What is it men seek as they travel deep into the woods? With minimal kit, a good knife, and primitive skills, is it merely the thrill of adventure? For the man who practices the classical art of camping and bushcraft, it could be the pursuit of that moment where his skill and knowledge come together without conscious thought, his sense of awareness remains heightened, and he feels wholly in tune with his natural surroundings. Or, is it something more?
In his work Hierarchy of Needs, Abraham Maslow once wrote, “If man is ultimately to be at peace with self, what a man can be, he must be.” He was describing the journey of man’s search for himself when he arrives at that pinnacle moment of “self-actualization.” But man ultimately remains tethered to his physiological needs of fire, shelter, food, and clothing. Of the basic tools critical for survival, his knife remains of prime importance.
Since our last knife collaboration, Owen Baker of BAKR-BILT Knives in Newport, Tenn., posed yet another interesting question: “If you were to design the perfect bushcraft knife, what would it be like? What metal, hardness, thickness, shape, and grind would you prefer? What features do you feel are most important in a bushcraft knife?”
Bushcraft could be described as the art of camping with minimal gear, where the emphasis is placed on knowledge and primitive outdoor skills rather than equipment. Hence the motto, “The more you know, the less you carry.“ For the modern man with a primitive spirit, it’s a connection to a forgotten era of self-reliance, personal courage, and a mental focus on the things in life that really matter.
“Bushcraft” is a term popularized by modern outdoorsmen such as Ray Mears, and to an older generation, Mors Kochanski. Beyond our modern era, in the late 1800s the synonym “woodcraft” was used by such writers as George Washington Sears — “Nesmuck” — and in the early 1900s by Horace Kephart. While these men were separated by more than a century of wilderness living, they each spoke extensively about the critical importance of their knife.
So what blade design is the best for bushcrafting? Leading experts have their own preference, but truthfully any blade design sufficiently built to withstand a wide variety of skinning, wood processing, and carving chores, would be sufficient. But the art of bushcraft has much more to do with the knowledge and skill of the person who uses it than the knife.
In the hands of a man like Mors Kochanski, any well-built knife would become a natural extension of himself as he wandered the wilderness. In fact, it was Mors who probably said it best when he described a bushcraft knife as “a pry bar that cuts wood really, really well.”
So just how large should a bushcraft knife be?
In 1906, Horace Kephart, considered the dean of woodcraft, had this to say on the subject of knives in his famous book, Camping and Woodcraft:
“The notion that a heavy hunting knife can do the work of a hatchet is a delusion. When it comes to cleaving carcasses, chopping kindling, blazing thick barked trees, driving tent pegs or trap stakes, and keeping up a bivouac fire, the knife never was made that will keep up with a good tomahawk (p. 165).”
As a man who spent months on end alone in the deep forests of the southern Appalachians, Kephart believed a knife was a tool exclusively reserved for smaller cutting and carving chores. In other words, if larger wood-processing chores were required, it would only make sense to bring along an axe or a saw, which is specifically designed to handle those tasks. Anything less would require the expense of time, strenuous labor, and precious calories.
His preference was for a sheath knife of 4½ inches in length. Kephart also noted: “Knick and dull edges are abominations, so use knives and hatchets for what they were made for, and whet them a little every day they are in service (p.167).”
Bringing along the right tools for the job, and ensuring they were properly maintained, were paramount. While bushcraft blade shapes and designs differ greatly, it’s generally accepted that a blade length of 3-5 inches is preferable.
BAKR-BILT Blade Construction
Given all the wood processing and carving chores a bushcraft knife might have to endure, it’s absolutely necessary that it can stand up to the rigors of remote places like Alaska. As such, this project knife would be more robust than our first collaboration for the guide knife.
For its solid reputation of toughness, the metal chosen for the project was 5/32-inch, D2 high-carbon tool steel, and a high, flat grind with a full tang for added strength. To fit the more European profile, Owen chose a four-inch drop point hunter; I suggested chamfering near the point for easier penetration. The spine was to remain sharp with a 90-degree edge for scraping furs, wood, or bark for tender. For better leverage in heavy carving chores, the cutting edge should remain close to the hilt.
To strike a balance for ease of sharpening in the field and its ability to hold an edge, the blade was tempered to a Rockwell 59 to 60.
