Sunday, November 29, 2015

Walk by Faith Tomahawk - Value in Today's Market

walk by faith TTT through the top tomahawkThere are many tomahawk makers in the US and I think from a sales perspective there are a few primary reasons for it when compared to true American poll axes. That's poll, not pole. And, in fact, there are few small shops regularly making axes at all in the US, even with the popularity of Gransfors Bruk and others like them. For one thing, a real axe, particularly when you're talking 2lbs or more, uses a lot of steel - 2lbs or more I suppose. Of course that gets us into axes made from two types of metal, and the possibility that they are therefore more complex to make, but there are many hawks made in this fashion still today. I think it could simply be that people have fewer and fewer uses for an axe and so two pounds of iron - or more - just isn't something many people desire. When the largest use for an axe today is in the woods by campers, hikers, bushcrafters, and general outdoors enthusiasts, there isn't much a person can't do with a hand saw and a hatchet.

Welt tapers with the bit.
Hatchet is really the key. Hatchets aren't exciting. They are the most mundane in the edge tool category really. Axes are exciting because they built a nation of wooden homes, felling huge trees all along the way as America grew. They are iconic, often specialized to their task, and unique to their region, giving birth to a vast catalog of patterns. Tomahawks evoke images of early America as well, of woodsmen and trappers, combat, and the native people of the country. Today, they are wrecking tools, breaching tools, and fighting tools. But hatchets, they ride in the back of the station wagon for yuppie camping, or at the chopping block where chickens go to meet their makers. They are for making kindling - rectangular, wedge-shaped objects that aren't really good for much of anything else. They aren't purpose built, they are strictly utilitarian and really they only come in one pattern. Sure, there are a few hewing and carpentry hatchets, but that pretty much covers it. Estwing gave the world some nice curves, a sleek design, a stacked leather handle, and changed the face of the hatchet for a lot of people in the process. But there hasn't been anything since. At least, not in the hand hatchet category.

Gransfors Bruk realized the axe industry was a sinking ship in the 80s and if I can be allowed to speculate, took the most iconic American pattern, the Jersey, and shrunk it. By that time the Hudson Bay pattern already existed as the outdoorsman's axe, a light head on a mid-length handle - longer than a hatchet, shorter and lighter than a boy's axe. Gransfors, with their shrunken Jersey pattern breathed new life into the concept with something very similar to a Hudson Bay - the Small Forest Axe. I think the relatively recent rise in popularity of outdoor activities and in particular Bushcrafting, has driven the popularity of things referred to as axes, that are really modified, more attractive, and even more versatile hatchets.

Note the bit geometry similarities.
What does this have to do with tomahawks? Well, when you look at these "axes" you find that they are not much different from a tomahawk. While I do believe there is room for more of these modified hatchets in the US, they are somewhat limited to campsite duties. Or at least, Bushcrafting duties, which certainly can be a wide range of activities. However, tomahawks stretch into other arenas. They practically beg to be thrown, they can be historical or tactical, or even both with the LaGana Vietnam hawks. If you're into destruction and demolition, something about a tomahawk urges its wielder to smash. And, they are widely available in an almost endless combination of features and designs. While axes and tomahawks share many obvious similarities, its the presence in the hand where the differences are found.

To tie it all together we're going to look at the Walk by Faith Tomahawk today, and compare it to the Gransfors Bruk Wildlife Hatchet. I think it's more effective to do comparative reviews like this because more people can relate and mentally associate what I am talking about with their own experiences. I have chosen the Wildlife hatchet because it is ounce for ounce, the most similar to the Walk By Faith tomahawk, and tomahawks in general, and you will see the geometry is very similar as well.

First things first - value in today's market. $150. It's the magic number at the time of this writing. It seems the Gransfors products have risen somewhat in price, and I have heard (with zero effort on my part to confirm) that the Wildlife hatchet is or was difficult to get. Whatever the case, I spent two whole seconds checking Amazon for the price of a Wildlife hatchet and they wanted roughly $150. Now, Gransfors has its share of critics within the vintage axe community, but I personally believe they are unfounded. They are not drop forged, they are forged on what I understand are called open dies. The bottom line is, the dies (multiple) help shape the hot steel into the final shape as the power hammer strikes it. Dies are necessary (at the very least) for a consistent, high volume product in the 21st century. The point, they are handmade. Some people will argue the definition of handmade until they pass out, but a skilled person has to use his hands to control the process of taking a hunk of steel and beating it into an axe - in a production facility. It is not custom, it is not hammer forged on an anvil, it just is what it is and I respect their process. In many ways I can understand criticizing anything "boutique" but the use of that term has begun to aggravate me with respect to Gransfors Bruk. Take a look around you and ask yourself how many craftsman went to work with their hands and skills to create anything you own that cost $150. Most labor in production today involves unskilled assembly, packing and button pressing. So to be perfectly honest, I don't think $150 is especially expensive for a Gransfors axe. It's not cheap, it's just the price of a quality tool. Council Tool gets the same kind of money and while I can go buy the Black and Decker tool for half the money of a Makita, it's simply the difference between a quality tool and a throw away tool. There are axes hanging in most big box hardware stores for a fraction of Council or Gransfors, and they are a fraction of the quality. Boutique to me has to fall under the category of expensive for the sake of being expensive and that's simply not the case for GB or Council.

