Learning is not compulsory … neither is survival.
– W. Edwards Deming, scientist and lecturer
Like the fibers we twist into cord, the threads of knife making tradition that have endured the ages are spun into today’s ideal woodcraft knives. One knifemaker weaving tradition and technology into superior woodcraft tools is Andras Corbas, whose latest masterwork is the Forager by WoodBearKnives (WBK).
Knívleysur maður er lívleysur (maður).
Translation: “A knifeless man is a lifeless man.”
— Faroese axiom
The Forager’s Old-World Roots
Quality woodcraft knives like the WBK Forager harken to pragmatic and proven predecessors. The tried-and-true qualities incorporated into the Forager are cherry-picked from designs ranging from the arboreal knives of Old World Europe to the repurposed butcher knives utilized by North America’s early European explorers.
Like most WoodBearKnives products, the Forager blends two traditional Finnish knife styles: the robust Sami leuku, a kind of mini-machete; and the puukko, essentially Finland’s everyday carry (EDC) knife. The resemblance of the Forager to its Old World ancestors is clear in several ways.
The Forager – which has 5 ¼ inches of blade length, including 5 inches of beveled edge – is ideally sized to balance the leuku’s wood-processing chores with the finer, close-in work of the slender puukko. Like the puukko, the Forager’s drop-point design aids with field-dressing large game, and the curved belly is suitable for skinning.
Like Finnish knives, the Forager also features a Scandi grind. The Forager’s wedge-shaped Scandi grind helps to split what you’re cutting, whether batoning limbs or carving meat. The Scandi blade bites limbs easily, stop-cuts are relatively effortless, and notching is quick and easy. And despite the thickness of the blade, the Forager’s Scandi made feather sticks a breeze: Just lay the bevel flat against the wood and gently draw the wood toward you to shave fine curls. Contrast that with rounded grinds that force my focus to controlling the angle and depth of the cut.
… perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to
add, but when there is nothing more to remove.
– Antoine de Saint Exupéry, aviation pioneer
Features, Yes. Bells and Whistles, No.
One of my first review assignments was for WBK’s sturdy Rogue Bear. As a novice in the world of woodcraft knives, the Rogue Bear appeared so simplistic that I assumed it was a museum replica. I didn’t yet appreciate the breadth and depth of human experience that shaped the subtle design of this modern woodcraft knife.
In fact, engineers often observe that the more complex a system is, the more likely it is to break down: This is a common failing of many modern knives. Hollow-handle knives, for instance, might give you a place to store your fish hooks, but they don’t allow a full-tang, weakening the overall strength of your tool. Serrated spines sacrifice practical needs like batoning and safe handling.
When it comes to survival, built-in weaknesses are unacceptable. In many of his videos, Dave Canterbury of the Pathfinder School reiterates that every piece of your gear must be ‘bullet-proof.’ In his book Bushcraft 101, he puts it like this: “… you must choose the right elements for your kit, and you must ensure that these items are of the best quality.”
Simply put, your gear cannot fail: Canterbury also states that, “Quality, well-maintained tools can mean the difference between an enjoyable, comfortable tramp and an unsuccessful — or even dangerous — venture into the bush.” And this is especially true of your knife: “A belt knife is the most important tool any woodsman can own.”
Like the knives of old Scandinavia or the American frontier, today’s woodcraft knives are reliable because of their simplicity, focusing on the features we need and rejecting the glitz embraced by many gimmicky newcomers. So while today’s marketplace offers a staggering array of knives labeled as bushcraft or survival blades, the tools preferred by wilderness experts share a surprisingly short list of attributes. Learning why the experts consistently choose the same features in their favorite knives – and reject many other features – provides a window into the world of woodcraft to guide us on our journey to self-reliance. So let’s look how quintessential woodcraft knives like the Forager derive from classic knife styles.
“A well-trained person needs only a knife to survive.”
– Mors Kochanski, Survival in the Boreal Forest
A One-tool Workshop
Our pioneering ancestors traveled tool-heavy when they could. Individuals had reliable axes, while teams packed long saws too. But whether they carried butcher knives, company-issued knives, or trade knives, the first woodsmen could do most anything they needed with their knives.
