Introduction: Lessons of a Knife - Making the Ultimate Bush Blade
"Which knife is best?"
Every adventurer, trekker, hunter, survivalist or geek gets sooner or later faced with that one, simple, haunting question: "Which knife is best?"
Believe it or not, but those four words chased me for many, many years. In the beginning, when I was a kid, I suffered in silence, trying to find answers and discovering that behind every answer at least two more questions were hidden. 'Kids have a carefree life', they may say. Really?
Then came the internet. But instead of better, I got worse. More questions, more worries. And even I didn't find any satisfaction or relief, at least there was one thing that eased my pain, a bit. Thousands Were Sailing on the same ocean as mine, apparently. I felt some comfort in the widespread discomfort. Websites, forums, groups, opinions, statements, words, total chaos.
The inability to decide which knife is best makes us, who are suffering, weak and helpless. And thus susceptible for evil forces, luring us with beautiful sweet blade porn. Page by page. Brands. Hundreds of brands. Thousands of designs. Many thousands of knives. Designers, makers, sellers, they all want our money. Always the same tantric keywords: survival, wilderness, outdoor, bushcraft, heavy duty, yak-proof.
I got lured like all of you. I bought, payed too much, broke, got heartbroken, and bought again trying to forget my previous disaster. Time & time again. Buying blades is a metaphor for marriage, somehow.
Whatever. I sailed through a lot of waters, worshiped a whole list of gods and experimented with quite a few designs, to end up here.
I'm quite down to earth, so I thought this experience might be useful. Somewhere, for someone.
In fact, my search ended in a place I didn't expect. Not in a showroom, not on a website, not at an exhibition, but at my local gear-store. Unexpected, but yet so logic.
So this is it. I'll show you how to make the best homemade price-quality knife you can get. No kidding.
Not even 10$, not even one hour of work, and a lifetime of pleasure. The world starts at your front door.
Step 1: Cool Vs Functional?
Blade porn is more about design than about content. We all tend to choose a knife for its beauty 'because I like it', 'because it's awesome, cool or beautiful'. That's normal, but it's the wrong state of mind - unless you're buying a knife to add it to your collection. To me, a knife that isn't used is simply not worth the buy. A knife is a tool, an extension of your body. So the question has to be 'What will I use it for?'. A trekker will have different needs than a survivalist. A hunter will need his knife for other jobs than a bushcrafter.
You'll discover that the beauty of a design is an excitement that won't last a lifetime. Yep, like falling in love, somehow. Too bad that initial burst doesn't last. Once you've lived together for a while you'll know if it's really the tool that you wanted (the metaphor was unintended, really).
So, try to get above the X factor of many designs. What really count is their functionality.
So, what for will you use it? Think about it.
In the picture: the real AXE for men.
Step 2: Fixed Blade Vs Folder?
I'm not going into a listing up of all kinds of knives. I just want to guide you into the right direction.
Folders, the so called 'pocket knives', are build to save space. Attached to your belt, in your pocket or handbag, in a survival kit, they're a lot easier to carry than fixed blade knives (knives without a pivot point).
My experience is that the more you're in dirty jobs, the more you'll need a fixed blade. Water, salt, resin, mud & blood are no good friends for folders. They will stick, their locking system might get stuck, the knife can break or you can get hurt.
Folders needs to be cleaned & oiled regularly to stay in shape. If you know that you won't be able to do this job for a while, don't choose a folder on your trip. The last thing you need is a folder that cuts your fingers off.
A fixed blade takes more space, right. But, also that is relative. You don't need it to carry like Crocodile Dundee, you can also attach it to the belt of your bagpack. When there's a need there's always a solution. Take it from the sunny side: a fixed blade will never let you down. You can get it as dirty as you want, that's why those knives are built for.
In the picture: my JACK and a Buck skinner
Step 3: Half Tang Vs Full Tang? Wood Vs Micarta?
In case you're tending towards a fixed blade knife, there are a few things you need to know. Some things about that part of the knife hidden in the handle aka the 'tang'.
Here dirt is not a criterium, it's brutality. The more brutal the job, the more tang you will need.
In a full tang knife the blade goes all the way in the handle, most of the time two plates bolted to the handle side. Yep, like a sandwich. Those plates (wood, bone, micarta etc) are in fact just decoration. Yes they will contribute to the comfort of the grip, but they don't have a functional role.
Full tang knives are build to resist. Dig with them, hammer, throw & mishandle: they will survive.
So isn't the case with the so called 'half tangs', 'hidden tangs' etc. Yes, the handles are often more beautiful, and more solid like in full tangs. But, to be honest, who cares about a solid handle? What you need is a solid everything. Beauty is just a sidenote. Beauty is coolness, see previous step.
To every survivalist: get a full tang!
Big advantage of a full tang: by removing the plates you can transform your knife easily in a spear by inserting it in a groove cut in a wooden pole. Yep, you'll need a screwdriver.
Wood versus micarta or plastic? Wood is ephemeral beauty, it'll rot & split with intensive use. Yes, I made a few knives with beautiful wooden handles. But I never used them outdoor. I didn't dare... It's kind of a paradox in knife making: wooden handles are often so beautiful that you don't use your knife for what it's designed for.
So the question is: do you really need a decorative handle?
In the picture:
1. a full tang counterfeit AK-47 bajonet & a rooted (or hidden) tang Bowie-blade - my first knife ;)
2. two rooted tang knives: Bear Grills survival knife & a puukko (still one of the best designs ever)
3. a puukko & two rooted tang file knives in the making
Step 4: Big Vs Small?
