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January 29, 2014 Comments (0) Blades & Tools, Reviews

Martin Knives Bushcraft Blades

Martin Knives Bushcraft Blades

Man, I love a good bushcraft knife, whatever the heck that is.  If I were to leave it at that, what would come to mind?  Just what is a bushcraft knife anyway?  I guess that even I would envision some sort of a Ray Mears’ Wood Lore pattern or one of the many well (and sometimes not so well) executed interpretations thereof, even though it doesn’t happen to be my own ideal.  That particular pattern is definitely a well thought out knife, idealized by a very experienced outdoorsman and there are scads of copies of it because it’s a great design, but it’s not the only design and not necessarily the best design for everyone.

My own personal preference for a bushcraft knife might be any one of a number of lightweight, easy to handle and efficient cutters I have owned, wanted to own or don’t know exists yet.  It could be a hundred different knives, some of which looking very different from whatever general, common form the lot happens to take, but it would be lightweight, easy to handle and an efficient cutter – high quality, of course, is a given.  Any knife I can take into the woods, and use primarily for wood working tasks, which will cut well and hold up to reasonably well to sustained, rigorous use would do.  With that to ponder, one just might be surprised at just how durable even a plain ol’ kitchen knife can be.

I’m not the only one who thinks that way as indicated by the various patterns offered by many of the individual knife makers and if you consider that a bush craft knife is pretty much a do-all outdoors knife with a particular affinity for wood-working, many, many knives throughout history would qualify.  Now, I’m not about to redefine the bush craft knife for anyone, but I know what I like and I know what works for me.  That is typically something a bit less hefty than what many consider appropriate, but some of the less indestructible knives are extremely easy to get along with in the field, being light weight and very handy.  Ed Martin, of Martin Knives, Texas seems to be one of those makers with whom I am in tune on that thought and he has recently added a very appealing bushcraft representation to his line which he says is his interpretation of an old classic of a generation or so ago – the Herter’s Bowie.

Never mind that the Herter’s Bowie looks nothing like a Bowie at all; that Herter fella had a knack for marketing and “Bowie” sounds way cooler than what this knife really looks like – a kitchen knife.  George Herter sold outdoor gear in the day when mail order meant mail order, as in snail mail.  Petering out at about 1980 or ’81, we saw a lot of interesting catalogs full of useful stuff go away, but the Herter’s Bowie lives on as a useful pattern as much as a collectible curiosity.  There were versions or revisions of the Herter’s Bowie but they all had the same general features and they were pretty basic.  Mismatched moniker aside, the Herter’s Bowie was a useful knife and that some sensible fella in Texas decided to assimilate the same sensible features into a new (and available) field knife is a great thing.  Honestly, the collection of features in Ed Martin’s Bushcraft knife were a popular collection of features, either by chance or by design, for some time even before the Herter’s Bowie came about and it stands to reason that Mr. Martin, an excellent knife designer and maker, might come to the same conclusions that other fine woodsmen of the past have.

Ignoring the fact that Ed’s American Bushcraft was inspired by a not so appropriately named and otherwise rather basic looking knife of a generation or so ago, it stands on its own merit as an outdoor knife.  That it looks like a kitchen knife is no coincidence either, as it has seen its share of food prep assignments since I’ve had it.  From my own experience, a knife that handles well in the kitchen will handle well outdoors, whether it is necessarily an appropriate tool for all the most punishing of uses or not.  Being significantly stouter than the average kitchen knife though, Ed’s Bushcraft promised to stand up to tougher chores on the other side of the kitchen door.

The American Bushcraft is a handy knife, being neither too large, too small, too heavy nor too light for normal food prep and outdoor tasks.  It’s rather pedestrian appearance belies its utility and functionality – if you believe that things like super thick blades, thumb serrations and coatings are necessary to make a knife work well in the field.  Without its reference to a curiously named old favorite its own aesthetic would not lead anyone but a marketing type to come up with much more than “a knife” in reference to this pattern, but that’s what it is, plain and simple – a plain and simple knife that does its job, and that’s almost noteworthy in itself today.  All the other cool, new fancy stuff is great, and it’s great to have that choice unless it completely nudges out the basic tool and the attributes that come with it.

The workmanship on the American Bushcraft is excellent.  There is not a superfluous element to the knife to distract one’s notice of any feature less than competently executed.  In such a basic tool, there is no place to hide even minor infractions of proper workmanship.  The grinds are even, lines are straight, the choil is where it should be and the handle is symmetrical without excess glue squeeze-out or stains and the finish grind is very consistent.

