Bark River Knife and Tool Bushcrafter Review
by: Kevin Estela
Founder and Head Instructor of Estela Wilderness Education
Certain knives speak to generations. If you grew up in the 80’s, you knew the hollow-handle variety made popular by a muscle-bound action hero. If you grew up in the 90’s, you probably don’t need “proof” of my opening statement but you know what kind of STEEL I’m talking about. In the 2000’s and today, there seem to be many knives sold as “bushcraft” style. Perhaps the most famous of these is Ray Mears’s Woodlore made by Alan Wood or SWC of England. Woodlore knives have devoted followers and are prized for their simplicity in design, beautiful hardwood handles and polished “Scandi” style short flat grind. As with any design over time, improvements can be made. Newer steels and improved technology can do nothing but enhance original specs. Thus is the case with the new Bark River Knife and Tool Bushcrafter. An improved edge, tougher steel and a more durable handle are just three of the improvements made to an already fantastic design.
Background and Credibility:
I am a Survival Instructor who teaches the gambit of skills from primitive through traditional to modern. I practice and disseminate many skills and information from various cultures and enjoy the pastime of getting outdoors. I am not a military SERE instructor nor do I try to inflate my resume’ to make me appear as something I am not. Truth is, I am a lifelong outdoorsman, realist and hobbyist bushcrafter with knowledge, ability and experience that casts no doubt to my credibility in evaluating knives and gear. I also practice “bushcraft” whenever I can. I may have modern gear making the fight with Mother Nature easier but, hell, I am totally fine sleeping in the cab of my truck if it is too nasty to pitch a tent near a fishing spot. While I can easily “smooth” it with luxury, I do enjoy and prefer roughing it outdoors and doing more with less. The pastime or lifestyle of bushcraft follows this simple philosophy. Live with nature as opposed to being a Man vs. Wild. I have learned to use natural materials in lieu of synthetics, make tools with what I have around (as carrying gear for every contingency is impossible and live life outdoors slowly and deliberately. I say “slowly” as this is a clear distinction between the SERE types and the primitive/bushcraft styles of survival. The SERE type can’t stop to admire nature the way a civilian can. That is a huge distinction between military survival and bushcraft. In bushcraft, there is no sense of urgency and I’m not evading, avoiding detection and dispatching enemies. About as close as I will get to avoiding detection in bushcraft is leaving no trace as in any outdoor pursuit.
The Bushcraft Knife:
The knife of the bushcrafter must reflect its intended purpose. Sure, any knife can be stretched beyond its intended purpose much like a computer can be used as a hammer. Then again, the knife of the bushcrafter is more likely to be a planned decision since there is no urgency as mentioned previously. A bushcrafter’s knife will likely be purpose driven. In determining purpose, you look at the cutting tasks most commonly associated with the pastime. These include carving, slicing, light batoning, gutting/game prep and tip “drilling.” A bushcrafter would not be interested then in a knife whose attributes don’t help advance his/her skill. A saw back ruins and limits the effectiveness of batons. A large pronounced guard may protect a hand from riding a blade in a thrust but makes choking up on the ricasso more difficult. A black painted-on finish creates drag where a finely finished satin edge is more efficient in eliminating drag. There are many blades pushed into service as bushcraft knives but they are not the same. A bushcraft knife meets the needs of the bushcrafter. If it doesn’t, it is merely a knife used by a bushcrafter.
My first real exposure to the gold standard of bushcraft knives came in 1995 when I purchased Ray Mear’s The Outdoor Survival Manual. In this book, a knife called “the Woodlore” was line drawn with a simple description. For years, I looked for a cheap copy, purchased some similar designs until I finally finished school, was hired as History Teacher and had more disposable income to buy a real woodlore (notice I didn’t say a lot of disposable income? I am a teacher after all)
My first Woodlore came from SWC in 2007 to my specs with a shortened 01 steel 4” blade and 4.25” handle. The handle material was Birdseye maple and it was razor sharp Scandi ground. I purchased this knife in 2007 and have used it off and on since then. Along the way, I purchased another from Adventure Sworn Knives. This one was also to the same specs but had a desert ironwood handle with red liners. These knives are works of art and they do exceptionally well for their intended purpose. Both of these knives batoned well and acted as wedges thanks to the edge geometry. They carved wood much like a carpenter’s plane thanks to their flat grind. The original Mear’s spec handle contour was also very comfortable in prolonged uses around the fire carving away at a stick until I was left with a bushy fluff stick or two or hundred. These knives were exactly like the original Woodlore just shortened to my preferred specs. Needless to say, I have a lot of experience behind them and can adequately judge other woodlore clones others by them.
Then, in 2012, I was introduced to a new kid on the block, the Bark River Knife and Tool Bushcrafter in 3V steel. Owner Mike Stewart and I talked about this knife when I visited the company in August 2011 and we discussed how it improved upon the original. With eager anticipation, I knew of the blade while I watched discussions about it unfold online. When I was finally sent one to test, I can admit I was more excited than in any other field test I’ve done for this company or any other. I knew this knife would be different and I was handling something that could potentially reshape the bushcraft industry.
The Upgraded Knife:
The BRKT Bushcrafter has many upgrades to the original design. Instead of 01 steel, the bushcrafter is crucible 3V steel. This steel is much more durable than 01 and even A2 steel. Additionally, the handle material is much more durable than any hardwood. The model I was sent came in black canvas micarta. Unlike my SWC in Birdseye maple, micarta would not shrink in colder months exposing a slight raised surface of the fastening bolts.
