The Habilis Bushtool is a full featured fixed blade knife designed specifically around some of the common chores and functions common to the bushcraft outdoors philosophy. We’ll take a look at them in detail, but a quick glance shows us a very interesting blade shape that incorporates things like a baton striking surface, a notch for firesteel scraping, and a divot to use the hand as a bearing block for the bow drill method of fire starting.
The staff here at Woods Monkey first encountered Habilis Bushtools at 2010 Blade Show in Atlanta last year. Amongst the myriad of excellent custom makers and production companies the Habilis table stood out with its product line geared specifically for bushcraft field use, they very type of stuff that we love best. We frequently found ourselves wandering back to the table to speak with the Habilis owners, Steven and Penny Staten, and handling their Bushtool fixed blade, machetes, and hand axe. Later in the year we had the pleasure of seeing them again at the 2010 Pathfinder Gathering in Ohio and we arranged to check out one of the Bushtools firsthand. Over the past six months we’ve field tested the knife in a variety of environments. As Associate Editor, I took a run with the knife first here in Western Pennsylvania, then sent it down to North Carolina for Contributing Editor Joe Flowers to check out, and we rounded out the testing with the knife going to another one of our contributors (and talented knifemaker in his own right) Brian Andrews up in Michigan. Being the last to use the knife, Brian was given the task of doing the primary write up with some of mine and Joe’s findings blended in. – editor, Tim Stetzer
According to the manufacturers website the Bushtool is made of 1/8 inch thick 1095 steel. It has an overall length of 10.25 inches and a blade length of 5.25 inches. The steel is heat treated to a 57 Rockwell and then Cryo treated for further edge retention and toughness. The blade is then coated in a marine grade powder coat finish for corrosion resistance. The blade is fairly wide for the knife’s size and that contributes to greater mass to assist in chopping, and also allows you to use the flat of the blade as a mallet for pounding in tent stakes, or for smashing foodstuffs or crushing nuts. The blade is saber ground and features a continuous curve to provide more surface area for slicing and chopping. The spine of the blade is left uncoated to use as a striker for a firesteel and there is a 3/8 inch notch present specifically to use for that purpose. The notch also can be used to help shape arrows for bows and atlatls, and to de-thorn branches. The unique tip of the Bushtool appears dropped slightly but sits in line with the handle for comfortable boring and drilling. Above the tip is an area which Steven refers to as the anvil. The anvil is a multifunctional area. It acts as a striking point for a baton, a grasping point for using the Bushtool as a draw knife, and is dished out to act as a locking point to engage the users leg/shin when the user is using the Habilis as a bow drill socket. The handle is of hand contoured G10 scales and contains a divot on one side that can be used so that the entire knife can be used as a bearing block when using the bow drill method of fire starting. The end of the handle flairs out slightly like an axe and allows for the user to choke back on the grip and gain a little extra length and leverage for chopping. The scales are held on by two stainless steel bolts and two stainless steel tubes, and there is a lanyard hole on the butt of the knife as well. The additional tubes in the grip allow for a variety of lashing options so that the user can attach the knife to a stick to extend its reach for chopping if need be. A little extra reach often doesn’t hurt and can add some force to a swing. It’s a more practical application than turning your only tool into a spear as well. The extended pommel can also be used as a scraper to help in making spoons and bowls, a neat feature that I hadn’t really considered until now. The price of this tool is listed as $199.00.
The knife also comes with a very nice, full featured sheath made by the good folks over at JRE Industries. The sheath was of black dyed leather with full welt in the square bottomed bushcraft style. It has a fire steel loop sized for a Swedish Army model steel, as well as a system of straps that allow for the user to carry the knife as a dangler, high ride, cross draw or horizontally on the belt. The strap arrangement also acts as mounting point to attach other gear, or even a smaller detail knife to the sheath as well. The knife sits deeply in the sheath and is held in place with a retention strap and snap.
The Bushtool that I received for use was slightly used having been previously tested out by editor Tim Stetzer and fellow writer Joe Flowers. There were just a couple of minor scratches in the power coat. The blade shape and features are quite the departure from more traditional knives and were something that I was personally not used to. But I’m always up for new things and was very interested in giving the Habilis design a try for a few tasks. Before I get to the performance, I just wanted to note one additional thing regarding the cutting edge of the Bushtool. On flat and saber grinds, the primary grind is put on until a thickness desired by the knifemaker is achieved. Then, the secondary grind (the part that actually does the cutting) is put on. Different makers have different ways of doing that. Some slack grind it to make a slightly convex edge, others v-grind it (either with a jig or freehand), etc. The cutting edge on the Bushtool appears to have a couple of bevels to it. Based at the angles these were put on and the thickness of the edge in this region it appears that the design intention of the knife leans towards really, really, heavy use and abuse, more so than for splitting hairs. Meaning, that the sharpness is decent, but not crazy sharp. Yet at the same time, I believe it will hold up to just about any beating you would be able to deliver to this size of a knife.