The evenness of the secondary bevel, or the edge, was likely done free-hand but is very even, making it only necessary to have spent a few moments on a very fine stone and then on to the strops to get it ready to work.  In fact, since I have started using this knife (exclusively for over two months), I have only stropped it on my fine strop between uses and it comes right back up to a very, very fine edge.  I have experienced no significant degradation of the edge, which is unusual for me until the knife and I have gotten acquainted and I have found the perfect angle at which to sharpen that particular knife.  That is really more about getting an edge evened out and polished up than anything, which says a lot for the effort that went into the edge on this one.

When I went outside with the American Bushcraft, felt like I was sneaking a kitchen knife out of the house, a contravention which I have been known to perpetrate, but this time I didn’t have to sneak.  Kitchen knives outdoors must be handled with an element of common sense and good judgment, but the 1/8″ blade thickness of the Herter’s Bowie, and its odd grind excuses some less than delicate handling.  The bevels do not follow the curve of the edge nor are they ground along the line of the spine.  The bevels are ground straight across the faces of the blade, on an angle, from one point to another – with no curvature at all.  Please refer to the photos, as it is difficult to describe but is very obvious in sight.  Many outdoor knives this robust don’t always do so well in the kitchen, and while some kitchen knives do well in the outdoors, the thinner blades require some care in use.  The grind, I believe, seems to be the element that facilitates this very workable compromise in capability between the two venues.  It is an excellent cutting tool yet is reasonably stout, in other words – if one resists any temptation to outright abuse this knife, it will serve well for many years.  It wasn’t made to lever boulders but it is still a quite robust cutting tool.

Outdoors, its 5 1/8″ blade is a very useful length.  I usually prefer a three to four-inch blade but this one doesn’t seem to get in the way.  I especially like the profile of this particular drop point, which is positioned at about a quarter the blade’s height below the spine, with the spine starting its very gradual downward sweep quite early after the hilt with the gentle curve increasing until it terminates at the point.  The edge is similarly thoughtfully designed with an almost artistic balance of straight and belly, neither feature being exaggerated and is almost assuredly a product more of a skilled maker’s/user’s experienced eye and touch than of a novice’s speculative application of math or CAD.  Yes, it’s difficult to describe in words, but then that’s the beauty of art (functional art in particular) in that it communicates more easily in form where wordy descriptions fail.  I’m glad for the photos because I really cannot convey in words or specific common terms myself just how the lines of this knife work.

So, what kind of jobs have I assigned to the American Bushcraft?  I’ll start inside, in the kitchen, and work my way out doors.  It carved the family turkey and the ham as well, as stated already.  Such an honor is not lightly granted in this household, but I was convinced that it was worthy.  It handled the task admirably and without compromise.  The martin American Bushcraft handles very well at the cutting board.  For cutting bread, meat, cheese and especially vegetables, it was a natural.  While the blade is 1/8″ thick, the unique grind provides a pretty shallow angle on the faces where the edge is used most in food prep.  The handle is large enough to facilitate a good grip but is shaped such that it is easily manipulated between holds.  It was very adept and very handy in the kitchen.

Outside, fire-making is always the first thing that I do with a new knife.  If I cannot use the tool to good effect in making a fire, I probably won’t carry it out again.  The American Bushcraft excelled at this chore using the two methods of fire-starting I selected for the test.  Had I the time to use it for making a bow drill, I am sure it would have performed well, although I would prefer it had a bow drill spindle divot in the handle, a feature I got onto about a year ago, maybe two, which I found to be indispensable.

Striking sparks from my most obstinate ferro rod, one with a significant percentage of magnesium in it, proved the sharp spine to be perfect for the task.  The spine is sharp from the point to the choil and on both sides, allowing the user to decide where to ease the edges for comfort and where to leave it sharp for teasing inner bark or striking ferro rods.  With quick, light and easily controlled scrapes or strikes against the ferro rod, I was able to bombard my tinder with hot sparks.  No clumsy application of excess force to make up for a dull spine as with many knives I have used.  It worked as an excellent scraper to collect and tease up tinder from the inner bark of basswood and aromatic and white cedar as well.

With the American Bushcraft, I also employed my personal favorite and surest method of fire-starting; flint and steel with char cloth, or charred punk wood, as determined by what is in the tinder box I have on my person.  When I say “flint and steel,” I mean the rock and a real piece of high carbon steel.  While this method doesn’t necessarily require a knife, it requires suitable tinder.  Suitable tinder is required in any case but is not always conveniently available and I have found that by shaping miniature fuzz sticks from small, dry twigs, into the shape of a pine cone or egg with very fine “feathers,” I can reliably coax an ember to flame in spite of the wind, in fact, the more wind, the merrier.  This method requires a very sharp edge and very agile knife, especially as it gets colder and fingers are not quite as adept at compensating for a poor-handling knife.  The American Bushcraft excelled.  It takes a wonderfully sharp edge, thanks to the properly heat-treated O1, a very evenly ground secondary edge and excellent geometry of the face bevels.  Of course the handle has much to do with handling but I will address that separately.

