Posts Tagged ‘Woodcraft’

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

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

 

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!

The Improved Nomad Woodstove

Saturday, September 17th, 2011

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.

The Wilderness Knife

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

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 Mora of Sweden 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 Mora of Sweden, 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: the Aurora and Northstar models. Interestingly, Bark River has added the Bushcrafter and Liten Bror models that feature Scandinavian grinds. All of these make excellent wilderness knives.  Bark River will often produce a models for only one or two production runs and then drop it from the line.  One of my favorite wilderness knives, the Kephart, was such a knife.  The Kephart replicated an old knife made by the Colclesser Brothers and designed by famed woodcrafter Horace Kephart.  Two makers continue to offer the Kephart – Gossman Knives and ML Knives.  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 knife, buy an American-made Queen, Great Eastern Cutlery, or Case, but 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!

 

Beauty is in the Eye of the (ax) Holder ~ Types for Wilderness Use

Friday, March 25th, 2011

It’s unlikely that you’ll find any ax, contemporary or vintage, having all of the desirable characteristics listed in my last post but there are some real jewels to be had out there if you know where to look.  In the past, you could choose from dozens of ax models from many different ax makers.  And nearly every maker offered at least one line of truly fine axes.  Today, the number of high-end makers can be counted on one hand.  And that’s considering the global market, not just the United States.

Or, you can restore a vintage axe.  Many folks consider them to be better made than what can be purchased today.  And while it’s true that a lot of inexpensive old ax heads can be found at flea markets or garage sales, note that unless you have the skill to do all or most of the work yourself, a vintage ax, ground properly and restored, will cost you nearly as much as a good new one.  Also note that a NOS (new old stock) vintage ax would still require proper grinding and shouldn’t be considered usable until that work is done.  After grinding, convexing, and honing, you can easily maintain the edge but it’s difficult to significantly alter the profile of an ax without the proper equipment.  If you want to go this route, check out the Tools section of Pole and Paddle Canoe, Owner Don Merchant often has a few old axes on hand for sale and he is very knowledgeable.  He won’t sell a bad one.

Old or new, I generally send my axes to Bark River Knives for the grinding and initial convexing and any head clean up (I always ask that they give the head a satin finish).  The price will vary on how much work they need to do but figure around $40.00.  So, if you find an old ax head for $10.00, it’ll end up costing you around $70.00 for all the work and purchasing a good handle, assuming you’ll hang it yourself.

If you want to buy new, you should know that it’s easier than ever to buy a good ax.  Seven or eight years ago, there was only one or two ax brands I would have recommended, today there are at least a large handful.  And many more dealers than in the past.  Currently, Swedish-made boutique axes dominate the sporting ax field.  The first of these to gain prominence was Gransfors Bruks (pronounced brewks).  A bruk is a historic Swedish business model.  It was mostly applied to small iron working plants, such as a smithy or foundry but other manufacturers dealing in natural materials such as forest products etc were occasionally established as a bruk.  The companies operated as a self-sustaining community.  The bruk provided worker’s residences and was supported by company owned farms.  A bruk was established with the charge of managing and conserving the resources consumed as part of doing business.  Many bruks have been swallowed up by larger companies and may or may not exist in the original sense.  However, Gransfors is still a true Bruk).  Gransfors axes are beautifully made, are razor sharp and quite expensive.  Another Swedish company, S. A. Wetterlings makes a line of very similar axes.  Gabriel Branby, the man who purchased and revived Gransfors Bruks bought Wetterlings a few years ago and quickly got to work improving the fit and finish of the Wetterlings brand.  Although the head profile of the Wetterlings axes are different, they are now very close to Gransfors in fit and finish.  Wetterlings axes are more affordable but still are considered an expensive axe.  Two recently imported Swedish ax lines are Hults Bruk and HusqvarnaThe Hults Bruk name is used on axes produced by Hultafors AB, a Swedish conglomerate.  The company was a manufacturer of rulers for over 100 years before beginning to acquire various too brands in the late 19802’s.  In 1992, the company purchased Hults Bruk, a manufacturer of hammers and axes.  Everywhere else, these axes are trademarked Hultafors but in the United States the old name Hults Bruk is used, perhaps to take advantage of the name recognition of Gransfors Bruk.  Hults axes are forged at the historic Hults Bruk foundry, the oldest continually operating foundry in the world, established in 1697.  Their history of axe making is much more recent however, beginning after a company representative visited the United States in the late 1800’s to see how the greatest axe makers in the world differed from those makers in Europe.  Hults Bruk produces two lines of hickory handled axes, a premium line that is very similar to those axes made by Gransfors and Wetterlings and a slightly less well finished and less expensive line (though these are generally far better than anything found in the United States).  Hults Bruk also produces hickory handled axes under the Husqvarna name.  The Husqvarna axes are said to be factory seconds but I’ve found them to be very high quality axes.  In my opinion, they represent a real bargain.  While you won’t confuse a Husqvarna with a Hults Bruk or Wetterlings or Gransfors, note that the Husqvara hatchet ($41.00) is essentially the same as a Hults Bruk Tarnaby, which sells for around $100.00.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Still, as much as I love Swedish axes are not American pattern tools – and I do like the performance and look of an American ax.  While American axes have not traditionally matched the level of quality of Swedish models, the new Council Tool Velvicut Premium Axe line has changed all that ~

