American Survival Guide - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - By Dana Ben­ner

Res­cue hid­den trea­sures hid­ing un­der that rusty patina.

Some peo­ple like old firearms; some like old ve­hi­cles. I like old tools, es­pe­cially old bladed tools. I’m not a “bright and shiny” kind of guy. As an out­doorsper­son and his­to­rian, I like things that tell a story. Tools do just that.

Among most in­dige­nous peo­ple, it is be­lieved that a tool holds the spirit of the per­son who ei­ther made it or used it. Be­liev­ing that, when I pick up an old axe or knife, I feel that spirit and won­der about the sto­ries the tool could tell.

Where I live, I am known for sharp­en­ing bladed tools. I also work to re­store ne­glected blades, bring­ing them back to life. I am re­ally fond of car­bon-steel blades and ad­mit­tedly do not re­ally like stain­less steel. Tools made from car­bon steel are tools of his­tory; they hold an edge and will last for­ever ... if they are taken care of.

If there is a draw­back to car­bon steel it is that it rusts. The good news is that with a lit­tle work, in most cases, car­bon-steel tools and blades can be brought back to “life.”

Re­cently, a good friend brought me a knife and asked if I could do some­thing with it. It was in rough shape and badly rusted. It was so bad, in fact, that I al­most didn’t take it on. Then, I heard the story be­hind the blade: My friend’s brother car­ried this knife in Viet­nam. To some, this knife would have been just an­other badly rusted blade, but for my friend (and for me), it was some­thing spe­cial. It was a part of his­tory; his fam­ily’s his­tory. Be­ing a vet­eran my­self, I felt this knife de­served to be given what­ever at­ten­tion I could give it.


I don’t pur­posely go out look­ing for rusty tools. Most of the time, they come to me. I don’t col­lect them, I use them, pre­fer­ring to use an older tool that is in good shape than some of the newer ones avail­able. De­spite the fact that some of them have been ne­glected, there is a rea­son they have been around so long: They were made to last. There are other peo­ple out there who feel the same way I do,

judg­ing by the num­ber of knives peo­ple bring to me to sharpen.

When it comes to find­ing th­ese tools, it is some­times just a mat­ter of keep­ing your eyes open. For ex­am­ple, while hunt­ing, I of­ten come across old, aban­doned shacks, barns and sheds. There usu­ally isn’t much left to them, but I poke around in them just the same. You just never know what you will find. Peo­ple al­ways leave stuff be­hind. I have ac­tu­ally found a few knives this way, al­though ad­mit­tedly, most of the stuff I find is be­yond re­pair or use.

Check out yard sales. Stacked in the back some­where—be­hind the baby clothes and grandma’s china—you’ll usu­ally find the “junk.” A friend of mine is no­to­ri­ous for just buy­ing those boxes of rusty stuff out­right and then go­ing through it when he gets home. I like to take my time and look. The last thing I need is an­other box of rusty screws and bro­ken hinges. If I don’t need it, I don’t buy it (un­less it is some­thing that screams out to me).

While flea mar­kets are good places to find th­ese “trea­sures,” I stay away from them. Any­thing “old” is marked as an an­tique at a typ­i­cal flea mar­ket, and once that is done, you’ll prob­a­bly end up pay­ing more than it is worth. Un­less you are a col­lec­tor, flea mar­kets are not al­ways cost ef­fec­tive. Re­mem­ber, when I pur­chase a tool, I in­tend to use it.

Check with your own fam­ily. Af­ter my par­ents died, I had the task of clean­ing out their home of more than 50 years. Buried deep in the re­cesses of the garage, among the as­sorted pieces of scrap metal and cans of old bolts, I found a few items I could use. One was a Du­mas ma­chete made in France that dated back to at least the Viet­nam War era or even be­fore (they were used in World War II as well).

The bot­tom line: Keep your eyes open, and don’t over­look the ob­vi­ous.


