives and how to choose your bushcraft knife.    

Before metal cutting tools we would have relied largely on stone tools, in the British Isles they may have been knapped from flint and chert or larger tools such as axes may have been shaped from shale and porcellanite.  

Copper Axe Head. Early Bronze Age. (FindID 154837).jpg
Five thousand years ago stone tools would have been largely replaced by metal and your average cutting tool might have been made from copper or bronze, like the copper axe carried by the ice man Ötzi. Picture by The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0Link

Nowadays the blades of your knives and cutting tools will certainly be made of steel, but there are so many modern bushcraft knives to choose from how do you pick just one that will be a useful all-round tool.

If we are going to talk about different knives, their pro's and con's and the features and qualities that will inform our decision on which to choose we need to understand a knifes anatomy;

A Saker Bushcraft Knife by Columbia River Knife and Tool

The shape shown in the Saker by CRKT pictured above is fairly representative of your average 'bushcraft' knife. A lot of knives marketed with the word bushcraft tend to follow fairly closely in the footsteps of the ubiquitous 'woodlore' knife designed by Ray Mears. There are other options and schools of thought out there regarding the 'perfect' bushcraft knife and ultimately the choice is yours but a few other particularly popular designs exist and are returned to regularly by modern knife makers:

Horace Kephart

He may be a legend but it looks like he needs to work on his trigger discipline.
By Unnamed photographer - Western Carolina University,
Hunter Library Special Collections
, Public Domain, Link
Horace Kephart is one of the fathers of national parks in the United States and Mount Kephart in the Smokey Mountain National Park is named after him. He was trained and employed originally as a librarian but wrote often about hunting and camping. Many of his writings were compiled into a single volume and published in 1906 as Camping and Woodcraft. He makes some recommendations in his writing on the specification of his knife. Luckily for us he also designed  this knife for production by the Colclesser Bothers and the knife was produced and sold. Only two are known to still be in existence, one in a museum and one in a private collection but we have pictures of them to refer to and many modern knives copy his pattern almost exactly; such as the blackbird by Ontario Knife Company. 


Nessmuk (George Washington Sears).jpg
By George Washington Sears -,
Public Domain, 

This is the picture that appears in woodcraft depicting Nessmuks 
George Washington Sears, known by his pen-name of 'nessmuk' was an American writer and outdoorsman who published a book on 'woodcraft' in 1884 which has become a seminal text on camping, bushcraft and the outdoors. In it he describes his ideal cutting tools including the knife he recommends. Many have since copied it and applied it's shape to knives now sold as bushcraft knives, perhaps without truly understanding how Nessmuk himself used this knife. The tools he recommends to the light weight camper, Nessmuk was an advocate of travelling light and making use of  basic tools and superior skill to make your trips rather than relying on porters and heavy gear, a point he returns to regularly in his writing; the tools included a small double bit hatchet, a sheath knife and a pocket knife. if we carefully read what he had to say we will soon realise that 99% of the jobs we do with our bushcraft knives today Nessmuk performed with his pocket knife. His sheath knife was strictly reserved for skinning and preparing game and was kept razor sharp for that purpose and that purpose alone. As a skinning knife it has a shape we would recognise but is very different from your average modern day bushcraft knife.  

Image result for nessmuk knifeThe picture to the left from woodcraft shows nessmuks tools of choice and if you search for 'nessmuk knife' now you will find a range of beautiful modern interpretations of his knife but many of them will not faithfully represent his knife except in basic outline. The hunch backed blade is reminiscent of butchers carving knives or skinning knives but most of the modern copies have the thick spine and grind of a 'survival' knife meaning it is not the specialist tool Nessmuk had in mind but rather an all round bushcraft knife forced into the shape of his old skinning knife. The kinfe that would have been his utility knife for whittling, carving and other chores would have been his pocket knife. Pocket knives don't get good press among bushcrafters as a whole nowadays, the reason being the inherent insecure nature of the blade and handle. A blade that folds might fold when you don't want it to and is inherently weaker than a fixed blade knife and therefore doesn't inspire confidence when doing tasks which might require more strength or force. However a pocket knife tends to be what we have available to us most of the time and if you want to practice bushcraft more than just casually I suggest a strong pocket knife which can be used at all times so that you can take advantage of opportunities for a little foraging, whittling and collecting even when you can't justify carrying a sheath knife. 

