The Grohmann Russell Belt Knife Kit





I find it remarkable that it's taken me so long to get one of these. The Grohmann Company is the only knife production company in Canada to my knowledge, and with these blades having won design awards, and being the standard Canadian armed services survival knfe for many years... Well, I just never got around to getting one!

What finally provoked the decision was hearing so many conflicting reports about the steel in the blades - but hearing that so few people were dissatisfied with the knives. I was curious and then I found that Lee Valley sold Grohmann knife kits for less than $40 CAN. Who could resist? Eventually the kit arrived in a neat package and I could clearly see what appeared to be a decent sheath with shaped handle scales tucked inside, a properly secured and taped blade and some aluminum rivets. What puzzled me more than anything was that it didn't appear to be much work to put together a knife. Often these kits are sold as projects for scouts, etc.

The short and simple answer is that unlike the usual "Some simple household tools and assembly required.." which takes many parents about six hours of work to put together a child's toy - this was straightforward and easy!

Step One - Attach the handle wood scales:

Since the holes in the handle are drilled and countersunk, all this involves is holding the handle wood onto the tang of the blade and hammering together the rivets. I elected to be a bit more cautious and put a little extra tape on the blade. I also decided to rub the tang and inside handle scales for one minute with coarse sandpaper and then use a very thin layer of epoxy. Might as well do things right.You use very coarse sandpaper to make scratches that the epoxy can adhere to and it provides protection from moisture. I just worry about germs breeding under the handle since my knives get used in the kitchen a lot. The epoxy secures the handle slabs to add strength too.

I did find that I need to use a piece of metal under the handle to set the rivets with a hammer - but otherwise the handle went on in a few minutes with no problems at all. Then of course I had to wait for the epoxy to set...

Step Two - Sand the edges of the handle slabs flush with the tang:

The wood slabs are oversize - but all you have to do is sand by hand using a wood block or sanding pad with some sandpaper. By hand this can take an hour. Then since the handle slabs are pretty well finished, you just fine sand and rub in some tung or linseed oil.

At this point, you take the tape off the blade and admire your new knife. Mine was pretty dull, and there would have been no need of the extra tape - but yours might not be, so extra tape might be a good idea. I was quite impressed with what I had, and the handle is just as ergonomic as everyone says!


Sheath Time:

Overall I was very impressed by the sheath. It's a well thought out pouch sheath with better leather than I've come to expect seeing with less expensive knives. The knife was very difficult to put into the sheath, and withdraw, though - so I decided to fix that right away! I guess that the company chooses not to give details of steaming a sheath in case someone accidentally scalds themselves or cuts themselves by pushing a sharpened knife through a wet soft sheath. That's a pity, though it is important that this step is done safely and with supervision.

Again -It's important to realize that hot wax and steam will scald badly - and that a blade will cut through softened leather as it would through butter. Carelessness and lack of supervision for young people - have no place in this!

I took the unsharpened blade and sheath and just held the sheath over an electric kettle until the steam had softened the leather. I then carefully pushed the unsharpened blade into the sheath, until the blade tip was within half an inch of the bottom of the sheath. If there's a lot of resistance, steam some more - don't use force! It's worth pointing out, to keep hands away from where the point otf the blade could be poked into them. If the tip of the sheath needs to be supported, hold it against a cutting board. I then used a small block of wood to rub on the outside of the sheath, molding it to the shape of the blade and handle. I then gently removed the knife and WITH THE SHEATH STILL WET..

1. I melted bees' wax (parafin or hard ski glide wax will work) in a small jar in the microwave using the high setting until it melted (less than 2 mins). It's important to wach the melting ant to take the jar out using oven gloves - before it's all melted. That way you know it's not getting hot enough to ignite. I then used an old toothbrush to rub the liquid wax into the inside of the sheath. It'll fit almost to the bottom, just keep steam coming at the inside to keep the wax liquid. Gradually the leather will start soaking it in. Keep brushing until it all soaks in. The trick here is that the leather is damp. If it's dry, then it won't hold the heat to keep the wax liquid while it soaks in. You'll find that the leather absorbs quite a lot. Stop when you get buildup that won't absorb. Steam will melt this and let you brush out the excess.

