Newly published Warren H. Miller Biography!

David Wescott just published a biography of Warren Hastings Miller here, which is certainly the best to date (I’m actually not aware of a more complete biography of Miller).  Wescott obtained much of the information, and at least one never before published photo of the man, from Warren Miller, Jr! That’s right – his youngest son! The new biography gives us a much more complete picture of Miller’s life and experiences. It also straightened out some common and long-held misconceptions that I (and others) have had about him. I have always assumed that one particular person shown in several photographs in Camp Craft was Miller when in fact; it was actually famed outfitter David T. Abercrombie. Wescott’s new biography has several photographs of Miller. Some are familiar images from the books and some I’ve never seen. But now we know what he looked like (I have edited my recent post on Miller’s books, Camp Craft and Camping Out, accordingly).  Thanks go to David Wescott for highlighting the life of a very important figure in Woodcraft literature.

A Review of Two Books by Warren H. “cap” Miller ~ Camp Craft and Camping out

Warren “Cap” Miller’s Camping Out and Camp Craft are some of the best “how-to” books on Camping.

Camp Craft: Modern Practice and Equipment (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1915) and Camping Out(Geo. H. Doran Company, NY, 1917-1918) are two of my favorite “how-to” camping books, written by Warren Hastings “Cap” Miller (1876-1960).  Miller is best known today for being the founding editor of Field and Stream magazine during the early years of the 20th Century.   Though neither Camp Craft or Camping Out are still in print, they can be found on eBay.  Note however, that prices for good copies have risen dramatically over the past couple of years.  (Here’s a heads-up for David Wescott and Steve Watts – please include some of Miller’s photos and illustrations in at least one of the seven volumes of your upcoming Wescott and Watts Classic Camping Field Guides book series.)  If you can’t find one or both of the books, they are also available in pdf format here:

Camp Craft: http://www.archive.org/details/campcraftmodernp00millrich

Camping Out: http://www.archive.org/details/campingout00mill

It is an interesting fact that the outdoor writers of the woodcraft period were a small, close knit bunch and these two books illustrate that. The introduction to Camp Craftwas written by Ernest Thompson Seton.  The book also prominently featured a photograph of Dan Beard awarding a first prize to the Miller designed Forester tent, a very popular lightweight two-person shelter of the day.  Outfitter David T. Abercrombie, of Abercrombie & Fitch fame, was a regular camping companion of Millers.  At the time, Abercrombie was the largest distributor and manufacturer of the finest camping equipment available, beginning in 1892 until his death in 1931.  Because of their association, many photos in Camp Craft feature Abercrombie (he is in the photo with Dan Beard, on the far right).  Camping Out casually describes an outing made with Edward “Eddie” Breck, an enthusiastic camper who authored his own woodcraft book (The Way of the Woods, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, The Knickerbocker Press, NY and London, 1908).

In Camp Craft, Miller stated that he’d camped on average, four times a year for the previous 27 years. However, Miller’s trips were often much longer than campers of today, averaging six weeks!.  Miller had a degree in mechanical engineering and was an inveterate tinkerer who was generally dissatisfied with much of the camping equipment of his day.  Being in the field in all seasons, temperatures and conditions, Miller had ample opportunity to design and test equipment of his own design.  With his background in engineering, Miller had the know-how to turn his progressive ideas of camping equipment into reality.  Though he was limited to the technology of the day, Miller did not adopt the gear he used simply out of tradition.  He designed, crafted, sewed, and experimented with tents, packs, sleeping bags and other gear that were quite advanced compared to what was then available.  One of his tent designs, inspired by an Inuit shelter he’d seen (his “Esquimaux” tent), was a winter tent created from joining a small “A” tent to one side of a 6’x6’ ft. square tepee.  It would sleep five adults and could be outfitted with a 2 1/4 lb., 28 gauge steel stove for cold weather use.  The Esquimaux tent weighed just six pounds!  In the summer, the small “A” tent could be detached and used separately.  Such a tent would be considered a remarkable shelter today.  Another example, while  most woodcraft writers of the day mentioned only Hudson Bay  point blankets as camp bedding, Miler included an entire chapter to “Eliminating the Blanket” in Camp Craft.  He hated the bulk of blankets and favored a sleeping bag/pack contraption he designed in order to dramatically reduce bulk.  Miller is a product of his time and of course his books reflect that (though his belief that women could and should go camping was more progressive than some), yet, his focus on improvising, creating or otherwise improving equipment makes both books seem more modern than many of those written by his peers.

Both books are written in a very personal style as if Cap was having a conversation with you at dinner or around the campfire.  He tells you stories of past trips with fast friends, of canoeing and camping in places you’d like to go, and all the while providing great detail about every item of equipment or technique he thinks important.   His books were also lavishly illustrated with many photographs and illustrations.  All in all, I think Cap Miller’s books are among the best ever written on woodcraft and traditional camping.  Do yourself a favor and read Camp Craft and Camping Out.

The Woods Life is back online!

Over one year after some significant technical issues – The Woods Life is back online.  Check back over the coming weeks for new posts.  Thanks!

The Improved Nomad Woodstove

A couple of years ago I read Paul Van Horn’s online article on his Nomad stove.  I like Paul Van Horn.  I first discovered his writing while developing a school curriculum that focused on human reliance on natural resources for grad school.  The project led to my current interest (obsession??) in traditional woodcraft skills.

Paul’s stove is a high performance version of the old “hobo” or tin-can stoves, popular with woodcrafters a half-century ago.  Both Ellsworth Jaeger and Bernard S. Mason described tin-can stoves in their books “Wildwood Wisdom” and “Woodcraft“, respectively –

 

Tin Can Kitchens from Wildwood Wisdom by Ellsworth Jaeger (1945)

 

Tin-Can Stoves and Bakers from Woodcraft by Bernard S. Mason (1939)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Improved Nomad Stove. Note side opening for loading firewood, fresh air vents at the bottom of the can, cooking grate from removable brass rod and lower set of holes to adjust the grate for windy conditions.

Looking into the mouth of the Improved Nomad Stove. The ventilated raised floor can be seen underneath the pot supports.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to Paul Van Horn, “the pot must be of a size that allows it to sit down inside the stove with a minimum of ¾” clearance between the sides and the wall of the stove on all sides.  A pot that is too large will result in a smoky, sooty burn.”  I just could not find the right pot.  Van Horn used a tin can but reading Camp Craft by Warren H. Miller (1918), one of my very favorite authors, proved that very well made aluminum camp cookware was available around the turn of the century.  Desiring a light aluminum cook pot of the right size, I searched for over a year until I found this 5-cup Bush Pot at Ben’s Backwoods.  It is a smaller version of the Mors Kochanski Bush Pot.  The new pot fit perfectly!  Made from dark anodized aluminum, it’s fitted with a very snug lid with a lift handle and like the Kochanski pot features a pour spout and folding handles.  The pot comes with a bail kit that the owner may attach if they so desire  Sadly, the pot will not fit into the paint can with the bail attached.

To ready the stove for use, I ignited a fire in it to burn the paint off the inside of the can and underside of the lid.  WOW! Does this stove burn hot!  One thing I quickly learned was to have a large pile of twigs handy because the stove will consume them rapidly.

 

Burning the paint out of the Improved Nomad Woodstove

 

After removing the paint, I rubbed the interior and exterior of the can with vegetable oil and heated it over a very low flame on on my range, “seasoning” it as you would a dutch oven to produce a protective rustproof coating.   Then I sewed up a storage sack from pre-shrunk cotton muslin that I coated with Filson Oil Finish Wax.

 

 

I pack the stove away by sliding the brass rods into spaces between the inside of the can and the interior floor.  Then, in goes the bush pot, wrapped in a flour-sack dish towel. with a pair of deerskin gloves packed inside.  The pot lifter fits down between pot and stove can and the lid is pressed on.  Finally, the stove is placed into the stuff sack and is ready for the trail!

 

Packed for the Trail

 

I like this stove alot.  It was easy to make, performs very well and is a versatile cooker – producing boiling water to pancakes and fried eggs.  I’ve been very pleased with how it turned out and now share it with the fraternity of outers that enjoy spending time under the stars.

Woodcraft by Bernard Sterling Mason ~ a GREAT Traditional Camping Book!

Every person interested in traditional camping and woodcraft should read “Woodcraft” by Bernard S. Mason.  It ranks as one of my favorite camping books published during the golden age of camping.

Bernard S. Mason, PhD. was a Professor in the Department of Sociology at Ohio State University when he first came to prominence in 1928 by being awarded the Redbook Prize for his book “Camping and Education: Camp Problems from the Campers’ Viewpoint“(1930).  In addition to being a recognized leader in the organized camping and recreation movement, Mason was an authority on woodcraft, woodlore, camping, camp crafts and interestingly, trick roping, boomerang throwing and Indian dancing.  He developed the camping program for Camp Fairwood at Torch Lake, MI (closed 1971) before becoming the co-owner/Director of Camp Kooch-i-Ching at International Falls, MN in 1948 (still going strong).  Mason also taught outdoor skills and leadership and camp crafts at Ernest Thompson Seton’s “College of Indian Wisdom” in Santa Fe, NM in addition to serving as Editor of “Camping” magazine.

