Awww geeze, not another blog!

Welcome to A Fine Blade!

This blog will focus one of my lifelong passions and one of man's most basic tools - the knife!

As time and events permit we'll tiptoe into other territory where we can use the knife as a metaphor in discussions about current events and have a little politically incorrect fun.

Because you see, knives rank just below guns as the most politically incorrect subject on the web today.

Guns & Knives = Bad. Gay Marriage & Recreational Drug Use = Good

We'll see if we can't have some fun with that.

So stay tuned, and welcome aboard!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blade Of The Month - The Lowly Machete

I've been using machetes regularly for 20 years, and more intensively since I became a homeowner for the first time about 13 years ago.  The machete is, hands down, one of the most useful cutting tools ever devised by man.  As a slashing and light chopping tool it is unsurpassed.

I've known about machetes all my life, but my first real introduction to them came in the late 1980s down in Honduras.  Watching the local laborers using them to clear brush, chop down small woody plants or cut sugar cane was fascinating.  In Honduras and in other Central American countries at the time if you could swing a machete you could earn a wage.  It was a common sight while driving through the villages early in the morning to see the men of the family - fathers and sons - standing along the road holding a machete, a small lunch in a string bag and a jug of water, waiting for the day labor trucks from the local farms or ranches to swing by and pick them up.  In the United States mechanization would take care of much of this work, but in Honduras the economy was absolutely dependent on manual labor for these tasks.  

Later while stationed in Panama I got more exposure to the uses of the machete.  Unlike southern Honduras, which is semi-arid, Panama is full-on rainforest and keeping the jungle at bay is a full time battle.  This was one of the few times in my life I was able to afford the services of a gardener, and he did virtually all the clearing and trimming tasks with a machete.  At various times I watched him use it to trim hedges, edge the lawn, cut bamboo, open coconuts for the kids, cut rope, cut banana stalks from the trees, cut back sawgrass and kill a poisonous snake.  It was his do-everything tool, and he always made sure it was at-hand.  Victor (the gardener's name) was a virtuoso with the blade and I learned a lot by watching him work.  His machete was an old USGI model someone had given him years before.  The broken handle was wrapped in electrical tape and it had been resharpened so much that it had lost much of its original blade profile, but it still worked perfectly fine in Victor's hands.  

When we bought our house near Atlanta in 2000 the yard was badly overgrown.  The homeowners had neglected the yard for the better part of a decade and it needed immediate attention.  The biggest chore was to simply cut back the overgrown brush and woody vines and take down the dozens of small saplings that had sprouted up.  I knew right away I had the right tool for the job - a USGI machete manufactured by Ontatrio.  

The USGI M1942 pattern machete and sheath 

Now, there are dozens and dozens of machete blade styles.  There are machetes designed specifically for cutting sugar cane (large and heavy for cutting through the woody stalks), for cutting light brush (long, curved and relatively light weight for more efficient slashing) and even machetes designed for gardening chores like harvesting fruits and vegetables (short, lightweight blades for close-in work).   While in Central America I'd buy any new or unique blade style I came across.  The small local hardware stores usually had a good selection of blades on offer for just a few dollars each so it was easy and cheap to accumulate a good collection.

Getting the blades out and ready for some yard work!
However, my machete of choice has always been the USGI M1942-pattern blade.  This blade was first adopted by the US military during WWII and is based on a commercial Collins pattern.  During the war the M1942 machete saw wide use across the world, most notably in the South Pacific and the China-Burma-India theater where it hacked thousands of miles of trails in otherwise tractless jungle.  It developed a reputation as an excellent and absolutely essential tool for jungle warfare.  Decades later it came back into widespread use in Vietnam where it was again used to hack jungle trails, clear fields of fire, cut and shape bamboo stakes, butcher pigs, dig fire pits and, when necessary, be used as a weapon in close-quarters combat.

For the last 30 years or so the Ontario Knife Company has been the sole supplier of M1942 machetes to the US military, and they are still produced to the original Collins pattern with an 18" blade and a black plastic handle.  The M1942 model is made of blade stock that is a bit thicker than that used by most commercial machete manufacturers.  This makes the USGI machete a bit heavier and the blade a bit stiffer than other machetes of similar size, and I feel this is what makes it such a great all-around tool.  It is long and thin enough to swing effectively to clear brush, but has enough blade weight and stiffness to be easily driven through tough woody vines, saplings and bamboo.  It is a first rate land clearing tool.

My M1942 machetes (I own several) are working tools, not collector pieces.  They get used hard and, frequently, get put away wet.  In fact, one spent the winter outside embedded in an old tree stump.  I didn't find it until spring.  They look like hell - rusted, nicked and generally abused.  

Some battle scars on the edge of one of my machetes

Machetes are made of relatively soft steel, and this is on purpose.  A machete is an impact tool - something that strikes hard objects with force (like tree stumps or saplings) and the edge needs to give and not chip or break.  It also needs to be easy to resharpen in the field using common tools.  Because the steel is relatively soft (around the mid-50's on the Rockwell hardness scale) the edge will nick or roll when it hits something too hard.  This is expected, and with a few passes from a bastard file or a few licks on a carborundum stone they are back in action.  My machetes bear the scars of meet-ups with rocks, tough wood and even the occasional smack on a concrete step.  They survive to do battle another day.

