FIRECRAFT (FTF Bushcraft School Lesson 1)
What you’ll need for the activities in this chapter:
•A knife (duh!)
•Wood. Even an old broomstick will do for practice.
•Some sort of cordage. Paracord is great, but cheap jute twine can be used as both cordage and tinder.
•A tin. A tobacco tin or an Altoids tin. Something small, flat and with a lid.
•A piece of cotton cloth. You can use other natural fibres.
Learning to control and make fire was one of the most important technological advances in the history of mankind. It’s the tool that allowed us to expand to every corner of the Earth. If you look at the history of human evolution, you’ll notice that the first big migrations started about the same time as the mastery of fire is attained.
Although there is some evidence of fire use by hominids as early as 1.7 million years ago, a lot of scientists consider it rather sketchy and anecdotal. Most agree that the first real proof of controlled use of fire dates back some 400,000 years (starting 125,000 years ago there’s incontrovertible evidence of this type of use).
Fire brought a lot of advantages to Homo Erectus. It made it possible to see and do things at night, it kept predators at bay, it provided warmth in cold weather, etc. It also brought a host of new dietary options to H. Erectus’ table. Thanks to fire, better sources of complex carbohydrates became available (like tubers that weren’t edible raw, amongst other things) and proteins from animal meat became easier to digest (cooked meat requires less energy than raw meat to digest). Fire also made food safer.
Hundreds of thousands of years later, there’s still nothing like fire for those who live or play outdoors. It makes water safe, helps us harden wood tools, cooks our food and signals for help (and it still keeps predators away). In a survival situation, some studies have shown that fire has a very positive morale effect. A place with a nice fire going just feels like home, it’s engrained into our brains.
Sadly, modern conveniences such as lighters and matches have contributed to make us forget how to make fire with simpler tools. Not too long ago, flint and steel fire kits were quite common and people were used to using them to light their cigarettes.
There’s a reason why matches and lighters became so popular: starting a fire without them is damn hard. Our ancestors knew this and that’s why they always tried to keep a fire going and even came up with ways to transport it. I love rubbing sticks together, but I carry a waterproof Pelican box with lighters, matches, waterproof tinder, magnesium block and firesteel as part of my emergency gear. If I were to find myself in an emergency where wasting calories would be a mistake and hypothermia a very real threat, I’d reach for that Pelican box. Most primitive methods require a certain degree of dexterity and fine motor skills go out the window when you’re hurt, tired, cold or just scared.
So, why bother learning this at all? Why not just carry a few extra Bic lighters and be done with it? Well, there are two answers for this. The first is a bit philosophical. I believe that it is our duty to pass down as much knowledge to future generations as possible. Especially the knowledge of those skills on which the very foundations of civilization rest. The only way to keep these skills from being lost is to practice them. It’s also about the pride of self reliance, choosing to use matches instead of needing to use matches.
The second reason is purely practical: the more knowledge you’ve got, the more options you’ve got. I’ve never heard anybody complain about having too much knowledge at his disposal to deal with a given issue.
Like I’ve said before, statistically survival situations in the US last 72hs. That doesn’t mean that all of them are over within that time frame. You might get rescued in three hours, or it might take three weeks. In those long term situations bushcraft and primitive skills can help you overcome supply shortages. They are also a great psychological boost: people who know how to make nature’s resources work to their advantage don’t feel that the world has turned against them when things go wrong.
There are a few different primitive firecraft methods. We’ll only go into detail about a few, so that you have time to get some hands on experience with them. First of all, let’s go over two basic rules that apply to every method:
•Think about where you’re going to start your fire. Be safe and take the wind into account. Always think everything over twice, it saves energy and keeps you from getting harmed (or starting a blazing bush fire and creating some very bad press for FTF).
•Gather all your materials before you set to work. Collect your tinder, kindling and fire wood before you start working your behind off on your bow drill. All the work put into getting that little ember will be wasted if you don’t have the proper kind of fuel at hand. Plan ahead (again, thinking saves energy).
The two main primitive fire making methods are:
•Friction. Includes bow and hand drill, fire plough, pump drill, fire saw, etc.
•Percussion. A hard stone (like flint) is used to strike another stone with iron in it (like pyrite). A carbon steel knife works, too.
Friction fire methods require very simple materials (a few pieces of wood, perhaps a bit of cordage) and the devices are easy to build. However, it takes a ton of energy to produce an ember (especially when working with less than optimal materials). The best known of these methods are the bow drill and the hand drill, and those are the ones we’ll be focusing on.
