Bushcraft Knife Safety for Children

by Emma Hampton

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Introducing Emma Hampton:


Emma Hampton - 'Wild and Outdoorsy'.While I was Course Director of Woodlore Ltd I hired Emma onto my team of outdoor staff and we have worked together for the past four years.  She has worked as a conventional classroom teacher and while instructing for Woodlore Ltd, Emma taught both children and adults including leading Family Bushcraft courses.  Emma would like to point out that by far the worst knife incidents she’s had to deal with were with adults. Kids are much more receptive to and likely to follow advice. Emma writes for Bushcraft and Survival Skills Magazine, TRAIL Magazine and the Outdoor Adventure Guide on “all things wild and outdoorsy”. Below is her first guest article for my blog.

Bushcraft Knife Safety for Children

How should you supervise a child using a bushcraft knife? Should they even have one at all? Bushcraft knives and children do mix but it is a relationship that must be managed and the seriousness of using a knife must be impressed upon the child. To follow are some kid-specific safety tips that will enable you to guide your child as a novice knife user. I also answer some frequently asked questions regarding children and knife usage.

Until a generation ago, most boys at least, would have had a knife as a child. I also had one and grew up knowing that a knife was a tool as opposed to a weapon – a lesson that it is actually more important than ever to get across to our young people today.

This being said, there are some specific safety tips that help kids avoid getting serious cuts. The first point is that, if you let your child use a knife, even supervised, they (as I do) will cut themselves at some point. It is my intention, however, to help you to minimise their chances of nasty cuts that require hospital treatment.

Sitting down with your child and explaining the seriousness and the responsibility of owning a knife is both important and a good lesson for them to learn. Knife mastery requires patience, dedication, practice, respect and maturity. Explain the legality of carrying a knife in your country today and where are the appropriate places to have and use one.

A first knife is special and mine became an important keepsake. It is not necessary to have a custom knife made for your child but it can be a nice thing to do.

Harry's Knife: Handmade by Will Adams

A custom knife is not necessary for a youngster but it can make a wonderful keepsake, particularly if parent and child enjoy camping and bushcraft together. Harry's Knife above was scaled-down from an adult-sized bushcraft knife with a rounded tip added for increased safety. It was made by Will Adams www.bushblade.co.uk Photo: Lousie Cain

When I am working with knife novices I like to give them a very clear set of instructions for acceptable and safe, sensible behaviour for using a knife. It is important that children recognise the dangers and know how to protect themselves and those around them from injury.

Firstly, first aid. Make sure they have their own ‘cuts kit’ and a basic understanding of how to clean and dress a wound or apply pressure should a cut occur. Set a good example for your child – always carry your own kit and don’t cut corners or take risks – at least not within their line of sight.


Knife Use Safety Brief

• Always have a first aid kit on you if you are using your knife. Always.
• Never cut towards yourself or your gripping hand. Ever.
• When holding a knife, never take a step – re-sheath first.
• Never, ever point your knife at someone, even in jest.
• If you’ve cut yourself, do not carry on and hope for the best. Stop and get it sorted.
• Don’t try to hide cuts – don’t be afraid to ‘own up.’
• Don’t give your knife to anyone else – it’s your responsibility.
• Don’t ‘go mad’ and hack away at tricky bits.
• Give it your FULL attention.
• Always use your leading hand – using your ‘other’ hand because your leading is tired/achey, will lead to accidents.
• Carve for short periods of time – if you are tired, stop.
• Children’s hands tend to be a bit softer and thus prone to blistering. This can be remedied by building up from short carving sessions with gaps in between.


Have a clear framework for knife-use:

Supervision: It is important that younger children are supervised at all times when a knife is in their possession and the knife should be taken back by you for safekeeping at the end of the session.  As they become older, you need to consider how and under which circumstances your child is allowed to progress to using the knife with less supervision.
Abuse/Misuse: There should be sanctions if the knife is abused or your child is silly with the knife.  A period of enforced abstention normally works.
Focus: If a child (or an adult for that matter) has a new knife, they want to use it.  They want to use it for something; for anything.  Give your child worthwhile and achievable carving projects to which they can apply themselves.  If they have a knife and no focus they are more likely to abuse or misuse it.


