Helle Symfoni and Alden Hunting Knives
By Gary Zinn
A/S Helle Fabrikker (http://www.helle.no) is a Norwegian firm that has been making outdoor knives since 1932. Located in the village of Holmedal, Norway, Helle (pronounced hel-ah) is a small business, yet it produces an impressive number of knife patterns: 37 as of December, 2014. Of these, two are lock back folders, three are fishing knives and the rest are fixed blade hunting/outdoor knives.
There are certain commonalities among most of the fixed blade patterns, including rattail handle tangs and curly birch wood as the predominant handle material. 25 of the hunting/outdoor knives feature triple laminated stainless steel blades, while five use solid Sandvik 12C27 stainless steel. Almost all of these knives feature a drop point blade profile. The shortest knife has a 2.2-inch blade and the longest blade is 8.4 inches.
Here is a detailed look at two knives that I believe well represent the Helle line. I purchased these knives in order to inspect and test patterns that I felt would be useful working knives.
Image courtesy of helle.no.
The Symfoni fits in my sweet spot for an everyday carry field knife. Long experience has convinced me that I can do almost any outdoor cutting chore with a fixed blade knife featuring a good blade about 3-1/2 inches long and a well-designed handle some 4-1/2 inches long. With a 3-3/8 inch blade and 4-1/2 inch handle the Symfoni is right there.
Besides its size, two other attributes of the Symfoni interested me. First, the steel is Helle's triple laminate stainless and second, the handle is mostly curly birch, accented by a black leather spacer and 5/8-inch long section of stag horn at the front. It is very attractive.
The triple laminated stainless blade steel is described on Helle's website as follows:
"The core is made of high alloy steel which gives it a lasting, razor-sharp edge. This harder layer cannot however exclude the threat of rust or breakage. To exploit the superb qualities of the high alloy steel we added two layers of tough stainless steel (18/8) to protect the blade against breakage and corrosion, while the high carbon core still provides a superb cutting edge."
The laminated steel dictates a specific type of blade grind. Most sport knives have either a flat or hollow-ground blade, which means that the thickness of the blade gradually decreases from spine to edge. However, such a grind on a laminated blade would be counterproductive, because it would remove much of the outside layers of steel. Helle uses the so-called Scandinavian grind, which involves flat grinding only about 1/4 inch back from the cutting edge of the blade. This preserves most of the outside laminations while still providing a sharp edge. The result can easily be seen on the Symfoni blade; the seam between the center and outside laminations is clearly visible about 1/8-inch above the edge of the blade.
This knife has a very nice blade profile. It is a classic drop point, 7/8 inch wide at the belly of the blade with a blade thickness of 2.7 mm (0.106 inches). These dimensions, with the 3-3/8 inch blade length, make for a knife that both looks and feels well balanced.
I can be quite critical of knife handles, because I have encountered so many poor ones. Too short, too thin, badly contoured, coyote ugly; I have seen it all. Given this, the Symfoni's handle is a fresh breeze. It feels secure and comfortable in the hand. The girth and contours of the handle fit my medium-sized hand perfectly, whatever grip I take.
The balance point falls an inch behind the front of the handle, so the knife feels very neutral in the hand. The grip is still secure when the knife is held and manipulated in a wet, soapy hand. (My acid test of a handle.) This might seem unlikely with a smoothly finished handle, but I am reporting what I experienced.
In addition, the knife is handsome. The stag horn disk and leather washer at the front of the handle complement the oil finished curly birch. My knife looks almost exactly like the image above, except that the stag horn on mine is pearl gray in color.
Image courtesy of helle.no.
I routinely carry a "just in case" knife the size of the Symfoni whenever I am knocking about in the outdoors. However, there are times when a larger knife may be preferred, such as when butchering big game. I chose a second Helle knife, the Alden, to review. I picked the Alden not only for its size (4-1/8 inch blade and 5-inch handle), but also because it has a solid Sandvik 12C27 stainless blade. I wanted to compare this blade with the laminated blade of the Symfoni.
The Alden's drop point blade is one inch wide at the belly and is 3.0 mm (0.117 inches) thick. With a 4-1/8 inch blade length, this is a robust piece of steel. The blade has the Scandinavian grind that I discussed above. The ground part of the blade is 1/16 inch wider on the Alden than on the Symfoni.
The front of the curly birch handle flares at the bottom, blending with two stainless steel disks and thin leather washers to form a front bolster and finger guard. The tang runs clear through the handle, with a brass nut on the pommel.
Aesthetically, the Alden is a hit. The blade and handle contours look good together, while the handle's figured wood and stained oil finish add visual effect.
The front to back contours of the Alden handle are very like those of the Symfoni, except for the finger guard on the Alden, which the Symfoni lacks. In cross section, the Alden handle is a bit slimmer than the Symfoni's, so the two handles feel different. In addition, the balance point of the Alden is right at the finger guard, so it is a bit weight forward in the hand compared with the very neutral balance of the Symfoni. These are subtle differences and both knives have excellent ergonomics.
