The TOPS knife from Brothers of Bushcraft. Is this the ultimate knife? photo credit: bladeforums.com
I get it.
There’s a lot to consider as you search for the one knife that rules them all.
Is this you?
Own 11 different hunting, tactical, cowboy, folding, blah-blah-blah knives — but still can’t seem to find the right one?
Cruising the blade forums looking for the right bushcraft knife because nobody at your local sporting goods store actually stocks them?
Bushcraft knives are a bit different than what we’ve become used to in much of the United States. However, in other parts of the world, these types of knives are standard issue!
One of the most distinct features of most bushcraft knives is the simplicity of the design. These typically are not imposing, garish, or silly – but, rather extremely utilitarian and built for work over years.
It’s the Grind, Stupid
Bushcraft knives generally sport what is known as a “scandi grind” meaning the edge is ground uniformly at a 12.5 – 25 degree slope in order to achieve one of the easiest edges to sharpen. Again, this lends to the utilitarian appeal of the knife because ease of use especially under extreme conditions or heavy use. Other grinds may create a more durable or sharper edge, but this particular grind can even be stropped in the woods prior to skinning, gutting, or any other chores.
Tang: not just for bushcraft knife breakfast anymore
There is much debate on the tang of the knife. I try not to get involved when these arguments start to turn ugly.
Although technically there are many different types of tangs, we’re mostly concerned with whether it’s a full tang or partial tang knife. This matters to most people for a variety of reasons, but there are tradeoffs to each.
Full tang knives are essentially a solid piece of steel with scales attached to the outer layer in order to form a handle. These are useful for heavy work like digging and defending, but can be quite cumbersome when you go to filet a trout streamside. Also, the heavy weight may feel badass in the store, but everything adds up on the trail.
In my experience there are very few full tang bushcraft knives, and nearly none of the Northern European manufacturers regularly produce these. Of course there are exceptions. Marttiini of Finland makes one of the baddest full-tang hunters I’ve ever seen or used:
I’ve noted that it’s mostly American makers that concentrate on full tang knives that still adhere to the general look, feel, and utility of the typical bushcraft knife. One of my personal favorites is a knife made by Bark River Knives.
These knives are made in the United States, and I’ve yet to run into a Bark River Knife that wasn’t full tang. These knives are made to take a severe beating then get passed to your kids – hence the expense.
Old school European bushcraft knives are traditionally made with curly birch handle material, and it is an amazing wood that grows only in the northern regions of Europe and Russia. No two knives can be the same. Although this wood is often mistaken for maple, it can be either light or dark with the best pieces have a very marbled and spalted look to it.
This is where companies like Helle or Kellam really excel. Their knives are essentially still handmade in small factories in Finland where each piece is ground by a craftsman. Think of the exact opposite of how its done in China, and that’s what we’re talking about.
Here’s a great example of how amazing curly birch can be once it’s formed:
photo credit: bushcraftliving.com
Here’s where we go down a rabbit hole.
The chemistry of steel is fascinating, and the source of continual research and refinement. To simplify, there are really three “classes” of steel that you should be concerned with:
This topic will get it’s own post, so I will merely briefly describe the differences along with pros and cons.
Carbon steel or “high carbon” steel is referring to a class of steel that will naturally develop a patina and darken. Here’s an example of a carbon steel bushcraft knife with a patina blade:
The development of modern stainless steel has forced carbon blades out of favor, but within the bushcrafting community, they never left. As an example, I generally sell about twice as many carbon blades than stainless blades because they tend to hold an edge better.
Carbon steel, however, does require enhanced maintenance because it is prone to surface rust. This gives people who have never owned carbon knives the idea that these are somehow inferior or “dirty.” Once the patina is formed, less maintenance is required. There are also ways to force a patina, but I’ll get there in a separeate post.
Stainless steel is exactly that: stain less. That also means that it can gather some surface rust if not properly maintained, but modern stainless steels or blended steels perform much better than those of the best – particularly Mora knives.
If you are not willing to do the added maintenance or are using the knife in an environment (say, saltwater) where the knife easily rusts, then I highly recommend stainless steel.
Laminated steel is the best of both worlds. This is a technique used as far back as Japanese katana makers where different types of steels are forged and folded then ground and polished to perfection. It’s because of these blends that we get patterns in highly polished laminated steels. With triple laminated steel, you are essentially getting a high carbon middle with two slices of stainless on the skins to form a steel sandwich. With the outer, softer steel, you don’t have to perform the same maintenance rituals while still enjoying the harder center.
Helle Knives makes superior triple laminated steel blades, but this is definitely a niche that many people do not understand. Not all knives are created equal.
In the end, I don’t think you can go wrong with a well-crafted bushcraft knife. Many of these companies have either been in business for well over a hundred years, and create world-class products for insanely low prices in regards to the quality you can expect. Ultimately the knife comes to grip and feel in the palm of your hand which will give you confidence in your equipment.
Good luck, and please provide feedback if you’ve got something to add.