It all started after I wrote a review of the Helle Nord knife. The company sent my editor a photo of someone digging up a piece of firewood with a Nord, and the editor asked if it was okay for me to run the photo with my comment.
“Batoning is bullshit,” I emailed back. “That’s why the ax was invented. But readers seem to like the idea.”
It occurred to my editor that publishing is probably not the only thing people do with knives – and similar tools – that they should stop doing, and I write about it. That is why we are here today. Below are five knife-related things you should stop doing right now. Or at least right after reading this.
1. Stop Batoning Wood
One of the things you learn in nature is that the less work you do, the more efficiently you function. If you paddle a canoe, you’ll find that the fewer, longer, strokes you make, the farther you can go in a day. If you need to split wood for a fire and choose to hit the spine of your knife blade with a stick to do so, you will be exerting far more energy than necessary. This is because a knife blade is designed to cut, not divide, and is therefore made thin, which is the exact opposite of what you want.
On the other hand, if you have a hatchet, you can tap a piece of wood of the right size and it will fall in two, leaving you free to listen to the mosquitoes and gnats.
2. Stop using a knife with ferro sticks
Incidentally, many knife sheaths have a small loop sewn into the spine to accommodate an iron rod. I’m not a fan of ferro rods. They work. (You can see them in action on You Tube. However, I notice that no one demonstrates them in a rainstorm.) But there are conditions. You need a fixed blade knife (no file if you value your fingers) with a nice sharp corner on the back and no coating to keep the rust at bay. You need to scrape off the rust insulation from the iron rod in advance. If your ferro rod is too short, or too weak, or too strong, it will absorb. If you haven’t practiced with it to get the necessary technique, you will suck.
Ferro-stickery also assumes that you will have all your coordination when you need to build a fire, fast or freeze. I once saw an elderly friend, whose hands were shaking with age, trying to build and light a fire under ideal conditions using dry wood, an axe, a knife and a kitchen match. He couldn’t do it. What happens if your hands shake from cold rather than age, and it rains, or snows, or storms blow?
And here’s this: Before the invention of friction matches, people on the American frontier carried both fixed-bladed knives and fire starters made of stone and steel every day of their lives. Knives were never included in the fire, except perhaps to dull the sticks. The striker was called a fire steel and looked like a giant letter C. It worked like an iron club, and let me quote from Carl P. Russell, who was a leading expert on the weapons and tools of the mountain men: “The method was crude and laborious,” to which I add, “even when used by experts.”
If Jim Bridger were alive today and you showed him an iron rod, he’d say “F**k that, who’s got a Bic?”
3. Stop buying small caps
The one-handed ax has been around forever, so it should be useful, but is it the best tool for the job? IN The book of the axe, which is the definitive work on this tool, author Dudley Cook points out that the blade of a pickaxe going in the wrong direction will be much closer to your person than an ax blade. And that because of its light weight, it doesn’t cut as well as an ax, which makes you swing it harder, which costs you control, and because you’re only able to use one hand, you have a chance much bigger losing your control altogether.
I once saw the hickory handle on a small hat made by a highly reputable company snap to pieces on its first move. There are caps with long full clips that extend from the head that don’t do this, but the ones I’ve handled are so small and light they’re almost useless.
The best hatchet I’ve used is the Gransfors Hunter’s Axe, which takes a razor edge, is heavy enough, and has a handle long enough to do some good. It can also be swung with two hands. But better than this is the three-quarter size ax called a Hudson’s Bay, or a cross-axe. In the days when lumberjacks roamed the woods cutting fire marks on harvest trees, they didn’t use hatchets. They used three-quarter axes.
4. Stop Working Blind
By that I mean losing track of where the knife blade is and where your hands are. There are two types of working blind. The first comes when you put both hands inside a body cavity and work by feel, the knife in one hand and the other hand touching the internal organs. Sooner or later, you’re going to go cut a pipe and get some fingers instead. Or cut your palm. The problem is exacerbated by the layer of blood and grease on the knife and your hands.
If you can’t see where both hands are and where the knife blade is, stop what you’re doing and open your body cavity a little more and keep it open. If faced with this job at sunset, as is often the case, cut open the belly, pull out as much of the gut as you can, make a leak around the carcass to keep the coyotes out, and wait until daylight is over. .
The other source of cuts comes from taking your eyes off whatever you’re doing when someone distracts you. Let’s say you’re skinning and a friend walks up and asks you to explain the meaning of life. You turn to answer him, still cutting yourself, and that’s when you cut the hell out of yourself. My favorite distraction story comes from a friend who was employed at a model factory in Vermont. He and his fellow new hires were getting a safety lecture from the shop worker who was demonstrating on a table saw. The foreman addressed his audience for a second, the blade still spinning, and cut a hand.
5. Stop trusting factory knife sheaths
Don’t assume that the sheath that came with your knife is the correct height. A proper sheath should not come loose from the knife unless you pull it out on purpose. I have never met a metal shirt that I would trust for a long time. The Scandinavians realized a long time ago that the best way not to lose a knife was for the sheath to swallow it so that only an inch of the handle was visible. This works.
A good sheath should also not allow the blade to penetrate. It should not damage the blade. Sheaths are where knifemakers — both factory and custom smiths — cut costs. Leather or Kydex or nylon, it makes no difference. Many of them simply suck, and it is better to throw the thing away and make a good one.
6. Stop using sharpening machines
All knives become dull eventually, and then you have to sharpen them. The traditional method is by hand, on a stone. This can be slow and requires skill. Some people turn to machine sharpeners. These require no skill, but they can burn temper from a blade or grind it to nothing, and do so very quickly.
I believe in hand sharpening. It took me a long time to learn because there were no YouTube tutorials back then, all the written instructions I could find were rudimentary, and a lot of the advice I got was bad, or worse. In the process, I broke more than a few blades, some of them good.
With all due respect to WorkSharp, who make the only good electronic sharpeners I’ve used, I’m still a firm believer in doing the job by hand. I use WorkSharp’s bench knife sharpener and a chopstick, and that’s it. I use the Crock Stick just like a leather belt, to get the best possible advantage.
WorkSharp Whetstone Knife Sharpener
You are better served if you never leave a dull knife. Most of them come from the factory with great edges, and it takes very little work to maintain that edge. Bringing a blade back from the dead is a lot of work.
Never attempt to polish a knife on a grinding wheel. A wheel can grab it from your hands and throw it with tremendous force into your legs or feet or worse. George Herron, who is in the Knifemakers Guild Hall of Fame, had mornings when he dreaded polishing and would do something else until he felt better about it. If you need polishing, do it by hand.