Dick Eussen covers everything you need to know about knives for the campsite
While most bushmen are loath to leave home without their trusty pocket folding knife, basic camping cutlery and edged tools are largely ignored by campers.
A shame really, as we are gifted with more knives than ever, but the realities are that they are just a natural evolution of blade and handle styles that have evolved since the Stone Age. But every so often a ‘new’ knife stands out, something that manufacturers dream about because it means we buy it.
Many hunters use their hunting knives as camp kitchen tools. During a hunt, an old mate removed a set of boar tusks with a rusty, blunt PUMA Skinner knife. Back at camp, while preparing tea, he was cutting up vegetables with the same blade. It was still covered in pig blood and hair. I hate bad health habits in the bush. I tossed the stuff out, unfolded my kitchen knife pouch and finished the job. In in the background, he told me that he always used his hunting knife in the camp, had never been ill from eating food – and that he never bothered to clean it.
But it is best to have knives for specific jobs for meal prepping, as you not only need proper blades, but also a clean workplace, tools and utensils. Most of my bush, fishing and hunting trips involve eating barramundi, crustaceans, crabs, lobsters, cherabin and oysters. They are true bush tuckers, calling for purpose blades. The days of eating baked beans out of can are long gone as we now have ice boxes and bush fridges to keep food fresh and drinks cold.
Besides table cutlery, you will need the following knives – boner, chef, fillet and a bread knife. A cleaver is useful, as are game shears. There are many reasonable priced kitchen sets available that are ideal for the camp. Chef-style knives have a rigid, triangular blade with a slightly curved edge designed to chop or dice vegetables. Blade lengths of 7.5 to 10cm are ideal for mincing herbs and peeling but 15 to 20cm blades are best for vegetables. Longer 25 to 30cm blades, or a cleaver, are perfect for pumpkins, cabbages, and similar.
A boning knife has a fine pointed razor-sharp tip and a slender blade of about 15 to 20cm in length. Most of the work is done with the tip of the knife during the boning process. Slicing knives are used for cold meats and have a stiff, long narrow blade about 25cm long, designed to cut meat without dragging, but still flexible enough to bend when carving poultry or fish.
A carver knife is similar to a slicing knife, but it has a sharp tip and a thin stiff blade. It’s designed for hot, slippery meats, but I also use a Swibo 32cm blade carver for skinning large fish fillets. A butcher knife has a 20cm scimitar-like stiff blade and a sharp point for cutting meats. The initial cut is made with the point and the blade is then sliced through the meat. On top of that I have a couple of fish filleting knives in the knife pouch.
Serrated knives are used for cutting bread, damper, cakes, scones plus fruits and designed to cut without squashing soft fruits. Short-blades models have a tip sharp enough to pierce the soft skin of a tomato for commencing the cut. Blade lengths range from about 7.5 to 10cm. The serrated bread knife has a blade length of about 25 to 30cm and a blunt tip.
Purpose camping, hunting, fishing and survival knives are suitable and much stronger for rugged outdoor use. They come in sheaths that protect the blade, which makes storage and transport simple. I often use hunting, fishing and survival knives almost exclusively about our day camp, as it saves doubling up on carrying extra gear. They are also the strongest knives made and will last a lifetime.
Ensure that butcher and filleting knives have a comfortable non-slip grip and a base that prevents the hand from slipping onto the blade when cutting tough, slippery meats. The choice of steel is another consideration, though unless they are also used in the home kitchen, budget priced camp knives that see little use are okay.
Stainless steel is hard and does not sharpen easy for the novice, while carbon steel is much softer and easier to maintain an edge – but it will rust. The best method for protecting knife blades before long-term storage – including stainless steel blades – is by smearing a thin film of gun oil over them. It coagulates on metal, forming a semi-permanent film easily removed by washing. Do not store them in leather pouches or they will rust, even stainless-steel blades. Keep sharp knives away from other cutlery and wash them separately, not only for your own safety, but to protect the edges as contact with other metals blunts and chips edges, leaving unsightly and damaging gaps.
The quality of good knives is based on the price you pay for them. Some brand names are frightfully expensive and too prohibitive for camp use. Many knives – for hunting and fishing ‑ do double duty in the camp kitchen and plenty of campers do exactly that. Pack sharp knives on their own, either in purpose pouches with individual pockets, or wrap each knife a couple of turns into an old towel, add another and repeat, and so on. Wrap and tie off, to prevent the towel from unravelling when picked up.
