Thursday, November 13, 2014

Bear & Son Trapper Review

edc slip joint pocket knife
To use one of my all time favorite movie quotes, I have morons on my team. When I say team, I mean the human race. My Grandfather called it diarrhea of the mouth - you can recognize it as those moments in life when you're trapped, interacting with another member of the human race, wishing above all wishes that you could be somewhere else, while they vomit incoherent drivel all over you. These individuals not only form senseless, baseless, uninformed opinions, they also feel the need to share them, openly and as if chiseled in stone. Their steadfast, but ignorant sense of what is right, correct, and proper, causes your ears to bleed, your blood pressure to rise, sets your mind to thoughts of violence. George Carlin accurately labeled these sorts of people; stupid, full of shit, or nuts. I'm talking about the stupid ones. They are the people who need everyone around them to be aware of their vast knowledge, even though they actually know very little about even less. You can't argue with them, because they can't even grasp the topic of conversation, let alone structure original thoughts. All you can do is write a blog post in hopes that others suffering the moron's blight will empathize with your malady.

everyday carry pocket knives
And today we have ourselves a Bear & Son Trapper of the 3" variety from their 4th Generation line. Cue laughter. Maybe I should have some hateful commentary at the beginning of every review. Maybe. Anyway, Bear & Son is putting out US made knives using 1095 carbon steel and those two basic features alone make them worth a look. This little guy came in at $38 so it's not a wallet buster, and is very close to a similarly sized and featured Trapper pattern from Case, a well known US slip-joint brand. Unfortunately, that's where the trouble starts. The market for traditional styled knives is probably fairly healthy in America, not at the levels it once was, but there is certainly a nostalgic aspect to them that keeps them alive. With that said, and considering the ever expanding selection of, and demand for, modern folding knives, slip-joint manufacturers operate in troubled waters where the competitors are doing good work. This is troublesome for Bear & Son because the Case Trapper is a direct, equivalent alternative to their own. It offers similar features in the same pattern, for the same money. That means they both need to offer, at the very least, equal quality, and in a competitive world, their customer is looking for more perceived value in one or the other to break the tie. Case already has one advantage, their branding. They've been at the game a long time, they're known, and for the most part they deliver on consistency.

slip-joint pocket knife review budget
All that I could determine from my own research was the Bear & Son knives suffered from some fit and finish issues. No big deal, I thought to myself, I like tweaking my knives anyway. At the time however, I hadn't realized that Case had an offering so close in price. When my B&S arrived there were some minor fit and finish issues. And, as I expected, I was able to remedy the worst of them to produce a knife I was really pretty happy with. There are a number of aspects that I think are a success in the design of my Trapper and overall I was pretty pleased. With the notion in mind that the 1095 steel would be the least of my worries, I saved sharpening for last. I can't claim to be a knife sharpening master, or a steel guru, but there is something off about the blades. I cannot get the sort of edge that I expect from it. I have sharpened a number of vintage pocket knives for myself and for others that presumably use 1095 or something similar, with good results. It's not so much an issue of sharpening skill as it is expectations. What I mean is, all carbon steel pocket knives I've sharpened have felt similar and performed similarly, so going into the B&S I thought I knew what to expect. I just knew, 1095 blades would be thin pocket razors and a few blemishes would be insignificant by comparison. The experience however, was nothing like my expectations. At the moment when an edge is expected to form, it seemed to crumble and it ground unusually hard. I tried coarse and fine stones, heavy and light pressure, nothing seemed to agree with it and I never got a distinct burr to form at the edge. What does this mean? Did I get one from a batch of lemons? Does this mean there is a heat treat issue? I just can't say. I want for these to be good knives that I can recommend because they are affordable US produced knives. I just can't, given my experience with this one.

I think this picture and the next best illustrate the changes I made. This first shot is straight out of the box and you can see how flat and square the handles were ground. It looks as if the covers and bolsters were blended by grinding them square to a grinder contact wheel where traditionally this sort of knife would be rounded and beveled. You can also see how the blade tangs were buffed over at the corners creating gaps in the open position.
This is after I refinished it. I added the bevels to the top of the bolsters and took the corners off all around.
I do like that the bolsters are thin and don't add bulk. The liners seem to be of a little thicker stock.

