Council Tool Velvicut Hudson Bay Axe Review

 

 

 

Spending much of my youth and early professional life as a backpacker and teaching backpacking, I not only rejected carrying an axe or hatchet, I used to snicker at the idea of anyone outdoors thinking they needed one outside of a hunting camp.  I considered the old Boy Scout manuals, with pages devoted ink to the tools as woefully outdated.  As a Leave No Trace instructor, I preached against carrying axes or hatchets, believing them to be not only useless in the modern outdoors but the source of some of the most egregious environmental damage found in popular campsites.

My opinion regarding axes and hatchets has changed over the years.  The evolution occurred after I started down the path of traditional camping.  And believe me; once you start down that path, you quickly realize just how important a wilderness tool the axe can be.  To begin with, I realized that it is not the axe that is to blame for environmental damage but rather, how it is wielded.  Folks who routinely show disregard for the environment will do so in most everything they do in camp.  Removing the axe or hatchet from their kit may lessen their impact but only by a little.  Sadly, there will always be duffers and chumps to spoil things.  Second, I’ve realized that for most camping, having an axe or hatchet can be quite useful.  In fact, given what I now know, I would say the axe or hatchet is the single most important edged tool you can carry in wilderness, particularly if you are camping in the old style.  But even if you are backpacking using modern gear, the hand axe (hatchet) can come in quite handy.  With an axe, you can quickly process the wood required to build a fire and shelter if you have to spend an unexpected night out.  Splitting your fuel wood to get to the dry center will often be the only way to successfully start a warming fire after the woods have been soaked with rain.  Sure, you could probably to these tasks with a knife but with MUCH more time and effort than with an axe or hatchet.

Soon after my traditional camping interest was sparked, I began searching for the one axe that would meet any task encountered on a wilderness trip, on foot or canoe.  Would it be possible to find a model that would work in all situations if I were limited to just one axe?  It would have to be light and compact but one that could meet the challenge of any of the numerous tasks of wilderness camping.  In my quest, I accumulated a LOT of axes and discovered that I really like them.  Over the years I’ve collected vintage and modern American axes, hand-crafted, custom-made American axes and a number of Swedish boutique axes in all sizes, weights and patterns.  Some were astonishingly inexpensive and some cost more than I ever thought I would spend on an axe or hatchet.  Some have proven to be very good axes and some have been a disappointment.  I considered some to be the perfect axe for a bit, only to later change my mind.  Some proved to be too light for certain tasks and others, too large and unwieldy.  Many of the axes I’ve collected have been good at chopping but none were outstanding splitting axes.  Oh, they could split kindling better than a knife, and certainly, some were better splitters than others, but none were good enough at both tasks for me to consider them the perfect camp axe.

One of my acquisitions a few years ago was the Council Tool Hudson Bay axe with 28-inch handle (Council Tool #175HB28).   If you are not familiar with the company, you should be.  Council Tool has been making striking tools since 1886 in their factory in Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina.  Remarkably, the company is still owned and operated by the Council family.  Council Tool is one of the last remaining manufacturers of American-made axes and other striking tools.  Their products are supplied to the National Forest Service and the military and as such, are made to be “users” rather than boutique axes.   I found the Hudson Bay axe to be well made and to have good temper but like nearly all modern production axes, the finishing and craftsmanship was below that of the Swedish boutique axes.  Yet, I found that the ax to be far better than the finishing led me to believe.

I soon corresponded with the folks at Council Tool, urging them to produce a line of premium axes to compete with the Swedish brands that have come to dominate the market.  I included my ideas on the features I’d like to see in the axes and a list of what patterns and sizes they should offer.  No doubt others were making the same request because their response was that Council Tool had already been considering such a move.  The company decided to enter the boutique axe market in the spring of 2011 with the introduction of their Velvicut Premium Felling Axe, followed by the model I’m reviewing here.

The Council Tool Velvicut Premium Hudson Bay Axe ~

In late September of 2011, two Council Tool Velvicut Premium Hudson Bay Axes (Model #JP20HB24C) arrived at my door.  One was graciously provided by Council Tool for my review and analysis.  The other I’d purchased in order to compare a hand-picked example with one that had been randomly selected to fill an order.  Unfortunately, just days after the axes arrived, my blog went down and I could not post a review until now, so this review is quite late and should have been done long ago.

 

TWO Velvicut Hudson Bay Axes!
The sheath on the bottom has been photographed from the opposite side to show the “D” ring used to lash the axe to something.

 

Initial Impressions ~ 

The axe provided by Council Tool was fitted with a clear, “white” hickory sapwood handle.  The axe I ordered was mounted on a warm, rich, red-brown hickory heartwood handle.   Note: most of the old-timers insisted that only second-growth, clear hickory sapwood be selected for axe handles. I have seen this admonishment in nearly all of the old books that discussed axe selection.  However, according to numerous tests conducted by the United States Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory, no discernible differences between the two types of hickory could be found with regard to strength or shock absorption properties, which are the most important properties of wood selected for handle stock.  In fact. I’ve seen a number of the Swedish boutique axes hung with heartwood handles.

The axes have the appearance of a finely crafted heirloom tool (which they are).  The Velvicut models come with a high quality, thick leather sheath that fully encloses the head. The sheath is modeled somewhat after a Maine guide sheath, with a “D” ring riveted to the back side in order to lash the ax inside a canoe so that it cannot be lost.  There are differing opinions as to what kind of sheath is best – one that encloses the head or one that simply covers the bit.  I personally prefer the type delivered with the Velvicut axes.  In terms of quality, this is the nicest sheath I have ever seen on a production axe, bar none.  In the tradition of the Swedish boutique axes, the Premium Hudson Bay is delivered with a beautifully designed, sturdy “booklet” attached to the handle by a length of jute (natural) twine.  The booklet provides a lot of information to the owner about the company, their products, the Velvicut line and how to care for the axe.  All in all, the presentation is very impressive.

The sheath and booklet that comes with the axe.

 

SPECIFICATIONS ~

Head Weight:   As stated by manufacturer: 2 pounds. (I asked Council Tool to weigh a completed and polished axe head before mounting on the handle to determine the exact weight of the head – it came to 2 pounds exactly)

Handle Length:   Stated by manufacturer: 24 inches.   Actual length, measured from where the handle enters the head to the bottom of the handle: 22.5 inches (Council Tool handle lengths always describe the length of the handle before hanging)

Axe Head Material:   5160 steel

Temper:   The bit is hardened to RC 50-54

Handle Material:   Hickory sapwood or heartwood or a mix of the two

MSRP:   $129.99

 

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS  

Head Construction ~ 

Here is where we find what could be considered by some to be the most significant difference between this axe and the Swedish boutique axes.  All of the Swedish makers describe their axes as being hand forged while the Velvicut line, like all Council Tool axes, are drop forged.  For some, the fact that the Council Tool axe is not hand forged is a deal breaker.  In truth however, Swedish boutique axes are also forged on a machine.  Some Swedish manufacturers forge their axes on a triphammer (also known as a smith hammer) and others on an open die drop forge (I have heard some are produced by the open die drop forge method but have not been able to confirm this).  Either way, both methods employ machine forging.

Council Tool shapes their axe heads by impression die drop forging.  This is how the overwhelming majority of axe manufacturers have made axes since the 1920’s.  This type of forging employs a die or set of dies, shaped into a mold of the intended finished product.  A steel ingot is heated and placed on the  lower die which is struck repeatedly by a falling hammer to force the steel into every crevice of the mold.  This is exactly the  same method by which nearly all of the great American axes were produced after the turn of the century.  I say nearly all because a few axe makers in Maine were using triphammers into the 1960’s.  Small ax manufacturers used triphammers in the United States long after drop forges were in use, not because the method was  inherently superior but because the small firms that used them could not afford to purchase a drop hammer in what was by then, a declining market.  Why then, do the Swedish manufacturers choose to make axes by triphammer and/or open die drop forging?  The main reason is likely cost.  Impression die drop forging requires the added expense of tooling the die molds for every size and shape of ax offered in the line.  If a maker produces small numbers of axes or wants to change or add models frequently, then triphammer or open die drop forging are the most cost effective ways to do that.  Another, not insignificant reason, is to offer the added allure of a “hand forged” stamp on the head.

The reason for this discussion about forging in what should be an axe review, is because I have seen so many axe enthusiasts look down their noses at a drop forged axe and I believe that is a mistake.  I own several Swedish boutique axes and will readily admit that they are very finely crafted.  However, the idea that the Swedish axes are superior because of the forging method is erroneous.  Shaping the head is just one step in creating an axe.  More important to making a good axe is what is done after the head has been forged (For more on forging, see  here).