During a two-day class with Dave Canterbury at Prickett’s Fort, Virginia, I found that the Forager’s tip was sturdy enough to bore spindle wells in fireboards, while the point was precise enough for drilling eyelets in my leather hat to thread a chin strap through. And the belly of the blade looks suitable for skinning, which I’ll put to the test when I take the Pathfinder School’s trapping class.
My Forager was rugged enough to split cordwood to get at the dry heartwood for a ‘one-log fire,’ and yet it was still sharp enough for peeling feathery curls for fuzz sticks. Later, the blade bit into limbs when cutting notches for spring traps, and after the weekend, I added some rough carving jobs like scraping the shell off a horse hoof fungus.
Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.
– Henry Ford
The Traditional Blade
Sturdy medium-length blades, 5 to 7 inches, are desirable for purpose of processing wood. In this regard, a Forager at your side can substitute for a lost hatchet or camp ax, because Andras designed the knife to withstand the stresses of batoning. As mentioned, the Forager quickly succeeded at Dave’s one-log-fire challenge, and not for the first time: Over the previous twelve months, the Forager and I had built half-dozen sustainable fires this way.
Every bit as important, though, is that the spine meets the sides at crisp 90-degree angles, giving the Forager the ability to shower sparks from a ferro-rod. At Dave’s class, I used those sharp angles to scratch a pile of fine tinder from poplar heartwood, and recently I found that the angles work like a spoke-shave when scraping bark from limbs for tool- and arrow-making.
In addition to adding beef to the blade, the smooth wide spine offers plenty of comfortable surface area for thumb-push assists during careful carving tasks.
The O-1 Advantage
The Forager’s full-length steel slab is ground from O-1 tool steel. Because O-1 steel is naturally hard, the metal can be oil-quenched slowly, bestowing the alloyed carbon a Rockwell hardness of 57-62 without making the blade as brittle as many other steels. So like the specialized steels of Old World Scandinavia, the Forager should stand up to arctic temperatures.
In his videos, Dave calls O-1 one of the two best steels for woodcraft knives, balancing the hardness required to retain a durable edge with being workable enough to sharpen at base camp. And as mentioned, O-1 is more resilient than stainless steel in cold environments, crucial if you find yourself batoning wood for winter warmth.
Thanks to modern processes, the satin finish on the O-1 tool steel doesn’t easily show when it’s taken a beating. For optimal durability, Andras works with professionals to perfect the heat treat, which increases the steel’s hardness, as well as the tempering, a process of gentle reheating and gradual cooling that removes excess rigidity from the metal, improving its durability.
The Spark of Life
I knew the high-carbon O-1 tool steel in my Forager was great for sparking with flint, but at the Pathfinder class, I discovered that the Forager’s thick spine provided a larger surface area for striking, shearing more sparks from the metal than the slim spines on the knives around me could. Another valuable fire-making advantage!
Old-time high-carbon steel on trade and butcher knives could be sharpened at basecamp and honed in the field, much like today’s O-1 steel, which can also hold a sharp edge. And if you’re dubious about sharpening a Scandi-ground knife, give it a try. The large flat area above the bevel enables stable positioning on an oilstone or waterstone when in the field, or at your knife-table when you’re at home, offering a degree of control almost impossible with hollow or convex grinds.
Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire
Conventional wisdom says that thin flat-ground blades are better for slicing foods like meat, but it’s also a question of surface area. The same wedge shape that makes the Forager’s Scandi grind great for splitting wood also pushes sliced meat away from the flat of the blade, reducing surface-area friction. This is handy for those backwoodsmen who avoid carrying more weight than necessary.
The Forager boasts a full tang, meaning that the metal extends to the edges of the handle and is visible on the handle belly, butt, and pommel.
The full tang is the most stable blade construction for heavy-duty wood processing: It won’t shimmy out of the handle material during prying or batoning, like a stick tang is prone to do, and a full tang is more resistant to bending or breaking. I measure the Forager’s tang at 5/32 inch thick, nearly 1 ½ inch tall at the choil and 1 ¼ inch at the base of the blade.
