WORKING WITH THE “KEPHART TRIO”
Get the most out of your ax/knife/saw combo.
Survival tools, in my opinion, are tools that most avid outdoorsmen carry on excursions as part of their camping gear and survival kits or in their bug-out bags. Historically, knives, saws, hatchets, tomahawks and axes have taken on the bulk of the work in these situations.
While there is some functional crossover, each has its strengths, and all come with a certain degree of risk for injury. As with all tools, understanding the proper use and techniques for the task at hand will make your experience both productive and safe.
Above all, remember that a sharper-edged tool is a safer-edged tool. Dull blades require more force to cut, and excessive force leads to accidents and injuries.
Here, we’ll get into the basics of each of the three tools often referred to as the “Nessmuk” or “Kephart Trio,” which is a tool system used to perform camp crafts and enhance wilderness living, rather than a one-tool-to-do-all scenario.
Safety and success are all in the grip, and there are several common and effective techniques for getting the most out of your knife.
Forehand Grip. The forehand grip is, by far, the most common way of holding and using a knife. Hold the handle in a firm, fist-type grip with your pinky toward the butt of the handle and the edge facing away from you. Cutting heavy cordage, tree roots, making fuzz sticks or sharpening a point on the end of a stick can all be done with this grip.
Whittling wood or making fuzz sticks for a
fire with this grip is very efficient. Be sure to keep your arm locked, and use your whole body in a slow, smooth motion while applying constant pressure. This will help keep fuzz sticks nice and even.
On the safety side of things, keeping your elbow in a locked position will save you, in the long run, from unnecessary jarring of that joint, which can lead to injuries such as tennis elbow. Avoid placing your thumb on the spine while whittling, because this will put uneven pressure on the project and give you less-than-desirable fuzz sticks. This is definitely a task for which practice makes perfect.
Be careful when following through on your cutting motion, especially when cutting something that provides a bit more resistance than normal or expected.
Chest Lever Grip. When employing the chest lever grip, the cutting edge is actually facing the knuckles of the hand, and the thumb rests on the flat of the blade or top of the handle scales for support. Bend your elbow and position your knife hand across your chest with the spine facing the chest and the edge facing out.
Bring the project hand up to meet the cutting edge. The cut is accomplished by using your shoulders and back muscles with a chest-out motion, pulling your bent arms away from each other. This makes for a powerful and controlled cut. This position is unique, because it can also be used for fine tip work on a spear or similar sharp stick when combined with the push cut.
The advantage of this grip is that you can have the blade at chest level right under your eyes for very controlled cuts. Most of all, it is a very safe grip, because the knife is not flailing around when you follow through.
Batoning. Using a baton in conjunction with a knife is a very effective way of getting heavy work done with a small tool. Limbing small trees and splitting wrist-thick pieces of wood can easily be done with the help of a stout baton.
To split a piece of wood lengthwise, simply stand the piece of wood on end and use your “off” hand to place the knife edge on the end of the wood. With the other hand, use a stout stick to hammer the spine of the knife blade into the wood. As the knife sinks in, continue hammering the top of the blade until the wood is cleanly split.
Unless the wood is relatively soft, never twist the knife while it’s in the wood, or you could damage the knife. Be aware of any rocks or gravel in the path of the knife that could damage the cutting edge.
When batoning in a cross-grain fashion, make sure to baton the spine directly over the wood to ensure the best possible energy transfer and lessen the stress on the knife, as well as the shock on the hand supporting the knife handle. It is a good idea to baton at angles as if you were cutting with an ax, which will create a V-shaped notch, weakening the wood enough to break it. This will save time and energy and protect your knife from unnecessary hard use.
SAFETY AND SUCCESS ARE ALL IN THE GRIP, AND THERE ARE SEVERAL COMMON AND EFFECTIVE TECHNIQUES FOR GETTING THE MOST OUT OF YOUR KNIFE.
I will use the term, “ax,” to also represent a hatchet/tomahawk. This section will deal with processing downed wood, because this is what you’ll be cutting most often.
