The author’s first choice of knife. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
One of the things I like about bushcraft is that many aspects of subject involve the use of tools. And I like tools.
Most of the tools used in bushcraft tend to be cutting tools; knives, axes and saws being the main ones but others such as billhooks and adzes are also quite popular.
Most bushcraft activities employ a knife of some description.
This can sometimes be a specialised knife such as a spoon knife but more often than not it's a general purpose sheath knife.
That's what I want to talk about here.
A good basic sheath knife should enable you to carry out any day to day cutting tasks whilst you're on the trail or in camp, as well as being serviceable for more specialised tasks.
Typical Bushcraft Knives
Most general purpose bushcraft knives have a fairly standardised sort of design to them, a typical example would be the Ray Mears Woodlore knife:
- They tend to have a blade four to five inches in length with a handle about an inch longer.
- The blade is usually a “drop point” or “spear point” in profile, this means that the back of the blade curves down as the edge of the blade curves up until they meet at the tip. This creates a shape reminiscent of a leaf or spear, hence the name.
- The edge of the blade is made sharp with a simple flat bevel. This is known as a “Flat” or “Scandinavian” grind, and is ideal for woodcarving and simple to sharpen as well as being fairly robust and capable of taking a very sharp edge.
- The tang of the knife (the part which extends from the blade to form the handle) is the full length and full width of the handle, predictably this is known as a full tang.
The sides of the handle, the “scales”, are riveted/bolted and/or glued to the tang.
The Woodlore knife typifies many people's choice of a bushcraft knife. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
The Woodlore knife is designed to be a jack-of-all-trades, most of its design features are aimed towards woodcarving (the "Scandinavian" grind specifically) but compromises have been made to make the knife more versatile. For example, the handle has been designed to allow the knife to be held comfortably and securely in a number of quite specific grips, as such it's not ideal as a woodcarving knife where a plain oval grip is preferred.
The spear pointed profile of the blade isn't ideal for woodcarving either, it's designed more with animal skinning and bark removal in mind.
The blade is quite thick for a carving knife too, it's been made thick to be robust enough for jobs like splitting wood, this thickness also makes the knife less than ideal for preparing food.
As a compromise though it works pretty well, it's not bad at most tasks and very good at some. As such it's a very popular design of knife amongst bushcraft enthusiasts.
The Kellam Wolverine
The type of fixed blade knife that I prefer to use as my main knife is of a similar size to the Woodlore knife (it's actually a little shorter, both in blade and handle length), but of a different style.
The style of knife that I favour is one that was traditionally used by Scandinavian outdoorspeople, the Finnish Puukko
The Kellam Wolverine in the traditional Puukko style. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
The Puukko that I've been using as my main bushcraft knife is the Kellam “Wolverine”:
- The Kellam is a little shorter than the Woodlore knife; the blade measures 90mm (3 1/2”) and the handle measures 115mm (4 1/2”).
- The blade has a “straight back” or “normal” profile, this means that the back of the knife forms a straight line from the handle to the tip and the edge of the knife curves up to meet it. This creates an asymmetrically shaped blade, effectively one half of the “spear point” seen on the Woodlore knife.
The grind of the blade is identical to that of the Woodlore knife, a “Scandinavian” single bevel ideal for woodcarving.
- The tang of the knife is not a “full” tang like the one on the Woodlore knife. The tang is still the full length of the handle (in fact it actually extends a little beyond the end of the handle), but instead of being the full width of the handle it is actually narrower than the blade of the knife. This is known as a “stick tang”.
The handle of the knife is made of a single piece of wood through the centre of the tang of the knife runs, the handle is glued into place and then part of the tang that extends beyond the end of the handle is peened over to secure the handle.
Detail of how the tang is secured on the Kellam Wolverine. Photo: Paul Kirtley
The design is slightly less of a compromise, as it wasn't designed with animal skinning in mind. The Kellam can of course still be used to skin game, it's just not quite so well suited to the job. I don't mind this slight loss of functionality as it's very rare that I have to skin large game.
The difference in design, primarily the stick tang but to a lesser extent the profile of the blade, makes the Kellam considerably lighter than a similarly sized full tang knife. This lightness makes the knife less tiring to use for finer, more controlled, work but does mean that the knife doesn't function quite so well as a chopping or slashing tool.
