KNIFE SKILLS WITH TRY STICK CARVING
THE TRY STICK
Notches and several knife operations are used in bushcraft/woodcraft/campcraft, making projects like traps, friction fire, basket weaving, structure, and whistle building possible. A Try Stick is a practice stick whereupon notches are carved as a teaching aid. The number of notches varies depending on the diagram or photos one tries to emulate. The late bushcraft and survival expert Mors Kochanski has been credited with bringing the Try Stick to the forefront. Mors has written articles and published a pamphlet on the Try Stick covering approximately 15 notches and some of their uses.
While I’m sure several more than those depicted in Mors Kochanski’s teachings exist, there are about 10 to 11 notches that various schools teach. These notches are the ones used most often and seem to have the most realistic applications.
You’ll need a knife and wood. An absolute must-have for a Try Stick is a sharp knife; this is not limited to Try Stick practice alone. All knife operations should call for a sharp knife in the kitchen, backyard, woods, or garage. Comfort is essential, whether a pocketknife or a fixed blade. The next most important item is a reasonable length of straight-grained, green, knot-free wood, fingertip-to-armpit in length, with a maximum diameter of 1 inch.
Wood selections may vary from willow, witch hazel, poplar, or birch. Green wood is easier to carve than dry hardwood. Use what you have; it’s all about the practice.
One of the end notches on a Try Stick, the root stripper could be a two-for-one deal. For the root stripper, first make a flathead screwdriver/chisel shape by carving a little at a time and turning the stick over to even out the cuts, all while using a fist grip. When viewed from the top, the shape should be even. This cut is used in deadfall traps, but the root stripper has another step.
A narrow V-notch is cut into the flathead screwdriver, allowing space to strip and remove bark from roots. This section can also be used for hafting arrows and spear points.
Developed over centuries by master artisans, the dovetail notch is an ancient Scandinavian log house building method. This notch transfers over to outdoor crafts in several facets. For making pot hangers, cooking cranes, chairs, and benches, it’s hard to beat the strength and versatility of a dovetail notch.
Start by carving at a 45-degree angle to the right with a rocking back-and-forth knife motion. Make a second equal cut next to the first towards the left. Both cuts need to be halfway through the stick. The cuts will almost be at right angles to each other. In the middle, cut straight down to the depth of the side cuts. With the knife’s tip, slice with the wood fibers until the pieces can be pried out on either side.
POT HOOK NOTCH
The pot hook notch is useful for suspending pots over a fire and keeping gear such as backpacks off the ground. The most popular application of the pot hook notch is on yet another Mors Kochanski bushcraft contribution: the Burtonsville Rig.
On a fixed stick with a flattened portion and divot, carve a series of pot hook notches into a free-hanging stick that will adjust the pot level over the fire. Another application would be to make a backpack/tool hanger with a straight stick having two opposing pot hook notches, or a forked stick on one end and a pot hook notch on the other, fastened by a length of cordage.
To make the pot hook notch, use the knife to make an “X” and carve out the bottom three sections of the “X,” leaving the top section intact to hang. The same process is performed to hang a pot from the stick, leaving the bottom “X” section intact. The carved section should be between half and two-thirds of the way through the stick. The pot hook notch should resemble a bird’s beak.
Reducing a stick’s diameter (roundness) is helpful for making toggles and for decorative purposes. It’s important to leave enough on the stick so it doesn’t become too weak when under tension.
I have seen this carved in two different ways. One way is to keep the stick vertical and lightly carve with the more forward section of the knife close to the tip while rotating the stick using a fist grip. Turn the stick over and repeat, slicing off the opposing shavings. The other way is to score two stop cuts around the stick and carve towards them until the diameter is uniform. The width of the reduction should be about the diameter of the stick.
In the art of log cabin building, the square notch is used on the first logs laid down and the last logs to complete the walls, as the notch prevents the logs from rolling. The square notch can be used on a smaller bushcraft scale when locking parts are needed for primitive weapons like the Apache throwing star, for field expedient litters, or for making chairs.
This is an easy yet effective notch made with a knife alone or knife and baton. Two stop cuts must be made with strict 90-degree angles on the left and right sides. The middle is either carved or pried out using the knife’s tip.
A square notch on a Try Stick should go halfway through the stick and have three 90-degree angles. Anyone who has ever played with Lincoln Logs should be familiar with this notch.