Chopping. Regardless of the task, when chopping, back up your work by putting the area to be cut on another piece of wood. This will give you the best energy transfer and ensure your bit doesn’t get buried in the ground ... or worse—bone! Chopping a small log that is on the ground in a horizontal position should be done from a kneeling or sitting position. The forearm and ax handle should both be kept parallel at the moment of impact and thereafter. This is known as the “parallel plane.” If the
hand and forearm(s) are kept above the point of impact, it causes the bit to continue in the path back toward you. The longer the handle, the safer the tool is to use.
Chop the log with alternating angled strokes to form a V-shaped cut. Make the starting width of the V cut approximately the same distance as the diameter of the log. If at all possible, roll the log over after chopping about halfway through for more-efficient cutting.
Another option for chopping through a log is to make four separate and parallel angled chops in one direction and then make four chops at the opposite angle that overlap the first four, thus chipping out the first four cuts. Another technique is to chop halfway through the log from one side, move to the opposite side of the log and resume chopping from that side. Typically, this is meant for larger-diameter wood and longer-handled axes.
One-handed chopping with a short handle means getting up close and personal with the wood, hovering over it and still keeping the parallel plane. Chopping while using two hands with a 19-inch-or-longer handle is the best way
to control the bit and get more power out of a lighter tool. Accuracy counts much more than a hard, blundering chop. Practice is paramount for using an ax accurately and safely!
Limbing. This task is best done on a downed tree while standing on the opposite side of the trunk from the branches being cut, using the trunk as a protector log. Chop the branches close to the trunk of the tree and in the direction of growth.
Splitting. The disadvantage of a lighter tomahawk is that it lacks the weight needed for splitting wood. In the conventional way of using an ax or hatchet, the log is placed vertically on a chopping block and then split using the tool’s weight and the wedge shape of the head. There are other ways, however. Selecting wood for making a fire is a matter of using your brain and not choosing wood that’s too thick. Anything thicker than wrist/bicep thickness can be used as larger fuel.
Not everyone is accurate when swinging chopping tools. Batoning with an ax allows the user to create precise, intentional splits in wood rather than a potentially dangerous chop.
An easy way to split wood with an ax is by holding the handle and the wood parallel, placing the ax bit at the top end of the small log and raising the two up about a foot. Then, bring them both down together on a chopping block. This will drive the bit into the wood and create a split. Just pull the handle and wood apart in opposite directions (like shears) to finish the split. This is the safest way to split small-diameter wood. Do not attempt to chop into the top of the log first—this is a common thing people try to do when first using this method. Simply let the momentum of the ax bit do the work. Naturally, softer wood will be easier to split than harder, knotted-up wood, so be patient and practice.
Fine work with an ax should be limited to smaller splits for kindling. Making fuzz sticks for fire with an ax is a little more advanced. To think otherwise is fooling yourself. So, use a small knife for anything requiring real craftsmanship.
REGARDLESS OF THE TASK, WHEN CHOPPING, BACK UP YOUR WORK BY PUTTING THE AREA TO BE CUT ON ANOTHER PIECE OF WOOD. THIS WILL GIVE YOU THE BEST ENERGY TRANSFER AND ENSURE YOUR BIT DOESN’T GET BURIED IN THE GROUND ... OR WORSE—BONE!
Used correctly, a saw will easily outcut an ax or large chopping blade. A saw will not slice
bread, split or chop wood, blaze a trail or skin game. Yet, its attributes are just as productive and useful. When using a large chopping tool, it’s possible to have a few bad swings that produce no results (other than wasting energy or dinging the edge). However, with a saw, as long as the blade is in the cut, every pull counts, and there is less wasted motion and risk of injury.
To use a saw correctly is to use a saw ... safely! When attempting to cut a downed log, first make sure it isn’t too large for the saw’s blade. When making the initial cut with the saw, place the blade where you want to make the cut and cross your free hand over the saw and grip the log. This might seem a little awkward at first, but if the saw blade skips out while establishing the cut, it will only rub against your free hand’s inner forearm with the spine. Most people will place their free hand near the saw blade when they are making the initial cut. If the saw blade skips around while trying to establish itself in the log, it will leave the most uneven gash on the top of the knuckles of your free hand. I have seen more cuts from saw teeth skipping around and landing on the hand than from knives.