2. Now Steam the outside of the sheath and brush wax into it. At first you'll notice a buildup of whitish wax clumps when you remove the sheath from the steam and allow it to cool slightly. Gradually, though, you'll notice the wax soaking in. Areas that stay light, need more wax. Pay special attention to the ends of the leather pieces. When wax stops soaking in but the sheath is still hot, GENTLY push the knife into the sheath again, REMEMBERING that the leather is soft and easily cut. It should fit in easily. Use a piece of smooth wood or the handle of an old spoon to press the leather around the outline of the knife - on BOTH sides of the sheath. A spoon can also be used to burnish the leather to a very flat finish at this point. Now remove the knife gently, and wipe any wax off it. Hot water wil help.

Leave the knife out of the sheath for a day or so, in which time the leather will lose the water it's absorbed. The leather may still have some excess wax on it at this point - so you can keep steaming and wipe it off. The sheath may appear dry after a short time, but it isn't: you'll notice it getting stiffer by the hour as it dries. Lots of people wonder how the moisture is supposed to get out of waxed leather. Most of the wax has been absorbed into the leather fibers, leaving air gaps. That's the same principle that allows polished leather shoes to breathe.

3. All is done and you polish the sheath. An old nylon stocking gives enough friction to give a good polish - and many synthetic fabrics will do the same. Lots of people seem to prefer using an acrylic leather sealer now, and that works too - and is a lot safer. The steaming and waxing can be repeated, since it's not as punishing ot the leather as dry heat in a warm oven. Each time you do, you'll notice wax goes in easier, as when the wax on the inside melts it sets up a wicking action.

You've made "courbouilli" or hardened leather, which was once used for armor. You're probably noticing already that it's lucky that you shaped the leather sheath to the knife - because the sheath is pretty rigid. The leather is now hard to cut too, which was good for the people wearing armor, and good for you, since the sheath will remain that hard and tough, even after soaking in cold water. I don't mix the wax with oils for the simple reason that I don't want the wax melting out on a hot day, and I don't want to soften the leather. Leather that NEEDS to flex to a great degree should be treated in a soft wax treatment such as clear shoe polish or snoseal. This might include the belt attachment. Personally I'd fix that the same as the sheath if I intended to keep it - just to give it protection from blade cuts... But you'll want to see below..

About the one thing I really mistrust in the whole rig is the belt attachment loop. I just have great suspicions about its permanency, so better it goes sooner.. A piece of leather from a thrift store belt is easy to install. It's not that I believe the original design is weak in itself - but I see the likelyhood of slight cuts gradually weakening it. Then one day you reach for your knife and it's gone. In my case, I simply used the slot for the belt loop to attach a wide flat lace. I vastly prefer to carry a knife this light around my neck, since my knives are so sharp. By keeping the sheath where I can see it for removing and resheathing the knife, I can avoid getting cut: it's handier too. Naturally I'd advise people to make sure that they put in a "break away" so that they don't end up hanging themselves..

If I were going to use a leather strap, I'd simply use a piece of old belt, wax and fold it and pop rivet the ends at the sheath notch. That attachment is out of sight. Poking holes through leather for sewing (if that is chosen) is easier when leather is wet too.

Sharpening:

I tried using a few different methods to see if I could find things out about the steel. On a belt grinder one should use new belts as the steel is the usual wear resistant stainless. It responds well to emery cloth sheets, too. It can take a while to get a good profile, and sharpness. Then you can use a mousepad under the emery cloth and then some green buffing compound on cardboard. By hand, I'd guess that most people will take more than an hour to get the edge into shape, even using large sheets of emery cloth. At first I was not too impressed with what I was seeing until I took a close look with a lens and saw that the edge was still suffering from chipping during cutting tests. This is a sign of part of the original factory edge being left, since stainless is usually soft and wear resistant. In the end though, all came together, and then I started getting puzzled...

The standard comment about these knives is that just about everyone likes the concept. Exceptions are notable, which is quite rare with knives. Then of course comes the comment that the steel in them is pretty soft and useless. It's usually classified as 440A, which is a great steel for corrosion resistance, and is still used for diving knives - but is hard to sharpen for the amount of edge holding you get. Other people say it's a German steel called 4110, with o.5-0.7% carbon. I'd think that it must be the latter, since I was quite shocked at how well a properly set up edge sliced, push cut on hard wood and lasted. Much ado about steels is just that of course: everything lies in the heat treatment of which details are usually lacking.

