By Gary Zinn
I had thought to start this article by describing what is a machete, but quickly found myself recalling the words of a Scotsman who was asked by a tourist to describe the Loch Ness monster: "Nay, I cain't describe the bonnie creature to ye, but ye'll know the laddie when ye see 'im."
Machetes come in such a wide variety of styles and sizes that trying to describe them in a comprehensive way is futile. May we agree that we know a machete when we see one and move on?
I will discuss broad categories of usage for which machetes are suited, cite specific examples of tools relevant to each category and add notes on the care and feeding of machetes. My categories of usage will be light, medium and heavy work.
Machetes for Light Work
Light machete work would include such tasks as mowing a path through heavy grass, weeds and chopping through or clearing briers and light brush. The best machete for this sort of work is one with a relatively long, mostly straight and lighter gauge blade.
The latin machete is probably the most popular light duty blade form. The Imacasa brand tool pictured above is a typical latin machete. This one has a 22 inch blade made of 1.25mm thick 1074 carbon steel. Note that both the spine and edge of the blade are mostly straight, with the blade flaring slightly to form a wide belly toward the front. This gives the tool a moderate weight forward balance, which aids cutting efficiency.
The handle is injection molded plastic, five inches long and shaped for a secure grip when swinging the tool. I did not find a specification for weight, but I think it would be about 12 ounces. The 2015 retail price of this machete is $25 to $30, including a canvas and leather sheath.
Various makers offer latin style machetes in blade lengths ranging from 12 to 28 inches and generally between 1.25mm and 2mm thick. The thicker-bladed specimens approach medium duty capability.
Two other notable light duty machete patterns are the corn knife and the cane knife. Imacasa makes a corn knife with an 18-inch blade, of 1.5mm thick 1074 carbon steel. Both the spine and edge of the blade are straight, with the blade flaring from 4cm wide at the handle to 9cm wide at the square tip. The flared blade gives the tool weight forward balance, while the squared tip makes it less likely that the blade will kick back when one is cutting into crowded vegetation. The corn knife is my personal preference in a light duty machete.
The cane knife pattern likely evolved on Caribbean sugar plantations back in the day. Again, Imacasa makes a classic example, with a 15-inch blade made from 1074 carbon steel, 1mm thick. The blade is 11cm wide at the belly, with a squared tip that makes the blade look like a short, fat corn knife. There is an unsharpened hook on the blade spine; its purpose is for gathering severed stalks.
Machetes for Medium Work
What I will call a medium duty machete is one light enough to use for slashing weeds, briers and light brush, but sturdy enough to do light wood chopping chores. I have three parameters for the design of such a tool: the blade should generally be 2mm to 3mm thick, it should have a weight forward balance and should not be overly long.
My own general purpose machete meets these criteria. It is a Cold Steel Kukri model. The blade is 13 inches long and 2mm thick. The injection molded plastic handle adds five inches to the total length.
The weight forward balance of the blade gives momentum and drive when the machete is used for chopping wood. The portion of the blade that is widest is the sweet spot for efficient chopping. The shape of the cutting edge makes the tool quite versatile for rough working of wood, such as stripping bark, pointing stakes, etc. The blade is sturdy enough to stand up to reasonable abuse, such as batoning to split firewood.
The steel is 1055 carbon with a black baked finish. The tool weighs 16 ounces and comes with a cordura sheath. The 2015 retail price is about $25. This is a capable utility tool.
I really like the kukri machete pattern, but the bolo and panga patterns also have the weight forward feature. Cold Steel makes both of these with 16-inch long, 2mm thick blades. There are other makes and patterns that fit the parameters, of course, such as the CRKT 14-inch Ken Onion Halfachance Parang and Condor 14-inch beaver tail (a cane knife pattern with a 2.2mm thick blade).
Machetes for Heavy Work
I think of a heavy duty machete as a wood eating machine. It should be efficient at destroying heavy brush, chopping and splitting small diameter firewood and such. I want my heavy work machete to have a short, thick blade that is definitely weight forward. These design parameters, though, would make it less efficient at chopping lighter materials, such as weeds and briers.
The standard against which I judge all other heavy machetes is the Woodsman's Pal. I first met this beauty when I studied forestry in college and we dated frequently during the next twenty years, while I was teaching and practicing forest management.