Woodcraft (A. S. Barnes & Company, New York, NY, 1939) was Mason’s greatest contribution to camping literature.  At a whopping 569 pages, Woodcraft categorizes the subject matter into three areas: Campcraft, Woodcraft and Crafts of the Woods.

Part 1 – Campcraft deals with the ethics, skills and techniques of camping ie: shelter, beds and duffel, which covers bedding, mattresses, packs and packing and one’s personal kit, firecraft, which discusses all manner of campfires from cooking and baking fires to ceremony council fires, Campfire Gadgets, which details the various cook fire “kitchens” (or designs), utensils and tools and lighting, and Axemanship – something that Mason covers in exhaustive and better detal than any other camping “how-to” book I’ve read.  Just his chapter on axemanship is worth buying the book for.

Part 2 – Woodcraft details the how-to of making useful items for the camp and cabin – caches, cupboards and coolers and meat smokers, bark utensils and miscellany, rope and cordage, shaving horses and carving, knife making and knife use (including the important crooked knife) and knickknacks such as salt and pepper shakers, noggins, forks and spoons, ladles, bowls, dishes and plates, brooms, washboards, candle holders sun goggles, camp furniture and council rings.

Part 3 – Crafts of the Woods is a mixed bag for me.  Some of the topics are wonderful and useful – buckskin making and buckskin crafting (of moccasins and apparel) and tin can craft, and some are more appropriate for camp ceremonies and recreation programs.

Woodcraft is chock full of photographs and illustrations by Mason’s longtime collaborator, Fredrick H. Kock, making the fine details of woodcraft “how-to” easy to understand.  You truly can replicate what you read in this book with complete success.

 

Currently out of print, later editions were published in 1974 and 1985 under the title of “Woodcraft and Camping” by Dover Publications.  A condensed, paperback edition published in 2001 by Derrydale Press is still in print.  Titled the “Boy’s Book of Camping and Wood Crafts“, it contains about half of the content of the original.

Mason also wrote “The Junior Book of Woodcraft and Camping“, published by The Ronald Press Company in 1943.  This was a large format book with lots of photos and illustrations. At only 120 pages, Mason pared down the content of the original to the absolute minimum of what one would need to know to go camping for the first time.  Though quite different than Woodcraft it’s still a great book.

 

 

Check out Woodcraft.  I know you’ll like it!

The Wilderness Knife

KNIFE SELECTION FOR THE OUTDOORS

I recently taught a wilderness survival clinic at Backwoods, our local outdoor shop, and spent quite some time discussing edged tools.  While teaching the clinic I became aware that most of the folks in attendance knew little of how to choose an outdoor knife, despite most having some experience as campers and backpackers.

I believe that this is an important thing to know!  A knife is the lightest and most compact of the edged tools and is most likely to be carried today.  Although modern campers and backpackers rarely use them, knives continue to be carried because it’s expected.  You will never become knowledgeable about or proficient with knives if you don’t actually use them.  Sadly, I recently had a Scout leader tell me that in seven years of camping he could not remember ever using his knife.  If our outdoor leaders don’t know how to select, use and maintain an outdoor knife, there is no hope for this skill set to be handed down to our children.

However, there are two groups of outdoor enthusiasts who use knives ~ hunters and survivalists.  As hunters use a knife for skinning, they generally look for a particular shape but beyond that it’s all a matter of personal preference. For survivalists however, there is a wide range of opinion over what makes the best knife – in shape, size, blade grind, blade thickness, and overall style. While it is agreed that in a survival situation a knife is indispensable, the type of knife most useful is hotly debated and the choices are now overwhelming. Some survival books recommend nothing more than a small pocket knife while others recommend near-machetes and sadly, most are not functional outdoor knives. The best knife for camp use is an all-purpose type, rather than a hunting or paramilitary “survival” knife. Modern hunting and survival knives feature blades that are too thick and unwieldy for most camp chores. You want something unobtrusive, light and so useful it will never be left at home. The vast majority of campers choose pocketknives for just that reason, but fixed-blade knives are much stronger and more reliable, making them a better choice for survival use. Fixed-blade knives are usually less expensive than a pocketknife of equal size and quality and are safer to use because they cannot fold unexpectedly.

An unobtrusive, utilitarian fixed-blade knife that provides both camp utility and survival dependability is what I call a “wilderness” knife. If you want something similar, look for these general characteristics:

a. A blade thickness of between 3/32” to 1/8” more or less, where the blade enters the handle.

b. A blade length of 3½” to 4.5” or about the width of your open palm. This range offers a good length for general camp use or for any survival tasks that may be encountered. In a survival situation, such a blade is short enough to handle fine detail work such as trap or snare building, yet is long enough to be used to cut down small saplings for shelter building.

c. A traditional blade silhouette. Exotic shapes should be avoided. The blade should be straight and flat for most of its length, so that the knife can be struck with a “baton” (a heavy stick used as a hammer) in order to drive the blade through thick wood.

d. A non- serrated edge. Serrations are typically located on the part of the blade most often used for fine craftwork. Serrations also cannot be resharpened without specialized sharpening devices.

e. A minimum finger guard at most. Although finger guards make a knife safer in the hands of a novice, they interfere with the fine craftwork often required in survival (making snares and triggers, for example). A very small, lower guard is acceptable, but an upper guard will seriously interfere with one’s forefinger and thumb placement on top of the blade for delicate control.

f. A handle that is sized proportionally to the hand, so that it may be securely and comfortably gripped.

Look for High Quality Steel ~

A knife is only as good as the steel that it’s crafted from. The harder the steel, the longer the edge will stay sharp, but the more brittle the blade becomes. The standard measure of steel hardness is the Rockwell Scale. Good blade steels should test in the Rockwell range of between 56-60. Below this, the knife will not hold an edge. Above it, the knife will be difficult to sharpen and may become too brittle to be durable. Because edge holding ability and ease of sharpening are competing properties, a steel that possesses a balance of these two characteristics is considered excellent.

Carbon or Stainless? ~

Both are good. Stainless (non-rusting) steels are now the most popular and widely available but those alloys with a high-carbon content are hard enough to hold an edge. Good stainless alloys include 440C, AUS-8, 154CM, ATS34, VG-10, S30V, and Sandvik 12c27. Note that the tradeoff for rust resistance is difficulty in sharpening due to their hardness. Carbon steel continues to be popular because it can be quickly sharpened in the field, has good edge holding ability and can be struck with a flint to create a fire igniting spark ~ something that cannot be done with stainless. Although carbon steel can rust if not cared for, you can easily avoid rust if you learn how. An occasional oil and wax treatment will protect the blade (note that carbon steels will darken and discolor with use).

Select the Right Blade Grind ~

Blade grind is the single most important characteristic that determines whether a knife can be considered a wilderness blade or not. The grind is the shape of the knife blade seen in profile. Any good knife will work as a general camp knife for tasks such as cutting cord, food prep or spreading peanut butter. However, in order to be considered a survival tool, a knife must be capable of shaving wood (for making fuzz sticks or carving snare triggers and the like). And this ability is dependent upon the grind. Some blade grinds will gouge wood unless care is taken to maintain the proper angle throughout the cut while others effortlessly lift the wood being removed up and away from the surface, creating curly shavings.

Characteristics of the Various Blade Grinds ~

Hollow: Was originally used for making straight razors but now is the most common grind used on sporting knives. Pros: Produces an exceedingly sharp edge, ideal for dressing game. The concave profile of the blade produces very light blades because of the metal removed from the sides of the blade. Cons: Even the best are not good for food prep because this grind doesn’t penetrate the food very far before becoming too thick to slice well. The concave profile results in a blade that’s not as strong as other grinds. Can gouge wood if the user does not take care to maintain the correct angle.

Flat: The type of grind used on kitchen knives. Pros: Is superb for food prep, slices very well. Makes for very good mass-produced knives. Is easy to sharpen. Is strong because the blade retains most of its thickness all the way to the edge. Cons: Can gouge wood if the user does not take care to maintain the correct angle.

Scandinavian: The Scandinavian Grind is easy to identify because of wide (¼” – ½”) single bevel. Turn the blade on its side and you’ll see that it looks like a wood plane and in fact, it works just like a wood plane. Because of this, the grind outperforms all others for wood work. One reason is because the width of the bevel can be used to control the depth of a cut. For example, when carving a feather stick to ignite a fire, you simply hold the bevel flat against the wood and push in (holding other knives consistently at the proper bevel to make super thin shavings is virtually impossible). Unlike most knives, the Scandinavian grind usually lacks a secondary bevel (“V” grind edge bevel). An exception is Finnish knives. A Scandinavian grind with no secondary bevel is sharper than one without but has a less durable edge. A secondary bevel not only strengthens the edge but produces an edge that requires sharpening less often. Still, some folks prefer a Scandinavian grind with no secondary bevel because it’s sharper. Pros: Produces a very keen edge. Can be found on astonishingly inexpensive knives. The Scandinavian grind excels at shaving wood without gouging. Moderately good for food prep. Cons: Sharpening is easy but takes longer than any other type. You cannot sharpen such a knife without scratching the surface of the blade and it takes time to remove these scratches.