A modern take on nessmuks outdoor tools, the Camilus Bushcrafter, it may share it's outline with nessmuks original design but you can clearly see the Scandinavian grind (we will address grind in a minute) and thick blade steel. The two or three bladed pocket knife would have been his main utility blade(s) here represented by a Case Stockman. 

When selecting a knife we are presented with a  bewildering array of options and selecting a knife that is a good all-round tool can be the biggest challenge of all. It’s fairly easy to set criteria for what a knife for a specific task needs to be, for example a knife for skinning and gutting must have a stainless steel blade, a non-absorbent handle, rubberised or textured handle to avoid slips when the knife is wet and a hard non-absorbent sheath for safety and hygiene. When it comes to picking an all-rounder though there are a few more things to consider so think about the following three major characteristics of your knife.  


Carbon steels are often promoted as the material for bushcraft knife blades because of the notion that they strike better sparks from a firesteel and the fact that some carbon steels are easier to sharpen in 
the field than some stainless steels. In truth though you can strike a spark from a fire steel with a shard of broken glass, so the notion that carbon is better than stainless for creating sparks is nonsense and regarding sharpening: This is bushcraft not surviving the zombie apocalypse, you have deliberately put yourself in a situation where you are relying on your outdoor skills and basic equipment so if you have a knife there is no reason to not have a proper sharpening stone. Some popular preferences for knife steels come from national pride or brand loyalty as well, in particular bushcraft and survival style knives from the  United States tend to be made from carbon steels such as 1095 Carbon steel whereas bushcraft knives from Sweden tend to be produced from sandvik steel and knives produced in Italy and Germany see to often use Böhler stainless steels such as N690 from Austria. Ultimately great knives can be made from any quality steel and there should be no need to invest in a knife with a particularly 'super' steel to get great results from your tool. 
The advantages that stainless steel gives is some additional protection from rust and corrosion, although the word stainless steel is a bit of an exaggeration, it’s not really ‘stainless’, it does stain less but it’s not stain free and you will still need to care for your stainless steel knife by cleaning it properly and oiling it occasionally. What makes the stainless steels ‘stainless’ is the fact that it contains chromium, normally at least ten percent although it will vary slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer. Ultimately if the steel is high quality whether it’s carbon steel or stainless it will be fine. 

Blade Shape;

Blade tips from a (clockwise from bottom left) Böker Rockey Ridge Hunter (drop point), Eickhorn Nordic Bushcraft (clip point), Exagon Tactical Knives FX-1666 TK by Fox Knives (simple/normal point), Cold Steel Tanto lite (tanto), EKA Nordic W12 (drop point).
Blades can take many shapes and forms and some are more suited to bushcraft tasks than others, One key feature that must be present in a knife that would be suitable for bushcraft is a sharp point, that sounds obvious but there are actually quite a few knives that don’t have this feature. A sharp point is important as it can be used for prying, scoring and drilling, and not the sort of nonsense you see on youtube with people insisting that knives have a 3/16 inch thick blade so that they can use them as prybars or stab them into trees to use as a step, quite what they are trying to reach I don’t know. By prying I mean lifting small slivers of wood, perhaps to produce a hole like this; 

Some blade designs which might not have this feature include the tanto blade or ones with the type of blade often referred to as a 'nessmuk' by Bushcrafters. Drop point or spear point designs are most common among ‘bushcraft knives', although knives with a slight clip point are equally effective, like the one on the Eickhorn Nordic Bushcraft knife pictured below;



