Sunday, April 04, 2010

Kukri vs. Ebinata

Kukri and ebinata

When I first set about cutting bamboo many years ago, I bought an Ebinata (literally "shrimp bill-hook", dunno why it's called that). It cost about 1,500 yen from the DIY store and it came with a fairly useless leatherette blade cover, but no sheath or holder. I liked it a lot at first. It feels good in my hand and it does swift destruction to anything it's used on, from bamboo to tree branches and even clumps of grass. The hooky bit on the end can be used as a hammer, as can the flat of the blade if need be, and the hook also keeps the blade from getting dinged. And when you've cut down a big bamboo and find that it's too heavy to move, the hook can be inserted at the bottom of the culm as a means of dragging it to an angle so that it falls over by itself.

Being a cheap and easily replaceable tool, I've used it savagely, especially when splitting very big culms of bamboo. This involves driving the tool through inch-thick material by hammering alternately on the spine of the blade and on the tang with another stout piece of bamboo. The tool is not harmed in the least by this rough usage.

However, although it's an excellent tool, I began to find the handle less than ergonomic, with a tendency to fly out of my hand when wet. Binding it with string helped, but not as much as I'd hoped. A bigger pommel would be a huge plus. Also, since it didn't come with a sheath and the cover fell to bits, finding somewhere to put it between bouts of chopping became a problem. I often just threw it down on the ground in the bamboo grove, but then finding it again later was not always easy. I put a hook in the end to attach it to my belt loop, but it keeps falling off. And the main problem was that I began to feel it was taking too many swings to cut through any size of bamboo. I felt that if it were just a bit heavier and bit more choppingly balanced, it would save me a few strokes.

Chopping comparison test.
Kukri marginally better, more fun.

So after reading that the Nepalese kukri is a crazy chopping tool, I figured that it might be what I was looking for. After looking through the extensive and annoying bullshit-filled catalogue at, I decided to get the 12" Chinautee. Since Khukuri House makes their knives to order and they accept modifications, I opted not to have the traditional kukri notch since I'm not a devotee of the goddess Kali or whatever the notch is supposed to be for. Also, the traditional kukri has a sharply tapered pommel which is commonly reported to jab painfully into the wrist when chopping, so I asked to have a rounded off pommel. Finally, I asked for none of the ridges on the handle that would seem to promise flayed hands after a few minutes' real work. The knife itself seems very cheap at $40, but the shipping was the same again making it a good deal costlier than the ebinata from the DIY store.

My knife arrived almost a month later than promised due to some power problem across the whole of Nepal. The whole thing, sheath included, is a beautiful piece of workmanship, and the two-tone handle is especially attractive. However, a 12" blade is imposing and heavy, something I began to consider carefully only after I had ordered it. It does chop well, although not vastly better than the ebinata. The handle however fits nicely in the hand, and the pommel prevents unwanted droppage. Wielding it presents more of a hazard than the ebinata since the kukri has a sharp point. A mistake with the ebinata would leave a nasty bruise on your shin -- the kukri would cut your shin right open.

Having a rather inventive nature, I very quickly gussied up the sheath attachment by cannibalizing a defunct bum bag. It now has quick-release frog with leg strap to stop it flapping about. The kukri sits perfectly, out of the way of work, but right within reach.

Sharpening the kukri presents problems that the ebinata doesn't. The ebinata can be brought to a very sharp edge simply be running an oilstone up and down it a couple of times. But the blade of the kukri is a rather eccentric S-shape and getting an even edge on it is not easy. I bought a kitchen knife-sharpening tool, but quickly found that the kukri is too big to fit in the slot (but boy, our kitchen knives are sharp now...). Incidentally, there are some good videos about knife-sharpening here.

So which 'wins', the kukri or the ebinata? Well on balance, the cheap ebinata has a lot of merits, and I won't be throwing mine away. (I didn't mention that it doesn't rust readily either.) But the kukri is a thing of beauty in itself, and actually chops better. Now I'd really like to try a 10" kukri which I think would be a more convenient size.

Bonus thoughts: A word about tangs.
Who that has heard the phrase "full tang" could not but experience anxiety when buying a knife that was not "full tang", but had a "hidden tang", or even worse, a "rat-tail tang"? The full tang is knife that goes all the way through the handle, so that's one handle that won't ever break off, no sir.

Well the ebinata has a tang that's a fraction of the length of the blade, and of the handle. It's fixed with a little metal ring and two very inferior looking pins that scarcely merit the term 'rivet'. And yet, the ebinata is made for a lifetime of constant impact with very hard bamboo. This fixture, laughably inadequate compared to a full tang, serves very well. I've seen ebinata that have been sharpened down by about one-third over many years of hard use, and their miserable little tangs are still holding up.

It's the same with the traditional "hidden tang" of kukris which are glued in place with some poxy natural epoxy. There are antique kukris on the market that are a century old and that have seen hard usage chopping the enemies of the British Empire into beefsteak tartare. But their tangs are still strong and in place.

I firmly believe that the cult of the full tang is nothing but a simple-minded dependency on the redundant appearance of strength, which adds weight and nothing much else. The history of cutlery offers abundant proof that a little tang is a good thing.

Extra thought
Since I bought the kukri, I've discovered the Razel SS7 which looks like this;

This too is said to be a wicked chopper and I believe it. It comes with a very robust sheath too. If anybody would like to send me one for review, I can be contacted at ocean11 at gmail.

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