Another upgrade to the BRKT Bushcrafter is the shape of the blade. Both SWC and Adventure Sworn renditions were designed off of the original pattern that included a very pronounced spear point shape. This shape makes penetration easy but does not provide much belly for gutting fish or slicing. The BRKT has a slightly higher than center line tip and a much wider belly.
Also a noticeable difference on my particular model is the thumb notches on the spine. While not essential, it does help when assisting the tip through material by applying force to the spine with your thumb.
Easily the most noticeable difference to the BRKT Bushcrafter is the modified Scandi edge. Instead of a flat grind, the BRKT has a convex Scandi grind where there are no sharp shoulders on the flat of the blade and no secondary bevel (A.K.A. microbevel) as other designs may incorporate. The convex edge supports the carbides along the edge stronger than any other blade design and therefore is an improvement in strength over any flat grind, Scandi included.
The Testing Process:
I have never done a knife test with smoke and mirrors. My tests are done in the field and done a bit slower than others to collect more information and user feedback. This knife test is no exception. No basements were used to torture test it, no YouTube videos describing how well boxed up it came were posted and no knives stabbed in trees glamour shots were taken. My review is a collection of notes from activities performed with the BRKT Bushcrafter over a month long period.
In preparation for my stacked birch bark handle knife project, I took the BRKT Bushcrafter on a scavenger hunt and hike for white birch. I used it for harvesting what I needed and applied it to removing bark from dead and down birch. That process included tip scoring the outer bark and then retracing the score with the belly of the blade. The rounded pommel did not bite into my hand when I assisted the tip into the layers of bark to the inner bark. The BRKT Bushcrafter was also used to collect some cedar bark for an upcoming fire making seminar. I used the near 90 degree spine edge to fluff some off of a tree not far from the trail.
In creating a couple new leather sheaths on rainy days, I used the BRKT Bushcrafter on various pieces of leather ranging from 6 oz. to 10 oz. Leather can be very difficult to cut without a sharp knife and without the time to get out and hunt, leather provided a great substitute for field dressing. To truly test how fine the edge of the BRKT Bushcrafter is, I skived (thinning of leather with a blade) the leather of my firesteel loop to match the same thickness as my sheaths’ welts. I know it is boring sheath making talk so I’ll just say this; it cut leather like my dedicated leatherworking knives.
One additional task I tried this knife on was lace making. I drove the blade tip first into a log. I then used the fixed edge to cut the ¼” strips in a rounded piece of deerskin. I then tried it with a piece of leather. Both resulted in a usable leather lace.
No bushcrafting trip can exist on fuzz sticks alone so I sliced up some common snacks brought into the backwoods. Hard pepperoni and cheese were easily converted into bite-sized rounds and squares for sustenance. Green sticks were also stripped of their bark to make twist bread over my campfire. The satin finish of the BRKT Bushcrafter cleaned up nicely with only water. The only stubborn stain was quickly removed with a slurry of hardwood ash and water.
To satisfy the woodchucks out there, I decided to fell small saplings. This was done by bending the tree over and stressing the inner fibers of the wood. By placing a knife against these stressed fibers, the blade cut quickly and cleanly through the small tree. With these saplings, I proceeded to run the knife through a series of cutting tests based on frequent methods of using a bushcraft knife. I cut large shavings off of the saplings and then tried controlled thinner strips. I used the grip most commonly called the chest lever grip to power through the wood. I also tried the fine choked up cutting of a paring knife style grip to bevel the edges of the end of the wood. In each test/drill, the knife worked flawlessly and performed well.
In using this knife during extended cutting tasks, there were no hot spots that formed in my hand. This is essential in a bushcraft knife and something that separates this type of knife from a military-style blade. Unlike the military type with aggressive grips for fighting and blade retention, the bushcraft style is smoother to prevent hot spots from extended use. The handle contours fit my hand great and in lending it out to friends to try, all agreed it was comfortable to use. This knife worked well in every application I put it to.
It may be blasphemy to countless minions of Mears Woodlore followers but I think BRKT succeeded in improving on the Woodlore design. For years, the reason I mostly did not carry a scandi as my primary blade was the fact something better (Better defined by strength behind the carbides) was out there. The BRKT Bushcrafter satisfies my practical approach to carrying only the best. The handle feels practically the same, just as comfortable and not fatiguing, but is stabilized and harder than most natural materials. As far as sharpening is concerned, I used this knife. I repeat, I USED it. More than a few casual strops along a rubbing compound impregnated piece of leather was needed to bring this edge back to life. I had to resort to my full sharpening kit after making a substantial pile of wood near my backyard fire pit. I can’t believe many people when they say a knife requires only a couple strops on a diamond hone and that they also really used it hard. Something doesn’t line up in those stories.
In sum, the BRKT Bushcrafter is true to the original design in some respects but improved all around. The design pays homage and hints to the woodlore origins but utilizes the best technology to better equip the woodsman with a tool certain to outlast him. This knife alone won’t make you any more of a bushcrafter as the most expensive rifle won’t make you any more of a better hunter. It will be a faithful companion though and will certainly endure the rigorous use a true bushcraft knife is designed for. If lesser quality knives speak to a generation, this knife will speak to your generation and your kids’. As a traditionalist and a true fan of Ray Mears, I will always admire the original woodlore design but I will not hesitate to pick up this new and improved model the next time I venture out to experience the woods slowly and deliberately.