From top to bottom; Cold Steel Outdoorsman lite (Sabre grind), Fällkniven F1 3G (Convex grind), Hand made Bushcraft Knife from the UK (Scandinavian grind), Eickhorn Nordic Bushcraft (Flat grind).
The ‘grind’ of a knife is the shape of the knifes edge, not the shape of the blade but the way the blade tapers to the sharp edge. There are four types you will normally encounter in knives suitable for 
bushcraft; Scandinavian grind where the bevel (that is the part of the blade which tapers to the edge) is a single angle from some distance up the blade all the way to the cutting edge. A full flat grind where the blade has no flat portion at all and tapers all the way from the spine to the edge with a fine second angle (or bevel) just before the edge for strength, a sabre grind which features a slightly higher grind than a scandinavian grind but with the addition of a secondary bevel like on a flat ground knife. Finally the convex grind which features no angles whatsoever but a gradual symetrical curve from spine to edge. Well executed convex edges like the ones on the Fällkniven range are fantastic and hard to beat in terms of performance for bushcraft and survival tasks but it is unfortunately very easy to find manufacturers who produce very poor convex edges which are terrible to use, for example Condor, every condor knife I have used has had a hideous convex edge, although they are never advertised as convex, but the portion of the blade nearest the edge is very steeply covexed and just seems to have no bite and rides strait out of whatever you are cutting. There are other grind optionts such as hollow grind and chisel grind but these are less common and have significant drawbacks; hollow grinds tend to be very fragile and prone to chipping, and chisel grinds are, in my opinion, for chisels and side axes. 

Scandinavian grinds are often favoured for bushcraft knives for their superior wood working performance, not to mention the fact that it has been popularized by well known celebrity bushcrafters like Ray Mears and are featured on all the Mora range of knives which set the standard for basic bushcraft knives. Ultimately any of the grinds shown above will perform adequately for bushcraft tasks though.  


Clockwise from top right; Handmade UK Bushcraft knife (full tang bone handle), Viper Tank (full tang canvas micarta handle),  Fällkniven F1 3G (protruding broad tang, plastic (thermorun) handle), Eickhorn Nordic Bushcraft (full tang aluminium handle), EKA Nordic W12 (full tang, G10 handle). 

Handles are the simplest of these three things to address, above all other considerations they should be comfortable. A few other suggestions are that the handle is non-porous so it is less likely to swell in damp conditions and is more hygienic when used to process game. For comfort a handle which fully encloses the tang (the tang of the knife is the metal of the blade which extends into the handle) can be recommended although a full tang, that is one which extends the full length and width of the handle will be stronger but as with the question of which steel to choose in your knife a good quality knife will do a fine job whether it has a full tang or not. The most important aspect of the handle is that it fits your hand, a bushcraft knife might be needed for prolonged use so a handle that comfortable fits a full hand grip is essential. No knives that only offer a three finger grip should be considered for bushcrafting. Even the fantastic Böker Rockey Ridge Hunter which I have pictured further up the page despite being an excellent skinning knife would perform poorly in tasks requiring greater strengths as the handle is too small to use comfortably for heavy duty work or for a long time. 

With all these things in mind I will give one further piece of advice about knife selection, I have been very careful not to say that a certain knife is the ONE knife to have, although I might have warned you off from a few others. If you are to spend your money on bushcraft remember that adequate kit can be found for very little, invest your money in knowledge first and kit second you can get a Hultafors heavy duty knife for less than £5 or a Mora companion for £15. If you are going to buy a three or four or five hundred pound bushcraft knife consider the number of books you could buy to learn more bushcraft skills or the fact that you could get a return flight to New Zealand for only £200 more or three return flights for you and your rucksack full of cheap bushcraft tools to Sweden where you could camp for as long as you want and practice your skills. It's up to you. 

Once you have selected your knife, the sky is the limit for what you will go on to make, but remember to be careful with it. 

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