For courser chores, such as building a pot tripod or shelter, a more brutish knife would be thought fitting in the absence of an axe, but I prefer not to forego the element of finesse in deference to force in bigger jobs as much as is practicable.  A knife that handles well, is not clumsy and cuts well (by virtue of sharpness and grind) requires less precious energy be spent than in struggling with a larger, blunter knife – like one made to withstand a literal pounding.  The American Bushcraft once again exhibits balance in dimension and an element of grace.  It is appropriately large for most tasks but small enough to be easy to control.  Obviously, the blade and handle shape, the grind and sharpness all factor into making an apt, capable and competent tough chore tool and because of the combination of these traits, this knife is very easy to get along with in the woods.

While American Bushcraft has a spine an eighth inch thick, the high grind from the point to about midway down the blade presents a very efficient cutter with notable strength.  When notching wood, a thinner blade works very well to prevent splitting off what you had intended to leave on your work piece.  When doing some gentle coaxing with a baton for notching, the extra width at the spine of Ed’s American Bushcraft is comforting while the thinner edge does not pry off pieces not intended to be removed.  Ed specifically mentioned that this knife was not meant for “batoning,” but what I actually heard was that it was not intended to have the snot beat out of it while trying to bull through knots and gnarly grained hardwoods.  I may have heard wrong, but I have somewhat obtuse mortising chisels which were meant to be driven into seasoned hardwoods across the grain with a healthy does of malleting, and I also have much finer cutting bench chisels which may be used with a mallet and a healthy dose of common sense.  I probably wouldn’t baton my good boning knife regardless, but judicious persuasion (taps) with a baton affords excellent control for fine work like notching and, I believe, is an appropriate method for this fine tool.

Focusing on the individual elements of a complementary collection of features, the handle, of American Bushcraft is, once again, a nice balance of features which make it work well.  The first thing that I noticed was that it is somewhat unshapely to the eye, like a garden tool handle.  The curvaceous nature of handles I usually prefer is missing, yet it works well.  So much for my own ergonomic prowess, I guess, but I have used knives with very plainly shaped handles which worked well.  One reason for this is that there is a lot of real estate on a handle like this – lots of area over which to distribute force, making it easier to use longer, and there is more area to contribute to friction when it’s needed so one is not forced to constantly clench the knife to keep it from slipping in a relaxed grip – like when changing holds.  It is neither round nor square and is void of a common error wherein someone simply takes a square handle and rounds the edges, too much or not enough, and leaving the faces flat.  Balance, again, best describes the subtle difference between an awkward and painful handle and the combination of skillfully executed arcs on the scale faces and top and bottom of the handle, blended into the tighter radii of the “corners.”  Very simple; easy to mess up – not easy to pull off.

The handle material is a wood laminate, resin impregnated and finished smooth.  Three aluminum pins hold the scales to the full tang, the rear-most pin being hollow, as meant for a lanyard.  I like wood, but it always shrinks to the point that the full tang’s sharp edges are exposed, which if not just unsightly, can be uncomfortable and annoying.  Micarta is tough and easy to work, won’t shrink significantly but is not as “warm” as wood.  The laminate is a nice compromise between the two.  It’s as tough as anyone might reasonably expect and looks and feels a lot like wood.  I think I would skip the pins and go for some type of mechanical fastener for the scales myself.  There are a lot of knife scales out there which are just glued on (which, with pins, is effectively how your scales are attached – just glued on) and they stay on just fine, however, roughly half of the ones I have owned have begun to peel off at some point in time, sometimes before coming out of the box, but then this has been almost exclusive to a certain few makers.

I found the blade shape on the American Bushcraft particularly to my liking.  Some of its features have been mentioned in describing its use, but it warrants specific attention to the combination of features which make it so useful and suitable for use as an outdoor knife.  Mass seems to be one of the more commonly over-done features in blades these days, but not in this case.  The odd grind leaves more mass near the center of the knife and less toward the tip.  I can’t say that I could have planned that myself or that I could have asserted that it would make the knife handle better but it does handle very well.  The grind of the bevels also presents an unusual circumstance having to do with the secondary edge.  The inclusive angle of the bevels is constant the length of the grind, but the thickness of the blade where the secondary edge meets the bevel grind is not because neither is the height of the bevels.  This means that the secondary will either vary in angle, height or both along its length, leaving the user to decide what works best.  I myself appreciate that in the belly portion of the edge, the blade is thinner where the secondary edge meets the bevels.  Nearer the handle, it is thicker.  So far, that works well with what tasks I have set upon with this knife.

