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.

 

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 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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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Steffan Stringer

Emma and Paul,

Great article!

I read this bit though and it made me pause:

‘….there is only one muscle in the hand….’

That would surprise me, but I’ve never thought about it before.

Best wishes,

Steffan

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hey Steffan

Good to hear from you. See Tadpole’s comment and my subsequent editing!

All the best

Paul

Reply

Rody Klop

Great article ! Right on the spot for me, just last weekend I tought my son some basics of safe cutting with a knife.

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Paul Kirtley

Good stuff Rody!

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Pierre

Hi,

I always wondered if associating round tips and kid’s knife is not inducing a false impression of lessen danger. Probably if you fall on it, rounded or not you will be stabbed. And the rounded tip might tempt the user in using unsafe technique when a hole needs to be carved. Not sure, just a gut feeling.

If one insists on a round tip, Opinel has a n°7 with rounded tip and a choice in colored handles. N°7 has a locking mechanism.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Pierre, good to see you here again. You’re right – if you fall hard, even on a round-tipped butter knife, you’d likely injure yourself. But there are incidents that require less force than falling on a knife that can be avoided with a round tip. Personally I have stuck my knife in the back on my left hand. It went in easily because the tip was pointed. This wouldn’t have happened if the tip had been rounded. Maybe I should get one? :) Ultimately though, like all safety considerations, the responsibility relies with you/the parent to make the decisions they are comforatable with. Personally I would teach someone carving with a folding knife such as the Opinel as I have seen too many bad incidents with folding knives (even with locking mechanisms). I think the most important thing when using any cutting tool – and this applies to adults as well as kids – is to have a solid foundation of techniques that are SAFE.

All the best

Paul

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tadpole

Just one small detail, there are nine muscles in the hand (muscles that originate solely in the hand and not part of the muscles in the forearm)

Abductor pollicis brevis,
Opponens pollicis,
Flexor pollicis brevis,
Adductor pollicis (thenar muscles)
Opponens digiti minimi,
Flexor digiti minimi brevis,
Abductor digiti minimi

palmar interossei
and Lumbricals

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hey Tadpole, thanks for the anatomical editing! I’ve altered the article. All the best, Paul

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Pete Williams

Hi Emma,
Good to see that you are still enjoying your work.
I find the hardest thing to teach adults about using a knife, is when NOT to use it! The children, as you say, are more likely to listen to good advice.

Well writen and with a number of good points.

All the best

Pete Williams

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Bean

This is an interesting article and one of great interest to me, as I teach the scouts in my district to use knives. I always teach the scouts to push the back of the blade with their thunb that is not holding the knife. This ensures that there are no fingers in front of the blade and only a small amount of material is removed with each cut. I may have missed it but I think a session of what is an appropreate sized blade for the job also goes down well, especially with adults who seem to think a cutlas is good for making spoons!

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Bean

Thanks for sharing your thumb-push method for knife safety. It’s a good idea.

There isn’t a separate article or section on knife-size but Emma does mention size in the FAQ section of her article.

Which knives do you use with your scouts?

Thanks for your comment!

All the best

Paul

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Bean

Hi Paul
We use two types the first is a small knive with a grippy rubber handle, it’s about the right size for a child of 10. The Craftline TopQ Precision Knife from Mora. Its great for small cutting jobs and its size emphasises the need to change cutting tools when something big is approached. The other also from Mora is the Clipper. This is used as a progression tool, use the smaller one correctly, treat it kindly and you will move on to a full sized knife.
The scouts are encouraged to carry a small opinal jn thier rucksacks as a kitchen knife for hikes, great in a rucksack as they lock in the closed position.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Bill,

I like the progression that you apply from the Craftline to the Mora, teaching the Scouts respect for their tools and good behaviour with knives en route. I agree the Opinel is a classic design that works well. As you say great in the kitchen and simple, robust lock (as long as the rotating ring doesn’t become loose). It’s nice to see this classic marque seeing a resurgence too.

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Emma Hampton

Thank you Tadpole!
Worryingly, I was told that by a nurse who was stitching a nasty cut on a hand up (not mine) at the time. I know to check my facts in future – and which A&E department to avoid!

Reply

Mark Hotson

Excellent article, very apt !

I have just finished another ‘ Knifecraft’ session today with some ten year olds. All ten of them managed to carve a spoon, there certainly was an interesting variety of shapes and sizes. These particular children have been using knives for 8 months or so and now really respect them as tools.

We start off with much of what you have covered. In the earlier sessions the children make both Tent pegs and feather sticks.I find the two projects demonstrate the ‘forced’ and ‘subtle’ use of a knife.

The article is very useful , a great check list. There is so little ‘written’ about teaching children in depth Bushcraft.

Thank you very much.

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Mark

It seems like our timing is in sync! Interesting to hear how these children are progessing after 8 months or so of knife use.

I’m glad you liked Emma’s article. Thanks very much for the feedback.