This tool features a slightly downward curved, weight forward blade with a sharpened sickle hook at the end of the blade spine. The powder-coated 1075 carbon steel blade is 10-1/2 inches long and 1/8-inch (3.2mm) thick. The five inch hardwood handle is riveted onto a full tang. Total weight is 23 ounces.
This machete can be purchased alone (about $50), or with a cordura belt sheath and honing stone (about $60). It is a high quality tool and is durable against anything short of wanton abuse.
In field forestry, we used Woodsman's Pals for a variety of tasks: clearing brush while establishing boundary and logging road lines, girdling cull trees, thinning sapling stands, blazing trails, etc. The uses which a camper, backcountry hunter, ATVer, or bushcrafter can find for a Pal are many and varied.
The Pal is my first choice for a heavy duty machete and the only reason I would pick another is if I needed an even thicker blade. Here are a couple of the tools I would consider in that case.
KA-BAR makes a heavy duty kukri machete, with a 11-1/2 inch blade and 17-inch over all length. The 1085 carbon steel blade is a hefty 4.2mm thick and is black powder coated. A Kraton handle is injection molded over the tang. The knife weighs 21 ounces and comes with a cordura sheath for about $60.
The Condor Crocodilian features a 12-3/8 inch latin profile blade of epoxy powder coated 1075 carbon steel. This beast is 18 inches OAL with a 4.5mm thick blade and weighs 23 ounces. An interesting feature of its design is that the tang is formed into a tubular self handle, which is then wrapped with paracord. Should be as tough as woodpecker lips. It sells for about $55, with a leather sheath included.
I should mention two-handed machetes before moving on. There is a scattered selection of these available, but I am not a fan. From limited experience, I have found them to be awkward, inefficient and frustrating to use. If I encounter a job that is beyond the capability of a heavy duty, one-handed machete, I will reach for a light axe or, even better, a 16-inch chain saw.
Steel for Machetes
Most of the machetes I mentioned above have 10xx steel blades. Machetes are often made using 10xx steel because it is an inexpensive, tough steel that performs well in use.
A machete is a striking tool that works by shearing impact. When an object is struck with a machete blade, the impact creates shocks and stresses both on the cutting edge of the blade and throughout the blade and handle of the tool. Finding a steel that copes well with the effects of these shocks and stresses is akin to the problem that Goldilocks encountered.
If the steel is too soft, the edge of the blade will be easily distorted (rolled or blunted) by being repeatedly struck into resisting material. Conversely, the edge will be susceptible to nicking or chipping if the steel is too hard (brittle) and the knife blade may even crack or break from repeated stressing. The right steel is one that best avoids these problems.
10xx type steel, properly tempered, strikes that just right balance for use in machetes. What is this mysterious 10xx steel? As a specific example, 1075 is the code for a plain carbon steel whose key ingredients are elemental iron (Fe) and carbon (C). The code number, established by the American Iron & Steel Institute (AISI), denotes that 1075 is a plain carbon steel that contains 0.75% carbon by weight; the number 10 in the code denotes a plain carbon steel and the number 75, interpreted as a decimal, specifies the nominal percentage weight content of carbon it contains. 10xx steels also contain very small amounts of manganese, but no other elements except trace amounts of impurities, such as sulphur.
The point is that 10xx is a very basic steel and is therefore easy to make, inexpensive and widely used for many things, including hand tools. The 10xx steels used in the machetes I featured above include 1055, 1074, 1075 and 1085. This well represents the range of plain carbon steels used in machetes. (The only difference between 1074 and 1075 is the amount of manganese in each.) A couple of sources I researched specifically cited 1055, 1070 and 1075 steel as being widely used in machetes.
This is not to say that only plain carbon steel is used in machetes. The CRKT medium duty machete I mentioned above has a steel coded as 65Mn; this is really 1065, but with a large amount of manganese in the recipe, for increased tensile strength. The Condor beaver tail machete mentioned is 420HC stainless steel.