The point of this blade, the length, width and height are a very useable combination.  I really like this blade shape for doing fine work or coarse work, as it was very easy to control the knife and it never felt awkward or clumsy.  Nothing fancy to look at it but the features all complement one another to make for a very good handling knife.  I should qualify my remarks about how plain and pedestrian this knife looks by saying that I mean this as a compliment.  Too often, I handle knives which have cool-looking features, which, at best do nothing and, at worst, make the knife harder to use effectively or safely.  None of that nonsense here.  The beauty of this knife is in its skillful workmanship and simplicity.

Of course, I cannot forget the sheath that came with the American Bushcraft.  In keeping with the general theme of simplicity, the sheath is just that – simple.  It is a basic, well-fitted, deep pouch sheath with a wide belt loop that will accommodate up to a one and three quarter inch belt – or a Baldric if one is so inclined.  The sheath is a one-piece foldover with a welt and one row of straight and well done stitching.  The material is a very nice quality eight or nine ounce top grain leather with no blemishes or glue boogers, nicely ground edges and a good fit to the knife.  Again, no frilly stuff to hide poor workmanship and there was none to hide.  The best part of the sheath is the finish, of which there is none.  This feature allows the new owner to apply the finish or treatment of his or her choosing, whether it’s a light application of some type of water repellent salve or a full-blown hot wax job.  No dyes to bleed onto you clothing and no stinky treatments to offend your olfactory sensitivities.

Oh, but there’s more!  Along with the American Bushcraft and its excellent sheath, there was also a very fine bird and trout-type knife, also with an excellent sheath.  Pictured with the Bushcraft, one may get a sense of its size.  This knife is a slender and lightweight knife for finer tasks and is made to the same level of workmanship as the American Bushcraft.  Ed calls this one the Bandit and that he has several versions of it.  He rather modestly states that its blade properties are attributable to recycled Starett bi-metal bandsaw blades with a “simple heat treat.”  I am going to cheat at this point and refer you to a video Ed mentioned to me wherein he explains more about the Bandit and demonstrates the cutting efficiency of a thin blade.  I’m not just being lazy.  Ed’s video provides some insight to his knowledge and demeanor as well as a demonstration of how effectively this little tool can cut.

 

 

Ed really won my heart with the concept of this blade and he points out in his video that a larger knife is not always necessary.  Well, I agree, in fact, I feel that a larger knife is usually not necessary.  Smaller, thinner knives do the vast majority of the work that I engage with a knife.  It is important to remember that the increased cutting efficiency of a thinner blade (with appropriate edge geometry and sharpness) makes it easier with which to cut stuff, requiring less effort and less force – so the argument that small knives won’t take the punishment a larger knife will is often a moot point simply because more force is not required and the energy savings is crucial when away from the convenience of a roof, insulated walls and the fridge, medicine cabinet and woodstove.  The Bandit is so light and unobtrusive that there would be absolutely no excuse not to have one on your person even if you are carrying another larger knife.  Carried as Ed does in his video, you could lose your whole pack, along with your axe and bigger knife and still stand a good chance of having a viable and crucial tool available in a tight spot.  I personally would not recommend one of the cool piggyback sheaths for this very reason.

Pay the good folks at Martin Knives a visit at their site.  It’s a nice site and they’re good people.  They make a very diverse collection of designs which may surprise you if you haven’t worked with them before.  Corresponding with both Hank and Ed Martin personally, I find folks who can listen and who really know their stuff but can convey ideas in real-people terms.  They are as much a pleasure to talk to as it is to use their knives.  I didn’t get to talk to Newt but I am certain that apple didn’t fall far from the Martin tree.  No physics pun intended.

http://www.martinknives.com/index.html

 

American Bushcraft

Weight without sheath/with sheath

6.4 oz./9.2 oz.

Overall Length

10″

Handle Length

4 7/8″

Handle Width

7/8″

Blade Length

5 1/8″

Blade Height

15/16″

Blade Thickness

1/8″

 

Bandit

Weight without sheath/with sheath

1.3 oz./2.9 oz.

Overall Length

7 1/8″

Handle Length

3 3/4″

Handle Width

13/32″

Blade Length

3 3/8″

Blade Height

5/8″

Blade Thickness

1/32+”

 

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