If you simply look at a few of my knives, you'll notice that there's an evolution from dinosaur to mouse. First I was into cool, big knives aka Rambo style. Now, gettin' older and hopefully wiser, I appreciate simplicity and compactness.
Right, if you're going to the jungle you'll need something with a longer blade than when you're peeling potatoes in the army kitchen. The keyword is precision. The more you need precision, the more a big blade will be ballast.
Precision? Skinning animals, cleaning roots, carving & crafting, that kind of stuff. Blade length? 3 inch, you don't need more. Razorsharp.
In the picture: a full tang kukuri Gorkha knife, a half tang Bhai and my latest bush design.
You like the last? Great - go straight to step 6.
Step 5: Cheap Vs Expensive?
A knife is nothing but a sharpened piece of steel. What counts is the quality of the work you're making with, not the price you payed it.
I prefer a cheap carbon steel blade over expensive chirurgical steel. If I loose the first, no big deal. Loosing the second will definitely ruin my day. Yes it might rust, but it'll stay sharp a very long time and if oiled or greased regularly it'll stand its time. Take care of your gear and you're halfway.
In the picture: the making of the WASP.
Step 6: Build a Bushcraft Aka Survival Aka Hunting Knife
Having put all this knowledge together, a while ago I came up with my answer to the question "Which knife is best?"
A friend had given me a few 'glaziers knives' - specially designed knives to hack away the putty from old-school windows. These knives are made of 4mm carbon steel, forged, and quite cheap (no even 10$ - that's what I paid for it...).
First I made a few WASPS, and then I started experimenting to hack them into a decent knife. I wanted to do some bushcraft, and after some 30 years of blade porn I discovered that I had no knife for this job. All I had was or too big, or too unpractical. Sobering experience.
So here's the design I came up with. Like I said, it's initially a bushcraft knife: great for precision work, but sturdy enough (4mm carbon steel) for heavier work thanx to the full tang and the long handle.
Get yourself one of those knives, and a grinding wheel.
Step 7: Shape the Blade
Grind away the tip of that knife and shape it round 'skinner style'. Initially I intended to make a pointed blade, but since a 'tanto' inspired tip has a great advantage for hacking & digging I decided to remove even less.
Low speed, cool the blade often in oil to keep the temper. Aim is to modify, not to change it's hardness.
Hold it with bare hands. As long as you feel no pain, no steel will be burned.
Step 8: Shape the Forefinger Sink
What's the difference between a good knife and an excelent bushcraft knife?
The forefinger sink!
Bushcraft is about precision. Precision is about good feeling between hand and knife. A knife that fits like a glove will allow you to do great work. Customise it to your hand. Grind that sink, you'll be amazed.
Step 9: Rawgrind the Cutting Edge
Since you modified the original design, you'll need to correct the angles in the cutting zone.
15° or 20° - sounds good!
Step 10: Fill the Handle
Those glaziers knives sometimes have two grooves to measure & cut glass thicknesses.
Since I wanted to cover the handle with some cordage those grooves had to be filled up. Two bolts, some hammering & some grinding.
Dirty, but functional.
Step 11: Cord Covering
This step isn't really needed since the less material you add to the handle, the higher the precision of the handling of your knife. That's why I asked in one of the previous steps 'Are you sure wanting a decorative handle?'
Since adding a few lengths of rope to your gear is never been a bad idea, I wrapped the whole handle in line-cord & polyester rope - line-cord is great for bushcraft, btw, full natural & it smells great. Whatever, the cord gives you a finer grip, and at least you're sure always to have a few meters of good rope with you.
Fine paracord or even fishing rope is okay, just don't wrap it too thick (two rounds is okay).
Fishermens knots, as usual.
Step 12: Bacon for the Belly
I agree, it's not the cutest bird in town, but given it's price it's definitely the best for the job. Carving, skinning, slicing, digging, hacking & even spreading nutella or peanut butter, it's all bacon for the belly of this bird. Do you really know much knices that are multifunctional like that?
Full tang, 7 inch long, 4mm carbon steel, sharpened carefully. Quality doesn't have to be expensive.
No more blade porn for me. This one's a keeper.
Hope you enjoyed it as much as me, and thanx for watching.
Step 13: About That Sheath...
I feel that sooner or later someone will ask me a question about that redneck-sheath I made. In fact, it started as an experiment but it turned out really nice - my opinion. No rivets or other leatherworking gear needed, and so again doable for everyone.
Just take a piece of wood and cut it in slices (or take two planks, thus two pieces of wood). Draw the outline of the blade to one of them & router it out (I really need to change the router-bit). Glue the second one to the routered one - it even works the way round - and clamp the whole. After a few hours: declamp & design & just don't forget to make a groove on the handle side. Oil it, stain it, soak it in whisky or black tea - it's your sheath, you can do with it what you want to do with it.
Organise a piece of leather (you can even hack a piece of an old boot), wrap it like a taco around the wooden wooden sheath and use some cordage to fix it very tight. Yep, that's what that groove was for. Wet leather is better. Clamp the handle side for a while to mold it somehow around the handle, make a few holes (use a small metal tube - pencil - and hammer on it) and use a length of paracord to make a nice corset-style something.
Not bush-proof? I know, it'll rot & be ruined in very few time - if I were stupid enough to leave it ouside this winter. I'm sure you can do a lot better than me. Suggestions welcome.