The Firesteel Notch
With the basic specifications out of the way let’s move on to actually using the Bushtool in the field. The first thing that I was anxious to try was that little firesteel notch. I am more than willing to admit that I get stuck in my ways once I exhaust a lot of effort into coming up with a very good approach or technique for dealing with a task. My favorite method of striking a firesteel involves using only the tip of the firesteel, and using a slow but forceful push (as if you are trying to peel away a chunk from the tip). With that method, I just plain preferred using the flat spine of the knife (which is my normal method of striking a firesteel) to using the notch itself. With that in mind, I can definitely strike some good sparks using this notch in its intended manner as well. Both methods worked, it’s just a matter of what technique suits your style best. I did discover that you could use of the notch for fuzzing up some super fine tinder and enjoyed using it for that as well. It works especially well with fatwood, which I regularly just use the spine of the knife on.
Field Trials and Bow Drill Techniques
I have hauled this knife out in the woods with me on several occasions. But, most of the significant aspects of the knife are displayed by me spending a full day with it in my backyard. For some reason, I was getting the itch to cook a big dinner outside with wood coals in my Potjie (a cast iron cauldron with legs). I decided that every aspect of the day would revolve around this knife. Batoning wood, prepping kindling, cutting up the chicken and vegetables outside, as well as fashioning a hearth board and spindle from a dry basswood log I had lying around. I figured the first order of business was getting the fire going so it was necessary to make my hearth board and spindle. Getting the hearth board to the appropriate thickness was only mild batoning work for this knife. I then cut away the excess bark, and carved down the spindle. I also cut and notched a green ash sapling from my property to use for the bow. Obviously all of these things were easy tasks for the Bushtool.
I cheated a bit here and used jute twine for my tinder bundle instead of natural materials. With the lack of available materials on my property, and having a limited amount of time to do the other things I wanted to do with the Bushtool, scavenging natural tinder didn’t seem to be a productive use of my time with the blade. I figured that once I got the coal going, the knife had done its part, what I did with that coal and what kind of tinder I used it with was of secondary concern. Blowing a coal into flame and getting the fire going are all measures of my skill, and not necessarily a review of the knife. So, getting the coal going was my real goal, and getting the fire going was the longer term goal.
One feature that I really like about this knife is that angle of the point. The wide blade allows you to easily get a close grip near the tip of the knife, and the angle and style of the point allows for easy detail work. In this instance, it also allowed for excellent drilling in starting my hole for the spindle. In starting to burn in my hole, I have to admit to struggling a bit on how to hold the knife best, when using the handle as a bearing block. The cut out at the front of the blade is designed to hook into your shin and brace the knife while using the bearing block into the handle, but it takes some practice to master this technique. I don’t know if there was a “best way” to do this, but I ended up needing to find what worked for me. My bowdrill style is to use my left foot to brace the hearth board, and put it very close to the spindle. I then brace my left forearm on my left leg. For stability, I keep my left hand and wrist as close to my leg as possible. In using this style, I just found the point at where the knife rested naturally for me. For me, the blade was kind of pointing in at a 45 degree from my body (kind of like it was pointing northwest, if I were facing north). I am sure that everyone using the bearing block will have to find the position that suits their style best. A later look at the Bushtool “Use and care” PDF available at the Habilis site explains how the cut out is intended to work and is probably a good place to start if you aren’t already set in your ways of doing things. Once I got my technique figured out, I was cooking with gas! As I started generating heat and smoke, I was taken by surprise by the smell of burning G10. I have ground out plenty of it while making knives and shaping handles, so I know what it smells like but for some reason it took me off guard. It makes sense to that the bearing block will burn in slightly, and I don’t know why it took me by surprise. It was probably just that you typically are using a wooden bearing block so the G-10 smell out in the woods seemed unusual. That only last a couple of seconds though after using it a few times. Once past that initial burn in it looks like the G10 will offer quite a bit of longevity as a bearing block. In the end, the knife did its job and I was left with a smoking coal and finally I was able to blow that coal into flame with my jute twine tinder bundle.
Batoning: or making little hunks of wood out of smaller ones
Before I went to all that work to develop a flame, I had already taken the time to prepare some kindling. Because of the unique nature of this knife, I was very interested in trying out the batoning capability of it. My kindling was mostly made by batoning larger, seasoned hard wood down into kindling size pieces. Even though batoning is a fairly standard task for people to perform, I found that yet again it was necessary for me to tweak my technique to suit the Bushtool design. Normally I semi-center the blade on the piece of wood, hold the handle, and use the remaining portion of the blade left sticking out and just beat the heck out of it. Scientific, isn’t it? Well, if you remember from earlier, the bushtool has a curved shaped anvil near the tip that was intended for batoning. It really is the sweet spot for hitting the knife. Because of the downward slope of the tip toward the last ¾ inch or so of the knife, it does not make the most ideal striking surface for me. But, the curved anvil does make a sweet spot, but it’s a bit further up the blade. This meant that instead of centering the blade on the piece of wood on the blade, you had to move the knife so that it was positioned closer to the handle of the knife. No big deal, just a tweak to my normal method. Once I had that down, I made quick work of busting up some kindling. The sturdy edge went through the dried wood with no issues whatsoever.