One unique aspect of the Velvicut Hudson Bay axe’s head construction cannot be seen because it lies within the eye.  Because Hudson Bay patterns have a short eye length compared to other axe patterns, they do not offer the same degree of surface contact between the head and handle.  The result can be a loosening of the head after only moderate use.  Council Tool solves this problem by piercing the eye with a special punch that creates horizontal and vertical ribs on the inside surface of the eye.  The ribs make more contact area between the head to handle, ensuring a snug fit for years to come. 

The Alloy Steel/Temper ~ 

Nearly all production axe heads are made from 1050 or 1055 grade carbon steel and the Swedish boutique axes are no different.  Swedish axes get their strength and hardness from proper tempering and annealing.  The Velvicut line departs from this by being made with 5160 grade steel, which is most often used to make leaf springs.  5160 steel is a significantly harder steel than the standard grades.  According to Council Tool, 1050 or 1055 grade steels require approximately 6 to 8 blows of a 3500 lb. falling hammer to produce an axe head.  The 5160 alloy requires nearly twice as many strikes to accomplish the same thing.  Council Tool tempers their Velvicut axes to an Rc of 50 to 54.  Swedish axes are tempered to approximately Rc 57.  What does all this mean?

5160 Steel 

  • A very hard steel alloy
  • Natural hardness makes heads very tough.  Tempering hardens the bit for edge holding ability
  • Bits are hard enough to hold an edge without being brittle and are less likely to suffer damage when using in cold weather
  • The edge is easier to sharpen than harder tempered axes

1050 or 1055 Carbon Tool Steel  

  • Steel is roughly half as hard
  • The Swedish makers temper their edges harder than Velvicut axes, offering greater edge holding ability
  • Edges are more brittle due to being tempered so hard and are (slightly) more likely to chip in use
  • The very hard edges are more difficult to sharpen

The Velvicut axes are produced in such a way as to make them very tough but resilient.  They may need to be sharpened a bit more often, but I would gladly trade the slightly softer temper for greater edge durability (resistance to chipping) and ease of sharpening.  Because of how they are made, I believe the Velvicut axes would be a better choice for using in very cold conditions as they would be less likely to chip in use.

Another attribute of the Velvicut line is the depth of the edge hardening, which is markedly greater than other brands.  In some instances, the Velvicut edge hardening has been measured to be twice that of the competition.  Because the hardened edge extends deep into the head, the life of the bit will be longer than other brands.  I tested the hardness of both Hudson Bay axes by running a file over the edge and they proved to be very hard.  Note: To their credit, once they developed the die for the Velvicut version, Council Tool decided to use it to make the heads for the standard grade model as well (produced in carbon tool steel instead of 5160 steel).  That means that the standard grade axe is a much better tool that before.  Also note: Council Tool has NOT changed the product description or model number to reflect the new 2 pound head weight of the standard grade axe and you will still see it described as having a 1.75 pound head.  That weight is no longer correct.

 

A comparison of depth of hardness. Velvicut ax heads are compared to the competition. Three Velvicut heads were cut into sections and analyzed by an independent lab and compared to a competitor’s ax. Heads marked B1, B2 and C are Velvicut. The head marked D was made by a  competitor. The Council axes are through hardened from 1.75” to 2.00” back from the bit. The competitor’s ax is hardened only about .75” deep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Head pattern, grind, edge profile and finishing ~ 

Overall shape

When French explorers arrived in North America, they carried an axe of a pattern said to have originated in the “Biscayan” region of Northern Spain.  The Hudson Bay pattern is descended from this French trade axe.  Highly popular among native tribes in the North Woods and Canadian Shield, it has become the choice of those who work, live and travel in remote wilderness.  The Hudson Bay pattern was never intended as a woodlot axe but rather, a wilderness axe made for light, fast travel.  The pattern excels at shaping wood, a common task of wilderness living.

Two negative characteristics of the pattern are caused by the prominent beard that can break in use, particularly in cold weather and poor balance relative to other designs due to the added weight of the beard.  These characteristics have been addressed by Council Tool with the choice of using a harder steel and by tempering the ax to be resilient.

Profile

Compared to the standard grade version, the Velvicut axe profile is thicker overall.  When first inspecting it, I thought this would negatively affect performance but in fact, the new axe design significantly outperformed my old one.  While the greater head weight likely contributes to this, it is apparent that the new profile makes a big difference.  I know that I like the feel of this axe a lot better.  The head, around the eye, is thick but transitions smoothly down through the cheeks and tapers less dramatically than what you see on Swedish axes, particularly on the Gransfors Bruks models.  When looking down from above, the profile appears to be nearly straight, with slightly hollowed cheeks, terminating in a convexed bit silhouette.  This profile makes for an ax good for general purpose use (chopping and splitting) and one that does not glance out of the cut.  The cheeks are hollowed just enough to throw chips well.  The profile also allows the axe to cut deeply but it never requires tugging at the end of a stroke to free it.  The new profile makes this an axe that works equally well at chopping, splitting and shaping wood (cutting tent stakes and wedges).

 

Head profile is excellent. Grind symmetry is very good.

 

Edge profile and sharpness ~ 

Again, the edge looks too thick if you are used to the Swedish axes. However, it outperformed all of my Swedish axes in splitting and that thickness is what does it.  The edge profile works and that’s what matters.  Both axes were delivered significantly sharper than the standard grade model I own, but more importantly, feature a properly convexed edge ending in a “V” bevel.  This is in marked contrast to the pronounced beveled edge of my standard version.   I found the sharpness to be similar to the three Wetterlings axes I own (all of which predate Wetterlings acquisition by Gransfors Bruks) but it does not come close to the sharpness of a Gransfors Bruks edge.  Though both axes were delivered very sharp, the moderately angled  “V” bevel is too blunt and thick.  If the “V”  was more acute and the bit  thinned down, the edge would be better at both chopping and splitting.  As it is, some time will have to be spent by the owner to improve the edge for chopping.  Council Tool should strive to improve their edge but in all honestly, I’d gladly take an axe with a good profile but needing a bit more edge work over one with a poor profile, delivered razor sharp.

Surface finish ~

Here is another area where the differences between this axe and the Swedish models are most apparent.  All of the Swedish boutique axes sold in the United States are delivered with the forging scale remaining on the head.  This practice is entirely unlike any of the great vintages axes made in America.  A lot of folks like this rustic look.  I’ll admit to liking that finish as well.  However, it was never used on production American axes, many of which, featured smoothly polished, painted heads.   The Velvicut Hudson Bay axes are given a smooth satin finish and the bare metal is treated with a coating of light machine oil (I applied a coating of my own compound of raw linseed oil and beeswax immediately upon receiving them).   Personally, I like how Council Tool finishes the Velvicut heads.  I think a North American pattern axe, made by an American company, should be finished like American axes have historically been finished.

Alignment ~ 

It’s a good thing that I received two examples of the axe as it allowed me to determine to a small degree, if the craftsmanship and quality of materials were consistent.  The alignment was found to be the best I’ve seen on an American manufactured axe.  One example had perfect alignment.  The other was only very slightly misaligned.  This is also in marked contrast to my “user” grade Council Tool ax that was delivered with  poor alignment.

Grind Symmetry~

The heads on both axes were much more symmetrically ground than the standard grade model I own.  Both were delivered with an equal thickness of steel on both sides of the eye and the poll was ground straight, square and flat.  The symmetry was not absolutely perfect however, as the taper toward the poll, just behind the eye, was ground a smidgen steeper on one side than the other on both axes.

Balance ~  

The balance of a Hudson Bay pattern axe will never be perfect but this ax is as good as you’ll find.  Council Tool significantly improved the balance by lengthening the poll enough to compensate for the heavy bit without adding unnecessarily to the overall weight.  In a balance test, the edge dropped 7/8” below the centerline, which I consider to be excellent for this type.

 

Balance is excellent for this type.

 

The handle  

 

Material ~ 

The Velvicut axes are mounted on handles of American hickory, the favored species used for striking tools.  The handle blanks sourced for the Velvicut line are made from specially cut quartersawn hickory sapwood or heartwood or a mixture of both. 

Shape ~  

The handles are patterned after those found on vintage American axes.  They are smaller in diameter than the handles of Swedish axes and that slender profile gives them a bit of flex in use.  I find the Velvicut handles to be very comfortable in my smaller hands.  The look, feel and grip of the handle is superb.  I prefer the diameter and shape of the handles used by Council Tool over those of any other axe maker.

