Thursday, October 22, 2015

Ka-Bar USN Mk1 Knife Review

Made in the USA, American made
 I think the Ka-Bar USN Mk1 can be filed under budget gear review because at the $60.00 on the dot that I paid for it, shipped, it's a great value. If you're going to buy one good outdoors knife, and need to limit the number of digits ahead of the decimal at two, then the Mk1 should make the list of considerations. It's not that "budget gear" can't be a good value or the other way around, it's just that like most things the market can be broken into tiers. Schrade has some nice offerings for less money with what they claim to be 1095 steel and many companies are delivering offshore products with serviceable steel for less. The Ka-Bar might be more, or less, "budget gear" to some folks than to others, but regardless of how you categorize it, it represents a step up in all features from most knives coming in at anywhere from half as much to equal money. On top of that, even amongst outdoor knives, there are subcategories and the particular features of the Mk1 set it apart from nearly all the competition.

It's US made and in that category, at this price point, the blade steels are often less desirable than the tried and true 1095 carbon steel found in the Mk1. In fact, finishing your own knife from blade blanks is about the only route I can think of to get into better steel at this price.

The blade is full flat ground and relatively thin stock. Going back to the blade blank comment, my Enzo Trapper was O1 at about $50 but I sold it because I just don't like the Scandi grind. And, Enzo offers an FFG version which I would probably still own if I had gone that route instead. Other classic military style knives from Ka-Bar and Ontario can be had for the same or less money, but they typically use a somewhat low saber grind. It makes for a strong blade and is certainly functional. A full flat grind is not an upgrade from any other grind, it's just different and if your knife spends as much or more time skinning deer as it does processing wood then it's a design that might interest you. I know I get the appeal of thick knives that you can smash with a club to fell giant redwoods and go straight caveman with. They're big and heavy and awesome. They will also do anything you want them to as long as they are sharp and pointy. In the end, it's a matter of personal preference and often driven by the tasks you most need the knife to perform. However, it seems that if you are in fact looking for a FFG blade, the field gets just that much narrower.

Another angle the Mk1 has going, classic or traditional styling. There might be some modern styled blades out there which might functionally compete, but if you're looking for something with classic personality a stacked leather handle immediately comes to mind with other natural materials like antler or bone or wood.

The sheath isn't a throw away. All too often knives stay in a lower price category because virtually nothing was spent on manufacturing or designing the sheath. And this happens for a variety of reasons. Each user has his or her own needs and preferences for sheaths and it becomes difficult for the manufacturer to cater to everyone. Pretty much everyone needs some way to cover the blade and carry the knife, so there will always be customers who are indifferent about the sheath and anything will do. A well designed and made sheath isn't cheap and some outfits offer their sheaths separately. To me, that actually makes a lot of sense. From the company's perspective the sheath design is a steep uphill battle and anything other than a well made unit simply doesn't make sense for the brand. I don't specifically like the Ka-Bar sheath on either model of the Mk1, but they did find a good balance. The leather sheath provided with the version I got is simple, well made, fully functional, and it has a really great smell. Don't judge, it does. Regardless, it makes more sense in my opinion, to sell sheaths separately, regardless of how good or bad one is because I'd rather not pay for something I will probably replace.

What would I do differently? Maybe some minor appearance tweaks, but truthfully, I think the Ka-bar Mk1 is done right. I understand the little swedge but it's something I always talk about - it's uncomfortable for thumb press cutting and this is one of the most common ways a knife is used. I like the way it looks, I'm not sure it has a real world function. I might blend the handle into the cross guard a little more rather than leaving a step, only because it's just another edge (or ledge) that can abrade your skin, though only in certain holds. The pommel is kind of huge, but it's neither good nor bad, I just think it would look better if it were a little smaller or maybe less circular. You know, the bottom line is, I like it. In fact, I would like to pose the question to anyone reading; what knife really competes with this one? Apples to apples. When you consider the steel, the grind, the size, the place of manufacture and the price, what else is there? Post your ideas in the comments.