Probably most of the negatives I've heard were from army people who were issued these blades in bigger sizes and just had a small stone to work the edge. You'd be forever getting back behind the factory edge and so it's not surprising to hear the comments. With a fair amount of sharpening on a large abrasive, the comments might be different.

It's well worth doing a major amount of work right from the beginning!



Comments from Use:


This has to be one of the most intriguing knife designs of all time! Let's have a look at what's special:

  1. The blade edge is angled back from the axis of the handle. This solves the age old problem of whether to have the edge of a knife protruding forward of the fingers (as in a chef's knife for example) for allowing slicing and chopping food - and skinning. A boning knife knife would be a good example of a knife that allows lots of edge control - but is difficult to chop/slice food with because your fingers get in the way. The angle of the edge also makes this knife one incredible slicer! Often a small knife is used with a baton, as a chisel for precise cuts - and the edge offset and thicker blade spine make this knife a great choice.
  2. The knife has a curved line of edge. This also contibutes toward the knife's incredible slicing abiliy. When you make fuzzy sticks to get a fire going, you'll certainly notice that this knife is a champion!
  3. The handle design allows a lightweight handle, and is very ergonomic. You can hold this knife in a multitude of grips for whittling, peeling, you name it. All grips are secure and comfortable.
  4. The saber grind model I have is a modified hollow grind. The wide bevel is slightly hollow ground, but allows a fairly large flat/convex edge bevel. This allows a reduction in friction when slicing. So while the blade has high lateral strength, it's very capable in slicing. With the exception of knives that I've reprofiled, I don't have any knife that approaches this one.
  5. One of the biggest complaints that I have with many knives is that the back of the handle is straight rather than curved. Despite the slab sided look of this knife, it has the curved back and width of handle to be very comfortable for the handle size, even with larger hands. I'd certainly like to see a larger handle for adults, but the knife is useable for a wide variation in hand sizes. I did notice that after a LOT of whittling on hard wood, that the folds of skin on my palm were irritated - but that's just a sign of a too small handle. Overall I don't think I could come up with a better handle design that would as comfortable for different hand sizes!
  6. I'm amazed by how well a properly set up edge holds. A normal day's whittling on hard wood, and the edge can be put back to incredible sharpness with simple stropping. I didn't get some rare specimen here - use the edge for scraping, and you'll soon see the deficits of the steel. I do think however that for most users, the steel will be sufficient. The steel is widely used in high end cutlery in Europe and so if a person added the step of using brass rivets, and really getting tung oil into the handle, this is the kitchen utility knife of all time!
  7. In terms of strength, being of full tang design, and utility, this knife certainly sets a standard for small utility blades for the outdoors. It's possible to get a very similar knife in D2 steel - The Yukon. Those wishing a custom made knife of similar design can find one made by Rick Frigault: The Basadie

Conclusions:


For less than $40 CAN, anyone can quickly put together a knife that's superbly practical for adults as well as children, and as practical in the kitchen as on the trail. Not much to argue about concerning value! I really would like to see higher end steel used in the blade, just to increase the utility for those like me who like to scrape wood. Other than that, I believe that the regular stainless steel has lots of attributes that make it worthwhile. The built knife certainly has a quality look about it that belies its price - and the quality isn't skin deep, if you do your part in it's building. Hopefully I've given some pointers to constructing a rig that will be around for decades of hard use.

Decades ago in the back to the earth, "Mother Earth News" days, I remember reading that the best outdoor utility knife of all would be a small thin paring knife for which you made a sheath. Most of the smaller Moras follow this concept, and so does this blade. Any blade that's great in the kitchen is also great in the bush for general tasks, and it works in reverse too. Given the choice of many sizes of blade length in kits, it's easy to go for the largest, but the smallest may be the most useful knife in the bush.

I had some concerns when writing this, thinking of young people using the kitchen counter top as a base when setting rivets, and of course with the safety concerns of building the kit. Knives aren't sold to young people, though, and this is an excellent project for parents and scout/guide leaders to use with yound people. The book "Bushcraft" by Mors Kochanski gives excellent use and safety information for people just getting into using knives, and young people who learn properly tend to grow into responsible adults. Often we overprotect young people to the point where the first dangerous piece of steel they have is a car - with all of the often tragic results. Learning skills and responsibility is a long and gradual process - or should be.




Jimbo

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