Length ~

This ax differs from most competitors because the head weight runs about 6 to 8 ounces heavier.  Most axes with a handle length between 18 and 24 inches usually have a head weight of around 1 ½ to 1 ¾ pounds.  Some may like the length to weight ratio and others may wish for a longer handle.  If you find that you want a longer handle, this is the same axe head fitted with a 26 ½ inch helve.  Personally, I love the size and weight of the Council Tool version.  It is compact for carrying in a pack or ax pocket but has the head weight to accomplish real work.

Grain Orientation ~  

In the old days, axe makers had their own saw mill and cut their own handle stock.  The lumber was cut in such a way as to obtain the largest percentage of straight-grained material possible.  As axe use declined, manufacturers began sourcing the stock from suppliers.  Cutting the lumber as in the old days is relatively expenisve because of waste.  The retail cost of a standard handle runs between $10.00 and $14.00 dollars but  to offer a handle cut to produce straight graining would be more like $25.00 or even more.  As most modern axe buyers are homeowners as opposed to professional wood cutters, to keep costs down, suppliers began cutting the lumber into planks and then cuttting the planks into the handle blanks.  Cutting lumber this way results in very few handles being straight grained.  Council Tool’s decision to specially source the handle stock for the Velvicut line has really paid off as the graining of both examples I received is excellent.  This is the result of the stock being quartersawn.  I think the added cost is worth it as you can see the difference immediately.  One axe has nearly perfect graining, while the other is off by less than about 5°.  Any modern axe that can consistently deliver a grain orientation in the range of 0° – 15° is as good as any you’ll find.   I have not seen enough of these axes to say that they meet this standard but time will tell.

 

 

Alignment is excellent on both examples

 

Helve to head fit ~ 

The fit of the helve to the head was excellent, with no gaps to be seen anywhere around the eye when viewed from the top or bottom.   In this respect, I found both axes to be every bit as good as any Gransfors or Wetterlings ax I’ve seen.

Wedge ~ 

The Velvicut axes are wedged with wood with a steel wedge driven across the wood wedge at an angle.  Some folks do not like the addition of a steel wedge and some do.  I personally think this is just how a larger sized axe should be wedged.  With the hydraulic handle mounting that Council Tool uses, plus the added security of the ribs inside the eye, this head will stay tight for many years.  Like the Swedish axes, the top end of the handle protrudes out of the top of the eye. 

 

  

Beautiful wedges on both examples.

Finish ~  

The Velvicut axe handles are sanded enough be offer a comfortable, secure grip and are then given a hand-rubbed raw linseed oil finish.  You can swing this axe all day and never get sore hands or a blister.  All in all, I believe this to be the finest handle ever used on an American axe and equals the quality and finish of any of the Swedish axes.

Performance ~ 

I’ve used these axes quite a bit at home and in camp, chopping wood, splitting kindling, cutting tent stakes and the like.   I did not improve the edge for chopping for testing as I wanted to see how both axes performed as delivered.  As I suspected, splitting performance was superb.  On a recent camping trip, I made a believer out of both of my camping partners.  One who has always been satisfied with the performance of his Fiskars axes (and who also harbors a deep mistrust of wood handled axes, as he believes they will soon loosen) used one of these axes to split kindling and became a convert.  Chopping performance did not match that of my Wetterlings.  Still, the more I’ve used these axes, the more I like them.  I plan to thin down the edges of both and see if performance improves.  My feeling is that a thinner edge and the outstanding profile of the Council Tool Hudson Bay axe will make it a great all-around axe.

 

The Velvicut Hudson Bay Axe is a superb tool and is MADE IN THE USA!

 

Now, my love for the beautiful Swedish axes has not diminished.  I believe them to be superb tools.  I also know that there are folks who would not own anything but a Swedish boutique axe.  However, their popularity has given rise to a lot of mistaken beliefs about the modern Swedish axe.  The fine Swedish axes we see today are not ancient patterns, handed down over generations but in reality, are a product of the 20th century.  And though the Swedish firms making the axes have been forging steel since at least the 19th Century (and in the case of Hults Bruk, the makers of the Hultafors and Husqvarna axes, since the 17th Century), none of these companies began making axes even close to what they produce today until they learned how to do so by visiting axe factories in the United States.  That’s right, the Swedes learned their axe making from Americans.   The United States was recognized around the globe for being the greatest axe makers in the world.  European axes were designed for hewing and shaping but were inefficient for cutting the very large hardwoods found in North America.  It was in the United States, during the 18th Century, that the greatest wood cutting axes were developed.  By the late 19th Century, European axe makers were visiting American factories to see how these superb axes were produced.   Sadly however, a peculiar characteristic of Americans is the high value they tend to place on all things new and their general rejection of anything that came before.  Once the chainsaw was developed, axe use in America steeply declined and with it, so did axe quality.

Manufacturers could not justify the cost of producing dozens of axe patterns, specially cutting their handle stock or spending the man hours finishing axes that were eseentially for homeowner use instead of being wielded by professional wood cutters.  In truth, most of the American axes sold today work fine for the homeowner who will likely use the tool very occasionally and who probably doesn’t know how to care for the tool anyway.  The better American-made axes that Council Tool produces in their standard-grade line are significantly better than most axes you’ll find in a hardware store and are very capable tools.  However, in order to keep the costs down, they are finished to be “users” and do not meet the bar that was raised by Gransfors Bruks and the other Swedish axe makers who have followed suite.

I’ve wanted to see some friendly rivalry develop among American and Swedish axe makers.  I’ve wanted, in some small way, to reclaim our nation’s recognition for producing a great axe.  I’d like to show the Swedes that we have not forgotten the craft.  For most folks who’ve wanted an American axe, until now that largely meant a vintage American axe.  This axe has changed all that.  With the introduction of the Velvicut Premium Hudson Bay model, Council Tool has crafted the best sporting axe ever produced in America.  This is an axe in pattern, size and weight that will meet the needs of guides, trappers, hunters, campers, canoeists, wilderness survival enthusiasts – most anyone in outdoor work or recreation.

Though the Velvicut Hudson Bay axe has only been on the market a little over a year, it has already recieved quite a bit of attention.  It was named a runner-up in Garden & Gun Magazine’s 2012 Best of the South awards for the outdoor category and was also also selected as one of the “Coolest Tools of 2012” by the DIY Network television show Cool Tools.   And yes, it’s the one I would choose if I were limited to just one axe.

The Crooked Knife

Crooked knife made by Registered Maine Guide Don Merchant. The carbon blade is relatively short and rigid. This type of crooked knife is best used for carving concave shapes such as bowls, spoons, etc.

“The most valuable things that I own are my ax, my wife and my crooked knife.” ~ “Blue Coat”, Northern Cree

 “No (Northeastern Woodlands man) ever goes off on a journey without this knife, no matter how short the distance …and (he uses the knife) to make one thousand and one indispensable objects.” ~ Major John Wesley Powell, explorer of the Grand Canyon

“On a wilderness trip you need three knives: (1) a belt knife; (2) what is called a crooked knife…and (3) a penknife” ~ Calvin Rutstrum

 

Though most contemporary outdoor folk have no idea what a crooked knife is, the tool has been exceedingly important to northern native peoples.  So much so, that it has become an inextricable part of their culture.  Crooked knives are easily identified by their narrow, flat blade, usually terminating in a curved tip.  The curve at the tip can vary from very shallow to a near “L” bend.  In addition to the unusual blade, handles are also bent upwards, like an “L” on its side with the long end pointing toward the tip of the knife.  It is the bent handle that gave rise to the “crooked” appellation, not the blade.  Some crooked knives have entirely flat blades, yet are still considered crooked knives.  Blade lengths vary from 3 to 6 inches.  Blade characteristics also vary from some being short and rigid and others being long, thin and flexible.  Knives with short, rigid blades were developed to carve cups, bowls, and spoons.  Knives with long, flexible blades were developed to shape canoe ribs and paddles, snowshoe frames, smoothing planks for a toboggan etc.

Crooked knives are essentially a one-handed drawknife and like a drawknives, has the bevel ground only on the upper edge of the blade.  This means that you will often see both right and left hand crooked knives.  In use, a crooked knife is drawn toward the user, with the bend in the handle serving as a thumb rest.

 

This is the most common way to hold and use a crooked knife.

 

Crooked knives are perfect for gouging a hole or making a trough.

Illustrations from “Woodcraft” by Bernard S. Mason, A. S. Barnes and Company, 1939

With just four tools: the saw, ax, knife, and crooked knife, the old-time woodsmen accomplished tasks normally requiring an entire chest of standard tools (chisels, drawknives, spokeshaves, and wood planes etc.).  Today, the crooked knife is not an essential tool for general camping.  Its value is as a tool for those who live or travel in very remote places.  For people who cannot rely on a store or trading post for resupply and who continue to use wooden equipment.