When I re­store old car­bon-steel tools, I don’t use chem­i­cals. Oh, there are chem­i­cals out there that will eat through rust, but I don’t use them. Why? They would cer­tainly make my job eas­ier, but sim­ply put, those chem­i­cals will also eat away at the very things that give the tools char­ac­ter—things such as blood and sweat that, over time, leave their marks in the metal. Just ask some­one who re­stores old firearms. They call it “patina.”

Then there is hon­or­ing the “spirit” of the tool. Some of th­ese tools are as old as I am; per­haps even older. If they could talk, what kinds of sto­ries do you think they could tell? My job is not to elim­i­nate their past, but in­stead, to con­tinue their story. I don’t try to re­move or fix the nicks in the blades, be­cause they are part of the story.

The equip­ment I use is very sim­ple: some 0000 steel wool, steel scrub­bing pads, ex­tra-fine sand­pa­per, a sharp­en­ing de­vice of some kind and a great deal of el­bow grease. That’s it.



Be­fore you get to work—and be­lieve me, it is work—you have to de­cide what you in­tend to do with the re­stored tool. Is your goal to re­store it to its orig­i­nal glory; to make it look like new? Are you plan­ning to re­store it just enough to use it, leav­ing some of that age and char­ac­ter and re­mem­ber­ing what I said about the “spirit”? Do you plan on clean­ing it enough for dis­play pur­poses? All th­ese con­sid­er­a­tions need to be de­cided be­fore you get started, be­cause the process is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent for each one.

To learn more about true restora­tion, I made a trip to Key West, Florida, to visit with friend Corey Mal­com, the head ar­chae­ol­o­gist at the Mel Fisher Mar­itime Mu­seum. Corey took me on a tour so I could see the work a true mu­seum-qual­ity restora­tion en­tails. The process is long and painstak­ing, but you have to re­mem­ber that the goal is to try to pre­serve bits and pieces of his­tory. Af­ter leav­ing the mu­seum, I re­al­ized that what I am do­ing, al­though it is time con­sum­ing, is noth­ing com­pared to the work be­ing done there.

Most of the time, my goal is to re­store the tool back to a point at which it can again be used safely. No mat­ter what type of restora­tion you plan on do­ing, be­fore you start, you need to know what you are work­ing with—and that means a care­ful in­spec­tion of the item. Whether it is an axe head, knife or a shovel, you need to make sure it is worth the ef­fort. Is the rust just sur­face rust, or does it go much deeper? Axe and maul heads are thick enough to be res­cued, no mat­ter how deep the rust goes, but thin­ner blades, such as knives, shov­els, hoes, chis­els and sim­i­lar tools, are a dif­fer­ent mat­ter.

In some cases, the item is too far gone and can­not be safely re­stored to a us­able con­di­tion. Maybe it can be cleaned up enough to be dis­played as a wall dec­o­ra­tion, but more than likely, it will need to go to the scrap pile. In the case of that Viet­nam com­bat knife, I was at least go­ing to bring it back enough so it could be dis­played if I couldn’t make it us­able again.

The steps I took with the blade my friend asked me to work on are the same steps I take with any project.


I did see that there was still hope for this par­tic­u­lar blade. To learn more about the knife, I first took a small piece of ex­tra-fine sand­pa­per and re­moved the rust un­til I could see the blade mark­ings, which are usu­ally found near the hilt. Care­fully re­mov­ing the rust, and with­out dig­ging into the good metal, I found the fol­low­ing mark­ings: “US Camil­lus NY.”

With that in­for­ma­tion in hand, I did some re­search and found that this knife is a Mark 2 and was pro­duced for the mil­i­tary from 1962 to 1974 (the “NY” mark­ing was dropped in 1974). This same knife de­sign was car­ried by U. S. forces in World War II and were marked with “USN” or “USMC,” which in­di­cated that this knife was a Viet­nam-era blade.

The blade had some nicks, but I could work around that. I have no idea how they got there, but that did not mat­ter to me. They are part of the blade’s story, so they would stay.

