A repost from the blog, circa June 2005
One of the tools I use at almost every dig is a machete. In hedgerows, nothing works faster to cut away multiflora rose, kudzu, wild grape, errant brambles, honeysuckle, wild cherry and poke berry. In the middle of a dig, a stray root can simply be loped off with a stroke of the machete. When dispatch time comes, a hard hit to the top of the skull with the dull back edge of the machete blade ends things pretty quickly.
A machete is not an axe. This tool is not designed to cut firewood or trees, but to hack through thickets of soft, fast-growing vegetation of the sort we generally find in hedgerows. No easily-tranportable manual tool has ever beat a machete for this type of work.
Even an expensive machete is quite cheap for a lifetime tool, so get a decent one which should run you around $30-$40. You do not want a "cane knife", which looks like a machete but is too light, nor do you want a K-Bar knife (too small and light), or any other of the other dizzying substitutes you might come across in a store or online knife shop.
I use an Ontario Machete, and have no complaints. One new style of machete I have seen comes with a saw edge along the back edge, which seems like a good idea if the soft steel of a machete will, in fact, hold a saw edge (I sort of doubt it).
Some people prefer various odd types of machetes, like the khoukri, but I prefer a simple straight blade. No machete should ever come with a pommel guard -- such a thing is real trouble in the brush. A machete is not a sword or a knife -- it is a machete. They are a perfected design, and you want the version that has stood the test of time.
Machetes are made of soft metal and are designed to be sharpened a lot. When cutting a lot of sugar cane or hard brush, they are sharpened once or twice a day.
Oddly, none of the machetes sold in the U.S. come with a sharp blade, and in fact getting one sharp the very first time takes some effort.
Do not use a grinder or belt sander to get a machete sharp -- there is very little chance you will get it right, and a very high chance you will permanently burn the blade.
What you need to sharpen a machete or shovel is called a "flat bastard" file. Put the machete blade in a vise, and draw the file across the edge of the blade at a 45 degree angle away from the center of the knife. Or do it the other way if you prefer -- put the file in a vice and draw the blade across it. As the square side of the machete begins to come down to its first edge, begin to flatten the file down to 25-30%.
Putting the first edge on a store-bought machete will take time -- don't be in a hurry. When you have it right, be sure to oil the blade with a little motor oil.
Once you have your machete edge about where you want it, you can keep it there very easily using a cheap commercial knife sharpener. I got mine at The Dollar Store and its seems to do the job well, and it works on shovel blades too.
When using a machete, always cut away from yourself. Always. Nothing will ruin your life faster than hacking your leg with a machete -- if you survive it at all.
A machete blade has a tendency to glance off thick vines and branches, which can be dangerous. The trick here is to not to try to cut straight across the vine with a single whack of the blade, but to hit the vine or branch with a scarfing blow, designed to cut along the stem in a kind of flat notch. The second whack will generally cut it through, with the blade in good control the entire time.
Your machete should have come with a scabbard of some type. Some are cloth, some hard plastic, some leather. Many of the old jungle machetes (many of which were made in Connecticut, believe it or not!) had light wood scabbards, but these are rarer now.