Only a few commercially made crooked knives are found today, ranging in price from $45.00 to $150.00.  For most folks, that is just too costly to justify experimentation.  One inexpensive way to try your hand at using a crooked knife is to purchase a hoof or farrier’s knife.  A hoof knife is similar to a crooked knife in that the blade features the same one-sided bevel.  Differences include a more tightly curved tip, handles that lack an “L” shaped handle and the temper, which tends to be more brittle. Mora of Sweden makes their Mora/Frosts Equus 180 (wide blade) Hoof Trimming Knife.  It is an excellent model to start with as it can be found for around $17.00.

Traditional Crooked Knife Construction 

The traditional way to make a crooked knife is shown in the below.  Ellsworth Jaeger illustrated the finished handle being bound with rawhide but the more traditional method has been to use tarred marline, also known as tarred yacht marlin.  Tarred marline was a hemp cord used for rigging in sailing.  The waterproof tar coating prevented the hemp from quickly rotting by being constantly exposed to the wet and damp.  Modern “tarred marline” is made from coated polyester but luckily, genuine hand-tarred hemp marline is available once again.  It is expensive but in my opinion, the only proper way to bind the handle of a crooked knife.

 

Ellsworth Jaeger shows us how to make a crooked knife.
(from Wildwood Wisdom, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1945)

 

All native-made crooked knife blades were made from worn out files.  At present, I haven’t learned how to make a blade like that.  However, you can purchase crooked knife blades and make your own crooked knife very easily.  Even natives used factory made blades (though they generally preferred to make their own crooked knives to meet specific needs).  All of the old trading posts stocked such factory made blades.  Many native made blades were highly embellished, with handles carved into all kinds of fanciful designs.

Why the crooked knife largely disappeared ~

Crooked knives are woodworking tools.  When many items in a woodsman’s kit were made of wood, they were an important tool.  When wood was replaced with plastics, the importance of the tool declined.  Additionally, crooked knives were used in an era when folks made much of their own gear, something that is almost non-existent today.  Surprisingly however, crooked knives continue to be regularly used by the northern native peoples of the United States and Canada.

My Crooked Knives ~

Currently, I own two crooked knives.  The knife I started with was not a crooked knife at all but the Mora/Frosts Equus 180 Hoof Trimming Knife described above.  Though not a true crooked knife, the 180 can be modified to work like one.  The birchwood handle of the 180 widens to a paddle shape at the rear.  This provides enough material to reshape the handle into a mild “L” of a real crooked knife.  The very tight curvature of the tip is not ideal but for the price I can hardly complain.  I’ve heard that some folks with blacksmithing skills have opened up the radius of the tip.  With the handle reshaped and the tip curvature relieved, this could be a great crooked knife.  Had I been able to rework the tip I would likely have used the 180 for a longer time but I was lured by the crooked knives shown in the old woodcraft books.

 


Mora/Frosts Equus 180 Hoof Trimming Knife with wide blade. The handle has been modified to work like a crooked knife.

The old woodcraft books describing the crooked knife always included an illustration of the long, thin-bladed type and that image became my idea of what a “real” crooked knife looked like.  I’d read numerous references of the Hudson Bay Company stocking crooked knife blades and knives of the long, thin variety, at company posts.  Some have said these were good knives, some have reported that they generally avoided by natives who preferred to make crooked knives to their individual tastes.  It seems that the HBC offered crooked knives at least up through the late 1970s and from what I understand; the later models did not simply curve at the tip but featured a twist in addition to the curve.  Right-handed knives curved but also were twisted about 30˚ to the right while left-handed knives had the 30˚ twist going to the left.  The twist eliminated having to make that motion while carving and so, made carving easier.

The HBC crooked knife blades, and later, complete knives, were made to their specifications in Sheffield, England by George Wostenholm and Son (est. 1823) under their historic I•XL (I excel) trademark.  From what I understand, Wostenholm had the contract for the HBC crooked knives from when they were first offered until they were no longer stocked. Still, I wanted a Hudson Bay crooked knife because it was, for a time, a ubiquitous item of wilderness equipment in the far north.

About a decade ago, Gary Arenson of Haines, Alaska sold reproductions of the old Hudson Bay Company blades.  These were very high quality, Sheffield-made blades that were patterned after a vintage original in Arenson’s possession.  Like the originals, the new blades were stamped with the “I•X L”.  Unlike the originals, the reproduction blades were produced in stainless steel.  For some reason, the factory put a slight bevel on the bottom of the blade.  As delivered, the reproduction blades were also rather dull.  However, with some time spent flattening and smoothing the bottom side of the blade and honing the top bevel, they make wonderful crooked knives.

 

Traditional embellished crooked knife made from an Arenson reproduction HBC blade. The handle is of walnut, carved in the shape of a loon. The knife was made the traditional way with the additional step of gluing the two halves of the handle together before binding with tarred marline. The thin, flexible blade is best used for carving snowshoe and canoe frames, canoe paddles, toboggans etc. The knife is carried in a birchbark sheath and was photographed on a piece of the bark the sheath was made from. (if I can make this anyone can!)

Crooked Knife Recommendations ~

For bushcraft work, the rigid, short-bladed crooked knife is more useful as it can be used for making the depression in the bearing block of a bow-drill kit, or spoons and bowls, etc.  Thus, a modified Mora hoof knife or one like that made by Don Merchant would be the type I would consider.  After using the Merchant-made knife for a couple of years I can say that it is a superb crooked knife.  You can find crooked knives with more embellishment and handwork but I honestly do not believe that you could find one that performed better than his.  Note to those folks with small hands: I found Don’s handle to be too large for my relatively small hands and had to thin it down considerably before I was satisfied with the knife.

For most folks, a crooked knife with a blade like Arenson’s is one to play around with, to carve on something in the backyard and learn what it was like to use a crooked knife back in the days of the Voyageurs.  There is value in such an education.  For example, some canoeists may want to make their own paddle.  Some may want to build a birchbark canoe, a skill that attracts a small, dedicated cadre of enthusiasts.  For them, the long, flexible crooked knife is indispensable.

Luckily, Don Merchant’s online shop Pole and Paddle Canoes and Gear continues to list the Arenson reproduction blades and of course his own crooked knives.  In addition to Pole and Paddle Canoe, Moose River HandcraftsCariboo Blades and Henri Vaillancourt also offer excellent crooked knives.

Those who aspire to join the ranks of woodcraft should learn crooked knife skills – so buy a crooked knife or better yet, make one and start today!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Packable Dutch Oven Perfect for a “tramp” (a Hike, Not a Hobo)

 

 

A Dutch oven of cast-iron is very serviceable on any trip that permits carrying so heavy a utensil.  Why are none made of cast aluminum?” (emphasis is mine)~ The Book of Camping and Woodcraft, Horace Kephart (1909)

If you’ve never enjoyed biscuits, cornbread, pie or cake, stews or anything prepared in a camp Dutch oven, you don’t know what you’re missing. Outdoors folk have used and treasured the Dutch oven for generations because it is the one cooking vessel that can make all of the above and then some.  Eggs can be fried or perfect flapjacks made on the inverted lid, heated over coals.  Vegetables can be steamed in it.  Corn on the cob can be boiled in it.  In short ~ the Dutch oven is nearly the perfect cooking utensil.  I say nearly because the weight of a traditional cast iron Dutch oven makes it too heavy for all but horsepacking, Jeeping or fixed camps.  As useful and popular as Dutch ovens are in fixed camps today, they were not particularly popular among the old Woodcrafters.  Their extreme weight was part of the problem.  Even the old-timers  that liked them, only recommending them only for horsepacking or the like.  Some, like Stewart Edward White, positively disliked them.  Nearly all of the old books also mentioned that while Dutch ovens were very rarely used in the East, their use was more widespread in the West where undoubtedly, horsepacking was the customary mode of wilderness travel.  In Kephart’s time, cast aluminum Dutch ovens weren’t available but even those of today are too heavy for tramps (hikes) and thus, are now most popular among river rafters.

Back in the ‘80’s, I taught an annual class in camp cooking and Dutch oven cooking was part of the curriculum.  Since that time, I’ve regularly used a Dutch oven in fixed camps.  In the ‘90’s, I completed a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) Instructor’s course and learned to bake in the backcountry using the Banks Fry-Bake to prepare cinnamon rolls, pizza, and even cherry pie.  I found the Fry-Bake to be the best of the various commerical backpacking bakers but even that noble pan could not match the camp cuisine prepared in a Dutch oven.  I’ve also used pie-pan “Dutch” ovens (see my post below), which work surprisingly well; but again, do not match the performance of a “real” thick-walled Dutch oven.