Finally, was the time I spent with it preparing dinner. If you are not familiar with the Pojtie, and their recipes, they basically look like a witch’s cauldron. You put your larger chunks of meat on the bottom, followed by larger vegetables, then followed by a bunch of smaller things, seasoning and flavorful liquid. It is meant to sit for long amounts of time over a bed of coals. The act of building a fire, letting it burn down and then cooking for a lengthy period of time is usually an excuses to stand around, chat, and enjoy an adult beverage or two (a favorite past time of most of the Woods Monkey staff). So, after using the knife for all the fire preparation, I used it for the chicken, and the massive amounts vegetables that went into this dinner. This is one area that I really enjoy a wide blade shape (from edge to spine), as its similar to using a chef’s style kitchen knife. Needless to say, I really like using this knife for cooking dinner.
I have to take my hat off to Habilis for working out the features that they have put into this knife. Over the years many makers and companies have tried to build a “Swiss Army” style fixed blade, often with mixed results. Instead of having fancy moving parts and complicated mechanisms, I think that Habilis did a good job of incorporating a variety of useful features into a tool while still keeping it simple, usable, and packable in the outdoors. All of the gadgetry in the world won’t do you any good if it’s too cumbersome to carry, and too complicated to use. The Habilis Bushtool is a unique blend of practical utility and sensible implementation. If you’re looking for something a bit different than the standard bushcraft blade check out the folks at Habilis and see what they have to offer!
Notes from Joe
Maybe it was my troglodyte instinct kicking in, or the alluring display at Blade Show, but the Habilis guys got my attention right away. They based their unique tools on the instinctual use of primitive blades and applied it to modern woodcraft and camping. Bearing of Micarta handles with a bow drill divot; these cutters have quite a belly to them. Does the belly inhibit the performance? No way, as I learned on a trip in to the Oregon coast. Whittling the thick Oregon Douglas fir bows was no problem, and I had a digging stick for clam attempts on the beach. I didn’t find many clams, but I made plenty of chisel beveled sticks on the side. The one clam I did find I busted open with the Micarta and full tang pommel. I didn’t have a need for batoning, so I can’t really comment on those curves on the front of spine, but I will tell you this, they look dang cool and definitely can’t inhibit any use.
The one thing I did explore was the bow drill divot. Have you ever taken a roller blade bearing and spun it? Notice how it just keeps going with an odd liquid like oscillation? That’s the same way with a bow drill spindle and the Micarta socket. It was like working with a turbocharged divot. I had chapstick with me, and put it in the socket. I estimate that I was able to get a coal in about 15 seconds.
The sheath is a work of art in and of itself. It was done by the guys at JRE industries, who know their stuff about keeping wide blades out of the way. I could imagine there to be some pretty big abominations of the sheath world that could have happened, involving too much Cordura or a square leather tube, but this sheath was well laid out and didn’t bounce or misalign. The belt loop didn’t stretch, and stayed at the spot where I put it on. Have you ever had those sheaths that creep around the front or back? Not a problem here and the clasp stayed out of the way when open too.
Final Notes from Tim
I probably had the quickest exposure of the Habilis Bushtool of the three of us but I had pretty good success with it as well. I don’t have nearly the skill with a bow drill that Brian and Joe do so I left that testing up to them. I did do a good bit of batoning, some chopping, and some draw knife use though, as well as spending some time cranking out tent stakes. I found that the wide blade lent itself well to chopping and by choking back on the handle you got performance for like a 7 or 8 inch knife than a 5 inch one. That’s a nice feature being that I’m a lot more likely to carry a knife with a 4 or 5 inch blade than a bigger chopper, at least on my belt where I’m most likely to have a knife when it’s needed.
I had better luck than Brian with using the anvil portion of the blade while batoning. I suspect it’s all a matter of personal technique but I didn’t have any issue with it. I actually thought it worked well with a larger diameter baton. I didn’t need a lot of force, I found I could pretty much tap the anvil and glide the blade through the wood I was working with. I also liked the anvil when it came to draw knife use. While my bowdrill technique leaves a lot to be desired I did make the basic components and I cleaned up my hearth board by using the Bushtool as a drawknife and it worked like a champ. For stakes I used the wide blade to snap cut off some dead branches about 1 inch thick, cross grain batoned them to length, then chopped some quick points on them, and whittled out the notches. The work went fast and I found the contoured G-10 handles comfortable to use.
Overall I’d say that I wouldn’t hesitate to step into the woods with a Bushtool on my hip and that’s what this is really all about. There are a lot of great, quality built knives and tools out on the market these days and it’s all a matter of finding one that works best for you. Luckily for us there are folks out there like Steven Staten who are willing to think outside the box a bit and blend time proven traditional ideas, with modern materials and give us a functional multi use option that’s a little different from all the rest.