 

The Council Tool Velvicut Premium American Felling Axe (Item # JP40DV36C – 4 Lb Felling Axe with 36” Curved Handle – $170.00) was introduced in 2011 as the first model in an entirely new line of high-end axes. The Velvicut name has been resurrected from Council Tool’s best axe line of half a century ago. The Velvicut line was originally introduced to compete with the top of the line Plumb and TrueTemper axes of the day (the Plumb “Dreadnaught”, Kelly “Perfect” and “Flint Edge” axes most likely).  The Felling Axe model was followed up by the Velvicut Premium Hudson Bay Axe (Item # JP20HB24C – 2 Lb. Hudson Bay Axe with 24” Handle – $130.00) in October of the same year.

These axes are entirely American made – forging, heat treatment, finishing, honing and hanging are all done by Council Tool in their factory in Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina. The “A” grade American hickory handles and stout leather sheaths are also sourced in the USA.   The felling axe was originally delivered in a commemorative box though I don’t know if Council Tool continues to do that.  While Council Tool’s standard axe line are crafted of excellent materials and are properly tempered, the Velvicut line is superior in every respect. According to Council Tool:

Premium axes are drop forged from alloy steel for strength and toughness. Heads are rough ground and profiled in a robotic work cell. Bits are quenched and tempered for superior edge holding. Bit sharpening is by hand – and an experienced one at that – with increasingly fine grit abrasives and finished with leather…Custom handles, selected for grain orientation and density, are grade “A” American hickory, white sapwood, or red hardwood. Axe heads are lightly oiled and left unpainted to showcase the natural steel beauty…This top-of-the-line, world class axe is made for the serious user, collector, outdoorsman, or tool aficionado. It is not for everyone but rather for those who seek the best.” (from the Council Tool Velvicut announcement)

I was a bit surprised and a might disappointed to learn that the first model out of the gate was a felling ax.  With a four pound head and 36” handle, it is nota sporting ax and should not even be discussed among camping axes here. However, Council’s effort to produce a very fine American made ax was a start and I was buoyed by the idea that it might be followed up by a model more appropriate to camping and wilderness use (at the time I did not know when the Hudson Bay model was going to be produced and actually expected it to be a year or more later).  I was very pleasantly surprised to get a call from Council Tool saying that the Hudson Bay axes were boxed and ready to ship in late 2011.

 

Above: Velvicut ax heads are compared to the competition. Three Velvicut heads were sectioned and analyzed by an independent lab for depth of hardness against that of a competitor. Heads marked B1, B2 and C are Velvicut heads. The head marked D is 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.  Photo used with permission of Council Tool.

