The Woodlore Knife Story
As told to Chris Clayton and published in the Bushcraft UK magazine circa 2005.
“I suppose I’ve always made certain knives that are multi-purpose and suitable for living off the land. Tastes change with time and experience but after using a lot of knives available in the 70s for rough camping similar to what is experienced on today’s bushcraft courses I always remember the failures and problems of various types of knives. This experience still tempers my decisions on knife design to this day.
I first met Ray Mears at a London Arms Fair in the late 80s when his friend introduced the fresh faced blond as the designer of the Wilkinson-Sword Survival Knife. I asked if should really be bragging about such a thing and commented that the chances are that such a beast would be left behind in a drawer when a survival situation occurred and that a compact 4” drop-point would better serve the wilderness traveller. He just smiled and left. I found out later that Ray was responsible for the shape and grind of the big knife and it was the numbskulls at the factory who decided to add the Mickey Mouse bits to make it more likely to sell to the Rambo crowd.
About a year later Ray contacted me to discuss a British knife specifically designed for bushcraft. He visited with a friend who was producing a magazine for Survival Aids, the Morland, Penrith, company, and we discussed his concept. He wanted a smallish knife, handmade and as British as possible that was to become the Woodlore Neck Knife due to the sheath concept that allowed carry with a cord around the neck or slung under the arm for discrete carry or Arctic use. He wanted carbon steel as he felt stainless had no “soul”, a full, non-tapered tang and the short Nordic grind, a wood handle from native trees and a design that was devoid of frippery.
I wasn’t convinced about the steel choice having “moved on” to stainless and the short grind was against current conventional wisdom which promoted the convex “Moran Grind” as the ultimate strength/cutting ability solution. He left and took away a 4.1” D2 steel drop-point with a brass guard and Tufnol (British phenolic laminate) handle to use to see if the size and shape were suitable. I still have this knife and it has a very mild hollow grind with a heavy convex bevelled edge.
(The knife Ray took away with my own Woodlore knife. Although now “retired”, this was my main belt knife for deer, rabbits and camping for many years. The wear is obvious from sharpening on belt grinder.)
In the meantime, I tried to source sufficient native wood that was suitable for knife handles and drew a blank. The next best was Bird’s Eye Maple which was available in sufficient quantity and had the important FSC stamp to ensure it came from sustainable reserves.
Ray returned the knife and was definitely not impressed by the D2 steel as it was so difficult to sharpen and was adamant that he wanted a simpler carbon steel. I suggested O1 as it was endorsed by many world class knife makers, is readily available in all sizes and I had worked with it many times before. He also found the brass guard to be more of a hindrance than a safety feature. In the top corner of his letter was a small sketch of a knife with the similar shape of the knife he tried showing a full handle without the guard but with the same two Loveless handle bolts and a thong tube. The sketch included a dip in the rear top of the handle but also a sharp heal near the butt thereafter. I eliminated the latter as I felt it would cause irritation in use and limit the versatility of the grip.
He still wanted the short bevel grind and explained that most people who attended his courses weren’t necessarily “knife people” and that it would be easier for them to sharpen if they could lay the whole bevel on the hone. Also, he needed the wedge-like edge that it produced for specific bushcraft tasks and controlled woodworking cuts. The sheath was to have a slot down the side like an old Native American sheath to allow a cord to be wrapped around and fixed to another hole in the toe of the sheath to produce a hanging loop.
The first knives were made from 5/32” x1 ¼” O1 steel at a hardness of Rockwell C-56/57 with a flat grind that turned out to be a bitch to do. I didn’t use jigs or a guide so it was extremely difficult to do it right. I fitted the maple and shaped the handles with my normal palm swell and flared and domed butt. The wood was dyed to bring out the grain and given an oil finish with Danish Oil. The sheaths were wet moulded from vegetable tanned hide and finished with an oil/wax molten mix.
The spine was ground flat and square to be used for “Fireflash” ferrociem rods and other scraping tasks.
The knives were originally only to be supplied to people attending Ray’s bushcraft courses so I was making them in small batches of five or six. Early on, Ray commented that the blade shape would be better with a little more belly near the tip for carving the bottom of bowls etc. Contrary to popular belief the Woodlore blade shape has never been a “spear-point”. The spine has always been an arc and the edge shape has a little straight section and a parabolic flow and not a symmetrical spear shape which offers less utility.