Similar to the square notch, the saddle notch is also used for cabin and structure building involving logs or poles. I’ve seen this notch used in the construction of bucksaws, camp tables/shelves, and pack frames. A skilled axe wielder could do this on logs, but for the Try Stick, use a knife.
Like the shape of a saddle, there’s a slightly rounded, “scooped out” look to this notch, rather than how the 90-degree sides on a square notch look. The knife carves along the stick with a slight turn of the wrist motion; then, the stick is rotated to carve towards the first cut. This notch has a smooth transition, whether it’s wide or narrow.
KNIFE TIP MORTICE
The most difficult of the Try Stick notches is cutting a hole through a stick. Drilling a hole in a piece of wood when only a knife is available almost always results in a fuzzy, unkempt-looking gouge. Sure, a Swiss Army Knife or multitool will be able to do a better job of making a hole in wood, but when a single knife is available and a hole is needed, this notch shines. Applications for it can include making a hole in a carved utensil to attach a lanyard or making a hole to hang an item on a nail. This notch can be used when you need to tie a bowstring for the bow-and-drill friction-fire method. Making an Ojibwa bird trap requires a hole for the false perch, and the knife tip mortice can be used for that, as well.
“The square notch can be used … for primitive weapons like the Apache throwing star, for field expedient litters, or for making chairs.”
The stick needs to be thinned, but if it’s made too thin, its integrity will be weakened. If left too thick, the mortice will be challenging to make. Start making flat, 90-degree cuts on both sides of the stick to thin it.
With the knife tip, carefully score a square or rectangle on each side of the stick. Cut the fibers at 90 degrees from both sides of the stick. With the knife’s tip, pry the wood out as cleanly as possible. While some spear-pointed blades may be too wide for this task, drop points and clip points work well for making this notch.
Known as a seven-notch or stake notch, this notch is called a latch notch in older publications. Most trap pieces are constructed using some form of the seven-notch, like a figure-four deadfall, twitch-up traps, and stakes for setting up shelters.
“This [knife tip mortice] notch can be used when you need to tie a bowstring for the bow-and-drill friction-fire method.”
This is the most popular notch in my book. A stop cut is put into the stick using a rocking motion of the blade or a baton. The wood is then carved towards the stop cut, taking small cuts up to the stop cut. It should look like a seven or an “L,” depending on how you look at it.
A handy application that acts as an end-piece for a Try Stick is a trimmed end or beaver chew. Cutting a stick in two and putting a rounded end on a digging stick or a stake to be hammered into the ground are a few ways a trimmed end can be helpful in camp.
“The purpose behind the Try Stick is to practice and demonstrate the skillful use of the knife as a wood carving tool, as well as to learn the practical operations that may be used in wilderness living. Some of the carving operations may be of very practical applications; others are meant to tax the skill of the carver and some may be used for decorative purposes.”
The result of making small, deep cuts around a stick’s diameter and weakening it until it breaks naturally or with help best describes a trimmed end. Using a chest-lever or fist grip for the cuts at approximately a 45-degree angle will do the job quickly and neatly.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Nothing will tell a person more about a knife than using it to make something. Use a Try Stick not only to practice notches but also to see just how comfortable your favorite knives are. First and foremost, have fun!
Forehand (Fist) Grip
This is for power cutting and for removing a lot of material to rough in a shape. The knife is held with all fingers curled around the handle like a fist. The thumb is not on the spine. Most people’s natural habit is to put their thumb on the knife’s spine, but don’t. Holding your work (wood) off to the side, safely, with the blade tip pointing up slightly, slice from the base of the blade to the tip. Lock your wrist and elbow, and move from the shoulder as if punching down through the floor. It looks like shrugging a shoulder; that is the basic motion. Note: This is not a jarring-of-the-elbow motion.
This is a powerful, controlled cut. It uses the latissimus dorsi (lat) muscles, with the power coming from leveraging against the body. The knife is turned, facing out and away towards the right (if right-handed), with the palm facing up.
Grip the knife with the thumb on the handle or side of the blade while the other hand holds the work. Once the edge makes contact where you want to cut, rotate your shoulders forward and pull apart your hands by opening up your shoulders. Note: The hands are still connected to the ribs. It looks like a chicken walking.
A version of this article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2023 print issue of Knives Illustrated Buyer’s Guide.