Percussion takes a lot less physical labour, but it does require good tinder and materials that aren’t as easy to find as those used for friction fire starters. If you’ve got a carbon steel knife, you only need to worry about finding a suitable stone and tinder. We’ll learn how to make good tinder through the magic of pyrolysis.
Percussion fire starting (flint & steel)
Starting a fire with flint and steel will be our first order of business at the FTF Bushcraft School. This method was used until rather recently, and reached its peak during the late 19th century. Most modern cigarette lighters still rely on this system to produce a spark.
We’ll need three things to successfully start a fire with flint and steel:
•Flint. Any hard rock, it might take a bit of searching but so far wherever there are rocks I’ve been able to find a suitable one. Using very basic knapping techniques (id est, bashing it against another rock) we can flake pieces off to expose sharp edges against which we’ll strike our steel.
•Steel. Relatively hard carbon steel works well. Guess what has 4” of hard carbon steel and is hanging on our belt? That’s right, our beloved Clipper. Knives with laminated blades don’t work very well, because the spine is too soft to get good sparks (and has low carbon content). With those knives you’d have to strike the edge against the flint, causing some damage. The same can happen to knives with differential heat treatment. Stainless steel isn’t good for this either. Axes and machetes sometimes work, but you need to strike close to the edge, where the material is hard enough. The natural option is iron pyrite, which can be used as both the striker and the flint (you can in fact use two pieces of pyrite to get a spark).
•Tinder. Basically, anything that will begin to burn from a spark. This is the tricky part about percussion fire, as long as you’ve got good tinder it’s a piece of cake. There are two types of tinder: natural and manmade. Tinder is such a valuable resource that it’s worth preparing in advance if at all possible.
Finding a rock and a striker should be simple enough (just get your knife and start hitting the spine with rocks until you get a spark), but tinder deserves a little more attention.
Natural tinder is found in the form of different fungi. One of them, known to bushcraft aficionados as true tinder fungus (fomes fomentarius), grows on living birch trees. It looks charred and is very useful. After removing it from the tree, cut it open and take the corky light brown interior material. Crumble it into a tin or a piece of bark to use as tinder. The harder parts can be used to brew tea. Many Russian folk medicines include powdered or boiled tinder fungus. Burning pieces where applied to the joints to help alleviate arthritic pain. Some people like to put little pieces in their pipes to help tobacco burn better. [Disclaimer: I’m not telling you guys to run out and start rubbing against mushrooms or smoking anything.]
False tinder fungus (phellinus igniarius) is found on dead birch and occasionally aspen. The harder outer layer needs to be removed to get to the cotton like material on the inside. That material can be worked into tinder and also burned as a mosquito repellent. The cottony substance inside the fungus has to be boiled in slurry made from thin ashes from a wood fire before it can properly catch a spark (that’s the difference with the true tinder fungus, which you can use right off the tree).
Both the true and false tinder fungus can be used to transport a smouldering ember for very long periods of time. A technique used by many aboriginal peoples to save themselves the trouble of starting a new fire.
Using a process called pyrolysis we can easily make excellent, very reliable tinder out of commonly available materials. Cotton cloth works best. Pyrolysis is a thermo chemical decomposition at high temperatures with no oxygen present. An organic material is heated, it gives out gases and liquids and we’re left with a solid residue that’s much richer in carbon.
What does all these mumbo-jumbo mean for our practical caveman uses? It means that after we work like hell to get that first fire going, we can use it to turn almost any natural fibre into almost perfect tinder that will catch sparks easily and turn them into beautiful glowing embers.
If you have a small tin with you, cut your cloth into small pieces (2X2 inches or so) and put it in the tin. Don’t pack it too tight. Punch or drill a small hole on the lid (don’t make it too big). Close the tin and put it on the fire. Take it easy, it doesn’t take a volcano to make this work. Just some embers. If you’re using your kitchen stove, use a low flame. Be patient. Eventually smoke will start to come out from the hole. With some tins (if too much oxygen is getting in) you might even have a little flame, but it will die out. Wait a bit and take it off the fire. Don’t open it right away! If the cloth is still too hot when exposed to oxygen it might burst into flames. You might scream like a little girl and your hunting buddy might just be videotaping you...
After the tin cools down, open it and check the contents. If the cloth is brownish, it needs more cooking. If it’s black but it crumbles when you touch it, you overdid it. Start over. If it’s black but you can handle it without it falling apart, you’ve got it. Go ahead, try it out. Burn a couple of pieces with matches or throw a few sparks on it with your lighter.
