BEYOND SIMPLE BEAUTY
THE FINNISH PUUKKO IS A TOOL TO BEHOLD
If you played word association, you may not connect elegant and workhorse. Until now. Take a look into Finnish culture and heritage with a look at the puukko. BY REUBEN BOLIEU
In the vein of honor and tradition, the puukko has deep roots in Finnish culture. In Nordic countries, the puukko is an “everyday” knife that is used for everything from hunting, fishing, and garden work to opening boxes in warehouses. Getting one’s first puukko is considered, in Finland, the symbol of coming of age for both boys and girls and is a great honor.
Men’s and women’s puukkos do not significantly differ from one another. The main differences are that women’s puukkos, which are often shorter, have decorated sheaths and are better suited for working with food. Both boy and girl scouts consider the puukko their scouting symbol, as well as a handy tool.
The basic components of a puukko are a hilt and blade, along with a sheath that can be attached to one’s belt. The traditional length of the puukko blade is about the same as the width of one’s palm and has a single curving edge and flat back. The flatness allows the user to place his or her thumb or other hand on it to concentrate force. Some puukko designs have a slightly curved, upward or downward point, depending on what purpose the knife serves, with a relatively short blade— approximately the same length as the handle. Most puukkos have a slight shoulder but no choil, since the point where the edge ends and the handle begins is also the point where the most force can be applied, as well as the most control. A puukko often has no guard to prevent the hand from slipping onto the edge. However, this is
“GETTING ONE’S FIRST PUUKKO IS CONSIDERED, IN FINLAND, THE SYMBOL OF COMING OF AGE FOR BOTH BOYS AND GIRLS AND IS A GREAT HONOR.”
of no consequence as a puukko is primarily considered a cutting and slicing tool, not a stabbing weapon. However, in cases where the knife and the hand are expected to get wet, like gutting fish or game, some puukkos have finger grooves carved into the handle.
Because I am a believer in elegant simplicity while spending time in the field, I have been a fan of the puukko for some time. So I was very excited to take two puukko’s out for some serious play time recently.
The Perfect Camp Mate
I recently obtained a Marttiini Arctic Bush Knife model, with beautiful grained, curly birch wood, and carbon steel. In Finland, this knife is known as Kiehinen, but it’s a little difficult to pronounce. Made in the traditional stick-tang style, the knife has a 3.5inch blade, which is plenty enough for me. I actually prefer a blade under 4-inches long, especially when I have a saw or devoted chopper. The handle on any puukko is always the center point when it comes to beauty and comfort. Saying that a puukko is comfortable would be redundant, yet at the same time, an understatement. In winter, the
puukko fits well in gloved hands and remains easy to deploy with wool mittens or leather work gloves. Although puukko knives all have a deep pocket carry sheath, there’s just exactly the right amount left out, allowing a good purchase of the knife for drawing. In my winter camp, the Arctic Bush Knife (ABK) was put to work carving a set of wooden wedges for splitting logs. I used dry maple for this task, which was a herculean task for a knife. Hardwood wedges are usually made with an axe and then fine-tuned with a knife, but not here. The grip was oval and tapered to a fatter butt, which was designed to stay in your hand during hard cutting tasks. The super sharp Scandinavian edge sheered through with authority, despite the knots it encountered. I believe any other knife I used would have given me hot spots if there was even a hint of finger guard present, but not on this puukko.
Using the knife in a chest-lever grip was uber comfortable for fine carving. I wanted to tackle this task while the knife was still sharp, before moving onto the more knife-suitable camp craft, like making stakes out of beech and maple wood. Naturally, it went off without a hitch. When it was time for cooking a Scandinavian-style lunch, I used the ABK to split a stick with a baton about 7 inches down on one end. I did this by laying the knife parallel on the broomstick-thick piece of wood and using a baton to split it, rather than the conventional way people baton. This technique is better suited for stick-tang knives, as it puts less stress on their blade and tang.
After the split, I carved four small pieces of wood to stick through the fish and sort of suspend them in the split I initially created. Before leaving camp, I usually try to turn out about six good fuzz-sticks for the next fire—sort of an early set-up. The ABK excels at this task, as much as any Scandi blade would.
