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Machetes and You: Care and Feeding for Your New Best Friend.

Welcome to part two of our series on Machetes!

Getting the tool ready to use.

As briefly mentioned in Part 1 of the series, most real machetes intended for agricultural use are constructed purely for utility and lack the niceties of fit and finish that exist in consumer level cutlery.

With rare exception, most won’t be suitable for use without a bit of time in the workshop.

We are going to use an IMACASA 182 panga for an example of what is required to get a good machete ready for service.

 A short Imacasa Panga

A short Imacasa Panga

Model 182, 14.5 inch blade.

Model 182, 14.5 inch blade. No metric system in El Salvador?

As delivered the 182 is nearly useless for anything other than scrambling eggs.  The bevels are very shallow and do not meet, leaving the edge almost a full millimeter thick on this example.
The blade itself is perfectly straight, very springy and has distal taper. Point of Balance is approximately 4″ above the scales. This leaves it blade heavy but not so weight forward as to preclude ease of use for non-chopping general knife tasks.

Getting a Handle on It

The wooden scales are uneven and stand very proud of the tang.

 Excuse me sir, would you like a splinter in your blister?

Excuse me sir, would you like a splinter in your blister?

Ouch. In the absence of a glove, this could be a serious problem.

Flushing the scales to the tang is going to require the removal a quite a bit of material. Even using coarse grit sandpaper the process would take an inordinate amount of time. This is a job for a rasp…or power tools.

I used a belt-grinder because I am lazy, taking care to round all corners and potential hot spots. Take the time to do a few practice swings and get a feel for any problem areas that still need work.  Two hours after using the machete for real work is a bad time to discover that you left a sharp blister-making edge.

Always wear eye protection and any other appropriate protective items when using power tools.  Unless you have a mutant healing factor of course. In that case do whatever you want.

 Much better.

Much better.

 Flushing the scales requires the removal of a great deal of material. Fitted scales compared to unmodified scales. The tang shape is identical.

Flushing the scales requires the removal of a great deal of material. Fitted scales compared to unmodified scales. The tang shape is identical.

After flushing the scales and final sanding it is wise to seal the raw wood with a protective covering.
I usually use BLO (boiled linseed oil) or raw linseed oil, liberally applied. A light coating of linseed oil also works as an excellent (though sticky) rust preventative for bare blades going into storage.

The Edge

While it is possible to sharpen a machete to an adequate working edge with nothing more complicated than a flat rock or hunk of broken cinder block taken from the artillery-shattered walls of a colonial era catholic school in the war-torn capital of a failed African state, we don’t have to do that.

 Two stage 3rd world sharpening system. The machete is sharper than if I had used a file.

Two stage 3rd world sharpening system. The machete is sharper than if I had used a file.

The unfinished grind of most machetes requires that a large amount of metal be hogged away to establish a cutting edge. In the absence of power tools the most efficient way to do this is with a large cut double bastard file.

The first step in finishing the bevels and creating a cutting edge is to firmly secure the machete. While it is efficient to clamp the machete down to a tabletop, my usual method when using a file is to simply sit on it.

Equally efficacious and does not require me to locate that most elusive of shop hardware, the C-clamp.

 Model demonstrating proper sitting on a  machete technique.

Model demonstrating proper sitting on a machete technique.

Once the machete is secured but before file touches steel a decision must be reached as to the shape of the bevel. A shorter, steeper bevel will create a more durable edge at the expense of losing some cutting ability.  A higher grind will produce a thinner edge that will sail through greenery with minimal effort but drastically increase the severity and frequency of edge damage. Remember, most machetes are far softer than any pocket or hunting knife.

I usually err on the side of performance and give most of my machetes a relatively high grind.

 Watch your toes!

Watch your toes!

 Absolutely as sharp as a machete should ever be. Too sharp for many tasks.

Absolutely as sharp as a machete should ever be. Too sharp for many tasks.

Being soft, machetes don’t hold an edge. Being soft, machetes are easy to sharpen.

Expect to have to sharpen your machete several times throughout the course of the day, more often if working near the ground or in hardwoods. Make a habit of checking your blade for rolling or deep nicks whenever you get the chance as a dull machete makes you work harder.

For edge maintenance in the field I use a combination of a DMT Diafold and a cheap double cut “handy” file.

DSC07042

Don’t worry about nicks, dings, burrs and other assorted damage. This is part and parcel of the transitory life of a machete in use. Don’t hesitate to use aggressive sharpening and don’t hesitate to use your machete for fear of damaging it. Just as an archer should not fall in love with his arrows, a machetero should not fall in love with his machete.

When not in use machetes should be lightly oiled and stored unsheathed in a dry place inaccessible to children or incompetents. You know exactly who I mean.

In our next installation we are going to look at basic usage as well as some labor saving techniques that will impress your friends, save your back, and make you look good. Also we are going to explain why a crooked stick is the most useful thing that a machete user can possess.

Thanks for reading!

Written by

Sam Cade is an EMT and amateur machetero. Sometimes at the same time.

Filed under: Accessories, Reviews, Sharps, Uncategorized · Tags: , , , , , ,

3 Responses to "Machetes and You: Care and Feeding for Your New Best Friend."

  1. Great article and series on the machete. Because of this I went up in my attic and pulled out a 24″ machete I purchased in Acajutla, El Salvador back in 1979. Not knowing much about machetes, I wrote it off as a souvenir and put it away. Looking at it again, although it’s a Latin blade with nothing more than a rather rough grind from the factory, I can see that someone took the time to sand down the handle which is even with the tang. The blade also tapers nicely from the handle up to the point. The question I have is about the back of the blade. My machete has a small chisel-like grind on the back that runs for about 2 inches from the handle toward the point of the blade. Any idea what this is for? I originally planned on rounding off the back toward the end of the blade and making the rest square back to the handle. But if this little chisel-like grind has a purpose I’d probably keep it. Thanks again for some great articles on the machete.

    Dave T.

  2. Sam Cade says:

    The shortness and location of the grind on your machete leads me to believe that the most likely scenario is that the guy running the grinder inadvertently started his grind on the wrong side. I will admit to having done that myself.

    That said, it isn’t uncommon for working machetes to be sharpened, at least partially, on both sides of the blade, sometimes having a factory starter bevel for either edge. The rear edge can be used to cut lighter stuff on the backswing or used as a grubbing edge for cuts into the ground to preserve the primary edge. If the blade shape has a great deal of curve (like the short panga in this article) a sharpened back is very useful for cutting tough vines that would otherwise be pushed away from the edge.

  3. Thanks for the reply. I think your first suggestion is probably the right one. You can see how it could be a little quick mistake on the wrong side. I think I’ll just square it off. Thanks again.