If there’s no tin available, an alternate method can be used. It’s not as easy and it might take more tries. Cut the cloth in strips and wrap it around a stick. Place it over a flame, take it out and cover it between two pieces of bark. It works, but it takes more practice and results aren’t always as neat as with the tin, in a same piece of cloth you might get parts that are just right, some are burnt and some need more heat.
I’ve got the best results with 100% cotton cloth. But charring works with most natural fibres, jute twine, paper, etc. A friend of mine even tried it on thin steel wool with decent success. What I like about cotton cloth is that the resulting charcloth is somewhat resistant to handling and carrying (compared to what you get with paper, for example). Old t-shirts, jeans, etc.
Alright, we’ve got our knife (striker), a fresh batch of charcloth and a nice stone with sharp edges. Now what? In a nutshell, you need to strike the back of your blade against the stone and manage to land a spark on your tinder. There are a couple of different ways to do this.
You can place your tinder on a piece of bark (or in your tin), hold the knife still and hit the back with flint in brisk downward motions. This is safe, because you can hold the knife by its handle, but don’t expect a shower of sparks. Or to be able to easily hit your intended target.
I prefer to grab the knife by the blade, with the edge pointing towards my palm. I then place a piece of charcloth between my thumb and the blade. Holding the flint steady in my left hand I strike the back of the blade against it with fast, brisk movements. This approach is quick, but you need to remember that there’s a sharp edge pointing towards your palm. For a bit of extra safety, you can place the edge on a piece of wood and pound on the spine of the knife to drive it into the wood and cover the edge for safer handling.
Once a spark lands on the tinder and produces an ember, softly blow on it and take it to your bird’s nest (a little bowl of dry tinder). Keep blowing until you get a flame. We’ll cover tinder bundles (a.k.a. bird’s nest), feather sticks and other similar things after the basic fire starting techniques. For now, if you manage to get an ember that’s good enough.
If fungi and charcloth are giving you a hard time you can use cotton balls covered in petroleum jelly (Vaseline). Cover cotton balls in petroleum jelly, press hard and store them in a small canister. When you need to use them, open a ball up to reveal the dry interior. This will catch a spark and burst into flames, not an ember, it will actually catch on fire. It’s great, cheap, waterproof emergency tinder. You can carry them in one of these nifty “spy capsules” Spy Capsule, Large (with every order from this place, you get an extra capsule free).
This will be the first assignment for our little course. Don’t worry, we’ll keep it simple. Here’s what I want you to do.
•Make some charcloth. It doesn’t need to be charred cotton cloth, play around and use whatever tickles your fancy. As long as it can be used to catch a spark and glow into an ember without disintegrating in your hands, it’s good. If you’ve got the time and prefer to do it, go hunting for some natural tinder. Try to find true tinder fungus or something similar that grows near you.
•Find a rock hard enough to get sparks from your knife.
•Successfully strike a spark onto your charcloth and gently blow it into a small ember.
•Pictures of any part of the process would be greatly appreciated.
As you can see, this is something you guys can do in your kitchen. Just remember that the knife is sharp! Although the process is simple, it’s not that easy. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t get good sparks right away. Or if they always seem to land anywhere but on your tinder. An instructor once told me: “If you aren’t failing at primitive fire starting, you’re doing it wrong.”.
Next week we'll start Lesson 2: Friction methods.
The first picture below is true tinder fungus, the second one is the false one.
Edited to add: JD has offered to copy the most important info from the previous thread to this one. To make it easier for everybody to find it. Thanks, mate!
Most Excellent, I am going out to gather materials right now. Will post the gathered material later.
Apendix: Emergency Tinder
Here's how the vaseline saturated cotton balls work. They are cheap, reliable and very easy to use. Their advantage over more traditional tinder is that they burst into flames when hit by sparks instead of just starting an ember.
In this pics I used a cheap firesteel that doesn't produce very good sparks (I recommend the Swedish "Light my fire" brand, Kershaw's firesteels are made by them too).
I’m sure at least a few of you have seen this term pop up in books, websites and magazines. Lately it has become a somewhat fashionable term in the knife industry, which has lead to abusive use in advertising (very much like “tactical”). Nobody is really sure what it means anymore.
This is my personal definition of the term, based purely on my training and reading. I consider it an educated opinion, but an opinion none the less.
