What is a Try-Stick?

In essence it is a way of honing your knife skills and practicing a number of commonly used carving techniques to aid with construction or day to day tasks in the wilderness. Taken literally the title says it all – a Stick on which you Try different cutting techniques.

It was developed by the late, great, wilderness and outdoor living skills instructor Mors Kochanski as an aid for teaching outdoor education to students in the 1960s however its origins date back further and even Mors said he got the idea after seeing a scouting pamphlet showing how to perform the techniques. He simply brought it all together on one stick and gave it a title.

The Try-Stick has been well documented over the years and has been replicated by many students including myself when I was fortunate to attend one of Mors’ courses in 2009. Having firsthand experience from the man himself was invaluable and I consider myself very lucky to have had this opportunity.

The Bushcraft journey is one of discovery and of sharing skills so having had these skills passed on to me I feel it is only right for me to pass on what I have learnt to you in this blog. To make this as easy as possible I have tried to do this with the aid of photographs.

To begin you will need to find a straightish stick. It will need to be reasonable free of knots, around the thickness of your thumb (2-3cm) and as long as the distance from your armpit to fingertips. Willow is particularly good but for this demonstration I have used hazel. Greenwood can be used but slightly dryer tends to be better as it minimises shrinkage as it dries which can be an issue if making pins and plugs that attach to your stick (more on this later).

As with all knife work, a sharp blade is essential and always follow the correct safety advice with regards to cutting edges, by standers and personal safety. This includes having a first aid kit close at hand.

The techniques used in producing this demonstration Try-Stick are, working from left to right explained in more detail below. If you wish you can add many more to this list including the knife edge, a split for leather/bark, whistle, wedged splice etc. but what I have shown I think are a good start.

Try-Stick Image: Rob Marshall

1. Trimmed end (Useful for the upper end of tent pegs or anything that may require protection due to striking) For this you will need to make a series of approximately 45 degree cuts working your way around the stick. This may need repeating several times depending on the thickness of your stick, but the idea is to reduce the diameter of the stick to the point where you can snap off the unwanted end and then tidy up with your knife to flatten it off.

trimmed End Image: Rob Marshall

2. Diameter reduction (Useful for toggles or carry handles that may have a leather strap around them). Start by making two parallel cuts around the stick to create the ends of reduced section. Then working between the cuts start to remove wood all around the stick. As the diameter reduces you will need to redo the parallel cuts to prevent the wood outside of them splitting. Just keep going until you achieve the diameter you require.

Diameter reduction Image: Rob Marshall

3. Square section (To maximise friction between two attached sticks or use in the figure 4 deadfall trap). Similar to diameter reduction but leaving perpendicular faces rather than a diameter.

Square Section Image: Rob Marshall

4. Pot hanger (Familiar to anyone who has attended a Woodland-Ways course). Start by making a cross on your stick with lines at 45 degrees to the centre line. This can be made deeper by battening if required. Then cut down to the lines from each side of the stick leaving a triangle, this triangle forms the hook on which to hang your pot. Keep cutting down to the triangle one side after the other until you have reached approximately 1/2 the diameter. The point of the triangular hook will need to have a slight undercut to prevent any pot handle sliding off when hanging.

Pot Hanger Image: Rob Marshall

5. Saddle notch (For joining together round sticks securely) A simple round notch that passes halfway through the stick and has the same diameter as the stick you wish to attach. This is easier to create using the curved section of your knife from the belly up to the tip. Use a rotating/slicing action of the blade cutting from the bottom of the curve up to the tip will help form the curved cut.

Saddle notch Image: Rob Marshall

6. ‘V’ notch (Also for joining sticks, create a triangular external knife edge on the second stick) Similar to the saddle notch but use the straight section of your blade rather than the belly to tip. Work on both sides of the V one after the other enlarging the V as you go until you reach the midpoint of your stick

V notch Image: Rob Marshall

7. Dovetail notch (For joining sticks perpendicular to one another). An intricate and time consuming notch which is the inverse of the ‘V’ notch. Most of this will need to be cut using the tip of your blade working in from the sides. Tip: if you leave a gap where the top of the triangle meets the outer diameter of the stick then it is possible to cut down the diagonal walls using the flat section of your blade. If you are feeling adventurous create a plug that slides into the dovetail when it is complete, then check it from both sides to see how accurate/symmetrical your notch is.

