by Todd Walker
You’ve probably heard the adage, “Practice makes perfect.” This statement is misleading. The truth is…
Practice makes permanent!
In other words, the more you use your knife, correctly or incorrectly, the more permanent your skill becomes. Use poor technique long enough and you’ll be a danger to yourself and others.
If you’re new to camping and outdoor self-reliance, learning to safely handle a knife is essential. Even old-timers like myself can learn new tricks. I covered some basic knife safety issues in our recent article if you’d like a refresher.
Today we’ll covering a few basic notches which not only hone knife skills but create functional camp comforts… mainly for your camp kitchen.
For an all-around camp carving knife, look for one that has the following features.
- Simple ~ Gadgets look cool but aren’t practical. The only true way to build knife skills is to practice with a simple blade.
- Grind ~ For carving tasks, I prefer a blade with a Scandinavian grind. Here’s a link with diagrams comparing multiple grinds from L.T. Wright Handcrafted Knives. There is not one perfect grind for all camp/woodcraft tasks. It’s hard to beat a Scandi grind for carving, though.
- Length ~ My dedicated carving knife (Mora 120) at home measures 2.5 inches. In the woods, my Mora knives, either the Companion (4″) or Classic 2/0 (2-7/8″), are excellent for fine carving tasks. These knifes are inexpensive yet build to last. A blade length of 3 to 4 inches is ideal for fine carving in the field.
- Handle ~ After hours of carving, you’ll find a smooth, round handle which fits in your hand to be more comfortable than fancy textured handles.
My main belt knife (pictured at far left above) is larger and more robust than the knives previously mentioned. However, it too can be, and has been, employed in fine carving tasks. Skills learned with smaller knives are easily transferred to a larger blade.
The Pot Hook Notch
Eating a hardy breakfast and dinner cooked over a campfire requires proper tools. With these basic notches, your camp kitchen will be well-equipped for cooking.
There are several ways to craft a pot hook. This article illustrates techniques using both straight and forked sticks.
Straight Stick Pot Hook
Find a straight stick measuring elbow to finger tip just larger than thumb diameter. Seasoned (dry) or green wood works, with greenwood carving easiest. A soft hardwood like Tulip Poplar, Basswood, or any sapling fortune sends will work.
The location of your pot hook notch should be a few inches (3 to 4 fingers width) from the end of the stick. Any closer to the end and you risk breaking the notch while hot dinner dangles over the fire.
The quickest method is to baton an “X” pattern on the stick using your knife. The blade should penetrate the wood at least half to two-thirds deep. Carve out the upper half of the X-pattern where the two lines of the X intersect. You’ll also carve out the wood next to the bottom, outside portion of the X. This will create a raised V pattern resembling a bird beak as you look down the stick. Hence the name, Beak Notch.
Carve out the wood under the point of the beak where the bail of your bush pot will rest. Test the fit by placing your empty pot on the hook and give the stick a sudden twist. If the pot doesn’t fly off, your notch is deep enough.
Care should be taken in stick selection when hanging cast iron cookware. Use a robust stick and only carve the notch to the pith (halfway) for added pot hook strength.
Hanging the Straight Pot Hook
There are a few options for hanging your newly carved pot hook. Since you’ve got the pot hook notch technique down, carve another notch at the other end of the stick so that the beaks are pointing towards each other. However, for balance, carve the additional notch on the opposite side of the stick at 180 degrees from the first notch on the other end of the stick.
Depending on stick length, you’ll want to carve 3 or 4 additional notches to adjust pot height over the fire. These notches will rest on a longer stick (Speygelia) with a chiseled tip propped over the fire. This longer stick is anchored in the ground by an inverted Y-stake or simply wedged under a rock or log.
A tripod also works well for straight pot hooks with a hole notch on the end.
The Hole Notch
Mors Kochanski teaches a method of carving a hole in the end of the pot hook for hanging. This notch is also helpful with camp construction projects.
The steps to carving a hole in a stick are:
- A few inches from the hanging end, remove stock from both sides until one third of the original is left in the center.
- Score a line an inch from the end of the 1/3rd piece with your knife. Score another line 1/2 inch up the stick. Between these lines is where the hole will be carved.
- With the butt/pommel of your knife in the palm of your hand, cut a quarter inch section across the grain on the score mark. This is done best by rocking the point of your knife perpendicularly across the wood grain. Repeat this cut on both score marks and make matching cuts on the opposite side of the stock.