Bushcraft is a combination of traditional and primitive skills applied to outdoors living. The whole idea behind it is to rescue the kind of practical knowledge that helped human beings rise to the top of the food chain from falling into oblivion. It has very strong links to anthropology and to what some people call practical archaeology. Bushcraft enthusiasts look to aboriginal peoples to learn age old skills that have helped them live off the land.
The knowledge and skills associated with bushcraft are endless, ranging from making cordage out of natural fibres to building an igloo. What remains the same is the attitude behind it: work with what the land has to offer and your own ingenuity to improve your situation. Although there are all sorts of great toys and pieces of kit to help you out, bushcraft tends to take a minimalistic approach. A good woodworking knife is pretty much all you need.
Some people get bushcraft and primitive skills mixed up with survival techniques. There’s a big, big difference. While bushcraft knowledge can certainly save your bacon in a tight spot, most of it is meant for longer term scenarios and sometimes requires too much work. I always use the same example. I enjoy friction fire starting, but compared to a Bic lighter and some waterproof tinder it’s a waste of precious time and energy. In an emergency, you’re playing the calorie game and need to get things done as fast and easily as possible.
However, should you lose or damage your equipment you’ll be happy to carry the knowledge with you to get things done in an alternate way. If anything, just knowing that there’s a “Plan B” will help you keep morale up. Statistically, in the US, most survival scenarios are over within 72hs. That’s why survival experts put emphasis on equipment and techniques that are going to be crucial during those three days (things like food usually take a back seat to the holy trinity of water, fire, shelter). If for whatever reason your emergency goes beyond those 72hs, you’ll be very glad to have invested the time to learn how to make the most of your surroundings.
There are aspects of bushcraft, like trapping and shelter building that are pretty much the same as what’s taught at survival schools. Perhaps with more natural materials used for cordage and insulation (no paracord or space blankets).
Besides its practical side bushcraft is just plain fun. It can be frustrating at first, since we’ve forgotten how to do most of these things. But as you learn and practice it’s just amazing. In a world where people have forgotten how to peal a potato without a specialized appliance making tea on a fire you started with a piece of stone and your knife, and stirring it with a spoon you carved is empowering. Getting back in touch with those basic but fundamental skills on which civilization was built is the ultimate lesson in self reliance.
Get ready to go primitive! It's loads of fun and literally so easy a caveman could do it!
Choosing a bushcraft knife
Very much like guns, there isn’t a perfect knife that will suit everybody in every possible part of the planet. Different people have different needs, largely dictated by their environment. So the best bushcraft knife for you is the knife that you can use best for the most tasks. However, there are some common features that are desirable for most users in the majority of the world. We’ll discuss those briefly here.
First of all, forget about folding knives. I love them, they have a lot going for them but they just aren’t suited to be used as a main bushcraft knife. Compared to even a basic fixed blade, they are harder to clean, weaker and have more parts that can break.
While a bushcraft knife is a jack-of-all-trades of sorts, its main use will be carving and whittling wood. What makes a knife such an essential piece of kit is that it’s a tool capable of making other tools. It also needs to be able to withstand relatively hard use, like batoning. This means that the knife we’re looking for needs to have a full tang, running the whole length of the handle. Whether it’s a full flat tang or a hidden tang is a personal choice. Both styles are plenty strong for our needs and they both have advantages and disadvantages.
Full flat tang knives are the strongest, but they are heavier than hidden tang knives and if the tang isn’t properly drilled to save weight it may affect the balance. A handle heavy knife isn’t very comfortable to use for long periods of time. In cold weather, the exposed metal in the handle can be a problem as well. Hidden tang (or “stick tang”) knives have a bad reputation in some circles, but they are strong knives as well. Almost every single broken hidden tang knife I’ve seen has been due to bad heat treatment or stress risers where the tang meets the ricasso (there should be no 90į angles there!). The design is sound and works well.
As long as the tang goes through the whole handle, I’m fine with either type. In medium or small knives it doesn’t matter that much.
That brings us to the handle. Look for a simple handle shape, designed for comfort and a variety of different grips. You’ll need to hold your knife in a few different ways to get bushcraft tasks accomplished, things like finger grooves tend to get in the way (unless they are really shallow). Big double quillon guards are uncomfortable as well. If you feel the need for a guard at all go for something small and unobtrusive.
As far as handle materials go, choose whatever tickles your fancy. For sheer practicality, nothing beats synthetic materials like G-10, micarta, zytel, etc. Wood and other natural materials are nice, but make sure that they are stabilized, sealed or somehow protected from moisture. If you choose a wood handle, avoid those that look super nice but are too slick for a safe grip (some makers polish wood handles for looks and forget about function).