Council Tool graciously sent me a pre-production Velvicut Felling Axe for evaluation.  The version I was sent was a very early example and while I found the head profile to be excellent (the ax threw chips like a dream), all was not perfection.  I had a few minor to moderate criticisms of the ax.  The head was not ground symmetrically, being thicker on one side of the eye than the other.  It was also slightly misaligned on the handle.  And while I loved the shape, diameter and finish of the hickory handle, though the graining was acceptable, it was not straight.

Though the type was not what I wished for, my experience using the ax  left me very impressed with its look, feel and performance.  To be sure I had quibbles but it was also superior to the standard grade Council Tool axes I own or have seen.  It also had very good temper.  A hardness test (running a file over the edge, toward the poll as if sharpening, showed that the steel was hard enough to hold an edge while not being as difficult to sharpen as some Swedish axes I own.  I found the balance to be excellent as well.

I submitted my critique to Council Tool and to their credit, all of my criticisms were corrected in production.  In fact, the ax eventually produced was so improved and so different than the example I was sent, it is not fair to provide an evaluation of the felling axe here.  I plan to purchase a production model in the future to give the model a proper test.

In addition, Council Tool provided me with one of their Velvicut 2 Lb. Premium Hudson Bay Axes for evaluation just prior to delivery and found it to be superb.

Until I post an evaluation, just watch this video of how the Hudson Bay axe is crafted and see it in action here.   More will be posted about this wonderful axe in the near future!

Other American brands include Vaughan and Bushnell and Barco Industries (now owners of the venerable Kelly name and makers of the Kelly “Perfect” and “Woodslasher” axes but sadly, i hear that the Kelly name is being retired).  That’s it.  Snow and Nealley axes are now assembled in the US but are no longer forged here (more about this brand below).  Everything else is made offshore or in Mexico to my knowledge.

 Types of Camping Axes ~

From Woodcraft (1939) by Bernard S. Mason

Each type of ax has its aficionados and detractors and every author or expert will recommend one size or the other as being the most useful. In his book Woodcraft (1939, the current edition is titled Boys Book of Camping and Woodcraft), Bernard S. Mason provided readers with descriptions and photographs of the ax patterns commonly used in outdoor recreation activities and which were best for particular situations. Using his list as a rough guide, plus some advice from Nessmuk and Horace Kephart, a good selection of axes for the outdoors would include the following:

 “POCKET” AX ~   

 

Two Pocket Axes: The Gransfors Bruks Mini Hatchet and the now discontinued Bark River Knife and Tool Mini Axe, a modified Vaughan hatchet. A Karesuando Raven Scandi blade knife is in the center. 

The very lightest ax.  If you want an ax for backpacking this is the type to consider.  These miniature hatchets can be taken on any or all trips, to be there by your side, always at the ready.  Here is what noted woodcraft author, Horace Kephart, had to say about the pocket ax ~

 “Among my most valued possessions is a tiny Colclesser tomahawk, of 8-ounce head and 2 ½ inch bitt, which, with hickory handle and home-made sheath, weighs only three-quarters of a pound…It is all that is needed to put up a satisfactory shelter…I use it oftener than I do my jackknife.