If you are a home or property owner, or someone who often finds himself in the woods doing tasks like clearing areas for campsites, deer stands or blinds you need a machete. 

Stay sharp!


Saturday, August 17, 2013

Why I Like Stainless Steel Blades

Bill and I went fishing at Sprewell Bluff on the Flint River this morning on reports that the shoal bass were active.

Don't really know if they were active or not, because about the time we got kitted up it started to pour.  Not too hard if you had the right rain gear (which we did) but hard enough to dampen our enthusiasm for fishing. The river was flowing about 2400 cfs, and safe wading ends at about the 1500 cfs point, so we didn't venture too far out into the water.  I spent a few hours tossing Clouser minnows and woolly buggers into the shoals but got no takers.  Bill ended up getting one good strike on a top water hopper, but that was about it.  The guy sweeping the picnic area with a metal detector was having more luck - he reported digging up 30 cents in about an hour.

As I was standing in the pouring rain I started asking myself deep, probing questions:  Will man ever travel faster than the speed of light?  Are parallel universes plausible?  Will we ever solve world hunger?  Did I bring a stainless steel knife?    

Of all these questions the issue of the stainless steel knife troubled me the most.  Then I remembered that I had indeed brought along a stainless steel blade - my J.D. Davis drop point hunter made of CPM 154 steel.   I had actually strapped it to my belt early this morning before heading out and had forgotten it was there (hard to feel stuff buried deep inside a set of chest waders).  

I patted the sheath on my hip and smiled.  The stars are in their proper places in the heavens, the sun still rises in the east and I've got a stainless steel blade along on this wet, sloppy day.  Life is good.

On the Flint River

I had J.D. build this knife just for days like this.  Yes, I know that carbon steel blades don't just rust away after a few hours of exposure, but I also know that in this day and age corrosion resistance and edge holding ability are not mutually exclusive issues when it comes to knife blades.

On days like this stainless steel is a no-brainer.

Carbon steel is good, but some days just demand stainless
Stay sharp!


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Stove In

I can feel fall's approach.  Seriously, I can!  Even though the days are peaking at 95 degrees and the sun stays up until 9 pm I can sense that wonderful season's slow approach.

Or maybe it's just wishful thinking.  Either way, I want fall to get here real bad.

I figured one way I could hasten it's arrival is to tackle a small chore I've been delaying until cooler weather - the repair of a few antique camping stoves.  My thinking was that if Mother Nature saw me doing something that I would normally only do sometime in late October she'd think she'd think she was running late and would drop some nice, cool, dry fall air on us ahead of schedule.

Still waiting, Mother Nature...

Yet the stove 'repairs' proceeded.  More accurately it was griping, cursing and fumbling with stoves and stove parts.  Little actual repair got done.  None, in fact.

Background.  I collect camping stoves almost like I collect knives - in volume.  I didn't start out to collect stoves.  Unlike knives, I have no strong attraction or affinity for stoves.  For me the real attraction is fire.  At heart I'm a five year old kid who likes to play with matches.  No, I'm not sick, or warped, and I didn't have bed wetting issues as a child.  Here's a little secret - damn near EVERY five year old boy wants to play with matches.  And lighters, candles, road flares and, if given a chance, flame throwers.  It's part of being a boy. What happens as we grow up is we learn to control the fascination.  Some do this by become rocket scientists who get to play with highly volatile liquid hydrogen and oxygen.  Some become firefighters and learn ways to first start fires, then put them out.  Some go to Vegas and put on stage shows with tigers jumping through flaming hoops.  Or some, like me, find a fascination in tools that produce flame in a controlled environment, like camping stoves.  I'm not so much a pyromaniac as the master of the flame!  (Insert Dr. Evil demented laugh here.)  I work to control fire, to bend it to my will, to have it do my bidding.  Like heating up a rehydrated package of chili mac.

Along the way I've picked up stoves that were somewhat complete but didn't run too well, if at all, but they interested me for one reason or another.  Some were old Swedish stoves like the vintage Optimus or Svea self-priming brass models.  Some were early versions of modern classics like the MSR Whisperlite.   Lately I've accumulated a number of older Coleman single burner stoves.  But the two that I tried tackling today are real classics.  First is a Coleman 530, an immediate post-WWII single burner stove that was copied from a version Coleman manufactured for the US military during the war.  This stove was extremely popular with soldiers during the War and Coleman figured there's be a strong market for a civilian version once the war ended.  Coleman was right - it became immensely popular and sold well for a few years after the war.  However, by the late 1940s Coleman figured out that the newly mobile American population wasn't doing much backpacking.  Car camping was the thing and everyone wanted a Coleman two burner stove.  By 1950 demand had tapered off and Coleman stopped production of the 530.