Blade size, shape and steel are the most controversial points when it comes to outdoors knives of any sort. There are a lot of guys out there who still repeat old knife myths as if they were gospel (stuff like “stainless steel doesn’t take an edge like carbon steel”), and there are also a lot of gear junkies who want the greatest and latest without thinking about realistic field conditions. I won’t get into very technical details but I’ll take a minute to discuss each of these things.
Like I said above, wood carving will be the main use for our knife. It will also need to be able to dress game on occasion. For most people, medium sized knives work best for these tasks. While they aren’t great for felling trees, through the fundamental skill of batoning we can get them to cut pretty sizeable pieces of wood. Big knives are nice, but for the same weight one can usually pack a lighter medium sized fixed blade and a specialized chopping tool such as a machete or axe (and having two tools is always better than having just one!). I feel comfortable with anything from 3.5 to 5 inches in blade length, with 4 inches being my “Goldie Locks” length (not too big, not too small; just right).
The blade shapes that work best are those with the point more or less in line with the centre of the handle and not too much belly (something like a Schrade Sharpfinger wouldn’t work very well). This sort of point is useful for drilling and doing detail work. Some clip points, spear points and drop points work best. The blade doesn’t need to be super thick. I’ve seen some ridiculous sharpened pry bars with 7mm thick blades and obtuse edge angles, they won’t break... but they won’t cut either. Try to look for a knife with sharp angles on the spine, they are great for scrapping and fire making.
Many people worry about everything on their knife, except about the type of grind. This is an important aspect of knife selection since it will affect performance and maintenance. The three main grinds you’ll find are hollow (like a Buck 110); flat (like a Victorinox SAK) and convex (like Marble’s knives or axes). For serious outdoors use I think the flat and convex grinds are superior. A hollow grind will tend to bind in certain materials when doing deep cuts and the edge isn’t very well supported so it has to be kept a bit thick for strength. A convex grind will be strong and easy to maintain, you can also get away with a slightly thicker blade without sacrificing too much cutting power. Flat grinds also work very well and some people find them easier to care for than convex blades.
When it comes to bushcraft, there’s one grind that reigns supreme: the Scandi grind. A lot of bushcraft enthusiasts and experts choose this type of grind because it’s just great for detailed cutting and wood carving, as well as really easy to field maintain. A Scandi grind is nothing more than a sabre grind (a flat grind that doesn’t go all the way up to the spine) without a secondary edge bevel like you’ll see on most knives. This means that the grind itself is a single wide edge bevel that comes to a very keen edge. To sharpen it, you just lay the whole bevel flat on your stone. No angles to worry about.
To sum up, when it comes to grinds I’ll take anything but a hollow ground knife. All the others work well if the edge isn’t too thick (many factory knives have a thick “shoulder” right behind the edge that needs to be ground down for better performance).
Knife geeks can write pages and pages about steels and which is better for an outdoors knife. While it’s largely a personal choice there are a few things to keep in mind. Cheap stainless steels aren’t great performers; they might be OK for a city pocket knife but fall short for a bushcraft knife. Premium stainless steels are great, but beware of those with too much wear resistance because they will be very hard to sharpen in the field. Avoid mystery stainless steels that the manufacturer calls “surgical steel” or “high carbon stainless steel”, when a brand uses good steel they make sure to publicize the name. Look for steels like VG-10, 154CM, S30V, 440C (it’s been around for a while but it’s still great) and D2 (not a true stainless, it’s got a little less Chromium, but it’s almost there).
On the other hand, there are some very good carbon steels that are quite affordable and, as a general rule, have more shock resistance than most stainless steels. They are also capable of creating sparks when hit with a piece of flint. The main disadvantage of carbon steels is that they rust if not cared for (weíll teach you a trick to help with these later on).
Always remember that steel, geometry and heat treatment need to work together to create a great knife blade. Donít let the hype surrounding some of the newest super steels fool you, sometimes is better to go with an older steel from a company that nails heat treatment and edge geometry.
My personal choice, unless Iím going to be in a super humid area or close to salt water, is a simple carbon steel like good old 1095. Like I said, I donít want to go into any technical detail here, but Iíll answer any questions you folks might have. Just post them in my Q&A thread.