Now, Walk by Faith gets $150 for their tomahawks. So we're talking about good steel, hand forged, sharpened, finished, hung, with an amazing sheath for essentially the same money. Regardless of my opinion of the production market price for Council or GB, it is the market price and so for a full step up in every check box, Walk by Faith is offering an excellent value by the market's standards. Let's get into the pics.

Check the fit of the handle to the head - flawless.

Smeared with goobers from some testing but a very neatly made hawk.

The Gransfors Bruk Wildlife Hatchet weighs a total of 1lb, 5oz. The Walk by Faith Tomahawk weighs 1lb, 9oz and finally the Cold Steel Pipe Hawk weighs 1lb, 11oz. When I look carefully at the WBF and the Wildlife hatchet, I can't help but wonder where those 4 ounces are exactly. There might be a couple ounces difference in the handle, but in the end, there just isn't much weight difference between the two. The biggest similarity in all GB axes is how tomahawk-like the bits are. They are concave or flat in the cheeks with a flat centerline and somewhat abrupt (for an axe) transition into the eye. This is the primary reason I don't really see GB tools as "true" axes in the sense of the American Poll axe. It is not to say they are unworthy though, it is to say they are a tool that evolved for specific uses from the American Poll Axe. They are their own sort of axe. It's because of these similarities in price and design that I think there is a noteworthy comparison to be made. They do very much the same work.

walk by faith 777
Note that the WBF in the center is very neat and tidy in design. Very angular and precise.

tomahawks bushcraft axes woodsmen outdoors
Cutting edge length is also similar.

cold steel pipehawk gransfors bruk wildlife hatchet

But, these tools are not the same. You can see in the pictures that the Walk by Faith hawk is very neat, angular and geometric in design. The bit ends very abruptly at the eye which indicates the cutting and chopping function of traditional tomahawks. The Cold Steel Pipe Hawk has a more gentle sweep from the cheeks into the eye almost identical to the Wildlife Hatchet. In splitting, this transition becomes apparent when the piece being split reaches it. The tool can bind or stop, and often the wood tends to glance away from the tool, pushing it out of the split. None of these are especially good splitting tools in the context of a top-down splitting technique. However, the relatively wide bit and long stick lend them to what you could call flat splitting or lever splitting where you strike the piece in a horizontal orientation rather than vertical.

While the GB is roughly the same weight, that weight is somehow much more compact and with a true poll the balance falls much closer to the center than a tomahawk. This isn't a positive or a negative in my view - they are just different. Tomahawks are bit heavy and historically had no poll at all, lending the design to throwing and simplistic construction. I admit that the balance difference is noticeable and takes some getting used to, but I feel either is perfectly useful.

These three tools all offer a nicely dropped heel which I find very useful for carving - making tool handles or utensils or traps. However, I especially like the Wildlife Hatchet for these kinds of tasks. It feels 100% right in the hand in both balance and ergonomics. An axe handle is a very well made thing with its swell and oval or egg shaped cross section, and in my view is a benefit over slip-fit tomahawk handles. Though they are tear-drop in cross section, they are very slim and by design cannot offer any swell. The hatchet is just more secure in the hand whether it is keeping the tool in hand, or controlling it against twisting. However, I think it's fair to say that we're not talking about an insurmountable problem when it comes to tomahawk handles. They work just fine, and no one ever said you couldn't hang a tomahawk exactly the same way you would hang an axe in order to enjoy a more hand fitting handle.

To wrap this thing up, the bottom line is that while exploring the many similarities of two tools with different names, I can't ignore the differences that define them. In the end, one tool can't be declared better than another because functional differences are just that - differences - not benefits or weaknesses. At the same time, tomahawks and the Swedish outdoors axes work well in similar environments, accomplishing very similar tasks. With any luck, seeing them side-by-side will help you decide which will work best for you if you are on the hunt for one. Thanks for reading!

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. Still, 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.

Well, you may say, there are historical examples of full tang knives. As near as I can tell they were often kitchen or utility knives, consumable at a time when everyone lived by their tools, and therefore quickest and easiest to produce. I think what it boils down to though, is decoration. As I mentioned, a stick tang provides a medium for decoration. The maker can stack up all manner of materials and fasten ornate pommels for an attractive piece of art and weaponry. And, if the pommel was a popular device for bludgeoning people with, and I think it was, then it makes sense to use a stick tang.

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