Spring tension and snap are both good and overall operation is smooth and positive.

Small knives are deceiving in pictures when there is nothing to judge size with, but I felt the covers were left a little bulky.
The spring side had been ground out of square and this is just one of those kinds of things that bugs me.
Here everything is neatly assembled and well blended.
These images are after refinishing - "before" on top and "after below". It's worth noting that there are no cover pins.

Before and after again. I felt that the bone just needed more blending.

The before shot is in the lower corner.

Both blades rub the liners, but just barely on the clip blade. On a Trapper pattern knife, where each blade has its own channel, I think it's fair to expect the blades to be clear of the liners.

The finished product is slimmer, but still thick for size when compared to other slip-joints.
I am one of those people who reads or watches a review where the knife couldn't be sharpened and I think to myself, yeah right. I can sharpen anything. The truth is, it's frustrating and I'm open to suggestions. I felt that something was happening at the edge each time I got close to having it sharp. I will most certainly give it a second chance and let the sharpening be a sort of evolution over time, but I think it's fair to expect this steel to be as easy and enjoyable as sharpening any old carbon steel pocket knife has always been. The bottom line is that this example from Bear & Son has stiff competition and it will have to improve in order to overcome it.

UPDATE: I did in fact give my little Trapper a second chance, and then a third. I'd like to think it's not unreasonable to say that the steel is in fact hard to sharpen because they didn't even get it done at the factory. For my third sharpening session I decided to use a fine stone to get it as sharp as I was able - the point where the edge seemed to simply refuse to go any further - then skip to a hard Arkansas to finish it up. The steel didn't agree with anything coarser and only with a back and forth polishing motion did I finally produce a wire edge. Once I had accomplished that it was a simple matter of pushing it side to side to refine it. It is now sharp, and maybe I learned a valuable sharpening lesson, but it was a fair amount of effort to get it done. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Robeson Shur-Edge Jack Knife: Unwanted and Unloved

In my Grandfather's basement we found a poem from his service in World War II, and to borrow from it, he's served his last hitch in hell. I felt it was a fitting poem to find so shortly after his death, written in his own hand, saved for over half a century, pristine, neatly folded and perhaps read by no one but his wife until then. As his children have begun the process of sorting through my Grandparents' belongings, a number of pocket knives have been found. My Grandfather suffered the Great Depression - coupled with living in Kansas during the Dust Bowl - and did the same sort of work his entire life, believing I think, that job security and frugal spending where of the utmost importance to being the sort of provider that his father may not have been at times. Each of the pocket knives we uncovered in his home were used, loved as an enthusiast might say, sharpened away in some cases to nothing more than pointed steel toothpicks. The bone covers on one old Case Stockman where worn so thin that the jigging was missing in some places, the ridges and valleys reduced to small bumps in others. The worst of them had been relegated to workbench duty to be used when the task required only the least valuable tool. Amongst them though, this knife, a Robeson Shur-Edge Jack Knife. At first I dismissed it, and maybe he had also. The black plastic covers don't especially convey quality, and in truth neither do the fit or finish of it. I can't help but wonder, why he had discarded just this one knife, even if it wasn't of great quality, when he used up virtually all the others, even those of lesser quality. The answer may be mundane but the imagination seeks fantasy. Upon closer inspection I began to realize, not only does it appear unused, it may even have the factory edge on it. Once I unearthed the tang stamp I discovered the rich history of the Robeson Cutlery company and its influence on American cutlery. My research suggests that the knife was made between 1940 and 1964. My grandfather would have been a young man in the 40's, a soldier during many of those years, and never a knife collector. I can't imagine a scenario in which he would have been given this knife decades after production, and certainly not one where he purchased it himself and never used it. Why would he be gifted an old knife? Why toss aside a gift? Why would he never use a knife if he'd received it new some way other than purchasing it himself? Wonders never cease I guess. Its proximity to other beater tools and the aggressive glob of rust that had taken hold of the pen blade suggests to me, regardless of how he came by it, that this SHUREDGE was unwanted and unloved.

