Knives Illustrated - - Contents - STORY AND PHOTOS BY R. BOLIEU

With some crafty mod­i­fi­ca­tions, you can make good blades even bet­ter. By R. Bolieu

It’s al­most per­fect. If only the han­dle guard wasn’t there or if the coat­ing was re­moved.” “It would chop bet­ter if the edge was a dif­fer­ent pro­file.”

Th­ese are words most of us knife nuts have said out loud at one time or an­other.

A knife’s look and func­tion­al­ity are ma­jor fac­tors when se­lect­ing out­door tools. Com­fort and us­abil­ity of­ten take a back­seat to those traits un­til the tools are ac­tu­ally used. Only then do the blis­ters or hot spots rear their ugly heads. Some­times it’s just the phys­i­cal aesthetics of a tool, like the coat­ing of a blade or axe head, that both­ers us. Ei­ther way, there is a large pop­u­la­tion of knife and tool users who want to cus­tom­ize their tools to suit their needs. Fol­low­ing is what you need to know.


Are there cer­tain blades that are suited for customizing? Ma­chetes from the On­tario Knife Com­pany, Mar­bles, Tra­mon­tina, and Cold Steel are all per­fect can­di­dates for customizing. In North Amer­ica, On­tario Ma­chetes seem to be very pop­u­lar for camp­ing and prized as “sur­vival ma­chetes,” due to their wide avail­abil­ity, low cost and easy-to-do mod­i­fi­ca­tions They sport a 1/8-inch-thick blade and come in three pop­u­lar lengths: 12 inches, 18 inches and 22 inches. Some fea­ture a molded han­dle and have large D-shaped guards, which are eas­ily cut off with a multi-tool saw or a hack­saw. I use the 12-inch and 18-inch mod­els, and they have all been mod­i­fied.


Mod­i­fi­ca­tions are purely based on user needs and prac­ti­cal­ity, rather than ap­pear­ance. Com­fort in any work tool, be it a fram­ing ham­mer, knife or saw is of the ut­most im­por­tance for se­ri­ous work.

A sim­ple mill bas­tard file is all you re­ally need for gen­eral sharp­en­ing and knife mod­i­fi­ca­tion. How­ever, there are many peo­ple who have ac­cess to bet­ter ma­chines and gad­gets who take it to an­other level—al­most cus­tom-knife level. It’s im­por­tant to rec­og­nize that ma­chetes, for the most part, are mass pro­duced and al­most 90 per­cent of the time, will not come with a sharp­ened edge. A file will take care of this.

I must men­tion that I al­ways put a convex edge on the ma­chete by fil­ing down the shoul­der of the bevel and just thin­ning it out so that it cre­ates a bul­let shape, ta­per­ing grad­u­ally from the shoul­der to the edge. This helps pre­vent the thin ma­chete blade from stick­ing in wood and makes it a tougher edge in gen­eral.

The first two inches of the blade, down near the ri­c­asso area, al­ways get a straight Scan­di­na­vian edge, for fine shav­ing and con­trolled carv­ing. The top of the blade (spine) gets the file again; I make the top sec­tion (a few inches) flat and as close to a 90-de­gree an­gle as pos­si­ble for strik­ing a fer­ro­cerium rod to light the camp fire. This is eas­i­est to do on soft-to-medium-soft car­bon steel. Ma­chete coat­ings are usu­ally in­ex­pen­sive paint or low-grade epoxy, and can be re­moved with many dif­fer­ent paint and epoxy re­movers or good old sand­pa­per and el­bow grease. I’ve used a brand called Jasco, which is like a thick paste ap­plied with a paint brush and left on for a few min­utes. On­tario Old Hick­ory knives are an­other pop­u­lar choice for woods­men to cus­tom­ize. Also made by the On­tario Knife Com­pany, th­ese stout kitchen knives are made of 1095 high car­bon steel and can be re­shaped with grinders, Dremel tools, files, hack­saws, stones and sand­pa­per to shape the han­dle scales and blade.

I had a Tra­mon­tina 14-inch Bolo ma­chete mod­i­fied into a golok shape. The han­dle was sanded flush with the tang to elim­i­nate any hot spots. Nat­u­rally, it got a convex edge and the clear lac­quer it came with was also stripped off. It was fin­ished with a treat­ment of boiled lin­seed oil to pro­tect the han­dle and give it a darker ap­pear­ance. This par­tic­u­lar ma­chete is truly one of my fa­vorite cus­tomized blades yet.