Although pocket axes are currently very popular, their usefulness is limited by their light weight.  These aren’t chopping axes. They’re primarily used to split kindling from small-diameter logs by striking the poll with a log baton.  In this manner these toy-like tools will produce kindling faster and more efficiently than a knife.  Currently there are two pocket axes on the market: the Vaughan “Supersportsman Sub-Zero Axe (8 oz. head, 2 ¼ inch bit, 10-inch handle, 11.5 oz. total wgt, $17.00-$30.00) and the Gransfors Bruks Mini Belt Hatchet (8 oz. head, 2 ½ inch bit, 10 ¼ inch length, 12.01 oz. wgt. $145.00).  The Gransfors Brukshatchet is abeautifully crafted ax that’s delivered razor sharp and is tempered to really hold an edge.  The 2 oz. weight increase over the Vaughan gives the Gransfors ax more heft and puts it in the same weight class as Kephart’s original Colclesser hatchet.  The extra head width also provides for a larger eye allowing a larger diameter handle to be used.  This makes the Mini Belt Hatchet a stronger tool than its competitor.  Older Vaughan hatchets featured thicker profiles than today, which made them possible to reprofile.  That was done by Bark River Knives, who modified the Vaughan to create their Mini-Axe a few years ago.  Here is a discussion of pocket axes, including a review of the Vaughan hatchet and the modifications made by Reid Hyken, which later became the Bark River Mini-Axe.  When Vaughan changed their die and thinned out the head profile, Bark River could no longer modify the ax and dropped that model.  I own an unmodified, old style Vaughan hatchet and the now discontinued Bark River Mini-Axe.  No question but that the Mini-Axe dramatically outperforms the regular Vaughan hatchet.  Though I like the Vaughan and Bark River Mini-Axe I’ve come to use the Gransfors Mini Hatchet more often because of the greater head weight.  It’s too bad that there aren’t more pocket axes made in a similar weight but with profiles like the Bark River Mini Hatchet.  Both Gransfors Bruks and Wetterlings also offer a small hatchet of around 11-inches in length with a 1 lb head.  The Wetterlings was the first with one of these on the market and it has become quite popular.  However, no ax with a head weight of one pound can be considered a true pocket ax.

Here are some comparisons of three modern pocket axes to the Colclesser tomahawk described by Horace Kephart ~ 

Kephart’s Colclesser Ax:       8 oz. Head         2 ½ inch Bit         12 oz. Wgt 

Gransfors Mini Hatchet:       8 oz. Head         2 ½ inch Bit         12.01 oz. Wgt

Vaughan Hatchet:                   8 oz. Head         2 ¼ inch Bit         10.01 oz. Wgt

HAND AX (or Belt Ax or Scout Ax or Hatchet) ~

 Left: Sears Craftsman Model 48101 Center: Wetterlings Wildlife Axe #SAW13H Right: Snow & Nealley #014S Young Camper’s Belt Axe

Heavier but far more efficient than a pocket ax.  Hand axes (approx. 5 1/2″ head, 2 3/4″ bit, 1¼ to 1 ½ lb. total wgt.) are often called Scout axes due to this type’s long association with the Boy Scout program.  Axes in this size are stocked in far greater numbers than other types and are typically the least expensive of axes.  This is a great size of ax to start with and most folks will never need anything more.  The Boy Scout catalog continues to list hand axes, the Swedish companies make hand axes, and domestic companies such as Council Tool (Hunter’s Axe #125HU), 1 ¼ lb. head wgt., 14″ total length, $34.00) continue to make them in America.

Gransfors Bruks crafts the very nice  Wildlife Hatchet Model #415 and Wetterlings, the Wildlife Hatchet #106.   Husqvarna makes the wonderful Hatchet, described in a previous post, which sells for only 41.00.  It makes me sad to report that while the Snow & Nealley company of Brewer, Maine has been a long respected ax manufacturer, reccent reports indicate that their quality control has declined and they are now having their heads forged in China.  My experience with their “Young Camper’s Belt Axe” #o14S was not entirely positive.   The ax was tempered too soft to hold an edge and the quality was not up to par for as much the ax cost.  For an ax that retails in the same range as some of the Swedish axes, they are not as well finished or as well tempered and the slick varnish on their handles must be removed.  Mine also had a large gap between handle and eye that was filled with wood putty.  This was painted over with paint (also applied to the head) which served to disguise the defect.  Because of their quality control issues and their exceedingly soft temper, I cannot recommend a Snow & Nealley ax at this time.  I honestly have not tried the Council Tool #125HU but know that it is a made-in-USA tool of good temper.  A couple of years ago I discovered the inexpensive Sears Craftsman Model 48101 1 ¼ lb. Camp Axe ($16.99) at my local Sears store.  Frankly, I was amazed at how nice this little ax looked.  In size, weight and appearance it was much like the Snow & Nealley but of higher quality.  My example is an earlier version of the current Sears Camp Ax.  Mine has the brand name, model number, head weight and “made in the USA” stamped in the head.  Current models feature just the brand name and model number laser etched on the head with no mention of where the ax is made.  I was immediately struck with the Craftsman’s high quality features and appearance.  The head was clear lacquered raw steel with satin finished faces (the top and bottom are left roughly ground).  The handle was of white hickory (sapwood).  Of several on display, all featured perfectly mounted heads fitted with a wood wedge, showing no gaps whatsoever.  This was in marked contrast to the Snow & Nealley I own.  Handles were stained dark reddish brown and finished with a slick, clear coating (which must be sanded off and refinished with raw linseed oil).  Of the six examples I examined, two had perfect graining and edge-to-handle alignment.  They were the best grained and aligned hardware grade axes I’ve seen, bar none.  The remaining four (all etched versions) had near perfect graining but two of those had heads that were very slightly misaligned.  The profiles seemed good but edges were not particularly sharp.  Sharpening proved that these are well tempered and would keep an edge but after testing I discovered that profile is too thick overall and must be really thinned down to improve performance.  This thickness is throughout the cheeks and into the edge and so, would be too much work to alter with hand tools.  The ax needs to be professionally reprofiled.  I’ve put the Craftsman away until I can send it to BRKT for some serious work.   Unfortunately, that means the Craftsman ax is not the bargain I thought it would be.  After the reprofiling it would approach Swedish ax prices.  Too bad.