Last, but not least, remember to get a good sheath. Sadly lots of really good knives come with rather crappy sheaths. Itís good to learn some basic sheath making if you donít want to buy aftermarket ones. Leather, kydex (concealex, etc.), plastic, nylon (with some sort of insert) are all fine as long as they are comfortable to carry and hold the knife securely. I like simple pouch style sheaths that rely on friction to hold the knife, so I donít have to worry about retention straps that just get in the way. Leather is my first choice (wet moulded and protected with bees wax or sno seal), followed by kydex.
You guys know what knife we've chosen as the official FTF bushcraft blade, here are the reasons why.
Why the 840-MG ďClipperĒ?
This is a short article to share some of the reasons behind the choice of the 840-MG ďClipperĒ as the first FTF knife. I wonít go into much detail, as weíll be addressing some of these points in depth as the project moves on.
I donít know about you guys, but I carry a lot of crap and like to shave ounces whenever possible. The Clipper is really light, around 3.5oz including the sheath. Thatís lighter than many pocket knives.
These knives are designed for hours of constant use, the handles are simple and pleasant to work with over extended periods. We feel that the Clipper offers one of the best handles in the whole Mora of Sweden line up, combining safety and comfort. The larger guards in some of the other models get in the way in certain grips and the slick wooden handles of some traditional knives like the #1 can get slippery with just a bit of sweat.
Excellent edge holding and ease of sharpening.
There are three key elements in the equation to create a good knife blade: steel, geometry and heat treatment. Fail at one of those steps and the finished result wonít be as good as it could. The blade of the 840 is made out of 1095 carbon steel, a truly excellent steel thatís used by companies like ESEE/RAT and TOPS. Itís a simple steel that has been used by the cutlery industry for ages, heat treating it isnít complicated and the fellows at Mora have certainly mastered it.
Thereís a stainless steel Clipper but the sad truth is that there arenít any good affordable stainless steels. Good stainless steels like S30V, 154CM, VG-10 and such are expensive. And itís not only the cost of the material itself, the manufacturing process is more complicated and money consuming.
The steel used in the 860 (stainless) Clippers is 12C27 at 57 RC, itís not horrible but it doesnít hold an edge as well as 1095 at 59 RC. Oh, and you canít start a fire with a flint and a 12C27 stainless steel knife! You can do it with a 1095 blade.
Edge geometry is a big part of what makes Scandinavian knives special. They use a very simple but tremendously efficient flat sabre grind with no secondary bevel, what knife geeks call ďScandi grindĒ. This grind is ridiculously easy to sharpen, you just lay the whole bevel flat on a stone (or a piece of sandpaper) and pull the knife back. Te lack of a secondary bevel helps make the knife a great carving tool, it bites deep into wood and makes clean cuts.
In order to get the most out of the Scandi grind, the blade needs to be relatively thin. If itís too thick, since the grind doesnít go all the way up to the spine, it wonít slice well when used for food prep.
This was an important consideration. We wanted a knife that as many FTF members as possible could afford. We also wanted a tool that would get used, that people wouldnít fear modifying to better suit them. We werenít after a safe queen.
Eriksson and Frosts, the companies that recently merged and formed Mora of Sweden, have been offering excellent quality at affordable prices for decades. Exactly what we were looking for.
Now that Iíve covered the clipperís good qualities, let me address some of the more common complaints I hear about them.
Weíre used to very thick knives, marketed as indestructible. Many guys I know wouldnít touch anything thinner than 6mm. Well, a lot of that is hype. Look at the blades used by indigenous people who still live off the land, check out the old mountain men knives or those used by people like Kephart or Nessmuk. They were usually thin.
Iím not against thick blades if they are properly executed and donít compromise too much cutting power. But just give a nimble knife like the 840 a chance and it might surprise you. Itís all about ďknife philosophyĒ if you will, I see my bushcraft knife as a tool making tool. I donít need it to be able to dig, I need it to help me fashion a digging tool. Clippers are plenty strong for any woodworking task, including batoning.
Iíve been using them for years and have yet to break one. The worst Iíve managed was to bend a Frosts #277 (quite a bit slimmer than the clipper) after batoning it with a rock through a knotty piece of wood that was way too thick to split with that knife. It didnít break, it bent a bit and I fixed it easily with another rock. I was young and stupid...
A Scandi grind will produce a very thin edge. Itís great for woodworking, food prep and detail cutting but will tend to roll if it hits anything hard. The truth is, you just canít have everything. A scalpel edge wonít chop through bone without taking some damage and a thick axe edge wonít handle intricate carving very well.