Heat Tempering and Rc Values
Whatever steel is used, the critical step in making a good cutting blade is heat tempering it to the desired level of hardness. Blade steel hardness is measured using the Rockwell C (Rc) hardness scale. Rc values are numbers that indicate points on an ordinal scale. (An ordinal scale simply rank orders something, but has no further mathematical meaning.)
For blade steel, the critical range of Rc numbers is from the mid-40s to the low 60s, qualitatively interpreted as follows: a steel with a Rc of 45 is soft, while one with a Rc of 62 is very hard. Further, the approximate midpoint of this range (52-54) is a key dividing point, because normal cutting knife blades will be tempered to higher Rc values, while striking/impact blades will be tempered to lower Rc levels. This is important: edged tools that cut by striking impact should be heat treated to Rc values generally between Rc 45 and Rc 53.
For example, I know from considerable experience that the Woodsman's Pal is a very good machete. The standard Pal is made from 1075 steel, tempered to a target of Rc 47. I used Pals intermittently for over two decades and had many opportunities to observe others using them. I also maintained them.
I can report several things: I have never seen a cracked or broken Pal. The only cases in which I saw a nicked or chipped blade were when the tool had struck a rock or piece of metal. A correctly sharpened blade could be used for half a day before it needed to be touched-up. With the right sharpeners, a Pal can be sharpened easily and repeatedly over many years of use, with no discernible loss of performance. These points testify to the suitability of properly tempered 10xx steel for machetes.
Sharpening and Maintaining Machetes
There are three issues here: sharpening a new machete, sharpening to the right bevel and maintenance sharpening. I will cover the issues in that order, briefly covering sharpening tools and techniques along the way.
If you buy an economy-priced machete, you will have to do a serious sharpening job before using it. Low priced machetes typically come with a machine ground factory bevel, but are not sharpened to a true cutting edge. Makers take this cost-cutting shortcut to offer mass market machetes at competitive prices. For instance, my Cold Steel Kukri machete came exactly as described. Imacasa is explicit that their machetes are sold with a ground bevel only and will need to be sharpened before use. Expect this if you buy any machete with a retail price below about $45.
What to do? First, resist the temptation to use a Dremel tool, angle grinder, or any other high speed power tool to form an edge bevel. Such tools can easily generate enough heat in the edge of the blade to take some temper out of it, making it too soft to hold a sharp edge. Instead, check your kit of sharpening tools to find some suitable to the task, or buy a couple of sharpeners designed to sharpen machetes and other impact tools, such as axes.
I used the medium grit diamond plate from a Work Sharp Field Sharpener to start the initial sharpening of my Cold Steel kukri. The factory bevel looked about right, so I used the medium grit plate to work it until I had an actual edge. Next, I used the fine grit diamond plate from the same sharpener to refine the edge and then finished by honing it on a set of medium grit crock sticks.
Here are some sharpeners specifically designed for machetes and other large blades, such as axes and lawn mower blades. The Lansky Heavy Duty Tool Sharpener is a coarse ceramic file, designed for heavy grinding. It is good for developing a true edge on new machetes, or changing the bevel on previously sharpened tools.
To refine and hone the edge, Lansky offers two whetstones. The Lawn & Garden Tool Sharpener is a general purpose whetstone, sometimes called a canoe file, because of its shape. The shape and size of this stone makes it easy to carry in a back pocket for touchups in the field. Also, Lansky makes The Puck, a dual-grit whetstone, named from the way it is shaped. All of these sell for under $10 and do a good job of sharpening large edged tools.
How sharp does a machete need to be? A machete is sharp enough if you can cleanly slice it through the edge of a piece of single ply corrugated cardboard. Anything more is overkill. I can usually get a machete this sharp by using a fine grit whetstone or medium grit crock sticks for final honing.
I recently read something on the web where the writer said that he had a machete that was shaving sharp. He was either lying, or he had wasted a lot of time sharpening the machete to an edge so thin that it would fail the first time he tried to chop a bolt of firewood. Shaving sharp is actually too sharp for impact cutting.
The ground bevel of a machete can be a critical issue, or not. For a light duty tool that will not be used to cut anything tougher that woody stems up to about 3/4-inch in diameter, the angle of the bevel is not critical. This is because a single stroke of the machete will normally completely sever the target. Accordingly, I would recommend maintaining a ground bevel of 20 degrees or a bit less and a honed edge bevel about 5 degrees greater on light machetes. This creates a durable edge that does not have to be frequently resharpened.