Double-bit Hand Ax ~

Nessmuck style hatchet by Lee Reeves of Shattuck, Oklahoma. A superb ax.

Another choice in hand axes is a double-bit pattern.  The double-bit hatchet, as described by Nessmuk in Woodcraft (1881), has intrigued generations of outdoorsmen since he first touted its utility nearly 130 years ago.  Because the weight of the head is equalized by the two bits, balance is superb, making it an absolute joy to use.  Double-bits also make good winter axes because if one bit breaks due to the cold, you still have a back-up.  Those benefits however, are negated by the fact that you lose the poll, so valuable for pounding stakes etc.  Double-bit hatchets are a distinct rarity today.  You’ll never see one in a hardware store as they are sporting axes, and you’ll never see one in a sporting goods store as they are only known to the cognoscenti.

Certainly, the most popular of the modern Nessmuk style belt axes is the handmade double-bit made by Lee Reeves of Shattuck, Oklahoma.  His hand forged axes are made in the traditional manner, with hardened steel bits forge welded into a softer steel ax head.  Reeves forges his axes using both a trip hammer and hammer and anvil.  The axes are made like Nessmuk’s, with one bit ground thin for cutting clear timber and the other thick and stunted for cutting deer bones, knotty wood etc.  Lee provides handles of ash, walnut, Osage orange, or curly maple at various costs.  Head weight of the ax is about 1 lb., head dimensions are approximately 5½” long, handle length is 15-inches long.  Wait time for one of these fine axes is running one year. Lee’s website has changed considerably since the last time I looked at it.  He used to show both single bit and the Nessmuk axes and showed the prices of every kind of ax/handle combination (the Nessmuk axes ranged in price from $165.00 to $205.00).  Now he only shows a photo of the Nessmuk axes but no prices whatsoever.  Contact him to determine current prices.  If you desire a Nessmuk style hand axe, the Lee Reeves double bit is a beautifully made, perfectly balanced choice. 

CAMP AX 

 

 

College professor, author and woodcraft expert Bernard Mason considered it the most useful for camping.  A camp ax has roughly a 1 to 1 ½ lb. head and an overall length of 18-20 inches.  Here is what Mason had to say about the type:

“My vote goes to the…camp-ax…Note the long, slender handle – eighteen inches overall (two inches of the 20” handle is inside the head).  Light, fast, perfectly balanced, the ease and speed with which chopping can be done with it is remarkable…It is at once a one-handed and a two-handed ax, as light as the average one-handed hatchet, yet with a handle long enough for two-handed swinging in felling small timber.  No larger ax is really needed to supplement it on a camping trip in the bush” ~ Woodcraft (1939)