There are solutions for this issue, very simple ones. For starters, 1095 isnít brittle at all, it might roll a bit if the edge is super thing but a couple of passes on a strop or stone will fix it. For Moras that have a chance of striking something hard like animal bone (for instance, if youíre using yours to dress deer), you can easily add a secondary edge bevel or just convex the edge. Thatíll put a bit more steel behind the edge and make it stronger.
Please, donít think that a Scandi grind will just crumble to pieces if it so much as touches a knot in a piece of wood. Itís more of a theoretical weakness than a practical one, I havenít experienced any problems with any of my Scandinavian knives.
In an effort to keep prices down, Mora knives are usually shipped with less than ideal sheaths. This is true mostly of the traditional wood handled ones. The Clipper is securely held by its sheath, the only possible issue being its belt clip which wonít fit very thick belts.
A little work can fix it. A rather lazy friend of mine just drills a hole through the clip and puts a carabiner through it. This allows him to clip the knife onto his belt. For just a few bucks you can get a Bladetech Tek-Lock or a Spyderco G-clip, both of which will fit a variety of belts (and donít need to be permanently attached to the Clipperís sheath). Weíll discuss other options and different carry methods later on (even how to make your own sheaths).
Knifecraft (part 1)
The 840 Clippers will start arriving shortly, so it’s time to address some knife basics.
A knife is bushcraft’s number one tool, and your best friend in the woods. Such a critical piece of kit requires safe handling and proper maintenance. I can’t stress safety enough, even a small cut is a serious infection risk outdoors. “Think twice, cut once” is the golden rule of wilderness knife use, think about what you’re cutting, whether your knife could be damaged or slip and hurt you.
We’ve covered knife selection, this tips will apply to a wide variety of knives but are mostly focused on the type of medium sized knife I recommend.
The first decision you’ve got to make once you’ve settled on a bush knife, is how you’re going to carry it. It seems like a very stupid thing to ponder on for more than five minutes, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. The main carry methods are:
• Baldric style
Each has good and bad points, and sometimes it’s necessary to switch from one method to another because of clothing, weather, or other reasons. Some knives and sheaths are better suited to a specific way of carry, but most of them can be adapted without too much hassle.
Let’s start with neck carry. Not many people do this correctly, there’s more to it than just hanging a knife around your neck. First you need to make sure the sheath is very secure. Traditional bushcraft neck carry is done with the handle pointing up, modern kydex sheaths allow for safe upside down carry.
Some knives marketed as “neck knives” are supplied with a beaded chain, we won’t be using it. Paracord is much better. You can braid it to have a larger surface area that will distribute the weight better and it’s always good to have some extra cordage around. Use good paracord, cheap imitations aren’t as strong and don’t have those wonderful seven inner strands of cord that you can get out of good paracord.
Having something dangling from your neck where it can get caught in a branch or something like that is not a good idea, so unless you’re using it keep the knife under your shirt. If you leave it out it will catch on something and you might lose it or get injured.
Mors Kochanski, one of modern bushcraft’s pioneers, carries his Mora knife like this. And I’ve seen him accidentally drop his knife after getting the sheath caught in a bow he was making. So remember to keep it under a garment when not in use. Here’s good old Mors showing improper knife carry...
Neck carry is most useful in winter or when wearing a heavy pack with a thick waist strap. In very cold climates your belt is going to be buried under a few layers of clothes, probably covered by a heavy coat. Reaching for your knife can be quite hard. The same happens with a lot of backpack, the waist strap covers the belt and having anything on it becomes uncomfortable and difficult to reach for. Inuits carry their knives around their neck, under their heavy fur coats.
Besides the risk of getting your neck cord entangled on something (which is greatly reduced if used properly), the main disadvantage of this carry method is that it only works well with very light knives. Unless you’re used to having something hanging around your neck for hours, anything heftier than a regular Mora will bother you after a while. Braiding several pieces of paracord to create a broader surface helps, so does putting the cord around your shirt or sweater collar (like a tie) instead of directly on your skin. In warm weather, a knife carried like this will also be exposed to a lot of sweat (not that big a deal with a plastic sheath).
Using a baldric is a great way to carry a bush knife. It is somewhat similar to neck carry, only slung over a shoulder. You can use all sorts of different materials for the baldric, my favourite is braided paracord. I like to keep as much of that stuff on me as possible, making natural cordage is fun but in an emergency a few feet of paracord are an invaluable asset.
The secret to a comfortable baldric rig is not to make it too long, you don’t want your knife flapping about while you walk. I make them so that the knife hangs a bit above my belly button. That’s a comfortable place for me, it doesn’t get in the way of my backpack straps and is still easy to draw and re-sheath. In fact, my backpack straps actually help keep the baldric more stable.