Use the cross-arm method until the spine of the saw blade is deep in the wood; then, adjust to the more-natural comfortable grip with the free hand. Alternatively, begin sawing with two hands if the log is immobile. We want the saw to shred through wood expeditiously, but getting cut in the process is counterproductive. Speed is of the essence, but safety is paramount.
Cutting a branch from a standing tree can be done by holding the branch with the free hand and making a cut through the bark on the underside first. Then, cut the top of the
branch above the first cut, and the branch will break cleanly without the bark stripping off unevenly and unnecessarily damaging the tree.
When sawing small branches or trees on the ground, use the knee method. Simply put your weak-side knee on the ground and place the wood in the bend of your strong side knee (your right knee if sawing right-handedly). This will help secure the wood, along with the free hand holding the other end. Saw the wood on the outboard side of the bent knee.
Compared to swinging a chopping tool, using a saw offers much more control and is safer. Cutting overhead with a saw is safer than with a chopper. I read in a woodcraft book that there are no minor injuries with a hatchet or ax. This is true, so for cutting branches up high, use a saw!
When out practicing your bushcraft and camp-making skills, remember that the basics are the most important aspect of proper tool use. No matter what we do, the basics always come back to us, so keep them simple and precise ... and make sure you practice.
A SAW WILL NOT SLICE BREAD, SPLIT OR CHOP WOOD, BLAZE A TRAIL OR SKIN GAME. YET, ITS ATTRIBUTES ARE JUST AS PRODUCTIVE AND USEFUL.
Below: The forehand grip is also used for making fuzz sticks. The author recommends keeping the thumb off the spine, because this is where most people go wrong when making fuzz sticks for a fire.
Right: Scandinavians normally use three tools for their camps: a puukko, bowsaw and ax. These three Finnish cutting tools are common in North America as well.
A chest-lever grip is a safe way to cut with power. For a powerful or smooth cut, keep your elbows bent; pull back with the shoulders. Note that the knife is sideways, facing away from the body.
A chest-lever grip is also very good for controlled, fine detailed work. The author prefers this grip for both powerful cuts and light carving.
The author is using a forehand grip to cut a wedge from hardwood. This is a powerful and safe grip. All cuts should always be away from yourself and other people.
Near left: Splitting long or thick wood can be done by using a hammer stick (baton) to drive the head deeper into the split in the wood. It is safer and more controlled than chopping through. The position might seem a little awkward at first, but it is easier than using a heavier, cumbersome ax.Far left: When chopping logs, stand behind the log with your legs shoulder width apart, and keep the parallel plane with the cutting bit. Make the initial cut as wide as the log’s diameter.
Above: Working on an incline, the larger ax is used while the author is in a sitting position. Notice that the large V cut is about the same width as the diameter of the tree.
Below: The author is using a short-handled ax (tomahawk) one-handed from a kneeling position. This is a safe position, because he is also using a protector log in front of him.
The safest way to split small-diameter logs is in a kneeling position. After driving the head into the log, pull the handle away from the log perpendicular to the cut to split it apart.
This is an example of a trio the author has used for years: a TOPS C.U.B. knife, Corona 10-inch folding saw and an H&B Forge Large Camp Ax.
Far left: The author is using the knee method to saw smaller-diameter wood with a folding saw in a safe and controlled manner. He is gripping the saw toward the back of the handle for added leverage.Near left: A large folding saw can do a lot of work—safely. This 10-inch Corona Razor Tooth Saw made quick work of these cuts.
Right: Safely hold the wood on the other side of the saw blade to protect your hand from cuts if the saw skips out. Note that the small branch below the cut is resting on a rock to keep the wood stable while it is being cut.
Reach through frame or bow saws to hold the piece of wood until the blade’s spine is below the surface. This protects the hand that is stabilizing the wood from cuts if the saw skips out.