Convex: The way most knives were made until mass-production was introduced in the early 20th Century. Requires skilled craftsmen to produce. The entire edge of a knife may be convexed (known as a full convex grind or an “apple seed” grind) or the edge of a flat, hollow, or Scandinavian ground blade may be convexed. Pros: Good for food prep. Very easy to sharpen. Maintains its edge longer than any other grind. Over the life of the knife, as the blade is repeatedly sharpened, metal is removed from the sides of the blade as well as the edge. This maintains the same relationship of the edge to the thickness of the blade, and ensures that the edge will cut as well after decades of use, as it did when new. Actually, a convex ground blade may NEVER need resharpening if it’s touched up regularly by stropping on a piece of leather, cardboard or the leg of your jeans. A full convexed blade is the strongest of all grinds because of its thickness. This grind makes a relatively thick blade slice and cut as well as a thin blade – provided the edge geometry is good. Cons: Relatively hard to find unless you buy from specialty firms. A fully convexed blade is heavier than the other grinds. The handcrafted nature of this grind means that only relatively expensive knives feature it. Good for shaving wood without gouging. The convex grind splits wood apart like an axe rather than lift wood like a wood plane. The grind doesn’t quite match the performance of a Scandinavian grind but the difference between the two is slight.

“V” grind: In addition to a primary grind (flat or hollow for example); knives often feature a “V” grind edge bevel or a secondary bevel at the very edge. This “V” grind is what does the cutting, and what must be recreated when sharpening. When someone says that a knife should be sharpened with a 20° bevel, they’re referring to the “V” grind. As the “V” grind is repeatedly sharpened, and more metal is removed from the edge of the blade, the edge becomes wider and more stunted, meaning that the blade does not cut as well after sharpening as it did when new. This will happen with both flat and hollow grind knives given enough time.

If all this is overwhelming, just remember that the Scandinavian grind and the convex grind are the best types for outdoor/survival use.

Scandinavian Knives ~

A furore normannorum libera nos domine, Skona oss herre från nordmännens raseri” (“Oh Lord, save us from the fury of the Northmen”) ~ French prayer of the 9th century

Scandinavian knives are descended from the blades of Vikings, and though they were first developed over 1000 years ago, most modern examples differ little from their ancestors. Scandinavia, that region consisting of the countries Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden and the Provincial and cultural areas of Swedish and Finnish Lapland, make knives that are distinct and unique from edged tools found anywhere else in the world. All Scandinavian knives share notable characteristics such as the unusual grind, relatively short blades, minimal finger guards (if any at all), high quality steels and a razor edge. Sweden is known for producing well made but inexpensive knives “Mora” knives. The town of Mora has been home to knifemaking for centuries. K. J. Eriksson and Erik Frost, the last two Mora knifemakers, were combined a couple of years ago and now make knives under the “Mora of Sweden” name.  Since the merger, the firm has since introduced several bushcraft models that are better than either company produced before.   There are a handful of small Swedish companies that also make similar knives but these are a notch more expensive, falling in the $50.00 to $80.00 range. Finnish factories make knives in all ranges up to some that sell for over $300.00. Norway is home to two companies that make superb mid-priced knives ($75.00-$150.00). There are no knife factories in Denmark but a number of custom makers produce beautiful, expensive knives.

Scandinavians use their knives, and recognize that the most important feature of a knife is the blade ~ its quality of steel, its design, its edge-holding ability, and its sharpness out of the box. Everything else ~ overall design; handle materials, fancy embellishments, are all secondary to the blade. This demand for truly fine blades, in both inexpensive and costly knives, means that you’ll find very high blade quality among all Nordic knife brands and makers. Most Scandinavian makers offer a line of unadorned, utilitarian knives with a blade as hard and sharp as their most expensive models, meaning that you can own a superb blade for an astonishingly low price.

 

These markedly similar Nordic knives span 1100 years! Top: Replica Viking knife circa 850 A.D. produced for the Univ. of Oslo, Museum of National Antiquities by Helle (A/S Helle Fabrikker).  Bottom: Modern knife made by Karesuando Kniven AB. This model is the Raven (Fox) Special.

Scandinavian Knife Recommendations ~

Ahti(utility models) and Karesuando Kniven; Kellam (“S” series utility models are inexpensive and very good), J. Marttiini and Morakniv all make very good “working” knives.   Mora of Sweden stands out as offering the widest selection of high-quality, inexpensive utility knives appropriate for wilderness use.  Since the merger that created Morakniv, the firm has introduced several bushcraft models that are better than either Frost’s or Eriksson’s produced before.   The new models can be found in their Adventure line and are part of the Bushcraft series of knives.  The various models include the Bushcraft, Survival, Forestand Forest Camo.  Helle is another maker of beautiful, functional outdoor knives but their craftsmanship and finishing make them more expensive than the utility models.  If you asked me to provide an example of the high performance/low cost knives produced in the region, I would show you the excellent J. Marttiini M-571 utility/work knife.  The M-571 features a razor sharp, forged, 3½ inch carbon steel blade mounted in a red plastic handle.  It is an exceedingly sharp and dependable knife that retails for only $20.00!  Note: a recent web search (November 2012) for the M-571 indicates that it may no longer be availalable.  Still, I am leaving the comments here as an example of this kind of knife.

 

The Marttiini Model M-571. A great survival knife.

Examples of inexpensive Scandinavian knives suitable for wilderness use.

Two reputable online suppliers specializing in Nordic knives are Ragnar’s Ragweed Forge and Kellam Knives. Also note that the Backwoods chain of outdoor shops recently began stocking the Helle line of knives. The brand is NOT listed on the company website but the shops have had them for several months. I can report that the line has already sold through at least once at my local shop and customers have been impressed with the look and quality of the knives. It remains to be seen if modern backpackers will choose a fixed-blade knife as a regular item in their kit. Let’s hope so! Helle is perhaps the best brand to appeal to a customer base unfamiliar with Scandinavian fixed-blade knives. Helle knives feature fine craftsmanship, are the most beautiful knives in the Backwoods knife cabinet, are surprisingly light compared to other fixed-blade knives (as are most Scandinavian knives) and many models feature stainless steel blades, something that appeals to folks fearful of purchasing a knife that may rust in outdoor use (not a worry at all if you know how to care for edged tools).

Convex Ground Knives ~

Knives with convex ground blades also make excellent wilderness knives. They don’t quite match the wood shaving ability of Scandinavian knives but in other respects are superior. Their edge is easier to sharpen, the blade is stronger, and the edge more durable, lasting longer between sharpenings. The downside is that because the convex grind can only be made by hand, they are more expensive and they’re heavier because less metal is removed from the blade. For those interested in owning a traditional American sporting knife, only a convexed knife will do.

The brand historically associated with the convex grind is Marble’s Arms of Gladstone, Michigan. Webster Marble (1854-1930) introduced America’s first outdoor sporting knife when he created the Ideal hunting knife in 1898. Before its development, outdoorsmen usually carried kitchen knives or homemade knives. The Ideal was entirely new and different. The spine of its stout blade was just over 3/16” thick and featured a fuller (a wide, shallow groove running the length of the blade) designed to lower the weight of the knife without losing blade strength. The Ideal’s appearance ~ the blade shape, brass guard, handle of stacked leather rings, terminating in a pommel of stag or aluminum, was widely copied and influenced the look of American outdoor knives for decades after. The handle design continues to be used today by the Randall Knife Company, makers of expensive semi-custom knives. The Ideal was almost directly copied in beefier form, by the Union Cutlery Company to produce the famous Ka-bar U.S.M.C. Fighting/Utility Knife of World War II (a lower grade knife than the Ideal). Responding to complaints that the Ideal was too thick and stout for some tastes, Marble introduced a thin bladed, lightweight version of the Ideal in 1906. He named it the Expert as he personally believed that it was too delicate to be trusted except in the hands of an expert! In 1915, the company unveiled the Woodcraft, another thin bladed knife that became the bestselling model in the firm’s history. The Woodcraft was copied by nearly every competitor, including a number of European makers, wanting to cash in on its popularity. It was also adopted as the official knife of the Boy and Girl Scouts.

Outdoor writers and experts of the day endorsed the Expert and Woodcraft more than any model or brand of cutlery. The Expert was first recommended by E. H. Kreps in 1910 and last, by Calvin Rutstrum in 1968. The Woodcraft was even more popular. Horace Kephart was the first to recommend it in “Camping and Woodcraft” (1917). The knife section of Bernard S. Mason’s “Junior Book of Camping and Woodcraft” (1943) illustrated all three models of Marble’s knives, noting that the Expert was what “wise old campers” recommended and that the Woodcraft was both thin and sturdy, making it an excellent camp knife.

 

Marble’s sporting knives (top to bottom): The Ideal (1898), Expert (1906), and Woodcraft (1915) ~ The most recommended outdoor knives of the first half of the twentieth century.

Sadly, the Marble’s cutlery division was acquired by a new owner a few years ago and was recently forced into bankruptcy due to decisions such as subcontracting much of the manufacturing to other companies and introducing a line of cheap Asian-made knives, choices that tarnished the brand’s reputation. Note that the Marble’s knives produced between 1994 through 2001 are perhaps the best the company has ever produced and knives made up through 2005 are good as well.

