Monday, June 01, 2009

Machete Types, Use and Sharpening

A repost from this blog, circa 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-transportable manual tool has ever beat a machete for this type of work.

Even an expensive machete is quite cheap, 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 or 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.

Some people prefer various odd types of machetes, like the kukri, but I prefer a simple straight blade which is easy to pack and useful in more situations than a kukri.

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 sugarcane 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.

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.

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.

I keep my own machete sharp with a $1 D-handle knife sharpener bought at the local Dollar Store. The same sharpener helps keep an edge on my shovels, and can be bought at a kitchen supply store for about $10. Try the Dollar Store first -- why pay more?


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your article, but I have a few problems with it. Well, actually, just one about how machetes should all be the same shape. I have a cold steel Kukri magnum (kukri, not "khouroui") and it is FAR better than any other style of blade out there. I have cut down a 4 inch pine with it in only 4 minutes. Other than that, it is a great article.

PBurns said...


The problem with Nepalese and Indian curved knives is that they are hard to pack and carry. Most packs can fit a straight machete in a side pocket, where a Khukri or Khoukroui or Kukri will not fit. I suppose you could carry your Nepalese knife on your belt, but it would look a little ridiculous, I think.

As to the name, all spelling variations are correct as the world is not English and is not written in English and there is no standard spelling. It's a bit like Peking and Beijing (same city) or Bombay and Mumbai (same place).


Anonymous said...

I agree perfectly with your article. Another way to sharpen is to use a larger file, like a mill file, but bigger. They are about 12-14" long and work quite quickly. Then use a bastard cut file for the rest of it. Sharpening towards the tip is asking for a bur, and sharpening into the blade is asking to get cut. Use a pull stroke but drawn the file towards the spine of the knife. This makes a sharp edge.

Don't ask your machete to stay sharp. It simply won't. Not even a good steel knife will. You need to sharpen it often.

Good article!

Anonymous said...

I got one of those D-sharpeners recently and I love it. My shovels, hoes, pruners etc all cut like new!

Gina said...

Did you know those "fat bastard" files do an awesome job shortening canine nails? One of my dogs (the old one) hates nail-cutting, finds the sound of a Dre,mel upsetting (noise-sensitive in her old age) but will happily sit while I apply the file to her nails.

Donald McCaig said...

In the Caribbean they're called "cutlasses"

Christine P. said...

It would appear that with the right technique, a machete can be used to chop wood. May not be the preferred tool for this, but in some parts of the world, the machete is used for this chore, and it works:

Unknown said...

I just wanted to chime in (years) late about your choice of an Ontario Knife Company Machete. I have a huge collection of blades including a ridiculous number of machetes and my absolute favorite is my 18" bladed Ontario. It's over 15 years old now and has been through deep swamp to semi-desert. Camping, hiking, yard work (I have a few acres of "yard" consisting mostly of mesquite and prickly pear cactus. It's still 100% solid and no way would I go out-and-about without it. In the woods, brush, or swamp a basic military "Boy Scout" pocket knife and my Ontario machete.

P.S. - I use a basic 6" flat bastard file to sharpen mine. I keep it dropped down in the scabbard/sheath where it's always handy.