All the best

Paul

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Dan Watson

Hi Paul and Emma,

Love the article, teaching kids respect for tools is very important. I started my son (now 8) off with a mora training knife a few years ago. I ground off the point and made the edge about as sharp as a butter knife, this was brilliant for whittleing the bark from sticks teaching him safe use of the tool, over time we have been putting a edge back on the knife which has taught him some basic sharpening techniques. He is now almost back to full sharpness and able to attempt many basic cuts and simple projects.

Enjoying your articles, keep em coming.

Cheers Dan.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Dan
Great to hear about how you’ve been teaching your son. He’s a lucky lad!

Thanks for sharing this with us.

All the best

Paul

Reply

Phil Robinson

Hi Paul and Emma

This is a great article and I will share it with my colleagues and friends (currently printing it out, as I type). Sometimes I feel I’m on a one man crusade to get adults to accept that young people can safely and usefully use edged tools. There is such negative media coverage of knives, where they are only potrayed as weapons, that we can have quite a struggle sometimes! I’ve even encountered situations where some youngsters are scared of knives, because of their perceived image.

One of the things I do, to introduce youngsters to knife use is to have them chop vegetables with them, prior to making a veg stew. I find that this is often a good starting point because they do not have to force the blade to cut. Also they relate the use of the knife to something familiar in their home environment.

Finally, to make you smile… as my daughter approached her sixth birthday she asked, innocently, “six is very grown up, isn’t it Daddy?” To which I, of course I answered “yes”. She quickly replied “well you said I could have a knife when I’m grown up” And so, neatly tricked, she got one for her birthday present! She can now use it very proficiently and whilst it lives in my rucksac still – its very much hers!

Keep up the good work guys – been promoting this blog a lot!

Hope to speak to you soon Paul re. DorSAR

Regards

Phil

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Phil

It’s really good to hear from you and thanks for the great comment. I very much appreciate you sharing your thoughts and methods with us; I think your gentle approach to introducing knives to youngsters is a really good one.

Thanks also for telling the story about your daughter. It really did make me smile :) She sounds very sharp – I think you’ve got your work cut out there…

Thanlks for your support Phil and I look forward to speaking to you soon.

All the best,

Paul

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Pierre

A good companion article for this would be “how to take care of cuts for dummies”.
Despite knowing better, my first reaction when cutting myself is still to lick the blood, silly me!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Ah Pierre, maybe you are a vampire! ;) That said, I think your suggestion is a good one.

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mark

hi paul just regards the ‘thumb technique’. i used to do this but stopped after i once had the knife upside down, placed my thumb on the blade and tried to slice a stick, needless to say the knife went into my thumb not the stick. i dont like this technique at all, bit of pavlovian conditioning there.

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Mark

Good to hear from you. That’s a fair point you make about pressing on the back of the knife; or rather, pressing on what you think is the back of the knife. This is why an asymmetrical knife grip makes a difference; you can feel which way around the knife is in your hand without even looking at it…

Reply

Matt Batham

Hi Paul and Emma,

This was a great article; informative and well written. It’s great to see some common sense written about children and knives. Education is the best way to prevent problems in the future – I hope your work goes someway to achieving this.

The tips are great. I will be weaving them into the work I do with Scouts.

Thanks very much,
Matt

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Matt

Thanks for your comment. I’ve heard from a few people involved in Scouting that this has and/or will be a useful article for them. It’s good to hear that you think so too. Education about a knife being a tool and how to use one safely is something that has stayed with me since childhood. It’s great that you are working with young people to get this message across. It’s important work.

All the best

Paul

Reply

Bean

Hello Paul
In answer to your much earlier question about which knives I use with the scouts, well it is several so they know or start to appreciate what a knife is!

I have a box which contains several Mora Clippers which is where we end up when we are starting to get proficient. Several Opinal No 7′s a few Mora Carving Knifes, a couple of scalpels, SAC’s, a leatherman and a few cheap and nasties to show the difference. That way I have a selection of handle types and sizes as well.

My own knives are also there as well a fairly heavy Enzo full tang and my beloved puukko.

Reply

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James Harris

Just stumbled across this whilst looking at some past posts, it’s perfect as I’ve just got a couple of knives to teach my two nephews how to carve, I got some hultafors knives with blunted tips lightweight but with a bit of a finger guard.

James

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi James, glad to hear it’ll prove useful to you and your nephews.

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

Leo

Great article as always. My boy is seven and has used a knife several times. I can’t help feeling nervous when he does, but it is certainly better to educate kids than deny them access.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Leo,

Nice to hear from you. I think it’s completely natural to feel nervous watching a youngster use a knife. But you are right, that education and familiarity (without them getting blasé) is the way to go. Eventually it just becomes part of who they are. I was bought a Swiss Army Knife when I was 7 and it definitely made a difference to me ;)

Warm regards,

Paul

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