Bushcraft: Selecting Tools
- By John Fenna
- 4 Comments
- Last updated: 15/01/2018
Previously, I have written about what I look for in good bushcrafting knives.
This time I turn my attention to bushcrafting tools, specifically machetes, bill hooks, folding saws, hatchets and axes.
In essence, bill hooks and machetes are just big, heavy knives used for the heavier tasks that a knife might be called to take care of, especially brush clearance to light ‘limbing’ of trees. Traditionally, every region and county of Britain had its own design of bill hook, I prefer a single-edged bill hook with a moderate curve, as I find that this kind is easiest to sharpen and most versatile. I have been very disappointed with the modern bill hooks, but have found an antique ‘Elwell’ model 2976-10 ideal for my needs and with a ¼” thick blade. Despite having a stick tang, my bill hook has survived well through some brutal work, proving that stick tangs are not weak! The blade balance is well forward for a good swinging, chopping action.
If you are buying an antique bill hook, make sure the handle is not rotted, woodwormy or split and that its fastening is secure. The blade is almost certainly going to be blunt, but it should not be so worn as to have had the carbon steel cutting edge ground away, leaving only the mild steel (or iron) body. Rust, if not too excessive, can be removed, new sheaths made, edges sharpened and handles oiled and waxed (or replaced) and old tools given a new lease of life.
My preferred machete is of the British Army ‘Golok’ pattern and I was lucky enough to find a genuine issue one for very little money. OK, the edge needed regrinding to give a ‘deeper’ edge, which allowed the machete to cut rather than be a ‘tree beater’, the handle needed major work to remove sharp, uncomfortable edges and I had to make it a new sheath – but everything else was good.
The steel is about 4mm thick, giving the 12.5-inches blade a good weight and, thanks to the shape of the blade, the balance is well forward, giving the machete a natural swing for slashing through undergrowth.
My bill hook and machete have nothing fancy about them, but are solid and efficient tools. In both tools, the quality of steel is good and, if the quality of the finish was not great, it was easily fixable with basic tools and a little TLC.
If I am going to be doing a lot of saw work in the woods, I take a full-on 24- to 36-inch bow saw, despite these being awkward to carry. The inconvenience is worth the ease with which they perform their tasks.
If I am not expecting to do any saw work beyond collecting a bit of firewood and roughing out carving projects, then I carry a folding saw of some description. This kind of saw can often reach where the frame of a bow saw would get in the way. I prefer something with about an 18cm blade that locks in place both open and closed, and has a comfortable handle.
Although I have for years intended to make my own wooden handled folding saw (and have made my own wooden framed ‘buck’ saws), I keep returning to the Bahco Laplander with its Teflon coated blade. The action and lock are solid, the blade easily replaced, and it feels good in my hand and while it may not be the fastest cutter in the world, it is still pretty good. I also use a pruning saw I found in Aldi and while not as well made, long lasting or as good as a cutter, it works fairly well, ticking a lot of boxes for me (inexpensive, and easily replaced if damaged or lost) and is ideal for my bushcraft students to learn on!
Another saw I often carry is a folding bow saw from EKA. This is strong, lightweight and very comfortable, but is noisy to use as the saw has a choice of three blade types stored in the frame. However, this does allow you to choose the right saw blade for the job in hand.
A saw can be a lot more useful for collecting firewood than an axe, but for some tasks there is no real substitute for a good, well made axe or hatchet.
As with most of my bushcraft tools, I am a bit of a conservative when choosing an axe, shying away from modern synthetic materials for handle and masks, and preferring forged heads on wooden handles. I also avoid axes and hatchets that are heavily painted, as you cannot see how good the quality of the wood is, or which have the ‘eye; of the axe head filled with resin, obscuring the view of how the handle is wedged and the alignment of the grain in the wooden handle.
A compromise between the size and weight of a full felling axe and the handiness of a hatchet, a ‘bush axe’ is my choice for bushcraft. This term refers to an axe that has a haft that reaches to your armpit if you hold the axe head in your hand. I have used this size of axe for everything from dropping 15m tall trees to roughing out spoons. A bush axe is reasonably light, but can be used for some heavy work, while not punishing you with its weight, but is short enough to need good technique to avoid any miss hits from connecting with feet or shins with painful results! If I am going to be doing a lot of splitting of rounds of wood, I choose a dedicated splitting axe.
My ideal bushcraft axe has a squared back face of ‘poll’ for pounding wood (never metal), a lightly curved cutting edge or ‘bit’, with a lightly convex grind and a blade profile that is neither overly convex nor too thin. A splitting axe needs to be very convex so that the weight and shape of the head forces the wood apart once the edge penetrates the wood. An axe with a very fine edge is easily damaged and can stick in a cut, but cuts deep and fast.
The handle of an axe needs to be made from knot-free ash or hickory, where the grain runs as near as possible in line with the cutting edge of the axe and definitely no more than 40-degrees and, if possible, follows the curves of the length of the handle. The haft should fit tightly into the eye of the axe head and preferably be ‘double wedged’, the main wedge being wooden and this fixed with a metal wedge or ring.
The shaft should be in line with the cutting edge of the blade. Look along the edge and it should be in line with the ‘nob’ at the end of the handle, and if you rest the axe on the nob and the bit then the point of contact on the bit should be between the centre point of the edge and one-third of the way along the edge towards the ‘heel’ or lowest point of the bit.
Any axe that has a very heavy blade, or very light poll, will be a pig to control. Lay the shaft axe across your open fingers, palm up, supporting the shaft just below the head of the axe (the “throw”). If the axe tilts more than 30-degrees off the horizontal in either direction, it will be unwieldy.
An axe handle, like a knife handle, should fit your hand comfortably. Too thin or thick will prove uncomfortable for extended use. It should not be so polished as to be slippery when wet, and have a pronounced nob on the end to give a secure grip. A good oval or egg shape cross section proves most comfortable.
All these points also go for my choices in most hatchets, but one form of hatchet is a bit different – the Tomahawk.
The shaft of a ‘hawk is designed to be removable for replacement or carrying, and is a tapered friction fit – not wedged or screwed into place. Here you are not looking for a tight wedge but a tight, even and gouge-free fit to the handle with enough of the tapered handle protruding beyond the eye to provide a good margin for extra movement if the wood dries or shrinks, but without protruding so far as to be in the way of work. The handle should taper enough to make removing the head easy without reducing the grip too much.
The size of the eye in the tomahawk determines the diameter of the handle, so the choice of head will affect how comfortable the handle is.
Well-chosen tools should be a joy to use, as well as being as safe and efficient as possible and lasting for years and years of hard work. Others may look for other criteria when choosing their tools, but this is what I look for.