Friday, July 10, 2009

Addendum: Kephart kerfuffle

From what I've been able to learn, there appears to be little dispute about the basic design of Nessmuk's sheath knife. It pretty much is what it is, as illustrated in Woodcraft.

Horace Kephart's fixed-blade is another matter.

In Kephart's own journals, it's obvious that he was an admirer of Nessmuk, going so far as to include a sketch of the "Nessmuk trio," complete with dimensions of the axe. I find it interesting, then, that the iconic "Kephart knife" bears little resemblance to the blade identified with his predecessor.

The pattern generally accepted as the definitive Kephart is the one advertised by Colclesser Brothers of Eldorado, Pennsylvania. It sported a spear-point blade in the four-inch range and a three-rivet wood handle. This was, to a virtual certainty, one of Kephart's "knives of my own design."

Here's what Kephart said of his fixed-blade knife in an early edition of Camping and Woodcraft:

"Its blade and handle are each 4-1/4 inches long, the blade being 1 inch wide, 1/8 inch thick on the back, broad pointed, and continued through the handle as a hasp and riveted to it. It is tempered hard enough to cut green hardwood sticks, but soft enough so that when it strikes a knot or bone it will, if anything, turn rather than nick; then a whetstone soon puts it in order."
"The handle of this knife is of oval cross-section, long enough to give a good grip for the whole hand, and with no sharp edges to blister one's hand. It has a 1/4 inch knob behind the cutting edge as a guard, but there is no guard on the back, for it would be useless and in the way. The handle is of light but hard wood, 3/4 inch thick at the butt and tapering to 1/2 inch forward, so as to enter the sheath easily and grip it tightly. If it were heavy it would make the knife drop out when I stooped over."
"This knife weighs only 4 ounces. It was made by a country blacksmith, and is one of the homeliest things I ever saw; but it has outlived in my affections the score of other knives that I have used in competition with it, and has done more work than all of them put together."
That sounds like the knife pictured in the Colclesser ad.

Knifemakers continue to draw on the Colclesser-Kephart, for good reason -- it's widely regarded as an excellent bushcraft pattern. Still it's striking, if not wholly surprising, that it's so unlike Nessmuk's.

In the 1917 edition of Camping and Woodcraft, more than a decade after its debut, Kephart seemed to reveal that his head had been turned by a mass-produced fixed-blade. He described and illustrated the knife but didn't name the maker or the model. Others have been less coy, noting that it appears to be a Marble's Woodcraft.

Marble's, for whatever reason, reportedly didn't (and doesn't now) hang its marketing hat on Kephart's choice. It's much clearer that regardless of what this 1917 knife may have been, its profile veers back toward Nessmuk, from belly to handle to hump, albeit with a high point rather than one that drops.

Some say that Kephart highlighted the Marble's under pressure from his publisher, MacMillan, and since I'm not a cutlery historian I'm in no position to argue. Maybe he got paid under the table. I don't know.

Traditionalists remain adamant that Kephart always preferred the knife that he designed himself. I don't know about that, either, nor does it much matter.

I do find the visuals fascinating, however.

In the end, if the story of Horace Kephart's sheath knife begins and ends with the definitive pattern, it's okay with me. If the woodsman's compass led him from admiration to innovation, back to tradition and on to (perish the thought) personal gain, that's fine, too.

It's not about one man, his choices or his motives. It's about the rest of us, our tools and, most important, what we do with them.

We can learn much from Kephart, Nessmuk and their like. Our own woodcraft journeys will keep us busy enough, I think, to avoid any copycat traps.

Earlier posts
Sharps: Ready set
Sharps: A philosophy

Woodcraft, by Nessmuk (aka George Washington Sears)
Camping and Woodcraft, by Horace Kephart (1906 edition)
Camping and Woodcraft, by Horace Kephart (1917 edition)