I find stick tangs knives to be more comfortable to use than those with full tangs, although this is purely down to personal preference, I simply think that they feel nicer in the hand.
The author's knife in its sheath. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
I bought my knife as a slight second; it had been dropped on the concrete floor of a warehouse and a little bit of the tip was snapped off, so mine's slightly shorter than standard. I've also slightly filed down the spine of the knife, so the spine no longer runs in a perfectly straight line from handle to tip, it now slopes down a little bit on the way, I did this to make the knife a slightly better woodcarving knife. I also created a good square edge to the spine of the blade as I was doing this to make the knife more effective when used to strike sparks from a fireflash.
Kellam Wolverine blade detail. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
I've altered the sheath a little too. One of the alterations that I've made is to whip part of the sheath with some thick polyester thread. I've done this for two main reasons: firstly, so that I can keep a large repair needle threaded with a length of strong linen thread behind this whipping, and secondly, because it hides the silly "wolverine" logo on the sheath.
The whipping has the added bonus of providing me with a ready source of cordage should I need it (although I'd then have to find somewhere else to store the needle and thread). I covered the whipping with tape to help keep it secure, the tape also provides another resource that I can use in extremis. I also removed the belt loop and replaced it with a length of paracord tied with a double fishermans knot to make an adjustable loop.
Detail of cord attachment. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
This paracord loop allows me to carry my knife either hanging around my neck or over one shoulder and around my chest so that it tucks away under the opposite arm, much like a school satchel.
Satchel style knife carry. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
I prefer to carry my knife in this style rather than on a belt mainly because I find it more comfortable that way.
I've been using the Kellam Wolverine as my main knife about the last eight years and it's served me well. The main things that I like about it are the lightness of the knife and the comfort of the handle. It works well as a woodcarving knife due to the relatively short blade and also the shallow profile of the blade, especially towards the tip which allows me to easily carve in confined spaces such as when carving interior radii. Only the thickness of the blade prevents it from being an ideal woodcarving knife, this thickness also makes the knife less than perfect for preparing food.
Shaving curls on a featherstick with the Wolverine. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
The thickness of the blade is, however, a compromise. A general purpose knife needs to be robust enough that it can be utterly relied upon and that is achieved in the Wolverine by adding a little thickness to the blade. This makes the blade strong enough for me to use it for heavy jobs; it works well for “batoning” to split larger pieces of timber.
Batoning with the Wolverine. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
Maintenance is pretty straightforward with the Kellam, as it is with most knives. I keep the blade sharp with regular stropping on a leather belt, and re-touch the edge as required with a bench sized oilstone at home a combination diamond/ceramic stone when in the field, much the same as Paul discusses here
The wooden handle of the Kellam requires little more than a regular clean and the occasional wipe over with a spot of boiled linseed oil.
I have never waxed or oiled the sheath but I'm sure that it would benefit from it, aesthetically if nothing else.
The downsides to this knife are that the lack of weight decreases the knives ability as a chopper, but I don't mind that too much. It's just something I have to consider and adapt accordingly.
My Knife: Overall Opinion
The Kellam Wolverine is, in my opinion, a superb all round knife for bushcraft, and although it does have certain weaknesses these are in areas that don't cause me too many problems and are a worthwhile trade off for the improvements in other areas. The small size and low weight mean that the knife is really unobtrusive when packed or being carried about my person, and that I can use the knife for longer without getting fatigued. The trade off is the lack of chopping ability, but it's well worth it for the improvement in other areas. All in all it's a knife that I'm very happy with and I'm sure that it will continue to serve me as well for the next couple of decades as it has for the last one.
Have you used a Kellam Wolverine knife or similar design? Let us and other readers know your thoughts by leaving a comment below...
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Stuart has had a long interest in many of the skills which have more latterly been grouped together under the umbrella term of bushcraft. He was pottering around the farm with his dad from pretty much the moment he could walk, and fishing with his grandad before that. Capable in the craft side of bushcraft, Stuart particularly enjoys woodcarving, leather working and sewing. Stuart likes to make and/or modify a lot of his own kit.