I can't say who will dig through my belongings when I am gone, but it will be obvious that I was something of a knife enthusiast. I doubt many of my knives will be used up, or for that matter, particularly valuable. With an ever growing collection, it's easy for me to rotate knives, thereby significantly prolonging the life of each of them, leaving them for someone else to enjoy. This homely jack knife, with a deep scar earned from years of neglect is now embarking on a new leg of an already long journey. I like the idea that it is somehow a survivor of difficult circumstances where others weren't so lucky, not unlike my Grandpa. It is a fitting reminder of him, a fitting token for a knife enthusiast Grandson, that will be loved for many years to come.

When final taps is sounded and I am through with all life cares,
I'll walk my last parade upon those shining golden stairs.
An Angel there will welcome me, and harps will start to play;
I'll draw a million PX checks, and spend them all one day.
The great commanding officer will smile on me and tell;
Come take a front seat Soldier,
For you have served your last hitch in hell.

Blade centering is off to one side though neither blade touches the liners. I also found it interesting that the cap pin is somewhat exposed inside and doesn't pass through the springs. This could be a common practice for all I know.

Not really as discernible by this shot as I intended, but there is some uneven grinding, and places where the bolsters weren't finished down to the liners.

The Shuredge shield, still crisp and clean.

The jigging is a touch over zealous which doesn't help promote the affordable plastic covers.

Where the details matter, they are right. There is a small step from the springs to the blades but they meet almost perfectly square.

Here we see gaps, but I can't squeeze them shut and the knife is still as tight as the day it was made with strong spring tension and excellent snap opening and closing.
Getting the rust removed from the pen blade was tedious and left it deeply scarred.
The tang stamp dates it from 1940-1964.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Big Knives vs Small Axes - A Splitting Tool Continuum Part 4

bushcraft axes wild life hatchet small forest axe
If you'll recall I said I didn't have a hatchet in some of my previous posts in this series, and what do you know, some things have changed since then. Again, I scored this Gransfors in a trade, this time the Wildlife Hatchet. Here we really are talking big knives and small axes because compared to the Wildlife Hatchet, my big knives are pretty big and compared to most axes it is somewhat demure. It fills in a small void in my splitting continuum where weight evenly divided our contenders before, the axe now moves into the bantam weight class just above (3oz) the Kershaw Camp 10, at 1lb 5oz. The inherent splitting power of the axe isn't so much the standout advantage over the knives in this little guy's case, instead I think it is the compact size of the Wildlife axe that potential owners would be interested in. The intelligent design feature is the length of the cutting edge when its overall size is considered and when compared to the Small Forest Axe. They are actually pretty similar and on a small axe, the user gets some options from the generous bit. The Wildlife Hatchet doesn't really make a leap forward in hardwood splitting beyond the Camp 10 or the E-nep, but it is similar and in a compact form factor without a weight penalty.

wildlife hatchet review
Ultimately, Wildlife Hatchet users are going to be sold on the convenience of the size and for wood splitting, it's probably not going to be outdone by the big knives. However, I find the one handed nature of small hatchets to be cumbersome - though a more skilled user may very well disagree - and the lack of weight to be counterproductive. It's difficult to ignore the versatility of the E-nep and the more pronounced increase in performance from the longer handle and heavier head of the Small Forest Axe - neither of which carry a significant weight penalty in my opinion. Of course, as with all these tools, talking about splitting alone ignores many, if not most, other uses. The Wildlife Hatchet is light enough to hew and carve with all day long and in fact, I found my accuracy to be very good with it when not swinging for the fences. It helped on one occasion to carve out a wedge to hang another axe and it was the ideal tool for the job. It is also terrific to have in the house for kindling purposes at the wood stove.
wildlife hatchet review
Notice the Wildlife Hatchet has nearly as much cutting edge as its bigger sibling.

bushcraft, camping axes, axe testing and review
Gransfors bit geometry is very similar between the SFA and the Wildlife.

Someone over at Gransfors got a little sloppy squaring this one up. I also wonder about the smoothing performed on the poll.

I started with some chunks, fairly large.