Today, the firm producing the most extensive line of convex ground knives is Bark River Knives of Escanaba, Michigan. Bark River is owned and operated by Mike Stewart, the former director of Marble’s cutlery division. Bark River’s popularity stems in part from the fact that Stewart is willing to make specialty models requested by collectors and for producing updated versions of historic knife patterns not found anywhere else. They are also willing to restore old knives and axes made by other companies (when time allows). Bark River makes a number of survival/bushcraft models such as  the Aurora, Northstar, and Bushcrafter.  The company offers convex and Scandinavian ground versions of these knives.  Be warned that the company often produces specialty models in short production runs that you might never see again.  If you see something you like, you’d better buy it while you can.   Bark River also makes one of my favorite wilderness knives, the Kephart, an updated reproduction of an old pattern designed by famed woodcrafter Horace Kephart and produced by the Colclesser Brothers.  ML Knives is another maker that offers a version of the Kephart.  Although the Kephart never gained the popularity of the Marble’s Woodcraft, it was actually a far better survival and woodcraft knife.

 

Top: Original “Kephart” knife (circa 1908-1920) by the Colclesser Bros. Cutlery Company of Eldorado, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Designed and recommended by famous outdoor writer Horace Kephart. Bottom: The “Kephart” by Bark River Knives. This version, no longer produced, featured a 4 3/8″ convexed blade of 12C27 Sandvik stainless steel.

Pocket Knives ~

Pocket knives are great for delicate cutting chores. The most popular types today are lightweight folding lockbacks, multi-tools, and Swiss Army knives. However, I prefer traditional slip joint pocket knives, the kind your grandfather carried. The best slip joints are those made for the collector market. These are of domestic construction, are limited to low production runs where much more time is taken in their manufacture, and typically use expensive handle materials. Collector knives start at around $60.00 but can go for well over $100.00. Only four or five American factories now produce collector quality pocket knives (under their own and other companies’ brand names). As with other American-made products, slip joint makers are facing increasing competition from Asian-made products, a situation that claimed Schrade Cutlery (1904-2004), Camillus Cutlery (1902-2007) and Canal Street Cutlery (2006-2015).  The Schrade and Camillus brands are back on the market but are now made in China and have no relation to the original firms.  I prefer American-made knives and don’t like to see the decline of a brand, whether in image or quality, when made offshore.  Yet, as in most things, there are always exceptions.

The Chinese-made Rough Rider brand (an import of the Smoky Mountain Knife Works company), has impressed a fair number of knowledgeable American knife buyers who’ve grudgingly had to admit that their fit and finish and overall quality is in many ways, as good or better that some American-made knives. I’ve heard some reports that some examples have had weak backsprings and were not delivered particularly sharp but I own two Rough Rider knives and both had “nail breaker” backsprings and were delivered exceedingly sharp.

The fit and finish of the Rough Rider line is not equal to the best American-made knives, but the cost tradeoff is something to consider. A Queen two-blade trapper with jigged “Stag” bone handle runs around $55.00, the same pattern by Case averages $45.00 while a Rough Rider sells for about $16.00! American manufacturers can hardly compete with these prices. What to do? If you want the best, buy an American-made Great Eastern Cutlery, or Case  brand knife.  If you want a user you’d not be worried about losing, consider a Rough Rider.

Slip joint knives are made in many different patterns ~ Scout/camp/utility; trapper; swell-end; canoe; muskrat; moose; whittler; and jack; and any of these will do though I prefer the pattern most associated with the outdoors ~ the Scout/camp knife. The utility pattern knife is now commonly called a “Scout” or “camp” pattern because of its long association with the Boy Scouts of America. The BSA first sold an “officially approved” Scout/camp pattern knife in 1911 and has included one or more versions in their catalog until Camillus, their primary maker, closed their doors. New models are now being listed, maker unknown. W. R. Case & Sons produces a line of officially licensed BSA collector quality slip joints that includes a small Scout knife (Jr. Scout) in addition to other standard patterns.  In 2009, Remington began a five year program of reproducing a historic Boy Scouts of America scout pattern knife every year.  The 2009 knife was a reproduction of the Remington model RS3333, first introduced in 1923.  A new model has been introduced ever since.  Remington has not actually produced knives in decades.  Until their demise, the Remington Bullet Knife line of collector knives were made by Camillus.  These new Boy Scout knives are made in the USA by Bear and Son Cutlery of Jacksonville, Alabama.  In addition to these, there are a number of high quality Scout/camp pattern knives (without BSA markings) produced occasionally by Case, Queen Cutlery (their Schatt and Morgan brand) and Rough Rider. The Rough Rider Camp knife sells for an average price of just $12.00 (I’ve seen them as low as $8.00) but looks as good as knives costing three times as much. The pattern is a copy of an old Case #6645R Scout knife. Like the Case, it features a spear point mainblade, a short, studded Wharncliff secondary blade, a long screwdriver/cap lifter, and an awl. The scales are of nicely jigged bone in either amber (Model RR533) or red (Model RR573). The mainblade, awl, and screwdriver/cap lifter feature decorative matchstrike nail marks. The single-beveled, double-edged awl is remarkably sharp and is the best I’ve seen on any Scout knife. Construction quality is very good, with no significant gaps observed between the liners or spacers. All blades are very tight, with no lateral play. This is not a knife for a youngster as it is far too sharp to be used by a beginner.

Left: Remington Silver Bullet “Camp” knife, #R4243SB, a 1994 reproduction of a model produced in the 1920’s.  Right: Rough Rider “Camp Knife” #RR533.

The only issue I’ve had with Rough Rider Camp knives is that the blades on my two examples were nearly impossible to open. One reason of course is Rough Rider’s use of stout backsprings (a good characteristic in a slip joint). Another, is that the factory does not take the time to entirely clean the polishing grit from the joints and spaces. When this grit dries, it works to “cement” things together. I flushed this grit out with WD-40 oil. To do this, partially open all blades and squirt the oil on the inner and outer surfaces of the joints and the inside bottom of the knife. Work the blades back and forth several times to loosen everything up, spraying the joints again if need be. Because WD-40 doesn’t leave enough of a film to provide long lasting lubrication, oil everything again with a product such as Balistol. Then, wipe the knife down and leave it for several hours on a thickness of paper towels to allow the oil to drain out.

Sometimes, when the mood strikes me, I’ll carry a folder with the blade length to do most things well ~ my Remington Silver Bullet “Camp” knife, model R4243SB, a 1994 reproduction of a model produced by the company in the 1920’s. With a closed length of 4 7/8 inches, it has the distinction of being one of the largest, if not the largest, Scout knife ever made. The “Camp” is fitted with 3 ½ inch and 2 ¼ inch, hollow ground clip point and sheepsfoot blades, a 3 inch awl, and a screwdriver/cap lifter. Blades are of 440 stainless, the bolsters of nickel silver, the bullet shield of sterling silver and the handle scales of jigged bone. Only 4000 of these knives were made. All knives feature a serial number engraved on one of the bolsters. Today, these can only be found on eBay or specialty knife websites. They have become highly collectible and correspondingly expensive, often selling for over $100.00. A regular production version (Bullet Camp knife, #R4243) is the same but features a nickel silver bullet shield and handle scales of jigged Delrin plastic. These are less expensive and are easily found on eBay (but aren’t nearly as nice).

Well, that’s my take on outdoor knives. Good Luck and Great Camping!

 

An Ax Primer ~ My Thoughts on Choosing an Ax

My personal Marble’s No. 10 Camp Axe. Produced between 1914 and 1943, the No. 10 was woodcraft writer and expert Bernard S. Mason’s favorite.

Good axes are the result of the combination of high-quality materials, fine craftsmanship, and good design. Some things to consider when choosing an ax are: 1) the forging method, 2) the steel and any treatment it has undergone, 3) the quality of craftsmanship, and 4) the kind and quality of handle it’s fitted with.

Note that in focusing on the desirable characteristics of good axes, I may give the impression that an ax that does not embody each and every one of these characteristics is an unworthy tool to be avoided.  Please understand that these characteristics are desirable traits to consider when comparing axes or different examples of the same model but that axes will have these characteristics in varying degrees.  Of course, some characteristics such as temper, head profile or head/handle alignment are very important to consider when shopping for an ax.  But remember – axes are not made to the same standards as custom collector knives.  Rarely will you encounter an ax featuring the best in materials, design, tempering and perfection in craftsmanship.  I’ve seen glaring imperfections in even the best, most expensive axes described here.   So don’t become too choosy or no ax will ever satisfy you.

Now let’s get started!

Forging ~

(Revised March, 12, 2013)

Forging refers to a method of shaping metal by means of applying force.  To say an ax is forged, means that an ax has been formed into a particular shape by hammer blows.  Forging is just one step in ax making.  The grinding, tempering, annealing, polishing and honing remain to be done.  Though folks often debate the merits of the different kinds of forging methods, in reality, the shaping process is far less important to the overall quality of an ax than what happens to the head once the general shape has been formed.

Axes have been produced by blacksmithing (human-powered hammer blows against an anvil), triphammer (automated) hammer forging, and drop forging.  Large-scale blacksmithing disappeared from the commercial ax manufactories over 150 years ago.  Only a handful of custom-made axes continue to be made by blacksmithing.  The introduction of the Swedish-made boutique axes in North America were the first to be made in a generation that were described as being “hand forged”.  In truth however, the Swedish axes are forged on a machine.  Some Swedish manufacturers forge their axes on a triphammer (also known as a smith hammer) and some on an open die drop forge (I have heard some are forged by the open die drop forge method but have not been able to confirm this).  Either way, they are forged on a machine.  Automated triphammer forging is nothing new.  Axe manufacturers replaced the blacksmith’s hand wielded hammer with that of the waterwheel-powered triphammer at least by 1828.