Ok … so at this point, you’re probably saying to yourself, “What’s the big deal? There are thousands of knife makers out there who make a similarly styled knife I could use for bushcraft.”
Quite true. What I believe is so innovative is not just the knife, but how it works in concert with its custom BAKR-BILT sheath. Anyone fortunate enough to own a BAKR-BILT knife will attest to the flawless construction of Baker’s custom sheaths and leatherwork. Each stitch is carefully sewn and deliberately placed. Over the course of this project, there was perhaps as much time spent in discussions of the sheath as the knife itself.
One of man’s basic needs in the wilderness relies on his ability to make fire. Fire is necessary for cooking, distilling water, warmth, and, perhaps most importantly, mental health. For those who practice the art of classical camping and primitive skills, the three preferred ways to make fire is from a ferro rod, flint and steel, or the bow-drill method.
The bow-drill method is the most difficult skill to master and requires a socket to apply pressure to the drill to create friction. However, making a bow-drill divot in a knife handle [for good reason] is generally frowned upon because of the dangers of subjecting the outdoorsman to an exposed blade. A deep cut in a remote forest could easily become catastrophic.
To abate this hazard, a divot hole was cut in the sheath and handle to allow the knife to be safely used as a socket without exposing the blade. Following the rule “Two is one, one is none,” a ferro rod is deeply seated, fully protected by the leather sheath, and tethered by a length of paracord. A ferro rod provides a surer means of fire in wet conditions. When used correctly, it easily drives hot molten sparks on tender.
This system allows enough length for the ferro rod to be used with a striker, located at the butt of the blade, while sheathed. A second length of cobra braid is woven over the tethered ferro rod with enough cord to be used for a bow drill. The combination of knife and sheath provides a very practical, yet safe, means of starting fire. If an outdoorsman ever became separated from his gear, this system, affixed to his belt, could help ensure his survival.
BAKR-BILT Ferro Scraper
Now, let’s get back to the knife. To drive more intense sparks from a ferro rod, a small, half-round scraper was built into the butt of the knife. While most use the sharp spine at the back of a knife, the amount of material removed is limited. With the half-round scraper, the knife comes into contact with more surface area of the rod and provides more control. The result is a greater shower of sparks with less effort — all without removing the knife from the sheath. In wet, adverse conditions, or when frigid temperatures cause the loss of dexterity, this small feature could mean the difference between fire and an extremely cold night out in the woods.
Full [Tapered] Tang
One of the qualities that distinguish a custom, handmade design is its balance in the hand. Most of the blades offered in bushcraft come from manufacturing or mid-tech sales. While these knives may use good steel of sufficient thickness, the tangs are sometimes drilled or “skeletonized” to remove weight. The process shifts the knife balance back toward the hilt, which is good.
However, in this type of construction balance is achieved at the cost of strength. Heavy prying or batoning with a knife of this design could lead to a catastrophic failure when you need it most. Conversely, a tapered tang removes an equal or greater amount of weight at the butt to achieve balance without sacrificing its strength. Because the process is too costly in mid-tech lines, it is rarely seen. Custom knives are the exception.
When my knife finally arrived, it was unmistakably unique and “BAKR-BILT.” It is a robust knife and sheath, with an innovative, purpose-built design centered on the tasks required of true bushcraft. The visual appearance of the knife and sheath was reminiscent of knives adorned on the belt of mountain men.
On the back of the knife is a small diamond sharpener, wisely concealed by the belt loop. Unsheathed, the knife was remarkably balanced and fit well in the hand. Owen had done it once again. According to my preference, he had built the perfect knife.
What’s more, a cobra-braided tether allows the knife to be worn in a similar cross-draw fashion. This method of carry is especially useful to the hunter who wears a firearm on his strong side.
Closing Thoughts and Wanderings
So what is it men seek as they travel into the deep woods? Is it to satisfy a deep sense of adventure? Is it a journey to master the primitive skills necessary to thrive in his wilderness surroundings? Is it to find a connection to our primitive past?
Perhaps, but for me it’s something more. It’s to enjoy the moment, the solitude, and the separation from a manmade, structured environment; to feel at home in the infinite beauty of a wilderness God made. For me, it’s to be alone with my thoughts to find a place of peace — with myself and my Creator. It’s an incessant journey to find self.
In order to reach such an elusive destination, Owen’s knife will become a constant companion to help me trek deeper in the woods on a less traveled path.