When it comes to famous outdoors knives, the Woodlore is a fairly recent pattern. Knives like the Kephart, and Nessmuk have been around for over a century. The Woodlore on the other hand is the brainchild of bushcraft instructor Ray Mears, and has only been around since the early 1990’s. It is a straightforward design, influenced by his studies under outdoorsman Mors Kochanski, and stood in stark contrast to the typical “survival” knives of the era.
Mears has said about his career “I was trying to put right the damage done by Rambo,” damage to which he inadvertantly contributed.
In the late 1980’s, Mears was responsible for the blade shape and grind of the Wilkinson-Sword Survival Knife, designed “to combine the ideals of a woodsman’s knife with the requirements of the expeditioner.” (source)
Then the factory took his design and added extraneous serrations, hooks, saw teeth, and hollow handle in an effort to cash in on the trends of the day.
With all this in mind, Mears approached custom knife maker Alan Wood with ideas for his truer vision of a bushcraft knife. From alanwoodknives.com:
“Ray contacted me to discuss a British knife specifically designed for bushcraft…
He wanted a smallish knife, handmade and as British as possible that was to become the Woodlore Neck Knife due to the sheath concept that allowed carry with a cord around the neck or slung under the arm for discrete carry or Arctic use. He wanted carbon steel as he felt stainless had no “soul”, a full, non-tapered tang and the short Nordic grind, a wood handle from native trees and a design that was devoid of frippery.”
Alan loaned Ray a knife to test out that was roughly the size and shape he was looking for, a D2 steel drop point with a blade just over four inches. Ray later returned with notes for Alan as well as a sketch of what he wanted. Alan made a few small tweaks to the design and set out to make the first prototypes.
Alan Wood continues:
“He still wanted the short bevel grind and explained that most people who attended his courses weren’t necessarily “knife people” and that it would be easier for them to sharpen if they could lay the whole bevel on the hone. Also, he needed the wedge-like edge that it produced for specific bushcraft tasks and controlled woodworking cuts.
The first knives were made from 5/32” x 1¼” O1 steel at a hardness of Rockwell C-56/57… I fitted the maple and shaped the handles with my normal palm swell and flared and domed butt. The wood was dyed to bring out the grain and given an oil finish with Danish Oil. The sheaths were wet moulded from vegetable tanned hide and finished with an oil/wax molten mix.
The spine was ground flat and square to be used for “Fireflash” ferrociem rods and other scraping tasks.
Contrary to popular belief the Woodlore blade shape has never been a “spear-point”. The spine has always been an arc and the edge shape has a little straight section and a parabolic flow and not a symmetrical spear shape which offers less utility.”
Some refinements were made over the years–slightly more belly, a higher temper, and later, a tapered tang–but the basic design today is virtually the same as those first knives.
Here is a nice video of Ray going through his sharpening process with his antler handled Woodlore. This version of the knife was only made for Ray and for his fellow instructors.
Alan Wood on the Woodlore’s scandi grind:
“Given that these early blades were in the hands of practising bushcraft people I had a few returned for reconditioning of the edge bevel and found people weren’t laying the whole bevel flat on the hone during sharpening so creating a thick secondary bevel which destroyed the cutting ability. I decided that it would be best to supply the blades with a mild hollow grind similar to that produced when a knife is reground on a Tormek or similar machine. This would allow users much speedier sharpening sessions in the early stages when they weren’t so skilled or patient.”
Due to their popularity, Alan Wood has been unable to keep up with demand for these knives. The ur-Woodlore is expensive and I have heard of a waitlist that is reckoned at over a decade.
Thankfully, there are alternatives for those who want to get their hands on this type of design and don’t want to shell out huge amounts of cash or wait for years to get one.
The closest to the original is the official Ray Mears Bushcraft Knife, which is made by British maker Stephen Wade Cox to “almost identical specifications as the original Woodlore Knife.” The price listed on raymears.com is £355.50, which is roughly $541 US at the time of this posting. Still expensive, but also cheaper than an original.
The L.T. Wright Knives GNS (read our full review of this knife) is an American made spin-off of the Woodlore and was my original inspiration to learn more about this pattern. The blade profile and choice in steel is faithful to the original, with a different handle shape using canvas micarta instead of wood.
On the much more affordable end of the spectrum, the BokerPlus Bushcraft also opts for micarta handles. This version utilizes 440C stainless instead of carbon steel.
Condor Tool & Knife also produces a knife which could be compared to the Woodlore. They call it the Bushlore, and it is available with hardwood or micarta handles and is made from 1075 carbon steel. Other differences include a more pronounced beak at the end of the handle and a simpler spear point blade.
I’m sure there are more out there than just these. If you know of any other Woodlore inspired designs, be sure to let us know in the comments. So far, in my testing of the L.T. Wright GNS I have been very pleased by its performance. The Woodlore pattern may be young, but it is certainly influential and I would say is well on its way to becoming a classic.
I think Alan Wood sums it up best:
“Ray’s concept for a bushcraft knife has proved itself beyond question. There really isn’t anything new about the features of this simple tool but the combination is generally accepted as being unique. It won’t suit everyone as regards size and materials… but you can’t go far wrong in choosing one to meet actual bushcraft needs.”