Later, he suggested that we try a harder temper to improve edge-holding so I had subsequent blades tempered to RC57-58. Ray’s television work was taking off and I made half a dozen knives directly commissioned by the BBC for gifts to tribal elders in thanks for permission to film his Survival series. About then it was decided to offer the knives to a wider public.
Given that these early blades were in the hands of practising bushcraft people I had a few returned for reconditioning of the edge bevel and found people weren’t laying the whole bevel flat on the hone during sharpening so creating a thick secondary bevel which destroyed the cutting ability. I decided that it would be best to supply the blades with a mild hollow grind similar to that produced when a knife is reground on a Tormek or similar machine. This would allow users much speedier sharpening sessions in the early stages when they weren’t so skilled or patient.
Larger batches exhausted local supplies of the imperial size so I switched to the slightly smaller 4mm x 30mm metric size. I also started to slightly taper the tangs to reduce the butt-heavy feel and improve balance. I realised these knives were taking a lot of time and told Woodlore that I’d prefer if they found someone else to do the sheath or else I would have to ask more money for each one. They found a local saddler who was willing to do them and they produce an excellent product including belt models which I would have preferred to make. Ray also said he’d prefer the maple without the wood-dye. On Ray’s insistence, one small batch was produced with a finger space between the edge and the guard to all for “choking up” during carving but that was soon dropped on the next batch as it is an important area for heavy cutting. These are basically the knives I still produce although in recent years they have been triple-tempered to RC-59.
I have made a number (about 9) of these blades with polished antler handles for Ray and his instructors. The most recent one I made for Ray had brick-red fibre liners in response to the previous one that had shown excessive movement of the antler after a week’s filming in the Arctic followed immediately by a week in Namibia.
The Woodlore Knife, like the rest of my work, is made without any mechanised process although power tools are used. I think it was the late, great US maker, Corbet R Sigman who defined a handmade knife as being one that is hand held for every process and not placed in a jig or fixture. I place them in a vice for sanding the handles but they still conform to this definition.
Ray’s concept for a bushcraft knife has proved itself beyond question. There really isn’t anything new about the features of this simple tool but the combination is generally accepted as being unique. It won’t suit everyone as regards size and materials (I still prefer stainless steel) but you can’t go far wrong in choosing one to meet actual bushcraft needs. If you are venturing into wilderness areas for other primary reasons such as hunting or fishing it is not great chore to also carry more specifically designed cutting tools.”
By mistake in early 2010 I bought a tin of Danish Oil that was coloured and it offered a slightly darker but natural looking finish. Woodlore haven’t commented so I’ll continue with this oil.
I had no input in the production of the ill-fated Wilkinson Sword factory version of this knife even though I offered my services and advice. Arrogance on their part as the knives suffered a catalogue of problems and there were rumours that they cost a great deal to make yet were flawed in many ways. I received a £1 a knife “development fee” for these knives!!!
I also had nothing to do with the 25th Anniversary model or the current R. Mears Bushcraft knife made by another maker.
These original Woodlores are and have always been completely handmade by me.
Care and Maintenance
The O1 steel is a non-stainless tool steel and will stain with use and rust if left wet or put in a damp sheath. On his sharpening demonstration video Ray shows how staining can be removed by using the slurry from his waterstones but I would advise against it. I would recommend allowing the steel to gain a patina which tends to offer some protection from rust. Trying to keep the flats of the blade bright will eventually destroy the etched logo and it is extremely difficult to redo this with the handle fitted. Really, the only part of the knife that needs to be bright is the edge bevel which can be achieved by stropping after sharpening.
The maple used for the handles in kept in stock for at least 2 years to ensure it is as dry as I can get it before fitting. As a natural material it will respond to the environment and may shrink or grow due to humidity levels.
I give the handles a 24 hour soak in Danish Oil but they will benefit from further treatments. A tin of oil will treat a number of handles and last years if kept tightly sealed. Simply flood the surface and rub in for 5 minutes then wipe off the excess before it gets too tacky. Do it each day for the first month and then occasionally, say after a sharpening or stropping session.
Sheaths will benefit from a polish with a good shoe wax. Oil treatments tend to make the leather too soft.
Please refer to Ray’s videos on Youtube or invest in his DVDs for instruction on how to sharpen these grinds. There is usually no need to go through the whole process if the edge is not damaged. A dressed leather strop glued to a board may be all that is needed to restore the edge so minimising wear.
Indeed it is worth investing in Ray’s books and DVDs to see how he uses his knives for different tasks and aim to match his skill level. Best of luck!!