All Helle knives come with very nice, handmade leather sheaths. They fit the knife contours perfectly. The cutting and stitching are precise and the leather is properly tanned and finished. The Symfoni sheath is black and the Alden's chocolate brown. The sheaths alone are worth at least twenty dollars.
Both sheaths have non-rotating belt loops secured with nickel silver rivets. The Alden belt loop will accommodate belts up to 1-3/4 inches wide and the Symfoni loop is a quarter-inch smaller.
The Symfoni and Alden sheaths are listed as weighing 1.55 and 1.83 ounces, respectively. This implies a total carry weight of about 5.4 ounces for the Symfoni and 6.9 ounces for the Alden.
Fit and Finish
Helle knives are handcrafted, not stamped out on a production line. Hand builds and natural handle materials mean that each knife is somewhat unique. However, if craftsmanship and quality control are consistent, all knives should have a dependable level of fit and finish. Helle achieves this, if the two knives I have are representative.
I have no significant criticisms of the fit and finish of these knives. The fitting of the handles to the blades is tight and precise. The contours of the handles are smooth and totally symmetrical. This is quite impressive, given that the handles are hand formed. The finish of the handles is very smooth, but not slick. There are no surface defects in the wood.
I expected to see some small irregularities in the grinding and sharpening of the blades, because we are talking handwork. However, the grinds are very precise and even, end to end and on both sides. Remarkable! The only nits I found to pick were a single tiny nick on the Symfoni's edge and a half-inch of very fine wire edge on the curve of the Alden's blade, which two light strokes with a diamond hone removed.
The Alden's blade is mirror polished. It is not a display quality finish, but is fine for a knife that is intended for work, rather than for show.
The finish on the Symfoni laminated blade needs some discussion. At first, I thought it was supposed to be a mirror polish, but had gone wrong. It was a bit dull and close inspection revealed faint polishing marks that ran parallel with the long axis of the blade.
I puzzled over this awhile and then the explanation occurred to me: 18/8 is a relatively soft, untempered steel that simply won't take a bright, smooth polish and will show working marks. I tested this conclusion by making some shaving cuts on a piece of hardwood. Sure enough, the side of the blade showed faint marks where it had rubbed against the piece being cut. The tradeoff for the desirable properties of the laminated blade is that it shows work marks.
Both knives had shaving sharp factory edges. To test cutting performance I assaulted catalogs, cardboard, green wood, kiln dried boards, rope, nylon webbing and leather. I also sliced and trimmed meat and chopped vegetables for a number of meals. (My wife loves it when I test knives.) Both knives cut through these varied materials very well. Also, due to the excellent handle designs, I was able to do extended cutting sessions without hand fatigue.
The only unusual thing I noted was when I made shaving cuts on dried wood, the cut quickly turned toward the outside, i.e., toward the sliver of wood being shaved off. I attribute this to the steep angle of the Scandinavian grind. It made for thin shavings and great fuzz sticks.
How durable are the cutting edges of these knives? Pretty durable. I spent a month doing occasional sessions of test cutting with both knives and used them frequently for meal preparation. Finally, while using one knife to trim a roast, I noticed that it seemed just a bit dull. I then tried the other knife, which felt about the same. That evening each blade got two dozen strokes across a fine whetstone, followed by honing on crock sticks. This brought the edges back up to par.
A nagging physical issue scotched last hunting season for me, so I had no chance to use these knives on a deer. However, I have no doubt that both knives will field dress, skin and butcher big game animals very efficiently.
I mentioned that I wanted to compare Helle's laminated and solid steel blades. My report is that I have no difference to report. Comparing sharpness, cutting efficiency and edge durability, I can't find any obvious differences. Both steels are very good.
Other than making sure they are totally clean and dry after use, I have never found it necessary to do anything special to protect good stainless steel blades. However, since the core of the Helle triple laminate blade is carbon steel, I am getting into the habit of wiping a bit of rust-inhibiting oil along the edge of that blade after use and cleaning.
In my experience, the main maintenance issue with wood knife handles is the wood getting too dry. Whenever needed, I wipe a small amount of furniture polish into the handle; simple and effective. Leather sheaths need an occasional light treatment of leather oil or preservative.
To quote one online reviewer of a Helle knife, "Helle yes!" These are excellent knives and exceptional values. The MSRPs of many products are so inflated that they bear no relation to actual product value, but this is not the case with Helle knives. To me, the knives I reviewed would be honest values at their MSRPs. Consider that they are available from several on-line vendors at prices generally about fifteen percent below MSRP, throw in quality sheaths and the value is exceptional.
Clearly, the folks at Helle believe that form follows function. Their knives are designed and built by people who understand how to use knives and they make them accordingly. They obviously take pride in their products and workmanship. I respect and appreciate that. A few months ago I was not familiar with Helle knives, but now I have a new favorite brand of fixed blade knives.
Copyright 2015, 2016 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.