I want to address the stick tang if I may. I know a lot of you already know that there is virtually no real world issue with stick tangs compared to full tangs. There has been some knowledge conveniently forgotten over the years by people who insist that a knife must be full tang. Steel used to be forged with a hammer and anvil and no one had any interest in a full tang blade of any kind. For starters they wouldn't have wanted to waste the steel on it. Swords put under tremendous stresses were stick tang, same with knives, meat cleavers, and on and on. Strength wasn't an issue. Parts of the blade can be heat treated differently to address the stresses each section might endure and in fact many forged blades would likely bend or flex significantly long before they would break if they would break at all. Furthermore, depending on the balance desired for the tool or weapon, a stick tang offers an advantage. Handles for stick tang blades are simpler to replace for someone without sophisticated tools and the list of advantages goes on and on. All too often a stick tang is looked at as some kind of step down from a full tang but about all it really amounts to, particularly with modern, very well made steels, is marketing. Full tang knives are simply easier and cheaper to make when your steel arrives in sheets that you stamp out with a massive press. The handles are simpler and cheaper to assemble and to form. Less skill, less money, cheaper. These are all advantages for the manufacturer and are easy to sell if they can convince the customer that it's "better" than the alternative. In fact, if you think about how a blade is stamped out, Ka-Bar is wasting that bit of steel on either side of the tang because it wouldn't cost them any more to stamp a full handle section than it costs them to stamp a narrow tang. There are infinitely more interesting ways to assemble a stick tang knife, to include stacked leather, than there are with scales on a full tang. And because of the weight issue, "full" tangs are frequently lightened with cutouts which produce the same "weak points" as any other design. In short, there are no real world disadvantages to stick tang knives and in many instances there are important advantages. Full tang knives are the result of modern manufacturing practices and little else.

How did Ka-Bar do with this knife though? Well, heavy whittling sessions to dull the edge show the kind of edge retention one would expect from 1095 and sharpening meets expectations as well. I know that everyone seems to like watching knives baton wood but seriously, what a knife will do well is immediately apparent in its design and geometry. A knife is not an axe, a small knife is not a big knife, a thin knife is not a thick knife - you get the idea. Cutting mediums like wood and cardboard create baseline performance results for edge retention and through sharpening the metaphorical picture usually becomes clear. Fit and finish is spot on as you can clearly tell in the images. The bottom line? US made 1095, with classic design at $60.00. What else compares? Put your choice for a similar alternative in the comments. Thanks for reading.

bushcraft woodsman outdoors blades knives review

review kabar usn mk1 leather handle

custom kydex sheath, ka-bar usn mk1
My own homemade kydex sheath for front side horizontal carry. Though I admit, a leather sheath is just right for this blade.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Interview with Best Pocket Knife Today

Just a shout out to Matt over at Best Pocket Knife Today. He recently contacted me about doing an interview and it is now posted for your reading pleasure at the link (pic) below. I agreed to do the interview because you don't have to read many knife reviews on his site to see that he tells it like he sees it. I can appreciate that and I feel comfortable telling others to stop by and see what's going on over there. A big thanks to BPKT!

knife, gear and everyday carry reviews

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Bidor Parang Blanks Finally Finished

I have discovered about myself a system of doing things, particularly where my hobbies and crafts are concerned, where I have to have a thing in my hands and let time go by as I figure out how exactly I want to proceed. That sounds perfectly reasonable, except that the idea for the project has to be pretty well planned out before I can begin to collect the parts and pieces required to accomplish it. It's like knowing exactly what you want to do, and even the steps needed to get there, but it all has to simmer in the brain a little longer before you can begin. And when I say a little longer, I mean six months, a year, maybe more, and any sooner would be forcing it to happen which can lead to less than satisfactory results. Preparing for interesting projects is practically a daily activity - learning, researching, gathering components - but inspiration for a single project can be more sporadic and is almost always worth waiting for. My Parang blanks from Bidor Malaysia are a good example of this. I think I ordered them close to a year ago and I didn't waste any time getting one of them put in a handle. It came out great and the handle feels very good in hand. And it was necessary, because without a finished product to study and test I wouldn't have been able to let the concept improve with time. I think that our perceptions, ideas, and inspiration are both growing and evolving, in that we build onto them without necessarily changing them, while others are abandoned altogether or transform into something different. Is deep philosophical reflection really merited when discussing what are largely regarded as little more than run of the mill tools to the people who use them? I guess that's a matter of perception in itself, though it might be helpful for others suffering from the same sort of process to know that you aren't alone. Point is, it took me a long time to get around to working on them and that's my official excuse.

