Story and Photos by Reuben Bolieu
As long as I can remember I was fascinated by the jungle. A strong case could be made for movies like Romancing the Stone and Predator having a hand in that. It wasn’t just the scenery and adventure that got me interested, it was the long blade they wielded – which seemed to summon adventure!
Over the years I’ve seen machetes used for just about everything you can imagine a cutting tool could be used for. As with every tool, a machete thrives in its intended environment. Out of its comfort zone it can pass, but will never be a true axe, shovel, hammer, or screwdriver. However, if there ever was a ‘One-Tool-Do-All’ it would have to be a machete.
So, it’s best to know how to use one to its full potential.
A machete is a broad-bladed, long, thin knife used mainly in Latin America for daily living. Usually, they are mass-produced and made of carbon steel. They are often sold unsharpened, with just a hint of where the bevel is, leaving the edge to the end user.
The origin of the machete is often traced back to the Spanish, although many cultures have their own version. For example, Malaysia uses a Parang, Philippines call it a Bolo or Itak, Indonesia calls theirs a Golok, Thais have the E-Nep and Cuba the cane knife. However, all are categorized as machetes and are the ideal tool to clear brush from a trail or chop up branches, limbs or vines.
The thin, light nature of the tool hints at what it is best suited for – chopping. A machete utilizes its quickness as its strength, rather than the brute force of a heavier chopping tool like an axe. Consider the movement of a crocodile whipping its tail, with the tail as the machete. In the same way, machetes are used with a light, whipping motion – often talked about as a wrist-flick.
As with any knife use, safety considerations must be applied. Although, with the length of a machete, there are other critical safety measures that should always be employed.
Always be mindful of the location of other people, and pets, when swinging a machete. Also, make sure to clear or move any branches or brush that may interfere with your machete on the upswing and main swing. Don’t forget to look up.
If cutting a tree that you can’t see the top of, give it a shake or a stern tap on the trunk while pointing your head down. This will identify any loose branches or nests that may come down on you while cutting. Be aware, when cutting bamboo, the tops are often intertwined, creating a jungle tangle. Plan accordingly.
Chop at angles, away from your body, ensuring your safety in the event of a missed or glancing swing. When cutting long, wrist-thick saplings – for shelter poles or craft parts – rotate the wood after every angled chop, to weaken it until it snaps. This technique works especially well with a long blade. The same principle should be applied when chopping wrist-thick wood or larger – rotate the work and cut at a “V” angle when the wood is on the ground or a support stump. As much as possible, back up your work!
To clear brush or forest debris, not necessarily only in the jungle, get down low. Squat down and let the machete loosely swing horizontally, barely skimming the earth. This will clear it fast, while remaining safer than getting down to one knee, leaving the ankle and shin exposed.
If you think you may come in contact with thicker wood or stones, use the back of the machete to clear. Try not to leave stumps sticking up from the ground, they can be a hazard that anyone can trip on or fall onto, getting a nasty puncture. Always try to clear it all the way down, if possible.
A machete is an amazing tool with myriad uses, from chopping and splitting to finer camp chores. This article isn’t intended to go into every use a machete is capable of – that would be a very long article – but is instead intended as a primer to discuss some possibilities of machete use and the proper handling and care/prep of your machete.
Don’t be shy about splitting wood, with a baton, while using a machete. It won’t have that wedging-apart effect, and may even get stuck easier, but I have never had a problem using a machete for this task.
Also, try using the belly, or wider part, of the machete for chopping. This way you can reserve the part closer to the handle for finer carving and slicing. Naturally, this will help that area stay sharper than the heavy working, ‘sweet spot’ of the machete – especially if it comes in contact with a knot while splitting.
All carving of notches and camp crafts should be done using the portion of the blade closest to the handle. However, if it is a true, Latin American machete, it won’t come sharpened at all. So, the best modification that can be done is with a file.
Where the bevel starts, just forward of the handle or ricasso, start filing in one direction to achieve a flat scandi edge – about 3-4 inches up the blade. Repeat on the opposite side until it is razor sharp, like a scandi. Don’t do any splitting here, keep this area preserved for finer work. If you are looking to enhance this area on a Parang, E-Nep or Bolo, just do the same process on one side, as these tools only have one side sharpened – like a chisel.
Aside from larger chores, like chopping and splitting, machetes are even great for small jobs, like stripping bark off sticks and carving wood. A little bit of skill goes a long way here.
As an example, in a standing or sitting position, hold the machete in an icepick grip (reverse grip), with the tip down, on a stump or downed tree. Using your free hand, draw a stick or piece of wood back against the blade to strip bark or make fuzz sticks for a fire. This method promotes safe use because it controls the smaller, lighter of the two objects.
Most machetes come stamped out raw from the factory and are made from soft carbon steel. This means they are finished rough on the spine, which is good for striking a ferrocerium rod for fire starting.
If not, use a file, or very course stone, to file a few inches of the spine, at a 90-degree angle, for striking a ferro rod. Another method is to brace the large blade on a piece of wood – just above your tinder nest – while scraping the ferrocerium rod on the top of the edge, above the chopping area, which usually isn’t used so it is sharp enough to shower sparks into the tinder nest.
Kitchen duty with a machete may seem far from the norm, for most reading this. However, in most developing countries, it is typical to see the machete (long blade) used for butchering and kitchen duty. A walk around a marketplace in Southeast Asia or South America will demonstrate this.
Like a large kitchen knife, a machete is relatively thin – for slicing – and wide – for scooping up food to transfer – much like a Chinese cleaver. Also, the back of a long blade can easily be used to crack through bones, if the primary cutting edge is too thin. The wide profile also makes a machete great for flattening meat or smashing garlic, ginger, or nuts.
Also, when using a machete for kitchen duties, the grip often changes to a chef’s grip – commonly known in the culinary world as a pinch grip. Lightly pinching the top of the handle where it meets the spine of the blade, with the forefinger and thumb, while the remaining three fingers grip the handle loosely.
Even with its larger size and longer length, proper grip techniques can provide excellent control for most camp kitchen work.
The machete is an amazing all around camp tool, with a long history, and is capable of a great many things, such as chopping fire wood, cutting thick water vines to hydrate, digging steps in a muddy bank, chipping away ice and snow, clearing brush and cutting trails, beating back brambles, cutting green branches for traps and shelter, butchering, slicing – the list goes on.
Although many consider the machete to be strictly a jungle tool, they are very useful in any part of the world and many varied environments. If you have ever considered getting a machete but felt that you would never have the opportunity to use one, you should go for it, you might be surprised at what you can do with it – even in North America.
The possibilities really are endless! K&G
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Adventurer, writer, photographer, gear designer and survival instructor for Randall’s Adventure & Training, Reuben has spent most of his life hiking and backpacking through the wildernesses of the world. He has traveled abroad in extreme environments, from Alaska to the desert heat of Egypt – as well as the humid conditions of Southeast Asia and South America. He continues studying primitive survival techniques, construction and uses of knives and edged tools from places such as: South America, Australia, Philippines, Thailand, New Zealand, and numerous countries in the South Pacific and Scandinavia. Reuben has published many articles on survival, knife and tool use, woodcraft, shelters, and remains a lifetime student of survival.
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