According to the Collins & Company records of that year, their new triphammers increased ax production to 10 axes per day for a foreman and striker (American Axes. Henry J. Kaufman, Mastoff Press Publishing, Morgantown, PA 1994).  Triphammers only provided the striking force for shaping the steel ingot.  The smith still had to skillfully move the ingot around on the anvil in order to shape the tool.  Small ax manufacturers used triphammers in the United States up through the 1960’s, long after drop forges were in use, not because they were 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.  Open die drop forging is very similar to triphammer forging.  Instead of a hammer surface striking the ingot, it is struck by a pair (top and bottom) of flat or slightly contoured dies.  Because the two dies are not connected, the material is allowed to expand out the sides.  Just as in using a triphammer, the ingot must be positioned in various ways to shape the ax head.  The skill involved in operating an open die drop forge is the same as that of triphammer forging.

Today, nearly all modern production axes are shaped by impression die drop forging (also known as closed die drop forging).  This method uses 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 and is struck repeatedly by a falling hammer to force the steel into the mold.  Most modern ax makers use the impression die drop forging process and this is what most folks think of when they hear the term “drop forged”.

When did American ax manufacturers begin using the method?  Before most of your grandparents were born.  Though I cannot name a date with confidence, the Axe Manual of Peter McLaren (Peter McClaren and Fayette R. Plumb Inc., Philadelphia, PA, 1929), indicates that Plumb axes were all made by impression die drop forging by that time.  And the booklet did not describe the method as being a recent development.  Note that nearly all of the great American axes produced after the turn of the century, were made by impression die drop forging.  The speed and efficiency of the method allowed manufacturers to produce axes in large numbers with a minimum amount of labor, which lowers manufacturing costs and increases profit margins.  I say nearly all because a few ax makers in Maine continued to use triphammers into the 1960’s.  The early triphammers were attached to the end of an arm much like a hammer held in the hand.  These were called helve triphammers.  The modern Swedish axes are forged using a modern “drop” triphammer, which functions in the manner of the drop hammer used in drop forging.

Because the Swedish axes are said to be “hand forged”, many enthusiasts now consider production “hand forging” superior to drop forging, considering the later to be associated with cheap, undesirable axes.  However, that’s like believing that because all cheap automobiles are produced on a production line, all vehicles produced on a production line must therefore be cheap.  A common complaint of inexpensive drop forged axes is that they are too soft to hold an edge but that is due to their being “uniformly hardened”, a fault of the tempering method NOT of the forging method.

Is triphammer (or open die drop forging) better than impression die drop forging?  That’s debatable.  While it does take skill to forge an ax head with those methods, the quality of an ax is determined by what occurs to the head after it has been shaped.  It is true that both triphammer and open die drop forging are occasionally described as “smith forging” or “hand forging”.  However, Kauffman, a noted authority on axes, who held an MA in Industrial Arts and was a blacksmith in addition to serving as Professor of Industrial Arts at Millersville University, made a clear distinction between genuine hand forging and machine forging when he remarked “…because a triphammer functions in a manner very similar to a hand hammer, many axes of the nineteenth century appear to be a product of an earlier era; many are described by “experts” as hand-forged, when, in fact, they were forged on a machine.” (American Axes, Henry J. Kauffman, page 52).  Emphasis is mine.  Kauffman obviously did not consider a triphammer forged ax to be “hand forged”.  In addition, Kauffman makes no mention of any of the forging methods being superior to another.  In fact, in some ways, impression die drop forging is actually superior to triphammer or open die drop forging because it offers improved mechanical properties.

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 that is 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.  For more on forging, see here.

In Sweden, it is customary that a single smith not only forges each ax head, but that he makes the entire ax by performing every step of production, including the grinding, honing, and fitting the handle.  Thus, much more time is taken by an individual smith, to make each ax in Sweden.  While the quality of a Swedish ax head is not necessarily better than one made by impression die drop forging, the overall quality of the ax tends to be higher.  But that is only when comparing a boutique Swedish ax to a utility grade ax.  If the Swedish axes are compared to an ax of good design, and one which the maker sourced the best steel and handle stock, and took the extra time to grind, polish, hone and hang the axes to the same standard, there is absolutely no reason for it to be considered of lower quality.

The Steel and its Treatment ~

How an ax retains its edge is largely determined by the use of high quality steel and the treatment(s) employed by the maker. Axes aren’t hardened to the same degree that knife blades as they would be too brittle. Thus, they don’t need to be made from one of the modern “super” steels that knife maker’s use. You can trust that all domestic made and European axes will be of good steel. When most folks speak of “good steel”, they usually mean the ability of an ax to hold an edge well – and with the quality of the steels used today, that is the result of proper tempering NOT the steel. Tempering determines whether the ax is even worth considering. Sadly, as most modern axes are made for casual use, little time or money is spent on tempering. In general, nearly all inexpensive axes (including those of USA origin) are tempered to a single hardness throughout, being either too soft to hold an edge (most often encountered) or too hard to easily sharpen. This uniform hardness is not a good thing. Vintage axes featured a soft iron (or later, steel) head with a hard steel bit forge welded in. This produced an ax with a durable cutting edge but a head that was forgiving and durable. The better ax makers of today can accomplish the same thing by employing edge hardening technology (sometimes referred to as a heat treated cutting edge). If the head’s not painted, it’s often easy to see the “hardening line” that separates the hard edge from the softer steel. The edge hardening step could easily be done when making all axes but is often neglected to reduce costs.  Note that the depth to which ax makers harden the head vary widely.  Some harden the edge less than an inch deep while others go nearly two inches.  As you sharpen the edge you remove steel from this hardened zone.  So, if the zone is shallow, you will be left with no edge faster than if the zone is deep.  Even if you can see the hardening line, and even if it is deep, you do not know if the edge is hard enough to hold an edge or too hard, making it brittle and liable to break.  One way to test proper tempering is to run a file along the edge, as if to sharpen the ax. If the edge is too soft, the file will cause the edge to “roll over” in a thin flake. If the edge is too hard, the file will slide over the surface of the steel rather than “biting” into it.  If the steel begins to sharpen, the tempering is good. If a newly purchased ax fails this test, sell it at a garage sale.

Another steel treatment, somewhat related to tempering, is annealing. After tempering and cooling the ax, the head is placed in a warm oven (about 350-400 degrees) for approximately an hour. This relieves stresses in the steel created by the forging and tempering process and increases the hardness of the ax. Many consider annealing desirable because all vintage axes were annealed. However, annealing was important in the past because the steels of the period were relatively soft and had to be annealed for creating the strength required for a striking tool. Today’s alloys are much harder than what was available just 40 years ago, making annealing less important than it used to be. Still, Scandinavian axes makers continue to anneal their axes and this contributes to their allure.

The Grind ~

As important as tempering is an axe’s grind, which determines if it is suitable for its intended purpose. Most modern users are largely ignorant of the differences between ax grinds and how crucial this is to ax performance. If the ax is viewed from above, the shape of the ax grind can be evaluated. According to wilderness survival expert Mors Kochanski, the following grinds (shape from the eye to the edge of the ax) are associated with these uses:

1. slightly convexed face ~ general purpose ax
2. thick, strongly convexed face ~ splitting ax
3. concave face (may appear nearly hollow ground) ~ limbing ax
4. nearly straight face (tapering to a convexed edge) ~ produces an ax that glances least

Ax Profile Grinds

An ax with a slightly convex face will not bind in the cut, throws chips well and is stronger when using on frozen wood. If the face is too convex, it will not penetrate the wood to the depth required to make an efficient cut and results in a waste of energy. If the face is too concave, it will bind in the cut, resulting in having to always tug on the handle to release the bit. Eventually, this constant tugging will loosen the handle. If the grind is beveled improperly, the ax can dangerously bounce out of the cut, possibly striking the person wielding the ax. Overall thickness of the face-to-edge profile also contributes to ax performance. If this profile is too thick, the edge can never be made truly sharp; if too thin, the edge is likely to chip. Unfortunately, some grind profiles can’t be altered enough to be improved. For example, a profile that is especially concave can’t be fixed, as you can’t add metal back into the face. Even if the profile is good, if it’s too thin, it may not perform well and this can’t be changed. Of course, with time, effort or money (having a professional do it), a too-thick profile can be improved. If the job entails removing a significant amount of steel, it is best left to professionals. At this time, such an ax can be sent to Bark River Knives (6911 County Road 426, Escanaba, MI 49829), who’ll gladly do the work (though the wait may be long as the company doesn’t tackle custom work until orders have been met). The bit can also be properly convexed at the same time.

Craftsmanship ~

Most anyone can recognize inferior craftsmanship in an ax. The fit of the handle to the eye is poor with gaps showing, the head is crudely finished, the grind uneven, the edge dull and the handle is uncomfortable and/or poorly designed. Most makers of low-quality axes often paint the head and handle to hide defects. High quality axes may occasionally feature a painted head but always include a clear finished or stained handle so that the grain may be easily seen. With a good ax, the grind is good, the edge sharp. The head is nicely finished. The handles are correctly shaped and well balanced. Still, while fit and finish are important clues to how good an ax is, the highest grade of finishing makes little difference if the handle alignment of the ax is imperfect.