Now, in my own defense, I had some time to use the first one which goes a long ways toward knowing what to do with the next. I knew right from the beginning that I wanted all three of them to be different, but exactly how to make three very similar things "different" wasn't immediately obvious. As for drawing inspiration from what is already out there in the world of Parangs, I had seen some with very nontraditional handles on them and that interested me. On the other hand, I wanted one to look pretty typical of your average Malaysian Parang and the third to be my own brain child. And one day recently I was ready to proceed.

The track for the wrap and pin.
I decided that the reasons not to pin the handles just didn't outweigh the perceived value and simplicity of pinning them. I felt that the handle needed a little more personality, that the pin needed to be very simple and hidden, and that the narrowest portion of the handle needed some support. With these requirements in mind, I choose to use a wrap rather than a metallic collar of some kind. I could have easily used a section of brass pipe and maintained the authentic jungle crafted appearance, and also achieved excellent support for the wood around the tang, but I like the appearance of the jute twine. It has a more naturally sourced appearance and I used epoxy underneath with the hopes of a strong and durable collar. I used a nail for the pin, epoxied and peened it into place the way I have seen it done in videos from Malaysia. Again, having the pin under the wrap added support around it and sealed it in it for the duration. My intent was to do all three blades this way but as I got myself into the groove of carving the track and wrapping the jute, I looked down, all finished with the wrap on the first one, having completely forgotten to pin it. Oh well, I had been using it without a pin so far with good success so we'll just see how long it lasts

One last step, and this one wasn't much different from the process for the Parangs themselves, make sheaths. I knew what needed to be done, I just wasn't sure how. It's carrying these large knives that I see as the issue. Yeah, I could lash it to my leg and use some kind of articulated dangler and that would probably work, but I have never liked having things banging around my legs, or strapped to them. In fact, I find cargo pockets annoying because if you put anything in them, it's banging around your knees. I don't like anything that restricts movement really and I've always tended to carry the absolute minimum gear while in the woods and especially while working or wading through thick brush.

H&K snap hooks parang sheath kydex
Enter the Baldric style of carry. I know nothing about the history of the term, or that it was a term at all until I read it somewhere. It just seemed like the most sensible way to go and low and behold, like most things, there is a term for it. Near as I can tell, Baldric carry is just to sling the thing across your body - easy to put on and take off, move out of the way, and less likely to get snagged. I have a sling already made with H&K hooks and double cobra knot paracord which is very comfortable to wear and works great on these sheaths, but what you see in the pics is a simple paracord twist with the H&K hooks. There are about a million different ways you could accomplish the same thing. I just happened to have the hooks in my box-o-stuff and they are uber secure. I am also working on the BCUSA Bushclass, so I needed to practice the two strand twist and whipping. Just made sense to make myself something useful. The downside is that it will probably get uncomfortable with much weight on it and so it will probably get modified over time. I also employed the pull-the-dot soft loops typically used for IWB handgun holsters, which are again, strong and secure and easy to adjust to the lengths needed on my sheaths.

Ray Mears Parang

jungle machete, large knives, choppers

hand made handles, oak, parang, machete

Other sheaths for my Ka-Bar Mk1 and Aranyik E-nep

Here you can see my simple hangers for the sling. I put a slight bend in them so the H&K hook wouldn't interfere with drawing the blade.

knife sheaths kydex, E-nep kydex, Parang kydex sheath

Simple bungee system to pull the strap out of the way.

stick tang knife handles
Burning in the tangs for a perfect fit.

Lots of smoke!

A couple shots of the handle making process.