Late WWII ad by Coleman for
their post-war 'pocket stove', which
would be introduced as the model 530
The 530's are exquisite stoves, perhaps one of the best made stoves Coleman ever produced.  They were all brass, nickel plated brass and stainless steel.  The fit and finish was first rate.  They must have been prohibitively expensive to produce, and maybe that's one reason Coleman shut down production.  Still, Coleman claims to have manufactured over one million of these little jewels between 1946 and 1950, and you can still find good plenty of good examples on eBay.

The next stove is one that is directly descendant from the USGI 'pocket stove' and although a 1950's design it remained in service with the US Army right through the 1990s.  This is the M1950 single burner 'squad stove'. This stove was actually a Coleman design but it was never produced for civilian use.  The Army asked Coleman to update their WWII design to make it easier to service while in the field.  I think the requirement was that it also had to fit inside of a squad cook kit.  Coleman did a great job and the resulting stove was virtually indestructible and would burn about anything you could get in the tank.  It's also kind of squat looking and lacks the elegance of the WWII design, but in this case form had to follow function.  The M1950 is all stainless steel with just a bit of brass.  It's about as lovely as an M60 tank.  But it worked, and worked well, and it heated rations for American soldiers from the frozen fields of Cold War Germany to the rice paddies of Vietnam, and lots of places in between.

M1950 Squad Stove

In the early 2000s the US military started to surplus these stoves out and thousands of them hit the market in new or like new condition.  Unfortunately I missed that buying frenzy, and the days of new-in-the-box $60 stoves are long gone.  There are still plenty of good examples available, but today they command almost double what they were selling for a decade ago.

I was lucky in that I managed to get both of my stoves from friends or off of forums where folks are less interested in making a buck.  The sellers of both of these stoves made no secret of the fact that they didn't work (in fact, the M1950 came to me in pieces).  I figured getting them up and running would take just a little elbow grease and a few spare parts.


After complete tear-downs, replacement of key parts like the burner valves, testing, more disassembly and reassembly, more testing and lots of cursing and runs to the computer to check the internet references for repair info I now have to admit defeat.  Utter, shameful defeat.  The day started out so promising and my workbench looked so neat and organized.

The M1950 in the process of being field stripped

The M1950 was the clear basket case of the bunch.  It had been rode hard and put away wet.  Repeatedly. The first thing I did was remove the valve assembly.  The fastest way to get the valve assembly off of the tank is to clamp it upside down in a vise and use a strap wrench to unscrew the tank.  This one was on tight!

 Next pull the pump assembly and have a look down into the fuel tank.  Yuk.

Lots of crud in the bottom of the tank.  A good scrubbing with some small
stainless steel nuts and white gas got most of this out.  Just drop in the nuts,
add the gas and swirl.  Rinse and repeat!

Once most of the crud was out of the tank it was time to clean up the threads.  Whoever worked on this stove last was in love with gasket sealant.  It was everywhere.

Using a brass bore brush to clean up the tank threads
One of the saving graces of the M1950 fuel tank is that it's made out of stainless steel.  A lot of them look like hell on the outside (mostly due to lousy paint jobs) but all that I've seen were still perfectly serviceable.  They can take a lot of abuse.

One key step on reassembly is to make sure the fuel valve properly aligns with the valve stop which is part of the pot support/windscreen.

The fuel valve needs to align with the stop tab on the
windscreen.  For testing you don't actually reattach the
windscreen.  This is just to make sure all parts are
properly aligned

OK, everything rebuilt, back together and ready to test.

3, 2, 1... Failure!

Poor pressurization, fuel running everywhere, the serious risk of setting the neighborhood on fire.  I was so startled by the results I forgot to take pictures.  I ALMOST had to run and get the fire extinguisher!

There it sits.  Shamed, alone and hissing highly
flammable gas vapor while in the OFF position

What's next?  I'm not sure.  Something is clearly wrong with the valve assembly.  It is not closing properly when the valve dial is placed in the OFF position.  I just don't know where to look.  Yet.  Luckily I hang out on a great stove related forum where folks trade expert advice all the time.  That's my next stop.

The Coleman 530 was only marginally better.  The only thing I did was replace the gas tank seal (the old one was as hard as rock candy) and pumped her up.  After a few minutes of warming up she finally settled down to an acceptable roar with only the hint of yellow tipped flames (which could have been due to the light breezes we were experiencing).  However, this stove wouldn't turn all the way off, either.  I ended up having to blow it out and let all the compressed gas escape through the flame jet.  Clearly there's a bad seal in there somewhere.  That's a chore for another time.

So there I sat, a day's worth of effort all but wasted.  I needed a working stove fix bad, real bad.  I needed to see some nice, even blue flames spouting from a well behaved stove, something that loved and respected me.  I grabbed two of my favorites that just happened to be summering in my storage shed, an ancient and venerable Coleman 502 and the more recent (and less venerated) Coleman Exponent.  Both are excellent stoves.  The 502 is a classic in its own right and I intend to do a posting on it in the near future.

But for today, it was pump, light, enjoy.  These two fine friends saved the day.

Coleman Exponent (successor to the Peak 1) on the left,
a Coleman 502 (1964 vintage) on the right.
Look closely and you'll see nice even blue flames
being put out by each stove.  

Stay sharp!