Us­ing the sand­pa­per, I be­gan to slowly re­move the rust, just enough to ex­pose the steel be­neath. No mat­ter how fine the sand­pa­per, you will leave marks in the metal, so you need to use it spar­ingly. When work­ing with axe and maul heads, while I still use the ex­tra-fine sand­pa­per, I am not as con­cerned about leav­ing marks. My goal is to re­move the rust and get the tool down to bare metal.

At this point, you must de­cide how to pro­ceed. If you are go­ing to put the blade on dis­play in its rugged state, you can stop right here. If you plan to use the knife or tool, fin­ish re­mov­ing the rust so you can move to edge care and sharp­en­ing.

When it comes to knives (es­pe­cially the knife I was work­ing on), I put the sand­pa­per away and move on to the steel wool and steel pads. Us­ing th­ese, I re­move more of the rust, all in an ef­fort to re­veal the en­tire blade. This is a long process and can be­come ar­du­ous if you are restor­ing a knife that has saw teeth, ser­ra­tions or other un­usual fea­tures.

Once the blade is as clean as you want or can get it, it’s time to work on the edge. If a blade is to be brought back to a use­able state, it has to be able to keep an edge. Just be­cause it has some nicks doesn’t mean it is a non­func­tional blade, but there could be other dam­age, such as pit­ting. If a se­ri­ous sit­u­a­tion is hid­den un­der the sur­face rust, you will not know if it will take an edge un­til you try to sharpen it.

Dur­ing the sharp­en­ing process, I use dif­fer­ent de­vices, some­times even in­clud­ing mo­tor­ized sharp­en­ers, de­pend­ing on the blade that is be­ing sharp­ened and its con­di­tion. When it comes to knives, I pre­fer to use a good, old sharp­en­ing stone. The start­ing grit or coarse­ness is de­ter­mined by the con­di­tion of the edge as I start and, as it comes back, I ad­just to stones that are pro­gres­sively less coarse un­til I have the edge where I want it.

When it is all done, I coat the blade with a thin layer of gun oil be­cause, af­ter all this work, I don’t want the rust to come back. Just as with firearms, a lit­tle oil goes a long way. There is no need to overdo it.

There is some­thing to be said about older tools, es­pe­cially the bladed im­ple­ments that were used in the past. Their car­bon-steel blades were made to last. Many of them, es­pe­cially those that re­ceived proper care, are still in use to­day. Not only did they work, they also formed a part of our his­tory and de­serve to be saved, hon­ored and kept in ser­vice.

Putting an edge on this old draw knife didn’t re­move any of the char­ac­ter from the blade.

Left: It was amaz­ing to see what the restora­tion ex­perts at the Mel Fisher Mar­itime Mu­seum were able to res­cue from the ocean depths and rav­ages of time.

Be­low, right: Th­ese ship­board ar­ti­facts were brought up from the ocean floor and were be­ing pre­pared for restora­tion at the Mel Fisher Mar­itime Mu­seum in Key West, Florida.

Above, left: One of the more sat­is­fy­ing parts of re­con­di­tion­ing an old knife is us­ing a whet­stone to put an edge on it, as the au­thor does here with his EDC Swiss Army knife.

Left: Later in the process, the au­thor uses a steel scrub pad to re­move even more rust from the com­bat knife’s blade. The pad does less dam­age to the blade than sand­pa­per.

Above, right: The au­thor care­fully uses fine sand­pa­per to lightly take the rust off the blade of a com­bat knife.

Top right: The au­thor puts the fi­nal touches on the edge of a “saved” shovel.

Bot­tom right: The au­thor puts the edge on a Viet­nam-era French ma­chete found in his fa­ther’s garage.

Far left, bot­tom: Af­ter re­mov­ing the rust and other signs of age, the au­thor is fi­nally ready to take the fi­nal step in putting an edge back on the blade.

Near left: The com­bat knife looks quite a bit bet­ter af­ter the au­thor fin­ished his work. It is us­able again, but it also re­tains some of its orig­i­nal char­ac­ter.

Far left, top: This is an ex­am­ple of the type of build­ing in which the au­thor has had suc­cess find­ing old tools and knives.

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