Friday, October 12, 2012

The Nessmuk Trio – An Outdated Concept?

When I first read Woodcraft and Camping by Geargo Washington Sears a/k/a Nessmuk, much like most people who read the book, I was inspired by the beautifully written accounts of his trips and the woodsmanship displayed by the characters in the book. Consequently, that motivated me to look at the author’s approach to the woods, and try to emulate his gear and techniques. The most prevalent set of gear that has been talked about and duplicated by readers of the book is what has come to be known as the Nessmuk trio.


The Nessmuk trio is comprised of his hatchet/axe, a fixed blade knife, and his folding knife. Here is what I have been able to find out about these tools from his writings:

Hatchet: The hatchet used by Sears was a custom made one. The handle appears to be about a foot in length, and it is a double bit hatchet. The weight is not specified, but it is probably similar to that of a Small Forest Axe, about 2 ½ lb total. One edge was kept thin for cutting clean wood, and the other edge was kept thicker for shopping through knots and bones.

Fixed Blade Knife: The description that Sears provides for this knife is “The one shown in the cut is thin in the blade, and handy for skinning, cutting meat, or eating with”. It does not appear anywhere that he actually used this knife for woodwork or general bushcraft. It has the shape of a hunting/skinning knife, and the uses listed by Sears seem to support that. The blade appears to be about five inches long.

Folding Knife: This is a double bladed pocket knife. Judging from other sources, it was common practice to use these folding knives for carving and woodwork.

So, what do I mean by the trio being an outdated concept? It seems like a well thought out tool set. Well, it is indeed a well thought out tool set, and combined with his inspirational writings, many have set out to duplicate the tools, or to provide their own version of the Nessmuk trio. I believe the trio is outdated because while our current tools are superficially similar, their uses and our ideology with respect to their use is very different from that of the tools used by Nessmuk. In effect, many of us try to cram our existing tool sets and tool use practices into the trio concept and succeed only in form rather than function. I know, still kind of vague. Let me try to explain what I mean by looking at the tools more specifically:

The Hatchet: I start with this tool because its use and form is the most similar to that of Nessmuk. We still use the axe to chop and split firewood, much like Nessmuk did. In that respect our needs and use are very similar to that outlined in Nessmuk’s writings. However, me must remember that Nessmuk was about five feet tall. The axe which he had custom made for him was specifically designed to fit him. If we try to duplicate his tools too closely, we would have a hard time making similar use of his axe. That is why many of us who use axes either just get a one hand use hatchet, or an axe that is at least longer. Overall however, this part of the trio translates fairly well to our current tools and understanding of their use. So far, so good.

The Fixed Blade Knife: Here is where the divergence starts to become more prominent. Nessmuk used his fixed blade knife, which resembled a shortened butcher’s knife for skinning and meat preparation. Most of us who carry fixed blade knives not only chose a different form, but have a completely different set of uses for the knife. For most people who do bushcraft, the fixed blade knife has become a wood carving and processing tool. People either favor puukko and woodlore style carving knives, or heavier knives that can cover some splitting tasks as well. Overall, we have moved significantly from the intent behind this part of Nessmuk’s trio, and as a result the shape of our knives has diverged accordingly. While we still carry fixed blade knives, we use them for tasks that Nessmuk never did.

The Folding Knife: Similarly, this knife has also gone through a transformation that is now completely unconnected to the original Nessmuk trio. Most of us have a long time ago moved to a fixed blade knife for our wood working tasks. Our folding knives have transitioned into Swiss Army Knives and most often multitools. They no longer perform any of the tasks anticipated by Nessmuk.

The Saw: Aaahh…yeah! How does that fit into the trio? Clearly it doesn’t. Usually when we see a “look at my Nessmuk trio” post, the saw that the person uses (probably more than the other tools listed) gets left out of the picture somehow. The truth is that for the average user this tool probably performs more tasks than the axe they carry.

While the Nessmuk trio resembles the tools that most of us currently use, I believe there have emerged significant differences in design and function of the tools, and I think it is for a good reason. That has been so much so, that the Nessmuk trio has lost it’s practical relevance to our tool use. Some of the tools remind us of what we use these days, but the way we use them, and even the number and design of the tools has significantly changed.

Of course, we feel the need to validate our choices by connecting them to the past and more importantly to well known people from the past. We try very hard to cram our tool choices into the above trio, performing all sorts of mental gymnastics to try to explain how they fit in. Eventually of course, we forget about the use Nessmuk intended for each item, or the items that we conveniently forget to mention in order to fit our tools into the trio, all in an attempt to create this connection to the past, no matter how tortured. Eventually we only succeed in making a very superficial connection.

I believe the Nessmuk trio has lost its relevance to our current tools and their use. The trio has become outdated. Many of us indeed have an axe and two knives, along with several other tools, but our ideology behind how those tools should be used, and what tasks each tool should accomplish have significantly shifted over the years. I also personally believe that these changes are a good thing. I believe they are the result of a greater international knowledge base, as well as changes in the way we approach our natural world.

So, how is the Nessmuk trio applicable to me, either in the design of the tools, or their use? Well, it’s not. Yes, I have a hatchet and two knives, but I use them in very different ways, for different purposes, and I use them in addition to other tools which have now taken over many of the tasks originally performed by the trio. Can I show you a picture of an axe and two knives? Certainly; but they would not be a Nessmuk trio, nor would I want it to be. 

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