Thursday, May 14, 2009

Things That Don't Suck

The problem with most reviews is they're not terribly plain-spoken, either out of deference to potential ad revenue or fear of actually stating an opinion, good or bad. But on a fundamental level a product either sucks, or it doesn't. Right?

With that in mind, here is the inaugural post of an occasional series I call "Things That Don't Suck", which as the subtle and classy nature of the title implies, is stuff I've shelled out my own money for and in which I am generally pleased. Simple enough, eh?

I will also have the occasional corollary series entitled, yes, "Things That Do Suck." And that, my friends, encompasses a lot of territory...

So I'll kick it off with a knife. I like knives. I own a lot of them, many of which you will eventually see here in various poses. I butcher all my own game (I have a philosophical problem with taking an animal's life and handing off the dirty work to someone else. Plus, I'm poor and cheap) so I use a lot of knives.

Here's a pretty good one. The review itself is a bit perfunctory, because it was originally written for the Field Notes blog over at Field & Stream. My editor didn't think it would work for the format and focus of the blog (plus F&S already has a gear editor, and it 'aint me) so I've held on to it waiting for a chance to use it somewhere.

I guess somewhere is here...

The Bark River Full-Tang Kephart.

Most modern knives are designed for weekend mercenary fetishists. The Kephart was designed by a librarian, Horace Kephart, who also happened to be a woodsman of the highest order. Kephart wrote a ton of articles for (among others) Field & Stream. His book The Book of Camping and Woodcraft is a classic. The Kephart was his vision of the perfect woods knife. After having used mine for a month or so, I'm not inclined to disagree.

The first thing that strikes you about the Kephart is how ordinary it looks. Bark River's version is based on the original four-inch commercial pattern, which has a straightforward, non-contoured handle ending in a small self-guard and a straight four-inch blade that tapers into a classic rounded spearpoint. No serrations, no blade coatings, no half-inch-thick spine and nary a "tactical" written anywhere on it. I've seen more threatening knives in a nursing home dining hall. If Charlie Brown packed a blade, it'd look like this one. On opening the package I thought "Congratulations, Chad, you just bought a steak knife from Outback. You could have stolen one for a helluva lot less money."

And then I started using it. I quickly realized that, in addition to the Dewey Decimal System, Horace Kephart knew a thing or two about what makes a woodsbumming knife. It can field dress a deer, it has just enough belly to be an adequate skinner and with enough straight blade length to be a great slicer for butchering, food prep and other camp chores. The knife has a nimble, lively feel and the comfortable handle makes it a good carver for fuzz sticks and other bushcrafty skills. In a pinch it can also be batoned for firewood splitting.

It's versatile, which is the point: the Kephart doesn't do any one thing perfectly, it simply does most everything pretty well. It's a fitting reflection of Kephart's minimalist philosophy that in today's ridiculously over-specialized knife market is a refreshing change. Here's a tool that actually expects you, the user, to possess a modicum of skill to use it properly. Novel idea, I know.

So what's the downside? Well, you probably can't hack your way out a burning helicopter with it. It doesn't look very cool. It lacks a piccatinny rail for attachment of laser sights, grappling hooks and grenade launchers. But the biggest problem is you're not going to find a Kephart-pattern knife at Wal-Mart, because as far as I know there aren't any mass-market knife companies making one. There are, however, many custom and semi-custom knifemakers out there who do. Prices range anywhere from less than $100 to "you'll need a co-signer" but considering how expensive some of the machine-made mystery-metal knives are becoming, a custom Kephart just might be a bargain, and a classy one at that.


  1. I was thinking that I owned that book, but it turned out that the one I was thinking of was "The Complete American & Canadian Sportsman's Encyclopedia of Valuable Instruction," by Francis H. Buzzacott (1929). It has recommended knife patterns too.

    By the way, I found your blog through Suburban Bushwhacker and added yours to my blogroll as well.

  2. How about some more of these? There must be something else that doesn't suck? Please tell me there is................

  3. Hi there Chad sir.
    The Kephart is decidedly un-Nessmuky, and, like you say, few copyists have latched on to it yet.
    I'd like to try one out, that's for sure.
    All knives are starting to look very similar here in the UK.
    Thanks Mors, Ray etc. ... ?
    PS My hoover needs a new bag, so it really doesn't suck.

  4. the Bark River Kephart is a great knife. well thought out and the design is just about perfect for most camp chores. like you said , it looks rather simple out of the box, but not once you use it. plenty of knives to choose from any of which can cut. i love the Kephart, it feels good in hand.
    i'm from Mudzoory so i get Horace.