TAKE YOUR BUSHCRAFTING TO THE NEXT LEVEL WITH THESE BUSCRAFT BASICS
There is a right and a wrong way to do things, whether you’re swinging a hammer, golf club, baseball bat, or machete. Technique, in general, allows us to execute a specific task over a long period of time without injury, producing maximum results. Use and practice these knife grips to ensure safe and efficient cutting. Technique beats all!
“I feel any knife that is not too large in stature or too weighty and that can be held comfortably and resharpened easily is a good candidate.”
Working with tools always requires a safety briefing, especially when it’s a tool that can cause great injury and bodily harm to the user or onlooker. Several tips and procedures have been adopted for knife use and safety through books and teachings.
One general term is the blood circle, which teaches that a person with arm stretched out should be able to make a complete circle with the knife or other sharp tool in hand and be clear of any person or pets. It isn’t stressed enough that this should also include tarps, backpacks, tents, and water containers.
The blood triangle, more dramatically known as the death triangle, pertains primarily to sitting and carving. Do not use any portion of your leg as your backstop or cutting board. When removing large amounts of wood, cut off to the side of your body on your dominant knife-hand side. Or, lean forward, resting your forearms and elbow on your knees with your work project and knife out of your blood triangle. However, don’t forget the blood circle. Some knife cuts, such as a pull-cut, allow you to cut towards yourself in a controlled, slow way. For the most part, cut away from yourself.
FOREHAND (FIST) GRIP
The most basic, natural grip we use to grip things securely is a forehand grip. This grip is for power cutting and removing a lot of material to reduce wood and to rough 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 putting their thumb on the knife’s spine—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. The basic motion looks like shrugging your shoulder. Another good adaptation of this technique is to pull the wood back against the knife, using your work/project hand.
Pro Tip: This is not a jarring of the elbow motion.
The chest-lever grip is a typical palm-up grip in bushcrafting. This is used for powerful, controlled cuts. It uses the lat muscles with the power coming from leveraging against the body. The knife blade is turned, facing out and away towards the right (if right-handed) with the palm facing up.
Grip the knife, 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, the shoulders are rotated forward, and the hands are then pulled apart by the shoulders opening up, leveraging against the torso.
Note: The hands are still connected to the ribs. Imagine a chicken walking. The forehand and chest-lever grip provide powerful cuts for removing a lot of wood.
THUMB-ASSISTED PUSH CUT
This grip is also known as a scissor grip cut. The wood and the knife mimic the scissors’ appearance and movement from an overhead view. This is a thumb-assisted push cut utilizing the non-cutting hand’s thumb. The knife and wood hinge in a cutting motion (like scissors), using the thumb of the non-knife handle to push the back of the knife into the wood. It has a short cutting span, soft to medium power, and maximum control. A more controlled, detailed version of the chest-lever grip is this thumb-assisted push cut.
“The knife is the smallest and most portable of all the cutting tools. Light and unobtrusive, the knife is readily available for hundreds of everyday tasks…”
This grip is called a draw grip, apple peeling grip, or paring grip. It is a more detailed, finishing cut, not a powerful one. It’s used to finish the ends of a spoon handle, the top of the spoon bowl, chamfering a tent stake, and trimming wood to be flat. Hold the knife in a reverse grip with the blade facing you.
Holding the back of the knife handle in your fingers, placing your thumb of the same hand on the back end of the work, and using your other hand to clasp the work. Ensure the thumb of the knife hand is out of the path of the blade as you close your hand making a loose fist, providing a slow controlled cut.
Note: This grip is handy for delicate carving and finishing the ends of items.
A knife is not a chopping tool as it has no weight behind it. However, if the back of the knife is struck with something heavy, it can make suitable cuts. Any stout, heavy stick that is comfortable to hold is a baton. It will assist a knife in cutting down and limbing small trees and making many cutting operations easier.
Branches and small saplings can be cut down with a knife and baton in a few minutes. What makes batoning “bushcraft batoning?” Simply, it’s using a baton for controlled cross-grain stop cuts, V-notches, and splitting wood that is no wider than your wrist in diameter. Limbing branches off a standing or downed tree can quickly be done with a baton and is safer than using an axe.
Cutting a green or dry branch to the desired size while leaving a somewhat rounded end for pounding into the ground is accomplished with the beaver chew. This method for cutting through any stick is to make a series of cuts (nicks) around it. The thicker the stick, the more time is required to be repeated a few times, each time cutting deeper. When the cut is half or two-thirds through the stick, break it off and trim the end.
TENSION CUTTING SAPLINGS
Here is another knife technique used to take down small green trees up to wrist size in thickness: Applying tension, bend the tree, and with one hand, hold firmly. At the bend point, where there is the most stress is where the cut is started at a 45-degree angle. No sawing action is required, just a rocking back and forth motion of the blade, cutting the fibers under tension. The most important part of this is the end of the cut when the tree is ready to snap.