The extra heft lends a helpful hand to camp chores, and the tang is skeletonized to provide great balance. At 5/32” (4 mm) thickness, the knife has the bulk to withstand rugged tasks like batoning, even prying.
Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.
– Albert Einstein
The Traditional Handle
Rain is a woodsman’s constant companion no matter where (or when) he is, so the Forager features an ergonomic handle designed to improve grip and ease-of-use. Like the blocky handles of frontier knives, the Forager’s fat handles provide great grip without fatiguing or cramping your hand. This girth provides an advantage over narrow-handled knives, which are smaller than your hand is designed to clamp around, forcing you to squeeze progressively harder to maintain a pinching grip during prolonged carving tasks.
The generous handle is optimally sized to fit most hands, which is to say it’s actually fist-sized. The Forager’s 4 5/8 inch scales are nearly 1 ¼ inch high and 7/8 inch wide at the belly, making for a chubby handle that provides a comfortable grip for most hands.
The scales are superbly fitted, with a smooth transition from scale to tang. Like the barrel-shaped Finnish grips, the fat Forager handle is comfortable no matter how you hold it, whether you’re using a forehand grip, backhand grip, and so on. Leg-lever and chest-lever power cuts make carving stakes, posts and fire spindles easier – and more fun!
Like many Finnish knives, the Forager has a mushroomed pommel, meaning the butt of the handle is gently flared, providing a firm backstop when drawing the blade in backward slicing motions. Unlike Finnish knives, in which the profile of blade edge runs pretty much in-line with the bolster and handle, the Forager has a slight forefinger groove to improve grip, forming a modest finger guard or ramp to discourage the hand from slipping forward onto the edge. As with the Finnish puukko, a pronounced cross guard is not necessary, because the Forager is a carving and cutting tool, not a stabbing weapon.
Unlike traditional Finnish knives that bolster the junction of blade and handle – an area of the blade especially prone to breakage – the Forager features a 3/8” ricasso or choil – an unsharpened chunk that strengthens the blade before the bevel begins. Like many other modern woodcraft knives, there is no cross guard to get in the way of wood processing, and the Forager’s choil lets you to choke up a little during precision cutting.
The Forager has a lanyard hole that you can use for a wrist tether, if you like, or a shorter loop can serve as a finger leash for removing the knife from its deep sheath.
By the work one knows the workmen.
– Jean de La Fontaine, poet
The Traditional Sheath
The Forager sheath is hand-made by Andras. The full-grain leather is thick and sturdy, with a smooth matte finish. It is wet-formed for a snug fit and secure during travel. Bradford Angier, author of How to Stay Alive in the Woods (1969), requires that “a substantial and well-riveted sheath should be added for safety,” and this one fits the bill.
Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort.
– John Ruskin, English author and art critic
Verdict: Virtue and Independence
The Forager is an exemplar of WoodBearKnives’ high-quality product line. Inspired by today’s stout bushcraft knives, the Forager retains the virtues that characterize its predecessors:
- medium-length blade,
- high-carbon steel, and
- comfortable handle.
The Forager combines
- the heft of the Finnish leuku with
- the utility of the puukko,
- adds a choil to avoid breakage, and a
- slight forefinger ramp for a guard.
It also exemplifies other qualities of traditional Finnish blades:
- backstop pommel,
- drop-point profile, and
- multipurpose Scandinavian grind.
Like the knives of the early American pioneers, the Forager boasts a
- medium-length blade,
- high-carbon steel, and
- round belly near the tip.
And Andras infused the Forager with modern requirements:
- greater blade and handle thickness,
- full-tang design,
- sharp 90-degree angles for throwing sparks from ferro rods, and
- O1, an ideal modern steel for bushcraft knives.
Considering its sturdy construction and the WoodBearKnives lifetime warranty, the Forager is a prudent investment at $175.00 in a quality tool that will serve you faithfully in the wild.