If you were to hold the head of the ax with the edge up and the handle away from you and sight down the length of the handle to its end, the eye, edge and handle should be in perfect alignment. If the alignment is off, the ax will be inaccurate. Typically, an ax is misaligned due to a malformed eye; a defect in forging that cannot be fixed. Sadly, many more misaligned axes pass inspection today than in the past, and you may have to search to find one with good alignment. While even the best brands of axes may be found to have an off-center eye, it is thankfully uncommon. The only advantage to a misaligned ax is if the user consistently strikes the log on one side or the other of their intended target. If they do, then using an ax with a handle that is off-center can improve their accuracy provided the handle is misaligned on the correct side of the head.

The “Hang” of an Ax ~

The hang refers to the tilt (if any) of the ax head up or down in relation to the handle.  After checking the alignment, place the ax on a table with both the cutting edge and end of handle touching the tabletop.  If the hang is good the cutting edge will touch the table at a point one third from the bottom of the cutting edge (the heel).

Correct Ax Hang, from Woodsmanship (1954), The Barnes Sports Library, A.S. Barnes and Co., New York, NY.

The Handle ~

A fine ax should be fitted with a proper handle. One that’s comfortable and suits you. When I say proper, I refer to the material, the shape, the graining and the finish of the handle.

Material ~ It has become increasingly common for manufacturers to offer axes with handles of fiberglass or another synthetic material. Such handles are maintenance free and very durable. They lend a high-tech appearance to an otherwise ancient tool. However, just as no classic English roadster should be painted metal flake purple or vintage bamboo fly rod paired with an automatic reel, no fine ax should be hung with anything but a proper hardwood handle. Hardwood offers the best combination of strength, shock absorption, and grip comfort. With synthetic materials, you have no choice but to live with the handle the ax came with. It cannot be altered. Not thinned in diameter or otherwise shaped, or even be swapped, as nearly all are permanently mounted. A wood handle can be subtly or significantly modified if need be. In addition, if you desire a longer handle or different handle (straight or curved) on a particular ax, there are many different types of hardwood handles available to choose from. Not so with fiberglass.

Wood ax handles are most often made from American Hickory, the favored species used for striking tools. Other woods such as ash, maple and bois d’ arc are also used, but hickory is best. When a cut hickory log is viewed on end, the center of the log contains a dark, reddish wood known as the heartwood. Between the heartwood and the outer bark, a narrow band of light, cream-colored sapwood is found. This makes up a very small portion of the tree. More heartwood is available to the handle maker than the sapwood and this makes it less expensive by comparison. Many sources state that the clear sapwood is stronger and more shock resistant but numerous tests have shown that no difference exists in strength or shock resistance between the two types. Sapwood, heartwood or a mix of the two are all acceptable in an ax handle.

Shape ~ Ax handles are made curved and straight. Of course, a double-bit ax handle must be straight for both bits to be used. While single-bit axes with curved handles are only seen today, straight handles were the norm up through the mid-nineteenth century. Although the curved handle appears graceful, it’s less accurate and more likely to break. Accuracy suffers because the gentle 10° curve at the end of the handle, acts to effectively extend the bit 4 ½” forward of where it should be. As the bit of a straight-handled ax should ideally lie 4 ½” from the axis of lateral pivot of the ax (this is known as the foresection), an added 4 ½” works to extend the foresection to 9”. The further the bit is from the axis, the less accuracy. This doubling of the foresection increases deviation by double over that of a straight handled ax (meaning that an ax with a curved bit is twice as inaccurate as one with a straight handle). And that’s assuming no more than a 5° movement of the wrist when chopping. More than that and deviation increases exponentially. A curved handle is more likely to break because the grain does not run entirely straight from end to end but instead, cuts through the bend of the handle. To offset this inherent weakness, curved handles are generally made thicker than straight handles with the result being reduced flexibility and increased transmission of shock to the user. Still, the benefits of a straight handle would only be recognized in the hands of a professional. Outdoor recreation users will not wield an ax enough for the difference to matter.

Grain Orientation ~ All wood-handled striking tools should have as good grain orientation (usually described as being straight grained) as you can find, in order to be as strong as possible. This means that the grain runs parallel to the eye of the head. If the grain runs side-to-side, then using the ax contributes to fatigue and ultimately results in handle breakage. Of course, it would be expensive and wasteful to ensure that every handle was perfectly aligned and no manufacturer intends to use handles with a perpendicular grain, so you’ll find most handles with the grain being around 25° off parallel though it’s not uncommon to see some far worse. I’ve heard it said that a dozen axes might have to be inspected before finding one with good grain orientation. That’s an understatement. In reality, unless you happen to live in timber country, with access to a large forestry supply that stocks enough axes to provide a large selection, finding an ax with a straight-grained handle can be very difficult. While you can find many ax models online, you’ll rarely find someone willing to comb through their stock to find a straight grained example. Considering the difficulty in finding an ax with decent grain orientation, its best to pick the best example you can find and if you happen upon a handle with perfect grain orientation, BUY IT!

Ax Graining – What to look for

Oiled Finish ~ The wood handles of any striking tool should have an oiled finish. Varnished, lacquered or polyurethane coated handles create a smooth, impenetrable surface that causes blisters.  An ax handle with a penetrating oil finish allows you to grasp the wood itself, resulting in a more comfortable and secure grip.  Some manufacturers offer wax finished handles, which are far superior to a varnished or lacquered helve and which I rate a slight second to oil.  Of course, if you are considering an ax that meets all of the other criteria but for having a varnished or lacquered handle, that can be remedied by sanding off the finish and oiling the handle yourself.  The most recommended oil for tool handles is raw linseed (food grade flaxseed) oil.

Now you’ve been armed with all the knowledge you need to select an great camp ax or hatchet.   In my next post I’ll discuss some of the ax types most appropriate for camping.  Hope this helps!

The Woodsman and His Hatchet

Woodcrafters build kitchen and night fires and as a result, must learn to select, use and care for the axes and saws required to buck and split wood into the lengths and thickness to burn properly.  Of all of the traditional camping tools, the ax is the most valuable and sadly, the tool with which modern man is least familiar (I’ll cover saw use in the future).  Countless turn-of-the-Century experts said if they were limited to just one tool it would be the ax over all others.  Luckily there are a number of new(ish) and vintage books to get you up to speed on this subject.  Best of all, a number of superb ax pamphlets, manuals, and books are available free online!  Here are the best of the best:

A great selection of ax books

American Axes(1972), Henry J. Kauffman, Masthof Press & Bookstore, Morgantown, PA.  A history of American axe patterns and manufacturers.  It was the ax that built American settlements in the Colonies and the frontier.  In fact, the “American” pattern ax, designed and perfected in the Colonies, was recognized overseas as being the finest ax ever produced.   Kaufman traces the evolution of the ax in North America, from the relatively inefficient early European types to the supberb American pattern felling axes that reached their peak of perfection in the last half of the nineteeth century.

An Ax to Grind: A Practical Ax Manual, United States Dept. of Agriculture, U.S.F.S. Technology & Development Program, 2300 Recreation, Manual 9923-2823P-MTDC (1999), Bernie Weisgerber.  Weisgerber is America’s recognized ax expert.   This is one of the best works on ax use and luckily, a free online copy can be downloaded at this URL: http://scoutmaster.typepad.com/axegrind.pdf.

Axe Manual of Peter McLaren, America’s Champion Chopper, (1929), Peter McLaren, An 85 page, 7″ x 4.5″ pamphlet, published by Fayette R. Plumb Inc., Philadelphia, PA.  Australian competitive chopper Peter McLaren was recruited by Fayette Plumb ax company in the 1920’s to promote their products.  This wonderful little pamphlet was published by Plumb ax to do just that.  In his day, McLaren was a popular attraction for exhibiting his chopping prowess.  In this manual, he shares in knowledge and secrets of chopping success.  Very informative but very rare.  My copy is in like-new condiiton.  Lucky for you, a free online version is available here: http://scoutmaster.typepad.com/AxeManual/mclarenmanual.pdf (the PDF opens on its side so you’ll have to right click on the first page and select “rotate clockwise” to read it like a book).

The Ax Book: The Lore and Science of the Woodcutter(2005), Dudley Cook.  Originally published in 1981 as “Keeping Warm with an Ax”, Alan C. Hood, & Company, Inc., Chambersburg, PA.  Little is known about Dudley Cook other than he was a lifelong woodcutter.  The Ax Book is a very detailed, profusely illustrated, nearly encyclopedic book on axemanship.