After developing an interest in traditional camping, I renewed my search for a Dutch oven light enough to take on a solo hike.  After all, if I was going to cook over a wood fire, I was going to do at least some of my cooking in a Dutch oven!  My goal was to find a vessel with what I consider crucial Dutch oven features – 1) it had to be made from thick walled, cast metal (aluminum would be the only material light enough to easily carry), 2) it had a tightly fitting lid to hold in the heat and featured a depression to retain coals or briquettes for baking and 3) it had to have steep, deep sidewalls to allow baked goods to rise.  In addition, the perfect vessel had to be compact for easy packing.

My search led me to the IMUSA cast aluminum Caldero, that I discovered by accident during a visit to a local Hispanic grocery.  This little pot immediately struck me as the near perfect lightweight Dutch oven.  In fact, if you Google “caldero”, you’ll find that a number of online “department” stores list them as a type of Dutch oven, i.e.: “calderos/Dutch ovens”.  The caldero I found embodied several of the Dutch oven characteristics I’d been seeking. It was made of thick walled, cast aluminum, had a tight fitting lid and the sidewalls were deep and straight.  However, though the lid was domed for good internal volume, it had no depression.  It was also fitted with a plastic knob for lifting.  I picked up the caldero and inverted the lid.  The domed shape now provided a depression for baking though the fit was not tight at all.  Still, at a cost of less than $12.00, it was worth experimenting with.

Calderos are made in many different finishes – polished spun aluminum with riveted handles and aluminum lids, cast or spun aluminum in porcelain or other colored finishes and glass lids, cast aluminum with non-stick cooking surfaces and glass lids, cast aluminum with non-stick interior and exterior finishes and the one we are interested in, unfinished cast aluminum with cast handles and a cast aluminum lid. Calderos also come in several sizes and can be purchased individually or in combos or whole sets of sizes.  The caldero I selected was the IMUSA 18-Centemeter Caldero (18 cm, 1.5 liter or 1.6 qt., 7” x 7”x 2 ¾” deep, 2 lbs.).   This size is often described as a #2 caldero.  The store carried an even smaller size (#0, 14 cm, 1/2 liter capacity).   It now appears that IMUSA has discontinued these two small sizes and offer a  20-Cenemeter model as their smallest caldero (20 cm, 2 liter or 2 qt., 7 ¾” x 7 3/4” x 3” deep, about 2 lbs.).  If you want a #2, the only brand I know of is made or imported by the Allied Metal Spinning Corporation.

An internet search of caldero a couple of years ago turned up only a few specialty Hispanic online stores stocking unfinished cast aluminum calderos selling from $6.00 to $20.00.  I now see that calderos are now stocked by Sears, Walmart, K-Mart, and Macy’s stores (at least online) and have become more upscale and correspondingly expensive.  I suspect that this is to appeal to American tastes.  Natural cast aluminum models are less commonly stocked in favor of the newer styles described above (not useful for camping).  Prices for these fancier models are also higher ($29.99 – $40.00).

Of course, for the caldero to work as a Dutch oven, the plastic knob would have to be replaced, which I did, with a stainless steel eyebolt.  On the underside of the lid I ran the shank of the eyebolt through a large aluminum spacer before tightening everything up with a stainless steel nut.  Now when the lid is inverted, the large spacer is used to lift the lid.  I carry a BSA “Hot Pot Tongs” for that job.

 

BSA Hot Pot Tongs

 

A recent search of the Boy Scout Official store did not turn up the tongs, which have been stocked since at least the early 1950’s.  Luckily, the Banks Fry-Bake company now carries their “PotGripz”, which are nearly the same.

I recently had an opportunity to try out the little Dutch oven camping in the Ouachita mountains of southeastern Oklahoma.  It produced perfect, golden cornbread on the first try!  While I should have elevated the oven over coals like a real Dutch oven, I used my improved Nomad stove along with a “little larger than twig” fire built on the inverted lid.  As with a pie pan oven, when using the Tramp oven over coals or briquettes, you rest bottom pan on three rocks.  The coals should be centered, with the support rocks spaced around the outside.  The rocks should be of equal height so the contents of the oven remain level.  Dutch oven author John G. Ragsdale prefers to use three tent stakes over rocks as he believes that it is easier to level the pan, but I’ve never had any trouble finding three rocks that I couldn’t level by digging down if need be.

 

Interior of the Tramp Oven
Caldero Dutch Oven ~ Ready to Bake!
Baking in the Tramp Oven
Just Right!

 

Cornbread!

 

At a weight of 2 pounds and a packed size of 9 3/16” x 3 ½” (with lid inverted), the little Tramp oven is light and compact.  You can fry, braise, boil, or bake in it.   I plan to experiment with baking a bannock in it in the near future.  I can’t imagine the bannock would scorch due to the thickness of the pan.   And at a cost of less than $12.00, you’d be hard pressed to find any alternative that would be as light on your wallet.  Why don’t you try one of these “tramp” ovens yourself?

The Pie Pan “dutch” Oven

 

 

As I mentioned in my A Packable Dutch Oven Perfect for a Tramp” post, I’ve also fashioned a lightweight “Dutch” oven from pie pans and have had surprisingly good luck turning out biscuits, cinnamon rolls and the like.  In fact, until I devised the “tramp” oven, the pie pan oven was my favored method of lightweight baking in the backcountry.

The downside to a pie pan oven is that the thin aluminum can melt if subjected to too much heat.  Though I’ve never seen it, I’ve heard reports of light aluminum pie pans melting when too many coals were used or the oven was foolishly placed over a roaring fire.  When using a pie pan oven, never use more than handful of coals, small twig fires (as in a hobo stove), or the low heat on a single burner backpacking stove.  It will take some experimentation to learn just how much heat you need and how long it takes to bake in one of these but remember, they are made from thin aluminum and it doesn’t take much to heat the interior up in one of these.  Now, let’s go over how to make one of these stoves ~

YOU WILL NEED

  • Three heavy duty aluminum 9-inch pie pans (The pans I used were WINCO commercial pie plates (22-gauge seamless aluminum, 10” diameter, 1 ½” deep, 4 1/3 ounces and $4.25 ea.)

 

  • One 10-32 x ½ (fine thread) brass machine screw
  • Two #10 brass washers
  • One brass #10 wing nut

INSTRUCTIONS

Drill a center hole large enough to accept the #10 machine screw, through the very center of two (2) of the pans.  I also use two brass #10 flat washers between the pan surfaces and the screwhead and wing nut, respectively.  These are not necessary but I like washers.  The bottom of one upright pan is affixed to the bottom (inverted) pan by using the hardware like so –

 

      

 

The two pans in the photo above have been bolted together.  The pan on the right serves as the upper container for holding coals, briquettes or a twig fire.  The inverted (bottom) pan on the left serves as the cover for the oven.  In use it rests on the third pie pan to create the oven like so ~

 

 

Dutch oven author John G. Ragsdale advises that two bolts, located 3 or 4 inches apart, are more secure than a single center bolt and while he may be correct, life is t0o short.  I’ve always used the single center bolt.  Ragsdale also recommends that the outer surfaces of the pans and interior of the upper pan be painted with black stove paint to improve performance.  That step is worthwhile but eventually the outsides will develop a hard, black carbon coating anyway.  I’ve also seen instructions that recommend clamping the edges of the upper pan set to the lower pan but I’ve found that that is not necessary when using heavy duty pans.

When using the pie pan oven over coals or briquettes, you rest bottom pan on three rocks.  The coals should be centered with the support rocks spaced around the outside.  The rocks should be of equal height so the contents of the oven remain level.  John Rasdale prefers to use three tent stakes over rocks as he believes that it is easier to level the pan, but I’ve never had any trouble finding three rocks that I couldn’t level by digging down if need be.

I recommend that you do not use pans made from stock thinner than 22-gauge as they will not hold up to the heat.  The WINCO pans shown here feature rolled edges which makes them very sturdy.  There are deep dish pans made by other manufacturers that would offer greater internal volume.  I have never seen these in stores but can be found online.  Vollrath makes a 9-inch anodized aluminum pie pan, which I consider the creme de la creme of pie pans.  These are made in the USA from 22-gauge anodized aluminum.  However, they are 1/4-inch shallower and cost more than twice that of the WINCO pan.

A set of pie pans and the hardware to assemble the Dutch oven weighs half that of the caldero though the packed size is similar.  However, the thin pie pans do not compare in baking performance to that of the thick cast aluminum of the caldero.  Surprisingly, the caldero was less expensive than purchasing the materials to make this oven.  Still, you might want to experiment with an oven like this to see which type you prefer.

Kamp Kephart – Classic Camping Skills Workshops Directed by Steve Watts!