I start by splitting and roughing out a chunk of oak. I used my CS Pipe Hawk for this one.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

3-1/2lb Beveled Plumb Jersey Axe Project

Credit for this pic goes to someone on ebay.
This is the first time I have cracked an axe while driving the wedge and the experience sent me to researching, particularly when several people reported that they had experienced cracked Plumbs as well. I won't speculate too enthusiastically, but it looks like Plumb did have some special processes involved with their heads and as one of the biggest names in axes for a very long time, it seems possible that the steel around the eyes on some of them was hard or brittle enough to crack. What hardships my Plumb had lived before it got to me is impossible to say and there are several ways that a poorly cared for axe could get damaged. At the very least, this example had seen some pretty substantial beating to the poll. All I can guess is, a combination of possible factors came together with one final blow from my favorite wedge driving mallet. Not to be deterred I had someone with welding skills fill up the crack and went back to work. To further test my patience, I sheered off a sliver of wood from the shoulder of the handle while removing it from the cracked head. With morale circling around the bottom of the tank I put a flat on the shoulder and tongue, and glued on a new sliver in place. You will notice the seam in some of the pictures. In the end, with the eye welded shut, my handle repaired, it was time to get this project on the right track. In order to somewhat capture the look of an old Plumb, I blued the head and stained the handle red. Leather dye works extremely well for coloring Hickory, in case you're thinking about giving it a try. Go very light at first, because it lays down color fast! I have used it several times now to get different effects and I really like it. For this handle I used Fiebings "tan" and "red", red first, then tan over top to warm it up. Finally, I made a quick leather mask.

As it arrived - ebay score.
The crack!
Here you can see the seam at the repair and the final fit.
The Plumb evolved over the course of several days. No red yet.
vintage axe restoration rehang refurbish

plumb beveled jersey pattern axe head vintage

Finally, some red, and a mask made up as well.

ka-bar mk1 usn
Here the Plumb is with a Ka-Bar USN Mk1 and Cold Steel Pipe Hawk
american tomahawk company, custom, mod, blued head

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Nonsense of Grain Orientation in Axe Handles

Rant time, because the subject just keeps coming up. Whether you believe in the age old rules for grain orientation in axe handles or not is inconsequential to me because I've used both good and "bad", and because I don't cut down giant redwoods for a living, I have never broken an axe handle. What's more is I have a bunch of axes and I like swinging them all so no single one gets a particularly high volume of use at any one given time. I am guessing there are a lot of you out there using your axes under similar conditions, others who use one much more, others still who use them less, but very few of you who use them enough to regularly find the strength limitations of the handles. The point? Regardless of the orientation of the grain, Hickory is pretty good stuff and so long as you get a structurally sound piece of wood, chances are that regardless of which way the grain runs across it, it'll serve you well.

BUT! Of course there is a but. Run-out. It's the scary thing that breaks handles. Truth, I have no idea if it really is a bad thing or not. I'm sure there is evidence out there suggesting that if individual rings run through the handle from one side to the other, that is where the weakest point is to be found, and in my mind, it just makes good sense. Wood just kinda works that way generally speaking. But then there seems to be these little voices who say grain orientation is insignificant, but run-out is the real culprit behind broken handles. And it's supported by the notion that the orientation of the grain is a cosmetic coincidence in handles with run-out. Let's examine.

There are really only about three ways run-out can occur in an axe handle. Wood isn't always perfectly straight grained and so twists and curves in the grain can lead to run-out. Next, the grain can simply be running diagonally, even if it is straight. And third, straight grain can run out through the curves in the handle. Which factor, of these three factors is a flaw in the wood itself? Only the first. A tree can be twisted and when it is turned down to an axe handle, run-out may occur. The age old solution was to simply grade that handle lower, and sell it for less money, or reject it altogether. Is that done today? In my experience the grading systems, where they even exist, are vague at best. The other two factors are caused by the people cutting the lumber. Diagonal grain can be the result of twist or curves, but if that is the case, then it gets thrown into the twist and curve factor. What's my point? My point is that grain orientation is directly and intrinsically connected to run-out and any argument to the contrary is a failure to understand these simple concepts.

Well what kind of handles are we talking about? A straight handle with straight grained wood won't have run-out no matter which way the grain runs. Gold star. In that case, curvature of the handle is a factor we can eliminate, but there is always the possibility of diagonal grain or twists. So this rant is focusing on your run of the mill curved axe handle and to be clearer still, an axe handle can fall into a very wide range of curvatures from straight to really damn bendy.