Dovetail notch Image: Rob Marshall

8. 90-degree latch notch (Another notch that can be used in the figure 4 deadfall trap). This is a combination of half a ‘V’ notch and a straight notch and is useful on anything where a latch may be required.

90 Degree latch notch Image: Rob Marshall

9. Dovetail socket (For joining sticks perpendicular to one another).

Another dovetail joint but easier to produce and created perpendicular to the Dovetail Notch. Cut the dovetail down halfway through the stick. When complete try to create the mirrored dovetail pin that fits into the socket.

Dovetail socket Image: Rob Marshall

10. Spear notch (For embedding an item in the end of a stick, e.g. arrowhead or stone axe head).First, decide where you want the notch to start and cut two ‘V’ notches on opposing sides of the stick down to a depth of 1/3 diameter (Or however thick your arrowhead is). Then cut two smaller notches at 90 degrees around the stick at the point where you want the notch to finish. These will have a length of 1/3 diameter. Now position the stick over your knee or preferably a cut block with the small notches at the edge and the two deep ‘V’ notches vertically on either side. Hold the end of the stick on the block firmly and give the other end a firm tap down or apply gentle pressure until you hear the wood start to splinter. Turn the stick over and repeat from the other side. Keep alternating like this, pushing a little further each time and eventually the two parts will separate. You can then clean up the split end with your knife and flatten off the slots if required.

Spear notch Image: Rob Marshall

11. Knife tip mortice (Creating square holes for lashings or for creating a bird snare perch attachment hole). Firstly, thin down your stick on both sides to produce a flat parallel section approximately 1/3 diameter in thickness. Decide where you want your hole and using the very tip of your blade push it into the wood firmly in the first corner of the hole. Repeat this on the other corners making sure that the blade cuts across the grain and not with it for all corners. Now using gentle pressure cut along the grain connecting the four corners to make a square. Using the tip of your blade again place it into the corners and prize out chips of wood between the corners. Repeat this process until you have reached the centre of the stick then turn it over and start again on the other side. After a number of repeats the holes will meet in the centre of the stick and you can tidy up any rough bits with the tip of your blade.

Why a square hole rather than a round hole? – You could use the end of your blade and rotate it replicating the action of a drill however this is likely to catch the grain of the wood and rip it rather than cutting cleanly leaving unsightly fuzzy edges. Exceptions to this would be for very hard, tight grained wood or where resin is prominent (e.g. Fat wood).

Knife tip mortice Image: Rob Marshall

12. Bow notch (For attaching a bow string). Start with a shallow ‘V’ notch on the side opposite where you want the finished string to be. Mark a continuation of this slot around the stick in the direction of where you want the string to end up. You will not need to go all the way around the stick so stop just after you have gone passed a quarter, do this on both sides of the stick. Now extend your shallow ‘V’ notch along the line you have marked using a succession of similar sized ‘V’ notches. When the entire length of your notch is complete you will want to return to the beginning again and deepen the notch until the string sits in it snuggly. To make the notch more of a rounded slot use the belly to tip section of your knife and rotate the blade as you did making the Saddle Notch. This will give the slot a more rounded profile and as you rotate the knife it will smooth out the connections between the succession of small straight notches.

It is possible to improve the bow notch further if you have access to a round tile saw blade or file however the Try-Stick is a test of purely knife skills so see how good you can get it without that.

Bow notch and root stripper Image: Rob Marshall

13. Root stripper (Useful for removing bark from roots prior to processing for cordage). The final feature on this demonstration is the root stripper and is created by cutting a flat screwdriver shaped tip on the stick, the edge does not need to be sharp. (Although if it was the root stripper could also be used as a debarking ‘Spud’). A small ‘V’ notch is then cut into the end of the centre and a long thin split is created reaching up the screwdriver tip by either using the tip of your blade or physically creating an actual split in the wood or a combination of both.

The Try-Stick is an excellent test of your knife skills and I would encourage everyone to create their own. Hopefully this guide has given you the enthusiasm to have a go.

Related posts