Restrain the tree from falling prematurely, requiring more work than is necessary to finish the cut. If done correctly, this should take no more than 10 seconds. This method applies to long saplings cut from trees that need to be sectioned. It’s accomplished by stepping on the top of the sapling, holding it in place, and bending the sapling over the thigh or hip. The cut is made at the bend, being careful not to cut any part of the body during the follow-through.
Shaved pieces of deadwood that can be used as tinder (if made very thin) and kindling is known as a feather stick or fuzz stick. Although there are a variety of techniques to accomplish this, here is the most basic version. Start with a forehand grip and resist every urge to place the thumb of your knife hand on the spine.
Using jimping or a jimping grip gives uneven pressure and often is the cause why feathers don’t stay on the stick. Think ahead when reducing green wood for carving projects and keep the shavings no matter how thick they may be for making a fire.
Greenwood shaved thinly will dry out fast. Make them thin, if possible, or keep larger shavings to use as kindling. Multiuse and getting the most out of everything we work on and cut is true bushcrafting!
THE BUSH KNIFE
“The knife is the smallest and most portable of all the cutting tools. Light and unobtrusive, the knife is readily available for hundreds of everyday tasks in bush living.”
What defines a good bushcraft knife? I feel any knife that is not too large in stature or too weighty and that can be held comfortably and re-sharpened easily is a good candidate. Typically, a knife designed for bushcraft and carving tasks doesn’t have jimping for the thumb on the spine. The curvature of the cutting edge should extend for the entire length of the blade.
A general-purpose bushcraft knife should have a blade as long as the palm’s width and have the blade tip close to the profile centerline of the handle. The back of the handle and the spine should be on the same line.
The handle should be oval in the cross-section with scales made from either wood, Micarta, or plastic, and not have any finger cutouts that dictate where you have to hold the knife; this limits efficient grips and can cause blisters (hot spots).
Handle length should fill your palm comfortably. Scandinavian blade grinds are expected on a bushcraft knife but are not the only acceptable grinds at all, in my opinion.
Commonly referred to as a “Scandi,” this grind is found mainly on Scandinavian-made knives such as the Puukko and more commercialized Morakniv knives, primarily used for woodwork and general utility in Denmark, Finland, Estonia, and Sweden. Scandinavian ground knives have influenced knifemakers worldwide.
Several knife grinds are available on the market, and the major ones include convex, flat, Scandi, saber, and hollow. However, it is often a choice between Scandi, flat, and convex for bushcraft.
The primary job of a bushcraft blade is to cut deeply, making it ideal for carving and removing large amounts of wood. The Scandi, due to its single bevel and zero grind, has an excellent cutting ability, as there is no change in the angle that can cause friction. However, the wedge created by the intersecting planes hampers the blade when cutting into thick materials.
Try a Scandinavian grind and compare it to other grinds when bushcrafting and judge how well it excels for you.
Model: Classic No. 1
Overall/Blade Length: 7.75 inches/3.90 inches
Thickness: 2.5 mm
Grind: Scandinavian zero grind
Handle: Red-stained birch
Sheath: Black polymer
Weight: 2.5 ounces (with sheath)
Made in: Sweden
Morakniv.se • Info@Morakniv.se
Bear Forest Knives
Model: The Simple
Overall/Blade Length: 8 inches/4 inches
Thickness: 1/16 inch
Steel: 52100 high carbon\
Grind: Scandinavian zero grind
Finish: Rock tumbled acid wash
Handles: Padauk wood
Weight: 5.5 ounces (with sheath)
Made in: U.S.A.
GIVE IT A TRY
PRACTICE MAKING THESE CUTS WITH YOUR BUSHCRAFT KNIFE
Popularized by wilderness educator, survival instructor, and author Mors Kochanski, the Try Stick is designed for practicing and demonstrating the use of a knife as a wood carving tool. While some notches are more practical and regularly used, making tent pegs, pot hangers, and digging sticks, many of the notches on a Try Stick are used less frequently and are decorative. There are about 17 possible notches that can be applied to a Try Stick. However, picking as many as can fit on a stick seems to be the norm. There isn’t a set amount of notches that must be made; a Try Stick is about using a knife and practicing safely.
Try Stick Notches
- The Round Notch
- The Pot Hook
- The Saddle Notch
- Square Notch
- The Mitred
- The Jogged and Wedge Splice
- The Dovetail Pin
- The Dovetail Notch
- The V-Notch
- Spear Notch
- The Knife Tip Mortice
- Diameter Reduction
- The Knife Edge
- The Split
- The Bow Notch
- The Latch Notch
- The Whistle Project
- Bark Stripping
A version of this article first appeared in the Sep/Oct 2022 print issue of Knives Illustrated.