- Make a rectangle by scoring a line which connects the crosscuts. Repeat on opposite side.
- Insert the point of your knife in the middle of one long side of the rectangle you created in step 4. Pry the wood up and out. Repeat on the opposite side. The thickness of your stock may require more prying and crosscutting but the rectangle should pop out to create a hole.
- Clean up the inside edges of the hole with your knife point. Insert cordage or wire for hanging the pot hook. I like this application for my camp tripod.
A down-n-dirty method Dave Canterbury teaches for hanging a bush pot over a fire is to use a simple wooden toggle. Cut a shallow V notch in the middle of a finger-size stick about hand length. Tie a piece of cordage to the middle and hang from a tripod. Slip the toggle through the bail of your bush pot and your ready to cook.
Forked Stick Pot Hooks
The most expedient pot hook may be what Daniel Carter Beard called the Pot-claw in The Book of Camp-lore and Woodcraft (1920). The Pot-claw requires only one beak notch to be functional. However, more beak notches may be added for raising or lowering pots over the fire. Crave a pot lifter for removing the pot from the fire (details at the end of this article). And remember, we’re practicing knife craft so add more notches.
Select a sapling or tree limb with a Y-branch with similar diameters mentioned previously. Trim the smaller Y-hook to four-finger length. Carve a pot hook notch a the end of the stick so that it is pointing up on the opposite side from the Y-hook.
This pot hook in classic camping literature is basically a pot-claw with a twist. Cut a sturdy sapling which has a small, flexible Y-branch attached. Bend this branch to form a loop and lash it to the larger sapling to form a loop. Carve a series of beak notches opposite the loop. Place the loop through your waugan stick for a secure pot hook.
One other pot hook used in the Classic Camping era was called the Gib. This hook requires two forked sticks spliced together. It’s not a slight on your woodsman prowess if you use two nails to make the Gib. Old timers often carried a few nails when camping. No beak notches are needed when using metal fasteners. You pot hangs from the nail.
Cordage is another option for joining the two forked sticks. With either fastener, carve away half of the stock from the ends of both sticks the length of your hand. The flat parts are located on the opposite sides of the forked branches so the hooks are on opposite sides of the Gib.
Carve a beak notch on the rounded part of one stick opposite the flat area on one end and a V-notch on the other end of the other stick. Mate the flat surfaces together and lash with cordage. I’ve found tarred mariner’s line works well even over a fire.
Start with a timber hitch or clove hitch over the beak notch. Wrap the remaining cordage and tightening as you go. Wrap to the V-notch and terminate the lash with a clove hitch.
The Gib is useful at a more permanent basecamp when you have more time to set up your kitchen. On the fly, simply drive a nail in the end of a forked stick… no notching required.
Hanging Forked Pot Hooks
Traditional woodcrafters and classic campers used a Waugan stick atop two Y-sticks driven in the ground. On frozen ground, two tripods or a tree and a bipod can be employed to support the waugan cross stick. The bipod can be lifted and moved so the waugan stick and pot hooks are completely away from the fire if the need arises. Maneuverability of this setup offers a drying rack for wet camp clothing and gear near the fire when the meal is done.
Your pot-claw and all other forked pot holders are hung on the waugan stick over the fire. For versatility, several hooks can be employed when cooking camp dishes when more company is expected.
Pot Lifter and Pourer
I first saw these last two ideas employed by Chris Noble from Master Woodsman. Hot bush pots can be safely carried and poured using a forked stick. Cut the tops of the Y so they fit through the bail of your pot. Carve a beak notch just above the Y with the beak pointing toward the handle. Flatten the two ends of the Y-stick with your knife for added stability when pouring the pot.
Lift the pot bail in the beak notch. To pour, tilt the pot slowly until the Y makes contact with the pot rim for safe pouring of hot soup or beverage.
One last idea for the pot hook notch comes from Chris Noble who made and installed one like this on our Georgia Bushcraft shelter. Cut a Y-stick and shave the back flat. Carve a beak on one end and a V-notch on the other. Lash the piece to a tree or post at basecamp for a lantern hook.
Developing competence with a knife can only be achieved through practice. And the best part is you can practice these skills in your own backyard or anywhere sticks grow.
Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,
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