Safe Cutting Techniques and Knife Grips:

Keep it simple to start off with.  Give your child some basic techniques to get used to:

Forehand knife grip

The forehand knife grip is the fundamental grip to get used to. Make a fist - hold your knife firmly. Note the position of the thumb - it isn't on the back of the knife. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Always cut away from yourself, including your other hand

Always cut away from yourself: Cut away from your body and cut away from the hand that is holding the workpiece. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Take off a small amount at a time

For children it is best that they take off a small amount of material at one time, shavng material off. This way they use less force, they have more controlled technique and the knife does not become stuck in the wood. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Kneeling with solid surface to work onto

Until children build up enough hand and arm strength to control the knife and workpiece (as in the previous photo), it is a good idea to have them work onto a solid surface such as a log or a chopping block. Just warn them not to bash their knuckles down onto the log! Kneeling is a safe and stable position to be in. Cuts are made on the outside of the body. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Elbows on knees

When sitting and carving, if your elbows are on your knees it is impossible to slip and cut your femoral artery. Make sure your child always has their elbows on their knees when sitting and whittling! Photo: Paul Kirtley.

How to pass a bushcraft knife to another person

Teach your child how to pass a bushcraft knife to another person safely. This is safe for the person receiving the knife and the person passing it. The reciever will not grab the blade by accident and even if it is pulled out of the hand more quickly than expected, it will not cut the hand as the blade is upwards and all fingers are out of the way. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Particularly Unsafe Techniques For Your Child To Avoid

Wrong - never cut towards your hand

WRONG!! Teach your child NEVER to cut towards their hand. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Wrong - potential for severing arteries

WRONG!! In this position there is potential for the knife to cut into the inner thigh and the femoral artery. Remember, elbows should ALWAYS be on knees. Photo: Paul Kirtley.


Start with Simple Projects

A good practical task to start off your child’s knife skills is making pegs for tarps or tents.  You could, for example, combine this with teaching them how to put up a tarp.

Bevel one end of the tent peg

Choose a straight stick of at least 30cm (12") length. Bevel one end of the stick with controlled cuts. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Three-sided point of the tent peg

Carve the other end of the peg into a three-sided point. Encourage your child to shave material off gradually. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Completed Tent Peg

Completed peg. For a tarp, there'll be at least three more to make so they'll get some more practice! Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Below are some frequently asked questions regarding kids using knives and my answers.

How old should my child be before I give them a knife?
As children’s maturity and development is not uniform this is a tricky one. I would suggest that from around 7 is a good guide. It is important that they are supervised and surrender their knives at the end of each session.

My child’s hands are weak. How can I help them gain strength?
Hand strength can be improved by tearing things. Cardboard, magazines etc. make good fodder for strengthening exercises. Remember until the muscles in the hands of little ones develop more strength, they have to work pretty hard when carving. Short periods of carving are best.

What sort of knife should they have?
I recommend a fixed blade over a folding one. Folding blades – even lock knives – have the potential to close on fingers.

How big should that knife be?
Something that fits the size of their hand. The blade should be no longer than the width of their palm so the knife has balance and they have good control. For the littler ones especially, it’s important that a knife is not too big or too heavy – unwieldy = unsafe.

How ‘heavy’ should I get with the knife lecture?
You don’t want to make your child fearful of the knife but you should make them respectful of it and mindful of its potential for harm. You know your child best so meter your chat as you see fit. They just need to recognise the importance and the responsibility of owning a knife. I often quote the Spiderman film to kids: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

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Emma Hampton has assisted with and taught bushcraft courses since 2007. Emma also writes for Bushcraft and Survival Skills Magazine, TRAIL Magazine and the Outdoor Adventure Guide on “all things wild and outdoorsy”

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