And the Wildlife Hatchet did a nice job reducing them to this pile.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Big Knvies vs Small Axes - A Splitting Tool Continuum Part 3

With a nasty knot, this was asking way too much of the SFA.
I'll be honest, the cute little Small Forest Axe wasn't really going to impress the likes of this guy, someone who considers a 3lb head on a 28 inch handle to be a small axe. In spite of all the hype, I just couldn't picture myself being surprised by the capabilities of the Gransfors. It's a hatchet with a long-for-weight handle. In fact, with no cheeks whatsoever it's sort of a tomahawk with a poll someone mistakenly fit with an axe handle and marketed as some "traditional" Swedish woods tool. In case you weren't aware, Gransfors makes American poll axes and their appearance is an evolution from American poll axes in order to differentiate them from American poll axes - there is nothing traditional Swedish about them. Furthermore, and all to often, a youtube video comes across my desk with some master woodsman chopping down a tree with a Small Forest Axe demonstrating more accurately the folklore surrounding the tool than its actual capabilities. Eventually legend surpasses reality and it gets mighty difficult for me to desire something when choked by the rose colored fog of pixie dust bellowing from it.

And yet, it powered through.
Another hangup for me is how they are routinely touted as the best, the best, the best. It's not necessarily that they aren't the best, but I can easily get my hands on axes that are just as good if not better any day of the week for about $40 and made in the USA. Of course I'm talking about vintage axes. I can't argue that GB aren't the best, or among the best made today, but I have to wonder if those exclaiming their superiority are aware of America's axe history, or the quality of countless forged axes rusting away in junk shops. 

But that was the easy side. Anymore would have been abuse.
The Gransfors Bruk axes aren't cheap but in all honestly, they aren't terribly expensive either, depending I suppose, on how you calculate value relative to the price of things today. I guess when I think of something that is essentially hand crafted and made specifically to be of high quality, the price of a Small Forest Axe isn't really all that high to me. In the realm of high quality cutting tools $100 is more or less the starting point, even for tools that will never do as much work as the SFA, and never could. So I guess the price doesn't particularly turn me off from them. Price immediately turns me off from products like those from Best Made. Cutesie branding schemes on products made by someone else just make me want to avoid the product entirely, and in the case of Best Made, the name itself suggests so much arrogance that the effect is multiplied. It seems to me that at the very least they should be made by the people claiming they are the best.

There is just one problem with all my assumptions and poking fun; here I am with my very own Gransfors Bruk Small Forest Axe. What's more, it's pretty much as excellent as everyone says it is. It is an intelligent balance of chopping and splitting features for its size and purpose. More importantly, it will do a lot more work than its stature would suggest. With craftsmanship, quality and good looks all mixed together, you basically can't go wrong. For this splitting test, the Gransfors showed that it can take a licking, and put down some hurt. We jump up in weight another 8 ounces from the E-nep, this time to 2lbs 2oz. I didn't actually plan to make an 8 ounce jump with each tool, but it's interesting that it worked out like that. At any rate, in the case of an axe, that weight is concentrated at the head which certainly changes the game. Despite the cheekless, knife-like bit, the splitting power gets a significant boost from the somewhat abrupt widening at the eye. One of my few complaints of the Small Forest Axe is in fact the abrupt transition from the bit to the eye. Wood tends to want to follow the bit, then, as it meets the wider portion of the head, glance upward and off the head. It's not terribly annoying, technique tweaking alleviates it for the most part, and the SFA is a balancing act, jack of all trades sort of tool. However, I don't think a little cheek behind the bit would hurt performance in regard to any of those trades. And anyway, who doesn't like a little cheek? I have no idea what that means.

Bottom line? The Small Forest Axe is a great product, no question about it. It will split much more stubborn wood than I thought it would, it does a really nice job hewing, and it has the exact balance needed for one handed use. My only other complaint is that the swell actually doesn't work great for me. It turns in too abruptly and tends to rub the pinky on my left hand, but it's minor.

splitting test bushcraft tools small forest axe
The Small Forest Axe splitting, and doing it like a boss.

bushcraft outdoors woods tools
Here the SFA shows that it's ready to take on serious work. Would I want to do this all day long? No, but it is certainly a testament to its inherent power and versatility.

small forest axe gransfors bruk review testing
The chunk from the image above, reduced to fuel sized pieces.