2013 promises to be a GREAT year for learning traditional camping skills and ethics.  In addition to the week-long Woodsmoke symposium, classic camping authority Steve Watts has organized a series of weekend courses through The Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia, North Carolina.  The workshops have been organized into a series of day-long classes over a different skill on each of the two days of the weekend.  The first workshop begins February 23, 2013.  See the Workshop information above and schedule below (click on the images to enlarge them) ~

If you live near Gastonia, North Carolina, you don’t want to miss this opportunity, so call The Schiele Museum to sign up today!

Woodsmoke Classic Camping and Bushcraft Symposium Organized by David Wescott!

 

If you are into traditional camping or want to see what it’s all about, you need to attend WOODSMOKE ~ The Second Annual Classic Camping and Bushcraft Symposium, held in Tetonia, IdahoJuly 14-20, 2013.  Woodsmoke is oganized by Backtracksof Rexburg, Idaho, an organization founded by Dave Wescott that conducts primitive living skills conferences.  Woodsmoke is limited to a maximum of 100 participants, so if you want to atttend the newest and largest school of traditional camping, sign up quickly!  I was not able to attend last year and have regretted not being there for the inaugural event.  For more information, Email Backtracks or phone them at (208) 359-2400 to find out more.

Woodcraft Project ~ Trapper Nelson Indian Packboard Restoration

For those not familiar with this traditional packboard, let’s review its history ~

The Trapper Nelson Indian Packboard, patented by Lloyd F. Nelson in 1924, represented a significant advancement in pack design, appearing on the market near the end of the classic camping era.   The pack was first conceived after Nelson used an Indian packboard on a tramp in Alaska in 1920.  The native-made article featured a stretched sealskin, stiffened by a willow frame.  Though Nelson found the packboard uncomfortable, he considered it an improvement over the popular Poirier (Duluth) pack that dominated the field at the time.  Nelson was confident that he could produce a pack superior to anything then available with regard to distribution of weight, carrying comfort and carrying capacity.

Working nights in his basement, Nelson came up with a wooden frame, braced with cross slats, a ventilating canvas back panel and a quickly detachable canvas packsack.   Nelson invented the concept of hanging the packbag from the frame by running a heavy wire rod through a set of screw eyes attached to the frame and inserted through grommets in the packbag.  To remove the packbag, one only had to pull the two heavy wire rods out of the screw eyes and give a tug to the packbag.  This method of bag attachment was copied by Kelty and other pack makers decades later in a slightly modified form (Kelty replaced the screw eyes with aluminum aircraft rivets that Kelty drilled holes through, to accept the wire (now known as a clevis pin).  In his U.S. Patent application, Nelson noted that his packboard could be produced in various sizes without departing from the spirit of the invention.  This was easily accomplished by simply lengthening or shortening the frame rails and wires and adjusting the number of screw eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patent images courtesy United States Patent and Trademark Office website

 

 

 

Though considered crude by today’s standards, the Trapper Nelson represented a breakthrough in pack design.  Nelson predicted that the new pack would be popular with trappers, foresters, miners, surveyors, timber cruisers and Boy Scouts, which it did, after a slow start.

Nelson worked tirelessly, carrying a sample pack on his back into every sporting goods store from San Diego to Seattle.  Orders were slow in coming but as sales began to improve, Nelson soon encountered problems.  Attempting to sew the packbags himself, and combining them with a frame made to his specifications, Nelson found that he could not produce the pack quickly or efficiently.

In 1929, he contacted Charles Trager Manufacturing of Seattle, Washington, a producer of  lumberjack supplies, to have them produce the pack.  According to the Trager website, Nelson sold the business to Trager but he must have retained some rights as he later negotiated agreements with manufacturers in Canada to produce the pack under the Trapper Nelson name in that country.  Just weeks after the agreement with Trager was completed, Nelson was asked to fill two orders totaling 1000 of the packs by the United States Forestry Service.  From that point on, the Trapper Nelson became the dominant pack for overland hikes and tramps in North America.  The Poirier pack was forever relegated to canoe tripping (as a portaging pack) after Lloyd Nelson’s pack became popular.  Unbelievably, Trager produced the Trapper Nelson in the United States until 1986, long after the development of the modern aluminum external-frame backpack.  Trapper Nelson packboards remain highly popular with Alaskan hunting guides and prospectors, who consider them superior to modern aluminum frames for carrying the heavy loads associated with those activities.

Now to the project ~

I purchased an old, beat up Trapper Nelson at a swap meet about eight years ago, to serve as part of the décor in my son’s “Boy’s Life”, circa 1950-themed bedroom.  I think I paid $5.00 for it.  The bag was in fair condition, the frame was in very good shape with only a tiny crack in a cross brace and everything was there.  The metal components that had originally been brass or nickel plated were rusted but the three galvanized heavy wire rods, used to attach the packbag to the frame and to connecting the cross braces, were in perfect condition.  Sadly, the previous owner carved his name in one side rail and drilled a number of random holes through the lower frame on both sides.  I carefully washed the packbag, applied Lexol to the leather conchos (rivet reinforcements), oiled the frame with linseed oil and stuffed the old packbag with plastic and newspaper to give it shape.  It then rested in a corner of my son’s room until a few months ago.  Desiring a new look to his room at age 17, I came home to discover that the old pack had been relegated to the Goodwill pile.  WHAT??? Give this wonderful traditional pack to Goodwill?  No way!  I decided that I would restore it!

I don’t have any before photos of the pack.  I never think to do that at the beginning of a project.  But here is what I did –

  1. Pulled the heavy wires out of the screw eyes that are used to affix the bag to the frame.
  2. Pulled the canvas packbag off the screw eyes.
  3. Untied the cord tightening the ventilating canvas backrest around the frame.
  4. Removed the galvanized heavy wire that connected the cross braces.
  5. Removed the steel screws that attached the oak cross braces to the pine frame.
  6. Removed the brass-plated steel end caps and nickel plated steel shoulder strap clips from the frame.

Now the various components were ready to restore or replace as needed.

I glued the crack in the cross-brace and then went to work on the side rails.  After spending several days filling the random holes and gouged owner’s name in the rails and sanding/refinishing the frame, I decided that I would never be satisfied with the results.  I had my brother-in-law, a custom cabinet and furniture maker by trade, make new side rails in straight-grained oak to match the cross braces.  The difference in color between the new side rails and the 60 year old cross braces was significant so I had to stain the new wood to even things up.  After staining, the frame components were given a couple of coats of teak oil and the cut ends of the side rails were sealed with three coats of spar varnish.  Then, the frame was hand-rubbed with a linseed oil/beeswax mixture.

The rusted steel wood screws and screw eyes were replaced with new solid brass hardware.  The end caps were re-plated in satin brass as original,  and mounted over the sealed ends of the side rails.  The clips that accept the shoulder straps (originally nickel plated) were brass plated in order to provide for a more uniform appearance.  The galvanized wires that affix the pack to the frame were heavily plated in nickel and given a satin finish.  All of the new and newly-plated hardware was left unfinished to allow everything to oxidize beautifully over time.

 

Here is the side of the frame showing the clips that accept the ends of the shoulder straps (lower frame).

 

This is where things stand at the moment.  I plan to replace the galvanized, heavy wire rod that connects the cross braces with one of solid brass (not seen in the photos here).   The packbag is very simply made and I think I could replicate it myself but I wanted to add some features so if anyone knows of someone experienced in sewing canvas, I may decide to have them make the packbag.  I already have a source for the leather for straps and pack harness if things work out.

 

The packboard as viewed from the top. The brass end caps have been beautifully re-plated.

 

I’ll update this post as the project continues to progress.

The Helle Temagami ~ a Great Bushcraft Blade!

 

Bring up the subject of Bushcraft knives and you’ll find general agreement over the characteristics of the type.  But ask which brand or models are best and then the arguments begin.  Knowing full well that I’m dipping a toe into the waters of cutlery conflict, I’ll take the risk and proceed thereto.

While good bushcraft knives can be had with both convex and Scandinavian grinds, most folks agree that Scandinavian ground knives excel at shaping wood.  You don’t have to worry about maintaining your angle, just lay the wide, flat bevel against the wood and go to work.  You’ll quickly be making long, curly shavings without gouging the wood.  Scandinavian knives have a lot of great characteristics, one being that they are exceedingly light for fixed-blade knives.  This is primarily because they are made using traditional “stick-tang” construction, in which the blade, upon entering the handle, is reduced in size from the width of the blade to a narrow “stick” no more than 1/2 inch wide and tapering down to even less than that at the end of the tang.  Some stick-tangs are full-length and some are partial tangs that may only extend half to three quarters the length of the handle.  Now, stick-tangs are not something to be avoided.  They’ve worked for over 1100 years and have proven to be strong enough for the tasks encountered when using a knife, thank you.  However, some folks desire the greater strength of full-tang design, in which the blade width does not narrow at the handle. This method of construction is the strongest of all methods of handle attachment.

