Old Hickory Cleaver: Inexpensive Camp Knife?

For me, the primary purpose of a “camp knife” is to handle some of the heavier tasks in an outdoors situation. Today we have all manner of specialized blades, but I recently pondered what the old timers might have used. This got me thinking about carbon steel kitchen knives, and asking the following question. Would the Old Hickory Cleaver make a satisfactory camp knife?

I think it could. On paper, the Cleaver makes a compelling case. The blade is 1095, a classic steel that can take quite a beating when heat treated correctly. The thickness is only 3/32”, but because of the height of the blade, there is still a fair bit of weight to aid in chopping. That is the meat cleaver’s primary kitchen purpose after all.

I decided to put my theory to the test and ordered one. At a cost of $18.00 with free shipping, what could go wrong?

The knife felt solid when I unpackaged it. The wooden scales are minimally finished–the octagonal cross section makes production easy–and held on with large brass rivets. It feels ok in the hand, but some sanding would go a long way to reducing the potential for hotspots.

old-hickory-cleaver-chopping-in-hand

The primary grind is fairly obtuse, in keeping with the choppy mission brief. We’ll see if this impedes some of the finer tasks.

Before I could start testing though, I would have to fix up the edge. The factory sharpening job has got to be the most sloppy I have ever seen. Not only was there still a burr running along the entire edge, but it was humongous to boot.

old-hickory-cleaver-edge

Here you can see, the seriously gnarly burr! Out of the box, the edge was unusable. This would have taken a fair bit of elbow grease to correct with manual methods. To save time, I used my Ken Onion Work Sharp to fix the bevel and before long I was ready to go.

[Update, 7/14/2016: Ontario Knife Company (the manufacturer of the Old Hickory lineup) reached out to us after this review was posted. They let us know they were aware of the edge issues on some of their knives, and have since updated their edge finishing process to correct it. I should mention that I have bought plenty of Old Hickory knives in the past, including another cleaver, and this knife was the only one that had any real edge issues.]

Before doing anything outdoorsy, I spent a little time in the kitchen. It does cleaver things fairly well. I chopped through some joints when breaking down some meat and it hit fairly hard despite the thin blade.

The curved edge is offset enough that you can also perform chef-like rocking motions on a cutting board. I minced an onion well enough, but the edge geometry was a little thick for this sort of work. Good enough for camp? Just.

Next was some woodwork. Because the start of the edge is down and away from your index finger, small carving and whittling is a little awkward, and would be uncomfortable before very long. For the same reasons, I had a hard time getting a good featherstick.

old-hickory-cleaver-carving

Chopping power is good though. The geometry and weight had me throwing wood chips with no problem. I also prepped a baton by rough chopping a handle onto a thicker branch end, and used two hands to refine the shape, using it like a “push-knife.”

Next, I took a small, straight grained log and split it into four pieces. My wood selection was good and the batoning did not require a lot of effort.

It seemed like things were off to a good start, but then I noticed a problem. After the chopping and batoning, the wooden scales had already become loose.

old-hickory-cleaver-stump

I had been outside for maybe thirty minutes at that point, so I can safely say that a stock Old Hickory Meat Cleaver would not be a great idea for an inexpensive, heavy use camp knife. It just can’t take the beating that it would need to.

But I still think, generally speaking, that the “meat cleaver as camp knife” idea has merit. This particular knife will just need some mods!

I’ll put some of my “training” to work and fashion a new set of handle scales for the knife. I think some micarta will do nicely. I’ll also alter the shape of the blade’s heel and extend the handle forward so that carving will be easier. Of course, some sort of sheath would be a good idea as well.

With my busy schedule, this may take me a while, but I’ll be sure to post updates as I go through the project. In the meantime, have any of you used a cleaver for camping purposes?

comments

  1. I think it would be much quicker and less costly to simply work with the scales you already have. It is quite common to mod the “Old Hickory” line of butcher knives (made by Ontario Knife Co) into serviceable Bushcraft knives. They usually “pop” the hollow rivets right away to remove the scales, use epoxy to seal the wood to metal interface, and re-rivet the scales and shorten / alter the blade tip shape. Most are VERY pleased with the result, and a similar thing would also keep your cleaver “mojo” intact. 🙂

    I was fortunate in picking up a very early Ontario Knife Co butcher knife made between 1889 – 1923 (pre- “Old Hickory” line), and the knife scales were offset of the tang with all sorts of vintage knife ugliness! It was a worthwhile project rehabbing this old girl, and is a joy to use now for light camp chores and food prep. I did a post on it and the transformation was amazing!

    http://bushcraftusa.com/forum/threads/early-1889-1923-ontario-knife-co-rehab-mods-makes-lightweight-bushcraft-knife.176797/

    cheers,
    Joe T

  2. Tim says:

    I have an old one that I had modded for camp use by Mike from Sugarcreek Knifeworks. Its thicker than the Old Hickory although similar in size. He convexed the edge and replaced the handle with a slightly longer micarta handle. Works great!

  3. Cache says:

    I don’t think I’d choose a chopper to make feather sticks unless it was my only blade. Maybe you should judge a camp knife by camp knife chores. The reason for carrying a blade that is large and heavy enough to build a shelter with is just that and it is typically carried in addition to a field knife.

    You can buy several Old Hickory knives for what most folks would pay for a camp knife or middle of the road “bushcraft” knife. When I have students who have become tantalized by shiny gear, I have them use cheap knives until they they learn that even the cheapest steak knife from the dollar store, with sharpening, is far better than anything they can quickly knap in the field and the skills and know how of what to do with a particular tool eclipses the value of any tool many times over.

    Given the name of the site, I thought this was sort of the overriding philosophy of the site.

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Old Hickory Cleaver: Inexpensive Camp Knife?

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