bushcraft review testing
Fuel sized pieces from the image above, reduced even further.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Big Knives vs Small Axes - A Splitting Tool Continuum Part 2

splitting wood with big knives camp knives jungle machete
Note the height of the kindling pile compared to yesterday.
Yesterday I went out and drove the Kershaw Camp 10 through some seasoned Ash from my wood pile. While I think the limits of each of the tools in this testing session are somewhat obvious, it's nice to use them all at the same time, to do the same tasks, in the same media. This is a splitting test for the sake of splitting for the most part, with no real-world objective in mind. However, while I worked with each of them, I began to think of the original question in a different way. Rather than, can these smaller tools do bigger tool jobs, it's the reverse; can the bigger tools do the small tool jobs? We know that even the biggest knife isn't going to split like an axe. And of course, inevitably, you have to ask yourself just exactly what kind of work you expect your tools to do. While the axe might be capable of heavy splitting, will you actually need that capability in your outdoor activities? And if we're interested in value per ounce, then what good is the extra power of an axe if you don't really have any use for it?

So, as I crossed the line from large knife into small axe, the equation flipped simultaneously. There might be an interesting reason for this. Many of you know that the Gransfors Bruk Small Forest Axe is one of the quintessential wilderness tools for a number of reasons. This being a splitting exercise, one of those reasons became apparent very quickly. It splits well beyond its size.

A single, one-handed blow nearly did the job.
First, let's quickly check out the Aranyik Trading Company E-nep K-1. It brings eight more ounces to the table along with three extra inches, making it 1lb 10oz with a 13 inch blade of slightly thinner stock that tapers toward the tip. Every one of those extra ounces is found in the deep belly where all the work is done. As big knives go, it is a solid rung above the Camp 10. The weight is found substantially further forward and sweeping curves give the user lots of access to effective wrist action. Watch any native person using a tool like the E-nep and you will find that it's all about letting the belly drop with effortless and accurate wrist hinging motion. The people still using these sorts of knives process virtually everything with them, from food to firewood then turn around and use them to make other tools and build their homes. Splitting large chunks of hardwood really doesn't factor into their design and doing so is an injustice to the genius simplicity of the E-nep and knives like it. In an attempt to bring my splitting tool continuum into reality I switched to mostly arm-sized sticks, something a person is likely to encounter in the wilderness and select for the camp fire. I am pushing the capabilities of these tools but choosing the right tool may not be as important as making intelligent wood choices. The E-nep, and in fact the Camp 10 as well, are good workers here. The E-nep brings with it some heft and a heavy belly, tempting the user to deliver mighty one handed blows. Without any sort of real guard the user has a number of hand placement options which are very important to the versatility of the E-nep, including a forward pinch grip.

aranyik e-nep review
Batonning quickly reduced the large chunk above, into this.
My preferred technique for splitting small stuff, and the most effortless, is to hold the wood in one hand, place the blade where the split is to occur, then tap through, moving the wood and blade together. Often I give the wood a thump with the blade just to get things going. Once started, I remove my hand and simply tap the wood and blade as one until the job is done. The axe is used in exactly the same fashion when dealing with kindling and small fuel pieces, so there is no reason to treat the knife differently. In this situation, big knives work nicely and batonning becomes a convenient option, rather than a necessity to getting the job done.

wood splitting comparison
I switched to more realistic sized chunks and reduced them from large on the right, to kindling on the left. Compare the the height of my kindling pile in the background of this image to the one at the top when today's session was done.
Gnarly wood yields to the mighty E-nep!

I think the handle of the E-nep is just a bit small in diameter and with the exposed tang, it feels like more shock from batonning is transferred to the user. It came with a relatively steep convex grind and strictly speaking, there is no defined primary bevel on this blade. Or maybe it is more appropriate to say that it has a convex zero grind - it has only one bevel. I believe that the flat primary bevel on the Camp 10 lends itself to wedging and the over-molded rubber handle backs it up to reduce vibrations. On the other hand, the E-nep bites so hard and cuts so well that the opposite is true when it's delivered single-handed. It's not tiresome, aside from its weight, to swing like a machete.