Bushcraft: Outdoor Skills & Wilderness Survival (1998), Mors Kochanski, Lone Pine Publishing, Auburn, WA and Edmonton, AB, Canada and the DVD – Blades: Sharpening and Safe Use, Producer: Mors Kochanski & Karamat Wilderness Ways,Box 483, Wildwood, Alberta, Canada, T0E 2M0

Mors Kochanski: Bushcraft book and DVD – Blades: Sharpening and Safe Use

Kochanski is a respected wilderness survival educator and Physical Education faculty member at the University of Alberta, Canada.  Rather than offer a broad view of the survival subject, Kochanski’s excellent book deals with the six major survival “crafts” ~ firecraft; axecraft; knifecraft; sawcraft; bindcraft (cordage); and sheltercraft, in astonishing detail.  The author doesn’t spend time on subjects other these topics, which admittedly, are crucial skills to learn in order to be a competent outdoors person.  Bush Craft is an essential survival book because it covers subjects that are generally only briefly discussed, and are rarely explained well enough to entirely master.  His video Blades: Sharpening and Safe Usewas personally produced in association with Karamat Wilderness Ways survival school.  Though not a particularly polished effort, the video provides superb edged tool information.

The Woodsman And His Hatchet, (1996), Bud Cheff Sr., Stoneydale Press Publishing Co., Stevensville, MT.  Eighty-one year old Bud Cheff Sr., a hunting guide in Montana, wrote this common sense guide to wilderness survival.  Short and to-the-point, The Woodsman And His Hatchet is a refreshing take on this subject.  Cheff discusses first the importance of the ax (hatchet) and knife to survival in addition to subjects such as fire making, shelter building, navigation, outdoor dangers, survival food procurement, shooting game and packing meat.

Woodsmanship (1954), Bernard S. Mason, The Barnes Sports Library, A.S. Barnes and Co., New York, NY.  Though not as detailed regarding axes as The Ax Book, Woodsmanship is an excellent book that covers all of the tools and techniques of the woodcutter.  It describes tools and skills that have virtually disappeared from public consciousness over the past fifty years.  In a single page more or less, Mason describes the art of bucking, splitting, hewing, moving logs, and felling trees with the axe and saw.  He describes in detail, the tools of the woodsman ~ the peavey, the cant-hook, the pulphook, pike poles, beetles, wedges, gluts, adzes, and come-alongs.  Sadly, copies of Woodsmanship in any condition are now exceedingly rare (I got my very fine copy from New Zealand) but happily, a free online copy can be downloaded at this URL:  http://www.bushcraftuk.com/downloads/pdf/woodsmanship.pdf.

These books and the DVD are great resources for learning about the ax.  I know you’ll find them as interesting and valuable as I have.

Good reading!

Recommended Kerosene Lanterns

Dietz Comet kerosene lantern (this one from 1952) – the official lantern of the Boy Scouts of America. My favorite camping lantern!

Cabin or camp; moor or mountain; paddle or pack trail, some lantern models serve certain purposes better than others.  For traditional camping, I prefer “short globe” lanterns and one model – the Dietz #50 Comet, is my favorite.  Here is why I like ‘em and how they differ from other kerosene lanterns.

From their introduction, tubular lanterns from all makers used tall teardrop shaped globes.  This globe shape has the advantage of creating good draft, which results in producing a tall flame by pulling the flame up with the exhausted air.  All things being equal, a tall flame is brighter than a short flame of the same width (flame width is determined by the width of the flat wick).  A tall globe also provides a large glass area and so, creates a relatively large amount of illumination for the overall size of the lantern.

Globes remained unchanged until 1912 when the short globe style lantern was introduced.  The most obvious benefit of the short globe style is that it results in a shorter and more compact lantern, an important consideration when camping as it takes up less pack space.  There is also less glass area and thus, less chance of globe breakage.  Still, short globed lanterns have their downsides.  For one, they generally aren’t as bright.  A quick check of Kirkman lanterns shows that tall globed models average about 12 candle power while short globed models average just over 9 candle power (two short globed models, the Dietz #90 D-Lite and #8 Air Pilot lanterns both produce 12-14 candle power with a 7/8” wide wick).  This difference would be most troublesome when using the lantern for interior lighting (where I suspect you would want maximum brightness) and/or any kind of use at higher elevations.  According to Woody Kirkman (FAQ page) the “tall profile of the W.T. Kirkman Champion or the Dietz Blizzard lanterns (tall globe models) provides additional draft that helps compensate for the lack of oxygen at higher elevations.  These lantern models will burn brighter than the “short globe” lanterns such as the D-Lite or Air Pilot, especially at elevations above 5000′.” (“Copyrighted Text by W.T. Kirkman Used With Permission, Courtesy of www.lanternnet.com “)

Yet, even with these disadvantages, I like the short globed lanterns best.  To me, a tall globed lantern says barn lamp but a short globed lantern says camp and field lamp – and that’s what we’re interested in (all of the WWII era military kerosene lanterns I’ve seen are short globed types).  To be faithful to turn-of-the-century camping, you’d have to use a tall globe lantern as short globed models hadn’t been invented yet.  And even after their introduction they must not have caught on immediately as all of the camp photographs of kerosene lanterns I’ve seen up through WWI have been of tall globed models (and most of those are curiously hot blast lanterns).  Short globed tubular lanterns were not regularly used in the field till much later, and were not specifically marketed for camping in the U.S. until the U. S. introduction of the Dietz Comet after WWII.

Dietz Comet recommendation from “First Camping Trip” by C. B. Colby (1955), Coward-McCann Publishing NY

The Dietz Comet was first marketed as an export model in 1934 and after WWII, as a low cost “economy” lantern in the States.  As Dietz stated on the box – “A practical Dietz lantern at the price of a toy”.  Just over 8 inches high, the Comet was the smallest cold blast lantern ever manufactured by Dietz.  Using a 3/8 inch wick, it produces about 4 candle power of illumination.  Shortly after its U.S. unveiling the Comet was chosen as the “Official” lantern of the Boy Scouts of America (see Boy’s Life ad here).  Comets were popular and were produced in very large numbers.  Interestingly, though intended as a low cost product, some of the the parts were asymmetrical, which made the lantern expensive to manufacture.  As a result, Dietz wanted to end production of the lantern decades before they actually stopped making it.  Only the extreme popularity of the Comet forestalled its end just a few years ago (the company has effectively ended production by requiring minimum orders of 10,000 units).

Because Comets were intended to be a low priced item, their pre-war tin plate finish was scaled back to the less rust inhibiting terne plating used for the rest of the production run (terne plate is an inexpensive alloy of tin and lead).  As the terne plate was judged not protective enough, Dietz painted over the plating.  Bright red was used for nearly the entire production run but Comets were also painted grey, blue and forest green at different times.

A boy’s first camp is lit by the Dietz Comet, from “First Camping Trip” by C. B. Colby (1955), Coward-McCann Publishing NY (colorization of illustrations for enhanced viewing by yours truly.)

If you want a truly appropriate camping lantern you can often find original Comets on eBay or Craigslist.  In my experience, about half of the ones described as “excellent” end up with issues that must be addressed before use: cracked fuel filler necks, leaking tanks etc.  So, if you don’t want to deal with these problems make sure to ask the seller if the lantern has been tested and suffers from any corrosion beyond surface rust, has a leaky tank (at the bottom crimp), cracked fuel filler, or any other flaw (if you’re handy, these minor problems can be repaired).  If the lantern works, don’t worry too much about how the finish looks.  It can be easily cleaned of all gunk, grime, rust and old paint by following the instructions for cleaning a rusty tubular lantern, under the “Soda Ash and Battery Charger Method” on Kirkman’s website (half-way down the page).  You’ll end up with a perfectly cleaned, bare metal finish with the patina intact.  The lantern can then be repainted or protected by being rubbed occasionally with light machine oil or Briwax brand creamed beeswax.

Old red Comet lantern (shown at top of page) after restoration using Kirkman’s soda ash and battery charger method.

 

Beautiful new-old-stock Comet lantern from the 1950’s

 

You could also buy a brand new Comet.  Dietz began listing the Comet in their product line in 2013, for the first time in a number of years.  I see that Kirkman Lanterns is selling them again (see my recent post on the subject).  There are other Comet-sized  clones on the market but BEWARE!  These are poor quality Asian-made lanterns of flimsy construction (some are even made from recycled tuna cans – nothing like a genuine Comet).  And none use strong, heat resistant glass globes. The only high quality Comet clone I know of, the Petromax hl 1 Storm Lantern appears to have been discontinued.

 

 

No other lantern is as compact as the Comet.  Other recommendations include the Feuerhand Model #276 “Baby Special” lantern.  At 10 inches high and fitted with a 1/2″ wick, the Feuerhand is larger and brighter than the Comet, producing 7 candle power.  The 276 is available in both painted and tin plated finishes,  the Feuerhand is a beautifully made historic model as it dates from the early 1930s.  These German beauties cost nearly double that of the Asian-made Dietz products.

 

.

The inexpensive Dietz Original #76 is another great camping lantern.  Introduced in 1978 to replace the Comet, the Original #76 is very similar to the Feuerhand #276 (perhaps that is why it’s called the 76?).  These lanterns are available in painted ($11.00), tin plate (approx $16.00) and rustproof solid brass (about $35.00) finishes.   Though not commonly found, the Dietz #78 Mars lantern is another good choice.  The Mars is a #76 with a larger fount.

For anyone living in or near Oklahoma City, OK, Nix Lumber & Hardware (5117 NW 10th Street, Ph: 405-942-5561) is a Dietz lantern dealer.  Nix Lumber is an old fashioned store.  They carry all manner of galvanized wash tubs and pails, new wash boards, cast iron pot-bellied wood stoves, and other esoterica. In addition to the lanterns, Nix carries replacement wicks, globes and lamp oil.  I LOVE the place.