A bushcraft knife fitted with a full-tang, Scandinavian ground blade would provide the ideal combination of excellent wood shaping performance with great durability.  Today, Bark River Knives makes the Bushcrafter and the Liten Bror, two American style bushcraft knives with a combination convex/Scandinavian grind.  While these are expensive, wonderful knives, the model that set the bar for the type was the Ray Mears Woodlore knife.  The Woodlore spawned several mimics (most of which are hand-made) and quickly became the standard for what is now known as the “British bushcraft” style.  However, as nice as the Woodlore is, at a retail cost of around $730.00 USD, it is out of reach for most people.  I’ve been on a quest to find an affordable knife with the construction quality, features, and general appearance of the Woodlore for some time when I discovered the Helle Temagami (tim-AG-im-ee), a knife designed with input from another survival series celebrity, Les Stroud.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the current crop of survival reality shows turn me off.  I could only manage to sit through half of a single episode of one of these shows before turn off the TV.  So, while I’ve heard of Les Stroud, I’ve never actually seen one of his TV shows.  I’m also put off by celebrity endorsements.  If some television personality attaches their name to any item, it immediately goes on my “do-not-buy” list.  That said, it might surprise you that I would even buy this knife much less recommend it.   But I did and I am.  It is refreshing to see that Stroud teamed up with Helle to offer a real bushcraft knife.  At an average cost of around $100.00, Helle knives are sold to an entirely different demographic than the Asian-made, mass-produced shelf fodder you’ll find in “big box” stores.  Helle knives are hand-made (albeit by a small production crew using machinery).  Although beautiful to the eye, they are working knives, intended to be used.

The Temagami immediately looked as if it would be a knife that met my criteria – 1) full-tang, 2) Scandinavian ground blade, 3) blade length around 4 inches, and 4) fitted with a wood handle.  The knife was originally offered only in Helle’s exceptional triple-laminated carbon steel, a manufacturing technique that the company has perfected and used for many years in making both carbon and stainless steel blades.  Laminated steels sandwich a thin, hard tempered, high-carbon steel layer between to outer layers of relatively soft steel.  Were the knife to be made only from the steel used in the center, it would be brittle and very difficult to sharpen.  However, that layer is thin, making sharpening easy as very little of the hard steel is removed when honing.  This construction gives Helle blades great durability as the flexible construction is highly resistant to chipping or breakage; yet, they hold an edge as well as the hardest tempered knives and are easy to sharpen to boot.  Note however, that the soft outer steel can be marred by working hard seasoned wood.  It is that soft.

For 2012, Helle added a laminated stainless steel version. Their stainless blades are comprised of a high carbon alloy center layer sandwiched between two outer layers of mild 18/8 stainless steel.  Now, I love carbon steel knives and own several.  The benefits of ordinary carbon steel are that it will produce a spark for firestarting and is easier to sharpen than stainless.  However, these benefits are negated with Helle’s laminated carbon steel.  The outer layer is too soft to create a spark and of course, the material is no different with regard to ease of sharpening.   With no real benefit to choosing carbon, I went with stainless steel to preclude the chance of rust.

Now to the knife –

Like all Helle knives, the Temagami is delivered in an attractive cardboard tube that contains the knife, sheath, a coarse woven cloth that I’d love to know the purpose of,  and the attendant Helle literature.

 

 

Here are the specs:

  • Blade length:            4 inches
  • Blade thickness:      1/8 inch
  • Handle length:         4 5/16 inches
  • Overall length:         9 inches
  • Weight:                     5.5 ounces

 

First look –

The first thing that struck me is the size of the Temagami.  It is noticeably larger than most Scandinavian knives.  The blade is a drop point and lacks the distinctive spear point shape of British bushcraft knives such as the Woodlore.  Nor does it have the handle shape of that type. Except for the blade grind and tang construction* (see below) it shares little else with the Woodlore.  I call the look of this knife “contemporary Scandinavian”, which is common across the entire Helle line.  One notable quality is the absence of Les Stroud’s name anywhere on the knife.  This is so much classier than typical celebrity endorsed products.  In fact, had Stroud’s name been displayed anywhere but on the package, I would not have bought the knife at all (or polished it out if it were an etching).

The Temagami (right) is significantly larger than most Scandinavian knives.
From right: Frost’s Mora #2, Karesuando Raven, Helle Kvernstein and the Temagami

 

Though the Temagami may look similar to other Helle products, the semi-full tang (Helle’s description) that sets it apart from its brethren is easily seen.  In this construction, the tang tapers from nearly full width at the finger guard to half that at the butt.  I’ve seen photos of the knife before the handle has been riveted in place and the tang falls below the rivet holes approximately 1/4 inch until it reaches the last hole where it rapidly tapers upward.  There is no question that the tang of the Temagami makes it stronger than any other model in Helle’s line.

 

The semi-full tang of the Temagami makes this the strongest blade in the Helle line.

 

Another benefit to the semi-full tang is balance.  I do not own another Scandinavian knife of this size but the larger Helle models I’ve handled in the store are a bit blade heavy due to the difference in the amount of metal forward and aft of the finger guard.  The point of balance on the Temagami is about three quarters of an inch behind the finger guard.  This is excellent for a large bladed Scandinavian knife.

The Blade:

My single complaint of the knife is the look of the blade.  You see, most Helle blades are polished to a mirror finish, giving their knives a very refined look.  But who wants to mar that beautiful finish in a knife that will surely be put to rough use?  I would have preferred for Helle to have put a satin finish on the blade.  But who could complain about beauty?  The Helle trademark and model name are the only markings on the blade (etched) and this adds to the Temagami’s subtle beauty.

Helle made a small revision to the blade for 2012.  Three small notches in the spine at mid-blade were eliminated.  These were described as both a firesteel striker and a finger placement for added blade control for skinning and the like.  It was quickly determined that the striker would not work as the laminated steel construction (both carbon and stainless) used by Helle is too soft to make a spark.  Helle also made a slight update to the handle, which they claim allowed for improved control, making the finger notches unnecessary.  Like all Helle knives, and in fact, like all Scandinavian knives, the Temagami was delivered shaving sharp.

The Handle:

I believe Helle handles are some of the most beautiful among Scandinavian makers.  Like nearly all knives in their line, the Temagami handle is turned from Masur (Curly) birch, which I like very much.  The grain on this example was stunning but I’ve seen some examples that were not as nicely grained so if that’s important to you, you should endeavor to pick your knife out in person.  After shaping, the Helle handles are soaked in a tub of raw linseed (flaxseed) oil, then wiped dry and placed in a tumbler filled with beeswax to be polished to a beautiful matte sheen.  Perfect.  On this knife, the tang is inserted into a groove in the handle and fastened with three brass rivets, the last one of which, is hollow, to allow the owner to insert a lanyard.  I have small hands and prefer smaller knives as I’ve found that large knives do not provide a comfortable grip.  To my surprise, the handle on the Temagami fits my hand well and has proven to be very comfortable to use over extended periods.   The handle features a nub of a finger guard that works as it should but does not interfere with using the knife.   I’ve not had a chance to compare this knife to a first generation model so I don’t know exactly how it differs. 

The sheath:

Helle sheaths vary among models from centuries old traditional Scandinavian styles to modern sculpted shapes.  The Temagami’s sheath is very traditional indeed.  Like so many Scandinavian sheaths, it is a pouch, stitched at the back with a center seam.  This is a very old method of construction and was used to protect early Viking knives.  It results in the sheath having a uniform spear point shape that allows the owner to carry the knife on either the right or left side.  The knife sits deep in the sheath, being held very firmly.  Once there, it isn’t coming out until you want it out.  Compared to other traditional Helle sheaths in my collection, this one is made from thicker leather and includes a plastic insert to protect the sheath.  This is the best sheath that has been offered on any of the several Scandinavian knives that I own and far better than the sheath that Helle provided with my Kvernstein.

Considerations:

As it turns out, the Temagami is not a knife in the image of the Woodlore at all.  It blade does not have a spear point like the Woodlore.  The tang is not a full tang like the Woodlore.  It looks nothing like the Woodlore.  Was this purchase in vain then?  Absolutely not!  The Temagami does provide the fundamental benefits of the Woodlore at about 1/4th the cost.  That’s something to think about.  Other Scandinavian knives I own might be better at detail carving.  Several would be more appropriate neck knives.  Nearly all others would be a better choice for beginners requiring the best, sharpest knife for the lowest cost possible.  But none I own are close to being as good a bushcraft knife – on to depend on for working in all conditions without fail.  None.   And none are as beautiful.  Period.  I love this knife.