The famed Mora Knives from Swe­den have been the most mod­i­fied knives to date. Their low cost ($20-$30) makes them them ideal for ex­per­i­ment­ing on when it comes to customizing and it al­lows peo­ple to feel more at ease when try­ing their hand. In gen­eral, Mora knives are com­fort­able, don­ning an oval cross sec­tion on their han­dles


to make them more universal. They use soft car­bon and stain­less steel. This makes a par­tic­u­lar knife mod­i­fi­ca­tion very easy: the 90-de­gree spine. Again, a trusty file is em­ployed to square off the spine for strik­ing a fer­ro­cerium rod and for scrap­ing soft wood, bam­boo or fat­wood for tin­der. This re­ally is an­other tool in it­self. On the car­bon steel blades, it’s pop­u­lar to ap­ply a forced patina to the blade be­fore it de­vel­ops rust. A lot of folks don’t care about rust, me in­cluded. Nor­mal use on meat, veg­eta­bles and green sticks will patina a knife blade, nat­u­rally. To ap­ply a patina to pro­tect the blade faster, or just for looks, you can soak a car­bon steel blade in vine­gar. This makes the blade dark and you can sand it to even out the fin­ish, no mat­ter how the patina is ap­plied. Smear­ing mus­tard on the blade will also re­sult in a patina, but will leave a spot­ted or striped look; it is a very ar­ti­fi­cial-look­ing patina. Stick­ing the knife into a po­tato, overnight, is an­other option, but is also very un­even. This process of­ten has to be re­peated for best ef­fect. I feel the eas­i­est, fastest way to ap­ply a uni­form, clas­sic-look­ing patina to a car­bon steel blade is by dip­ping the blade, point first, into black cof­fee. The wooden han­dles found on the red-han­dled clas­sic Mora mod­els can be sanded and stained any color. The plas­tic han­dles may be drilled to in­sert a lan­yard. Mod­els with guards can be mod­i­fied with a sim­ple hack­saw or multi-tool saw. I have cut guards off of the old Mora 511 and the newer Ba­sic 511 mod­els. The rough edges can be filed down us­ing a coarse stone or left as is. To blend the white, fresh fil­ing of the plas­tic, use a flame from a lighter or match to blend and clean up the ap­pear­ance a bit. A sim­ple elec­tric hand sander or Dremel tool can eas­ily shape a wood han­dle and plas­tic han­dle to suit your hand. Even pro­duc­tion knives are not im­mune to mod­i­fi­ca­tions. Years ago, I had the ESEE Knives’ (then RAT Cut­lery)


ESEE-3/ESEE-4 mod­i­fied by re­mov­ing the choil guard and the coat­ing. The ESEE-4 had a convex edge put on, and both needed new pants made for them, made from Ky­dex, as the orig­i­nal sheaths would no longer hold the knives se­curely once the guard was re­moved.


Be­sides strip­ping off the blade coat­ing and some mi­nor sand­ing of the han­dle scales, the bulk of the mod­i­fi­ca­tions are bet­ter off han­dled by a pro­fes­sional. The best peo­ple to send your tools out to for customizing are cus­tom knife­mak­ers. This is es­pe­cially true when it comes to re­grind­ing blades and cut­ting sec­tions of steel off, like the han­dle guard or choil. Cus­tom knife­mak­ers al­ready have all the tools and ma­chin­ery for this kind of work. For leather and Ky­dex sheaths, cus­tom sheath mak­ers are the author­ity if you want to get your knives into some new pants!


A bas­tard file, hack­saw, elec­tric hand sander, sand­pa­per, lighter, di­a­mond sharp­en­ing stone, belt sander, grinder, and Dremel tool can all be used to cus­tom­ize any knife, ma­chete, axe, or tom­a­hawk and make it truly yours, cre­at­ing an orig­i­nal. Make some­thing good—even bet­ter!

The author had an 18-inch On­tario Ma­chete fit­ted with cus­tom Mi­carta han­dles and a convex edge. The black coat­ing was also re­moved and a new sheath was made for this time-tested work­horse of a tool.

This Tra­mon­tina ma­chete has a new edge and blade shape. It started life out as a 14-inch bolo ma­chete, and was turned into a golok, with a more com­fort­able han­dle. Here is the pat­tern that was cut into the new golok tip shape from a stock Tra­mon­tina...

Mora Knives are ar­guably the most cus­tomized knives and sheaths to­day. This Mora Ba­sic 511 had the guard cut off with a small saw and the bot­tom fin­ger guard sanded down to ac­com­mo­date chest-lever grips more com­fort­ably. The author added a 90-de­gree...

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