Using a Kerosene Lantern ~

To fuel these lanterns you MUST use only clear, unscented kerosene or “clear lamp oil” (such as Aladdin or Lamplight brand “Medallion”).  Note that in Europe kerosene is called paraffin.  But in this country, paraffin refers to solid or liquid paraffin wax.  At every store where I’ve seen tubular kerosene lanterns for sale, they are marketed along with some sort of liquid paraffin wax fuel.  DO NOT USE LIQUID PARAFFIN WAX IN A TUBULAR KEROSENE LANTERN!!!  For more information on this please read Kirkman’s FAQ page here.

Note also that tubular lanterns do not have sealed tanks.  Everything is crimped in place.  So if overfilled or tilted, they will leak like a sieve.  Do not fill the fount above the top of the air chamber (about 85% full according to Dietz) or fuel can spill into the chamber where it will leak out the side tube joint, giving the impression that the lantern is leaking (modern lanterns usually have a sticker on the outside of the tank warning you of the maximum fill line).  Of course lanterns that are tipped too far over will also leak out of the burner socket as that is a hole.  When camping, you must always keep the lantern in an upright position and empty any remaining fuel (back into your fuel bottle) before packing the lamp away for transport.

Improving lantern performance ~

Our knowledge of wick lamp technology declined rapidly after rural electrical service was established in America.  Except for perhaps Amish or similar communities, wick lamps are no longer used on a daily basis and the regular routine of trimming wicks, filling founts, cleaning the globe, and other lamp maintenance disappeared.  In order to gain the best performance from a kerosene lantern, you should familiarize yourself with these skills.  As a first step (1) – Learn to select the right fuel – clear, non-dyed, unscented high-grade kerosene (K-1) or clear lamp oil (Aladdin or Medallion).  NO paraffin, NO red dyed kerosene, NO scented lamp oil, NO citronella oil, NO other kind of fuel!  (2) – do not leave kerosene in the lantern for long periods without using daily.  Kerosene will degrade as it slowly evaporates in the tank and this will clog the wick.  To store the lantern, pour out the kerosene, remove the burner and allow the wick to completely air dry – then reassemble before putting it away.  (3) – Before the first use or after storage, fill the tank with clean kerosene and allow at least 10 minutes for the wick to become saturated before lighting.  (4) – When using the lantern, do not allow the tank to burn dry.  I’ve seen a few forum posts stating that the Dietz lantern can be burned till every drop of fuel is spent, leaving the reservoir completely empty.  That may be true, but you should never allow a lantern to burn dry!  When the tank is full, the wick is charred ever so slightly when the flame is burning.  It is the vapor from the fuel that you are actually burning – not the wick.  If you burn the tank dry, the wick begins to burn in earnest and is consumed at a rapid rate.  Wicks will last a lot longer if you put the lantern out before the tank empties.  (5) – Learn to properly trim and adjust the wick.  The wick should be trimmed as required to maintain a smooth edge.  If a new wick has a frayed end or any loose threads trim it back to a smooth edge before lighting.  To relight a wick, pinch off any charred crust before use.  Eventually the wick will develop a jagged edge that needs to be trimmed back to an even edge again.  See here for an illuminating look (no pun intended) at how this little chore can really boost lantern performance.  (6) – Learn to adjust the wick height and use the lantern.  This copy of the Feuerhand lantern instructions, featured on the Blue Lantern website shows you how it’s done.  In addition, the Dietz lantern instructions include the following recommendations:

  1. After the wick is lit, it should be adjusted to no more than 1/16th inch above the flame plate.
  2. As the lantern warms to operating temperature, the flame will increase in size.
  3. Five minutes after lighting (warming up), the fame may be adjusted to provide maximum illumination.
  4. If the wick is set too high, smoking will occur, which means soot will be deposited on the globe.

Transporting the lantern ~

I carry my fuel in a Sigg “heritage” vintage-style water bottle.  I pack the lantern by first wrapping a piece of soft wool batting around the globe (between the globe and air tubes) and then wrapping the whole thing in a larger piece of wool batting and placing the padded lantern in a waxed cotton stuff sack.

Bring along one of these beautiful, historic lanterns on your next traditional trip and experience a cheery night camp that glows with soft light.  I know you’ll quickly become a tubular kerosene lantern aficionado.

The Kerosene Lantern in Camp

 

Kerosene lantern in an early camp, from “Camp Life and Camp Kits”, by Charles Steadman Hanks, Scribners (1915)

Now let’s consider another of my favorite traditional camping lights – the tubular kerosene lantern, often seen in many old photographs of early camps.  Though they weren’t used much (if at all) on hikes, they were popular with outdoorsmen traveling on horseback and canoe and were used in all fixed camps.  Everyone knows what these kinds of lanterns look like but most today have never actually used one.

The introduction of the kerosene lamp in the 1850’s was a remarkable achievement.  Before that, illumination was provided by candles or “wick” lamps fueled by vegetable oil, lard, whale oil, or “camphene”, a mixture of alcohol, turpentine and camphor.  However, all were imperfect, being either too thick to wick easily, too expensive (Whale oil cost the equivalent of $200.00 a gallon in today’s money), too dangerous (camphene’s inflammability led to many deadly fires), too dim and/or produced disagreeable fumes and soot.  By comparison, kerosene was revolutionary.  It burned brighter than any fuel but whale oil, was not easily ignited and proved very safe to use.  It didn’t smoke unless the lamp was improperly used or not maintained, and was less inexpensive than even vegetable oil.  However, in single wick lamp form it produced a flame just slightly brighter than a single candle (due to the larger flat wick).

Invented by John H. Irwin (1839-1890) in the late 1860’s, and popularized by lamp merchant and manufacturer Robert Edwin Dietz (1818-1897), the tubular kerosene lantern revolutionized illumination technology through the principles of injecting either recirculated, heated air (hot-blast lantern) or fresh, cool air (cold-blast lantern), to a burner to improve brightness (both principles are based on carburetion).  This boosted brightness from 4 to 14 candle power, depending on the height of the lantern chimney and width of the wick – a significant improvement over the “dead flame” lanterns of the period (the Stonebridge lantern is one example of a dead flame lantern).  Dead flame lanterns provide air circulation to the flame through the use of low and high vents but do not burn much brighter than a single candle flame as they do not employ carburetion.  Of the two types of kerosene lanterns, the hot blast models are the most fuel efficient and provide for more complete combustion of the vapor, making them distinctly better for use in enclosed areas.  However, cold blast lanterns quickly dominated the market because they produce a white flame that’s twice as bright as hot blast models.   Tubular lanterns are remarkably safe (if tipped over, they self extinguish in a few seconds) and if fueled correctly, provide dependable light that will burn all night long, even in very windy conditions.

The advent of rural electrical service after WWII spelled the end (mostly) for the kerosene lantern in the U.S. and other developed nations but much of the third world continues to be illuminated by them.  In the 1950’s, as lantern sales began to decline in the U.S., the Dietz company founded a branch in Hong Kong to establish a presence in Asia.  Even after Dietz finally ended domestic production (1971), the R. E. Dietz Co., LTD of Hong Kong (factory in Guangzhou, China) carried on to become the largest maker of kerosene lanterns in the world.

Luckily, you can still purchase new Dietz lantern models that are unchanged from those made 100 years ago (their hot blast “Monarch” has been in continuous production since 1900).  My favorite Dietz dealer is W. T. “Woody” Kirkman, the acknowledged lantern guru of America.  Kirkman stocks the entire line of Dietz lanterns in every color and finish and offers them at very reasonable prices.  In addition to selling Dietz products, Kirkman also markets his own line of premium lanterns (made by Dietz).  These are an improvement over the standard Dietz models as they feature old-style “wing-lock” burners that offer superior wind resistance, bodies are galvanized for superior rust resistance (some are offered with paint over the galvanized finish) and globes are made from thick, heavy, weight-pressed glass just as lantern globes used to be made.  Kirkman has produced three models thus far, all historic types that come the closest to lanterns that date from the turn of the century.  Kirkman also produces an American-made 1870–1890 style “square tube” hot blast lantern in brass, the only one of this type produced in the world.

Kirkman’s also distributes the German-made Feuerhand, brand lantern, the last remaining tubular lantern manufactured in the western world.  Sadly, though the company made many different models in the past, they now market only the model 276 “Baby Special” lantern (as far as I can tell).  These lanterns come with a leak-proof-tank guarantee and are fitted with German-made Schott brand Suprax (same as Pyrex) glass globes.  Offered in painted and tin plated versions, the tin plated version looks nearly identical to the 276 first produced in 1934.  Another U.S. distributor of the Feuerhand lanterns is Garrett Wade.  Although the company does not indicate that these are Feuerhand lanterns on their website, I have confirmed that they are indeed Model 276’s.  The Garrett Wade price of $32.95 seems a bit high (they cost about $19.00 in Europe) but they are German made.  Another good lantern is the Dietz made, German distributed Petromax hl 1 Storm lantern (NOTE: Now appears to be discontinued.  More about this model in my next post).

For much more information on kerosene lantern history, use and maintenance, please see Kirkman’s FAQ page here.

In my next post I’ll highlight the tubular kerosene lantern models I consider most appropriate for traditional camping.