One caveat should be noted.  The cost.  As much as I love the Temagami, I’m puzzled by the fact that it retails for nearly twice the price of other Helle models made to the same standards and of the same size.  Yes, the semi-full tang makes this knife stronger and the sheath is made from thicker leather and features the additional plastic insert, which does cost more to produce – but twice the cost at retail?  The price must reflect the cut that goes to Les Stroud.  In my opinion, the Temagami is an honest $150.00 knife.  But I can’t really complain too much about the cost for what is certainly the strongest knife in the Helle catalog and one that has become my favorite Scandinavian knife for bushcraft chores.  The added cost, amortized over the life of the tool which will certainly outlast me, is small indeed.  Of course, the knife, like all Helle products, is guaranteed for life against defects in materials or workmanship.  If anything goes wrong, Helle will repair or replace the knife – you can’t do much better than that.  I’ll evaluate this knife in the field and let you know how it holds up over time.

A Knife for Classic Camping ~ the Bark River 2011 Custom Canoe

 

Classic Camping, like Steven Watts and David Wescott do it, requires assembling a camping outfit circa 1900-1930.  You’ll be sleeping under canvas, wearing woolens, using point blankets, and cooking over campfires.  When you camp like this, just any knife won’t do.  You’ll want to carry something that would have been seen in the kits of the day.

Until a just a few years ago, you could buy a Marble’s Ideal or Woodcraft and carry a knife largely unchanged in appearance since these classics were introduced in 1898 and 1916, respectively.  Not only that, both models were among the top three most recommended knives of the period (the other being the Marble’s Expert).  Sadly, Marble’s is now just another formerly-respected brand name, applied to a line of Asian-made knives that have nothing in common with the works of art that came out of Gladstone, Michigan.

In late 2011, I discovered that Bark River Knives had introduced this 2011 Custom Canoe.  It is a perfect re-creation of an original Marble’s model.  For those not familiar with the Marble’s Canoe, it looked much like the Ideal but was offered only with a 4 1/2- inch blade whereas the Ideal was produced in 5, 6, 7 and 8 inch blade lengths.   The Canoe was also made from thinner stock and featured a slightly different fuller groove and clip point.  The differences are so slight that Canoes are often mistakenly identified as Ideals.  The Canoe was produced from 1904 till 1923, smack dab in the middle of the Classic Camping age.

From what I understand, the knife was a custom order, commissioned by Jason Thoune, the owner of DLT Trading.  Jason wanted Bark River to re-create a classic Marble’s-style knife and that’s a good thing as Marble’s no longer makes the knives that built their reputation.  A run of 100 Custom Canoes were produced, with a few going to a select Bark River dealers.  The blade was crafted from traditional 1095 steel that was just under 3/16ths thick, which gives these knives the look, weight and feel of the vintage Canoes. Each and every blade was hand ground and the handles were all hand shaped.  Handle choices included leather, Sambar Stag, buffalo horn and sheep horn and in combinations such as leather/Sambar Stag/leather with Sambar Stag pommel, Sambar Stag with Sambar Stag pommel and leather with Sambar Stag pommel.  Bark River also made some synthetic Micarta handled versions as well (a mistake on such a period style knife in my opinion, but I’m sure some liked them).

The original Bark River announcement for the Custom Canoe stated that they were planning to make “all of the sizes over the next year or so from the 4.5 all the way to the full size 8 inch blade version.”  There was also a lot of discussion about this being the beginning of a new line of traditional knives, giving the impression that Bark River was going to re-create the Woodcraft and perhaps the Expert as well.  Sadly, it appears that the plan didn’t unfold.  By the end of 2011, DLT Trading was discounting the knife as sales were sluggish.  According to Thoune, the decision to use traditional (old-fashioned) 1095 steel instead of the very popular CPM 3V powdered metal “super steel” currently being used by Bark River, was the main reason.   If that’s the case, some folks made a real mistake in not buying one of these beautiful traditional knives.

Here are the specs:

  • Overall Length: 8.775 in
  • Blade Length: 4.250 in
  • Blade Steel:1095
  • Blade Thickness: .175 in
  • Weight: 6 oz.
  • Hardness: @58RC

For those who might discount the Custom Canoe because of its old-fashioned look, don’t be fooled, this knife will perform as well as any knife out there (no, the 1095 won’t hold an edge like some of the modern “super steels” but a quick strop on a piece of cardboard or your jeans will keep it razor sharp).  Like the majority of Bark River’s products and all of the good Marble’s knives, these blades are convex ground.  The convex grind puts more steel behind the edge and makes this more durable than any other knife grind.  This is a knife you can depend on in the toughest situations.

The Custom Canoe is also a better knife than a vintage Marble’s.  It’s tempered harder and the overall quality, fit, and finish is better than production Marble’s knives.  The handle is also sized to better accommodate today’s hands (vintage knives had very short grips as hands were smaller a century ago).  I also prefer the thinned blade over that of the Ideal.  Note: being thinner than an Ideal’s blade does NOT mean this is a particularly thin blade, the spine is still very stout.  Of course, you may find a particular type of knife to be more appropriate for a specific use (I wouldn’t use this as a fillet knife), but for an all-around outdoor/camp knife, you’d be hard pressed to find something better.  This knife will do the job and then some.

The only thing I was not jumping-for-joy pleased about was the modernized sheath.  Now, vintage sheaths leave A LOT to be desired.  None I’ve encountered secured the knife very well and most Marble’s sheaths were rather thin and flimsy.  So while I would not offer a replica of the original sheath, I wish Bark River would have chosen a style with a more vintage look.  Still, this is a middling complaint and in no way changes my opinion of this being the perfect “Classic Camp” knife.  Does all of that rustic perfection come cheap?  Nope.  Depending on the handle material, the Custom Canoe costs between $235.00 and $250.00.

Luckily, some of these knives are still available if you search on the  Internet.  My feeling is once they are gone; this style of knife will likely not be seen again.  If you are a Classic Camper – get one while you can!

Woodcraft Skill Project ~ A Birch Bark Matchsafe

My birch bark matchsafe

One of the aspects of woodcraft and traditional camping that really appeals to me is crafting and making some or even much of your equipment.   If you enjoy working with your hands, if you are handy with tools or even a tool buffoon like me, you can make some of your own gear.

I made this birch bark matchsafe a few years ago and have been very happy with it.  It has proven to be sturdy and waterproof enough to keep my matches dry.  While the waterproof qualities may not equal that of a commercially made metal or plastic matchsafe with a rubber gasket, mine beats all of them hands down for beauty and rustic elegance.  And, every time I use it I think – WOW! I made it myself!

I live in Oklahoma, where we only have River Birch.  We are not a region known for significant birch forests.  If you do not have ready access to birch bark, I suggest you buy your bark from this site.  I purchased a large sheet of bark from them years ago and am still using it.  I have made lots of bark objects from that single large sheet.

At the time I made the matchsafe I’d never thought of blogging so sadly, I did not take photos of the steps I used in making it.  However, I see that some guy named Ray Mears has now copied me on YouTube (just kidding Mr. Mears).

I essentially made my matchsafe exactly as Ray did but made two mistakes –

1)      I stupidly miscalculated the length of the interior and made the matchsafe too short.  When the bottom and top plugs were inserted, the insides weren’t long enough to hold standard strike-anywhere matches.  To solve this problem, I cut a deeper birch plug for the bottom and hollowed it out on the inside with a crooked knife.  It worked but was more effort than just starting over again.

Bottom of birch bark matchsafe

Bottom of matchsafe and underside of stopper. Both are made from a birch branch and finished with raw linseed oil.

Interior of birch bark matchsafe

Here is the interior of the matchsafe showing the carved-out plug. Not a bad job if I do say so myself.

2)      Unlike Ray, I never thought of using an interior wedge/exterior compression string to hold everything together.  Thus, the notched, pointed end that fits into the slot came loose before the glue dried and it eased out of the slot a bit.  It didn’t really matter because the glue holds everything in place but it’s not perfect.

One more thing – Ray doesn’t mention doing this, but I thinned Elmer’s Wood Glue down with warm water and gave the interior and exterior of the bark part of the matchsafe a couple of coats, with an overnight drying time between coats.  I also oiled the stopper and bottom plug with raw linseed oil to bring out the grain.

 

Exterior of birch bark matchsafe

I gave the bark of the finished matchsafe two coats of thinned Elmer’s Wood Glue to enhance the waterproofness.