Since the weight is better distributed, baldrics allow for heavier knives. When using this method I usually attach some extras to my knife’s sheath using ranger bands (slices of bicycle tyre inner tube). Things like a firesteel, a bit of sandpaper for edge honing, homemade tinder (we’ll talk about this later) and... more cordage!
Belt carry needs little introduction, I’m sure this is how most of you guys carry your knives. It’s my preferred method during the warm months and when not carrying a heavy pack. It’s convenient, comfortable and 99% of knife sheaths are designed to be carried like this.
However, when wearing a bulky coat or using a pack with a waist strap, it becomes a bit impractical. There are a couple of very simple solutions to this, both of which I learnt from a Finnish friend. The first one, which works for big long coats, is to just wear a belt on top of the coat. The nomadic reindeer herders of northern Finland (the Sami) wear a belt over their coats on which they hang a pukko (small or medium size knife) a leuku (larger knife) and sometimes a pouch and a lasso. It looks a bit goofy to some people, but it works.
The other way to get around this little issue is with “dangler” sheaths. Basically these are sheaths that have longer belt loops that keep the knife dangling lower than usual. They are quite common in northern Scandinavian knives and it’s very easy to modify a regular sheath to be carried this way. Just add a bit of braided paracord (yes, more cordage!) or put a big carabiner through the belt loop and attach it to your belt or your pant’s belt loops. Properly made dangler sheaths make the knife hang lower but they are stiff enough to keep it from moving about, paracord rigs and carabiners sometimes allow a bit too much movement for my taste. So I either stick the point of the sheath in a pocket or tie it to my leg.
Dangler sheaths are bushcraft’s tactical thigh rigs, and Sami style utility belts are like US GI webbing belts but a million times cooler (these guys are reindeer cowboys! Awesome doesn't begin to describe them.).
There isn’t much to say about pocket carry, just stick your knife in a pocket and off you go. Some sheaths lend themselves better to this type of carry, and there are a number of aftermarket pocket sheaths for small fixed blades as well. It’s very discreet, its main limitation being knife size.
Even when the pocket has a zipper or Velcro closure, I like to have some extra insurance to void losing my knife. So I usually tie a length of paracord from my belt to the sheath in case it falls out (and yes, “paracord” will pop up once every three sentences or so).
Keeping your main knife in your backpack is, in my experience, a great way to find yourself without your blade when you need it most. It’s fine to keep backup knives or extra tools in there, but I feel that your main knife has to be on your person all the time. The only time when I keep my knife in my pack, or attached to it, is when I’m carrying a very small backpack that I’ll have on me constantly. I’ve also modified a Clipper sheath to work with a Tek-Lok (dead simple, we’ll cover it in a bit), I clip it onto my backpack’s waist strap while hiking and as soon as I take the pack off I clip it to my belt.
Experiment with different carry options, see which fit you, your knife and your environment best.
I want to apologize for the lack of pictures. I've managed to kill two cameras and burn my old laptop that had most of my photos. I'll sort this out ASAP so you can all marvel at my flawless leather work.
Thank you Francisco, this brings back such great memories.
I have stayed in touch with several of my Scouts and when I told one of my Eagles about this course his response was, "You're not teaching?"
I told him this time I was just going to enjoy the exercise, savor the memory and try to learn something new!
Look what I've created. I have made FIRE.
I have six packages ready to go out, hopefully, tomorrow with knives for folks that have sent in requests.
I think in talking with Francisco that this first evolution will probably be a little longer than the initially planned week because not everyone has their gear yet.
Good luck to everyone and please don't hurt yourselves. :p
I told my son about what we were going to be doing, big mistake. He wouldn't stop asking me to start the fire. We started out looking for some stuff to use to start.
We went into the woods and this is what we gathered.
He proceeded to tell me that this is what Man vs. Wild used and brought it to me.
After gathering stuff together, we took a break to do some family things. The pestering to start the fire continued and continued, so I finally said let's do this. We got some ember going.
Then he added some small sticks to get a fire, he wanted marshmallows.
This was a great thing to share with my son and he is really enjoying it. He has cotton balls with vaseline in a little bottle and wants to use them tomorrow.:eek:
He has even made himself a little box to keep is wares in. By the time this is over he will be the one to stay a week in the woods and Challenge Benning.:D
Thanks for sharing all the great knowledge.
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