Although Mason loved this type, others disagree about its versatility.  Critics note that the weight and size of these axes make them too large and heavy for convenient carrying, yet they also lack the cutting efficiency of the larger “Boy’s” ax.  It’s all a matter of preference.  The primary reason for Mason’s high opinion of the camp ax was his experience with a particular model ~ the Marble’s No. 10 Camp Ax fitted with a 20-inch handle (18-inch overall length after mounting).  The Number 10 was produced from 1906 to 1914 with a 1½ lb. head and from 1915 to 1943 with the 1¾ lb. head.  A choice of 16, 20 or 24-inch handle lengths were offered for all years of production.  Properly convexed and honed, the No. 10 will outperform any camp ax made today.  Its only design flaw was the small-diameter handle.  Number 10 Camp Axes are extremely difficult to come by, and when found, the handle is usually broken.  In good shape, they are a collector’s item, commanding very high prices.  Too bad no manufacturer produces a modern version of this ax with a slightly wider head/eye and thicker handle.  It would be the perfect camp ax.  The modern axes in the same general size and weight range are the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Ax (1 ½ lb. wgt, 3 ¼” bit, 19″ handle) and the Wetterlings Outdoor Axe #118 (1 3/4 lb. wgt, 3” bit, 19″ handle)  At this time, Husqvarna produces no similar model.

HUDSON BAY AX ~

 

The ax of explorers, voyageurs, trappers, and traders.  The Hudson’s Bay pattern descended from the trade ax/tomahawk of the 18th century and is the traditional ax of the North Woods and Canadian Shield.  Highly popular among native tribes and those who work, live and travel in remote wilderness, the pattern has both devotees and detractors.  Critics complain that the corners of the axe’s prominent beard are prone to breakage, particularly in cold weather, and that the design isn’t an efficient chopping ax.  Enthusiasts counter that it was never intended to be a woodlot ax but rather, a wilderness ax made for light, fast travel.  They also point out that it excels at shaping wood, a common task of remote wilderness living.  Bear in mind that because “Hudson Bay” refers to an ax pattern rather than a size, a wide range of weights and lengths exists.  While hatchet-sized versions are often found, the ax typically considered a Hudson Bay is one fitted with a 24” to 28” handle.

It’s a widely shared opinion among knowledgeable users, that the finest American Hudson Bay axes ever produced were made by the O. A. Norlund Company.  Sadly, Norlund axes disappeared sometime between the late 1970’s to mid 1980’s.   As they were made up until relatively recently, it’s not uncommon to see new old stock examples still in the package turn up on eBay.  These now go for up to $200.00.  Luckily, nice used Norlund heads can be had for $50.00 or less, making it possible to have a very nice Hudson Bay ax at a reasonable cost.

A popular American-made Hudson Bay axe, currently in production, is the Council Tool  #17HB18 (1 ¾ lb. head, 4-1/8″ bit, 18-inch handle) and the #175HB28 (1 ¾ lb. head, 4-1/8″ bit, 28-inch handle).  Council Tool advertises the length of the handle before hanging, thus the 18″ model has a handle of 16 inches and the 28″ model has a handle that actually measures 26 inches.  The Council Tool axes are well tempered and are fitted with lightly waxed handles.  However, they are a utility grade tool and suffer from the occasional misaligned head and/or poor graining.  Yet, with careful selection they make good wilderness axes.  I own one that Bark River worked their magic on and it is an excellent Hudson Bay ax.  Of course, the recently introduced Council Tool Velvicut Premium Hudson Bay Axe, model # JP20HB24C   has eclipsed all other Hudson Bay axes on the market (See my review of ths axe).

BOY’S AX  (or “three-quarter” or “pulpwood” ax) ~

  

Bahco Model HUS-1.0-650.  Left: As delivered Right: After some prep work

A favorite of the old timers.  The “boy’s” or ¾ ax features an American pattern head that weighs between 2 ¼ to 2 ½ lbs. and is fitted with a 26” to 28” handle.  Such axes chop and split wood nearly as well as a full sized felling ax (for which there is little use in outdoor recreation), yet, are lighter, more compact and easier to swing.  Their head weight makes them the best non-full-sized single-bit ax for winter use as they have the heft to cut wood resting on snow.  Boy’s axes were recommended by most of the old experts, albeit, with a measure of caution.  Their single reservation was due to the fact that this kind of ax was dangerous in the hands of a novice (as are all short axes).  Outdoor expert and writer Calvin Rutstrum warned:

“The axe commonly used on canoe trips is the three-quarter size, often referred to as a “boy’s axe” or small pole ax.  It is the source of more accidents in the woods than all other mishaps… The difficulty is not very apparent, but lies in the fact that a miss while chopping does not allow this axe to swing clear of the body and usually lodges it in an ankle or a foot. A full-handled axe will either wind up in the chopping block in the event of a miss stroke or it will swing clear of the body… Organized camps should not permit the use of the so-called “boys” axe or pole axe.  The hazard is too great.  However, no matter what I say here about safety, the pole axe is a very handy instrument in the hands of an experienced axeman, and I confess to using one myself.   But for the beginner such an axe is almost certain to result in an accident.  To determine the right length of an axe handle, have the user stand erect and place the blade on the ground with the handle alongside his leg. The end of the handle should touch approximately at the lower prominent part of the hip bone.”

I have to agree with Cal that this size and weight of ax is dangerous and should not be recommended to a beginner as a first ax.  Yet, in modern outdoor recreation, no full sized ax is useful.  All of the axes that would be carried for outdoor activities are short and thus, should be used with the same caution.  Remember, you can produce a much more powerful swing with these than a small camp or hand ax – but you can easily strike yourself with a miss – so learn your onions and spend some time practicing.

As for recommended models, the most popular ax in this size is the Gransfors Bruks No. 430 Scandinavian Forest Axe (2 lb. wgt, 3 ½” bit, 25″ handle, $118.98).  Wetterlings makes a very similar axe (Scandinavian Forest Axe #121), 1.9 lb. wgt, 3 ½” bit, 26″ handle, $79.98).  Another ax to consider is the Bahco HUS-1.0-650, a super value for the money.  Bahco (now owned by Snap-On Tool), a Swedish company established in 1886, produces a large selection of drop forged, German-made axes.  The company regrettably switched the handles used on their “Top Range” axes from select hickory to a choice of fiberglass or ash.  The ash handled models feature fully polished heads and a soft-grip orange elastomer coating on the bottom of the handle.  Their “Standard Range” axes feature painted heads and come fitted with ash handles that are coated with thick textured paint on the bottom.  In my opinion, the ash handles are a reasonable tradeoff for an otherwise very high quality product.  Their Standard Range ax: Model HUS-1.0-650 and Top Range ax: Model HUS-1.0-650SGfeature a 2 ¼ lb. head, fitted with a 26-inch ash handle.  As delivered, the HUS-1.0-650 features a painted head, a handle garishly marked with the Bahco logo, application pictogram, product code, and a barcode, applied over a gloss coating, with the thick paint applied to the bottom fourth of the grip.  The wedge is made of carbon fiber that features an integral hanging loop.  The profile is good but the factory edge is not fully convexed.  However, craftsmanship is excellent and of the examples I’ve seen, nearly 50% are straight grained and all had aligned heads.  While it would be nice to have someone grind the head a bit and properly convex and hone the edge, at an average retail price of between $28.00 and $39.00, the added cost for the improvements would add up to more than the ax is worth.  However, if you desire a relatively inexpensive ax that works, then look no further.  With the bit convexed, the edge honed, the hanging loop sawed off and the head and handle refinished, the HUS-1.0-650 makes a very good wilderness ax.  Husqvarna recently introduced their Forest Axe (approx. 2.25 lb head, 26″ handle) and it looks very nice indeed.  At only $63.00, it may soon be my Bahco replacement.

Council Tool makes the #22BR Council Pro Boy’s Axe (2 ½ lb. head, 28″ handle), which also appears to be a high quality tool but will take some careful selection and work to get it into proper shape.  Still, it only costs around $35.00 and would be worth the work if you can find one with good graining and alignment.  Hopefully, Council Tool will produce a Velvicut version of this model in the near future.

There you have it – a list of several ax models from various makers that are perfect for woodcraft camp use.  Now go find yourself an ax to grind!