THE ART OF CUSTOMIZING
MAKE GOOD BLADES EVEN BETTER WITH SOME CRAFTY MODIFICATIONS
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.
THE MOD ANGLE
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)
“MODIFICATIONS ARE PURELY BASED ON USER NEEDS AND PRACTICALITY, RATHER THAN APPEARANCE.”
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!
MAKE IT BETTER
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 14-inch bolo machete. Any type of machete will normally have soft enough carbon steel, allowing for the same type of customizations.
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 spine with a file and the blade has a natural patina from slicing food, green wood and stirring coffee in camp.