Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Machete Types, Use and Sharpening

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.



Anonymous said...

In the woods around here a bush axe is the best tool. A machete is good on ferns etc but a bush axe handles wood much better. It is harder to carry though.

W hingley

"Swedish Safety Brush Axe (Sandvik): Also known as a Sandvik, the Swedish Safety Brush Axe is a machete-like tool with a short, replaceable blade. Because of the shorter blade and longer handle (27 inch overall length), the tool may be safer than a machete. Its shorter handle and lighter weight make it faster, easier to control, and safer than an axe or brush hook. The thin, flat, replaceable steel blade cuts easily through springy hardwood stems. "


Anonymous said...

The Swede is good on thick stuff like saplings and thick vines, but the machete is much better on grasses, briars, multi-flora rose, honey suckle and other common hedge tangles in this area. The longer blade also allows more working edge where the Swede has only a couple of inches, that once dulled on a rock, is worthless until sharpened.

Anonymous said...

i just read this article and also recently bought a "Cold Steel Latin Machete" with a 24" blade (29.63" overall) and would like it if you could include some more information about oiling machetes as I plan to use for clearing excess bruxh in the woods beyond my back yard.

Also, you wrote that no machete should have a pommel guard. Then I must be correct in assuming that the piece on the end of the only machete pictured is "not" a pommel guard. But then I am curious as to what it is because mine has one of those too and I have no idea what it is for.

PBurns said...

The bit at the end of the handle if not a pommel guard -- it's to help prevent the machete from slipping out of your hands. The should be a hole for a lariat there too.

A pommel guard is a metal plate or guard between the handle and the blade like you have with a sword.

I oil all my tools with used lawn mower oil because I have a couple of jars of that stuff. Any motor oil will do -- just dribble a little on the blade and rub it in. There's no science to it.


The Suburban Bushwacker said...

It's not often your writing provokes me to disagree but this time.........

The pommel is the 'but end' of the tool, the guard you're referring to is a finger guard.

45 Degrees!! Why bother sharpening it at all?
A convex grind to 20 will do all the jobs you're likely to ask of such a tool and still have enough steel behind the edge to to survive rough use at the low hardness of a Machete's steel.


PBurns said...

You are right as rain SBW, and I have added a line to clarify. Our machetes come pretty much as flat metal, and that was where I was starting from. The line I have added is: "As the square side of the machete begins to come down to its first edge, begin to flatten the file down to 25-30%." THANKS.


The Suburban Bushwacker said...


Glad to be of service, I commend you for your editorial integrity. Keep up the good work

Christine P. said...

I realize this is an old post, but the information is still relevant. Some folks do chop & split wood with machetes. See Joezilla on bladeforums (Jeepzillajoe on youtube) or FortyTwoBlades on bladeforums and youtube. They both have posts and videos on the subject.
Don't sell a good machete short (and you don't have to spend big bucks for a good one). Pict of Bladeforums (Colhane on youtube) uses a machete in North America as well as Brazil, though he admits it's not his preferred tool for working large amounts of wood. Jeff Randall of ESEE knives (formerly RAT Cutlery) considers the machete to a great survival blade and favors it over his own company's Junglas.

And, since this entry was posted, Imacasa started selling higher end machetes in North America under the Condor brand. These, as I understand it, come razor sharp out of the box.

One more thing--many folks don't consider khukuris to be machetes. Most are too heavy for the kind of work one normally associates with machetes.

roger blackburn said...

I've read from a lot of places, http://bestmachete.net/what-is-the-best-machete/ specifically, that the Ontario machete is good. Thanks for the advice on how to sharpen a machete, I always thought you should use a wetstone. There are also some videos on youtube of video sharpening knives with bricks.

John Smith said...

I like machetes because they are resourceful and highly versatile. However, I have never been so good in sharpening. Your article is really helpful. This is a great article. Read more on machetes here: [http://survival-mastery.com/diy/weapons/types-of-machetes.html]