Sharp knives are safe – only blunt blades slip because the blade won’t dig in. Even new knives are not sharp. The maker’s edge – which is on all new knives – must be honed before use. There are many excellent tools available on the market to sharpen knives. Some are easy to use and will keep blades tuned. At home, an electric sharpener, like the Nirey, does a good job and can be used in camp if you have a generator.
Generally, my camp sharpening is on a whetstone, available in several materials – carborundum, Arkansas, Washita, diamond, ceramic and coated abrasive. I use synthetic, both carborundum and Arkansas, a natural occurring stone that has exceptional abrasive qualities. If I have a really blunt blade, I hone it first on the carborundum and finish the edge on an Arkansas stone. Blades that are relatively sharp and require a tweak are honed on an Arkansas stone. Some stones have a coarse side and a fine side.
Use proper honing oil, though water, saliva and light machine oil is okay if nothing else is available, but they fail to float the metal filings cut from the blade during the honing process that in time clog the stone pores and prevents grinding.
When sharpening a knife, keep the blade at an angle of 25-degrees – the less the angle, the sharper the edge will be. Keeping the correct angle on a blade is not hard and with practice it becomes second nature. It’s recommended that chefs, paring and boning knives have a 30-degree angle, and butcher, filleting and carving knives a 15 to 25-degree angle. There are tools available – such as the Lansky Sharpener – that clamps the blade at the angle of choice.
When sharpening, push the blade at the chosen angle across the stone – as if cutting a thin slice from it. Do five strokes forward away from you on one side, turn the blade over and ‘slice’ five strokes towards you, remembering that you are ‘cutting’ a slice from the whetstone – and keep it at the right angle. Never drag the blade when you turn it over – always push or pull it. Always begin the stroke with the tip of the blade and guide it across the stone to the handle with a firm, slicing motion.
In most cases – depending on the surface quality of the stone – about 10 strokes does the job on each side. If not, you have a blunt blade or are not doing it right. If the blade is blunt and has unsightly gaps, hone it on the coarse side of a carborundum stone and grind the gaps away, or use a fine file before honing.
Honing and correct angles all sounds complicated, but it is a relatively straightforward chore easily learned by anyone. An electric Nirey Sharpener makes it simple and it’s a worthwhile addition. Always keep in mind that you are using a sharp instrument that cuts. Stones can slip. Secure them in a vice, or proper bracket. When in camp, place the stone on a rough surface like a hessian sack.
The butcher steel
Butcher steels are abrasive rods designed to straighten the blade and rid it of small gaps that appear in it after use – not to sharpen it. There are several types available, ranging from professional butcher to folding field steels for outdoor use. One thing to remember is when using steel, if the blade is dull, no amount of steeling will put a sharp edge on it. You must first sharpen the blade; the steel is only used to maintain the edge until it becomes too worn and blunt and needs honing.
As in honing, the blade must be kept at the same angle on the steel when stroking it. The stroke should be slow and deliberate. Don’t try and copy the local butcher ‑ while some do it right, most struggle for eight hours a day trying to keep the blade keen with the steel. Buy a steel with a smooth finish as there is no sense after honing the knife on a fine whetstone, you spoil it by stropping it on roughly surfaced steel.
The entire purpose of steeling is two-fold ‑ it applies a fine professional finishing edge on the blade and maintains and extends the life of the working edge. The rule is, buy a smooth steel, start with a sharp edge, and only stroke it lightly on the steel when it begins to lose its keenness.
Ceramic and diamond honing rods look like butcher steels and are used in a similar fashion. According to some pundits, they will sharpen your knives better than other methods. Again, it’s a matter of choice, as both rods are expensive and fragile.
Use it like a butcher’s steel ‑ hold the rod in one hand and point it away from you. Bring the knife edge along the blade starting with the rod tip at about a 20-degree angle with the edge facing towards you and draw it diagonally across the rod towards you in a continuous stroke.
At the end of the stroke, the point of the knife should be about halfway up the rod. Next, position the knife under the rod at the same angle and draw it towards you the same way as the first one. Repeat it until the edge is sharp. Always stroke slightly, much lighter in fact than on a whetstone as the rod, or butcher steel, require little pressure.