A human selects and saws the lumber, the grain lived in the tree from its conception, so to say that orientation is cosmetic is nonsense. It sounds like a chicken or egg argument. Someone somewhere selected the grain orientation (or failed to), and then proceeded to carve a handle from that piece of lumber. A woodworker of any kind and of any skill will choose his desired grain orientation first, obviously, to achieve whatever result he is attempting at the end of the project. And now, let's go back to our three factors. Two of the three factors which can result in grain run-out are directly connected to how the person selected (or failed to) grain when the tree became lumber, or the blanks became handles. If the grain is perfectly side-ways on a curved axe handle, it WILL result in run-out. So exactly how are the two not integrally connected? They are, this is not opinion. And, the more curved the handle is, the more run-out will occur. Attempting to separate orientation from run-out works fine if you're suggesting that there are multiple causes of run-out (because there are), but it can be the direct cause or lack of run-out in a curved axe handle. Interesting things can happen with wood that might result in one with grain that runs end-to-end while also being sideways, but I know I'm not going to hold my breath on the way to the hardware store in hopes of finding that handle. The very concept is so unlikely that it holds no weight in the argument. The straighter the handle is (and in many cases the shorter the handle is), the more likely it is to happen, but doesn't that in itself refute the concept? It can happen so long as we stop talking about curved handles, and that is precisely the point. Because we cut a curved thing from a board with a particular grain orientation, run-out results or it doesn't.

Which brings me to the next point. Parallel grain isn't the only answer, it is used in an effort to eliminate one of the factors leading to run-out. We know that we have at least three factors that could result in possible weakness in our handle, and we also have plain old poor quality wood to deal with. Logic dictates then, that we choose wood which has the best likelihood for success. Why would I choose an orientation that does the exact opposite? We still have natural factors to deal with in the wood, plus the other ways that wood could be cut and result in run-out. So is orientation a cosmetic coincidence of run-out? Obviously it is not. And let's put the nail in the coffin on this subject with the following example.

In the picture above we have a handle with perfectly sideways grain, that is to say that the individual growth rings run perpendicular to the axe head. It is not possible for the angle of that grain to be changed in anyway that it could run through the handle end-to-end. Here is how.

This image illustrates a change in the grain direction and you can see that at least straight lines will run pretty far through the handle but with plenty of run-out at the bend toward the swell, where I suggest a lot of forces are applied, and more run-out behind the shoulder than there already is. What's more important though, is that the person who cut this piece of wood would have to purposefully cut his blanks on this particular angle to achieve this orientation and to what real benefit? None. Which makes this notion that much more preposterous. These are often the same people who berate others for making extra effort to get the "right" grain orientation in their handles yet apparently require just this one special angle in order to reduce run-out. It is hilariously absurd.

This handle has end grain that appears to be pretty parallel to the axe head but as you can see it runs diagonally through the handle, rather than end-to-end. This example also illustrates that straight handles with straight grain can have run-out - just another one of our multiple factors. Was this wood twisted? Was it just poorly sawn on some strange angle like this? It's difficult to say. The bottom line is, not only do you have things like this to worry about, but with curved handles you have even more opportunities for problems. It's a game of choosing features which reduce the possibility of problems and increase the likelihood of success. So in this case, is sideways grain orientation a cosmetic coincidence of run-out? No. In fact, the exact opposite is true. It isn't a matter of coincidence, there are multiple factors and grain orientation is one of those factors.

Regardless of how you feel about grain orientation, or run-out itself, the former will always (99/100) be a factor resulting in the latter in curved axe handles. There is no compelling reason that I can see to purposefully choose sideways grain anyway and it's known that parallel grain has been used successfully for ages. So beyond the fact that it can lead to more perceived problems, there is no evidence that it's beneficial to performance even in straight handles. It's a senseless topic that continues to be forever unresolved, when a new resolution isn't worth reaching or even pursuing. The case has been effectively closed for generations and in fact, studies have shown that at least in hammer handles, wood is one of the worst materials available today for absorbing shock and probably where strength is concerned as well. But it cannot be argued with any legitimacy, with regard to curved axe handles, that grain orientation is insignificant but run-out is paramount. That is a contradictory statement, where the second half refutes the first outright and in the process supports age old guidelines for handle selection.