Wood Jewel knives are made in the small town of Kolari, Finland. Kolari is in the far north of Finland, north of the Arctic Circle, and well into Finnish Lapland. The knives reflect the Sami styles
“THE TRADITIONAL LENGTH OF THE PUUKKO BLADE IS ABOUT THE SAME AS THE WIDTH OF ONE’S PALM AND HAS A SINGLE CURVING EDGE AND FLAT BACK.”
and traditions. They are designed by Kauko Raatiniemi, and the handles are assembled from multiple pieces of reindeer antler and curly birch. The selection of wood grain seems unusually nice. The sheaths are also in the Sami tradition, done in the deep pouch style that hangs from a twisted thong. Except as noted, the blades are 0.8% high carbon steel, hardened to about 59 on the Rockwell scale.
Definitely a very “traditional looking” Scandinavian puukko knife, the Carving Knife is a puukko with a blade about 3-inches long, ¾-inch wide and 0.130-inch thick. Again, the 4 ½-inch handle is assembled from curly birch and antler with fiber spacers. While it’s called a carving knife, the blade shape is well-suited as an all-around knife. I feel at home using a 3-inch-long blade due to the extra control, and I believe the blade length keeps the tasks people do a little more on par with the knife’s designated function. I went to work making a log-cabinstyle fire, a favorite in Scandinavia because it puts the fuel and tinder above the cold, frozen ground. There is a reason this knife is called the Carving knife—it has an exceptionally high grind for the blade size, making it finer. It bit into maple and oak just as easily as it did softer poplar and witch hazel, as well as carved and fuzzed wood for fires and cooking implements—easily. I was a little wary at first, because it looks like something that should be in a museum and not out in the snowy wilderness and muddy camp from the fire melting everything around me. But in fact, this is what the knife was designed to do, take on Old Man Winter. It was just as much a tool as any axe or pocket knife, just with more style and class!
I worried about the comfort in a chest-lever grip because there was a large, bulbous protrusion at the butt, acting as both a guard from the hand slipping back off the handle and a secure grip for unsheathing, but I was satisfied with the results. This piece of reindeer antler looked primal, yet beautiful at the same time.
The belly of puukko knives, due to their straight spine, have great results on food, skinning and making very curly feather sticks. I made sure to give the Carving knife a solid “winter camp kitchen” test by slicing meat and veggies every few days. I am pleased to say that I have had no need to sharpen or oil the blades until this very day.
The Finnish puukko knife truly is their main tool in a hunting camp, bushcraft, or kitchen setting. It’s no wonder they feel lost without their puukko. I read this quote from Finland: “A knifeless man is a lifeless man…” It’s an old Scandinavian proverb. In all my travels, I have found that to be a true statement. For straight comfort, functionality and pleasing aesthetics, it is hard to beat a Finnish puukko. KI
“‘A KNIFELESS MAN IS A LIFELESS MAN...’ - OLD SCANDINAVIAN PROVERB.”
Top: Scandinavian grind on a forged blade with brass bolster—the iconic blade grind for bushcrafters with a straight spine and a little bit of belly.
Curly birch is often used in Finland for its lightness and beauty. This is a stick-tang, where the blade tang (end) goes about ¾ into the wood.
Middle: The Arctic Bush Knife made two fish cooking sticks by carving sharp stakes to pin the fish into the split and shaved wood. This will allow the fish to be rotated over coals.
Top: Fine tuning a wooden wedge, the author uses the chest-lever grip for fine and hard cutting tasks.
Bottom:the gradual taper of the Arctic Bush Knife handle keeps it in the hand with wool winter gloves. The oval cross-section is a standard on Finnish puukkos.
Top: The butt of the Carving knife features a piece of reindeer antler for the more classic puukko knife. It also aids in taking the knife out of the sheath easily. Middle: Many fires were prepped with the Carving knife. The high Scandinavian grind proved why it is the preferred grind of bushcrafters and wood carvers around the world.
Bottom: The traditional Finnish leather sheath, with a curved horn bottom, helps the user grip the sheath better when taking the knife out. You can expect beauty and function from just about everything made in Finland.
Upper Left: Traditional leather puukko sheaths are decorative and tell a story, while being functional. They all feature a deep pocket carry style, so as to not lose their knives in the snow.
Top Right: Behind the scenes at Marttiini Knives. The tangs on Finnish puukkos are long. The handles are drilled, epoxy fills the inside, and the tang is inserted, then left to cure, before the final handle shaping.
Bottom: Scandinavians normally use three tools for their camps, a puukko, saw and axe. These three are Finnish cutting tools that are common in North America as well.