Turning to medium and heavy duty machetes, the bevel angle becomes very important when cutting wood. Again, material that can be severed with a single stroke is not an issue; this would typically be stems or branches up to about 1-1/4 inches thick.
Larger wood that requires multiple strokes to sever, is where the bevel angle becomes important. Suppose I want to cut down a sapling about four inches in diameter. I grab my trusty kukri machete, take a good swing at the tree and the blade sticks in it.
What is going on here? The blade is sharp enough, but the problem is the bevel. It is too narrow, which allows the blade to penetrate too deeply into the wood, causing it to stick. The bevel needs to have a larger angle, so that it will block over-penetration. Yes, a blade can penetrate too deeply on a chopping stroke. Conversely, if the bevel angle is too great, the blade will penetrate very little with each stroke, which makes for inefficient cutting.
For cutting wood with medium or heavy duty machetes, I suggest a bevel angle of 20 to 25 degrees. Again, increase the bevel slightly if your machete sticks in the wood you cut most and decrease it a bit if you feel that you are not getting adequate penetration of the blade.
Maintenance sharpening of machetes is easy if done frequently. Use a canoe file or similar compact whetstone to touch up the blade whenever you get the slightest hint that it is beginning to dull. After a session of using the tool, check the edge carefully for general dullness, edge rolling, nicks or chips. Rework to cardboard slicing sharpness.
Overall maintenance of a machete is a matter of keeping it clean and dry. Sap, resin and other gunk will inevitably get on the blade when live vegetation is cut. This will corrode the blade over time if it is not removed.
Most solvents will remove the gunk, but I like a technique that gets me two results together. I wipe a liberal coat of mineral oil onto the blade and let it set overnight. Then I scrub the blade and the residue almost always comes off without resistance. I do not try to wipe the blade completely dry of mineral oil, but purposely leave a light film, making sure that I have some on the raw steel on the ground bevel and cutting edge. This is as good a storage protectant for the blade as any.
The most insidious enemy of steel, especially carbon steel, is sustained exposure to water or high humidity. The countermeasures are simple. Do not leave a machete in the wet. This includes not leaving it in a damp sheath. These points may seem obvious, but I have to say it. Dry a wet machete at the first opportunity and then give it a light treatment of mineral oil, WD-40, or some similar moisture barrier/rust inhibitor before laying it aside. This is not rocket science, just common sense maintenance.
Shopping and Buying Guidelines
When shopping for a machete, first cull out the junk. Do not buy any knife if the type and thickness of steel is not specified. Do not buy if the country of origin is unclear. These criteria should help you avoid getting a machete with a blade stamped from an old truck fender.
A realistic minimum street price for a light duty machete is in the $15 to $20 range. A decent medium duty machete should cost at least $25. You can get a serviceable, carbon steel, light or medium machete for anywhere between these minimums and about $50. Expect to pay $50 to $80 for a good carbon steel, heavy duty machete. There are machetes on the market for upwards of $100, but these would be luxury buys.
Machetes are also available in a variety of stainless steels. These will be more expensive than an otherwise identical carbon steel blade. If you must have stainless steel, be sure that you know the Rc to which it is tempered. Do not buy a machete tempered to Rc values higher than the mid-50s. Sooner or later, a stainless steel machete tempered too hard will chip, crack or break.
When I started this project, I expected to have to burn up the internet to get a full picture of the machete market. However, I found three sites that, together, have it well covered. The Machete Store (www.themachetestore.com) and Machete Specialists (www.machetespecialists.com) are all about machetes. Discount Cutlery (www.discountcutlery.net) has a machete section almost as extensive as the other two. All are well-organized, easy to navigate sites that are good resources for shopping and comparing.
I did some checking in my local big box and sporting goods stores and the machete offerings were disappointing. What I found were mostly cheap, junk items. It looks like internet shopping and buying is the better bet.
A good quality machete is an essential and versatile outdoor tool. Serviceable machetes need be no more expensive than a decent quality pocket or sheath knife and can be used to do things that any sane person would not try to do with a normal knife.
Copyright 2015 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.