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How to make a knife, the South Saami way

In order to make a knife, you must first invent the universe as Carl Sagan almost said. Getting what you need for one single knife could take up to ten years if you’re making your knife from scratch, and this adds to the fact that these knives are very expensive to buy.

Now, Saami knives look different depending on where they come from, but as I’m South Saami, I will mainly talk about the traditions behind our knives, as well as the more general things my gramps has taught me about the making of knives.

Traditionally, South Saami knives (nejpieh) have been made of a mix of reindeer antlers and burrs, with the sheaths being made of burrs and leather. It is only as of lately, say the last fifty years, that people have started making entire knives out of antlers, i.e. both sheaths (dahpeh) and handles (nïrreh), and while these knives are beautiful, they’re more or less made for the tourist market, rather than as knives to be used by reindeer herders, fishermen and hunters. The only sheaths made of antlers were usually reserved for knives used when slaughtering a reindeer and these sheaths came with an opening so that the blood wouldn’t get trapped inside and cause the blade to rust.

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Slaughter knife made by Niljs Johan Labba, combining North and South Saami designs.

Now, in order to get some structure into this post, I’ll just go ahead and describe the knife I am making at the moment, i.e. a knife with a reindeer antler handle and a burr sheath, and while doing this, I’ll talk about how one prepares the material I’ve been using, and because I like to talk about burrs, I’ll start with the sheath, which so far is only a thing in my head.

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A birch burr

So, what type of burrs should one use then? Well, I personally go for birch burrs, and the lower to the ground that they have grown, the better they are. This as burrs that have grown higher than say five feet will have grown quickly, meaning that the quality will be less good than that of a burr that has grown slower. Now, one could also use willow and alder burrs – but they’re usually affected by mould – and rowan burrs – but they’re rare and hard to find. Some people do use pine and spruce burrs, but the reason why I don’t has not so much to do with the fact that the wood is rather soft, but more to do with the fact that you cant really see the pattern on a pine burr unless you colour it, which I think of as cheating.

So, anyway, say that you’ve managed to find a nice burr – what you have to do now is to cook it for some eight or more hours with sugar – which prevents the burrs from splinting. Afterwards, the bark should be easy to get rid of, but don’t think you could use the wood before it’s dried, which will normally take up to 18 months – half a year in a dark, dry place and a year in a warm place.

So. One and a half years, and that’s only to prepare the burr?

Aye.

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Reindeer and elks provide us with antlers for the handle; reindeer antlers are easier to work, but they’re softer than elk antlers.

Now, in order to get the best kind of antler material as possible, one should collect the antler in October and – once it has been left to dry outside for half a year and inside, in a dry, dark place for at least four years – use the piece where the reindeer antler starts to turn into a v-shape, this as the antler is thickest there and thus least likely to end up fractured.

So, let’s say you start collecting the things you need today, this means that you’ll have to wait at least four years before you can really start using your material, if you want your knife to turn out in a good way.

So, fast forward: let’s say we’ve done all that and we now want to make a knife? Well, first of all we need to decide if we want to make a hunting knife, a slaughter knife or a knife used to mark a reindeer’s ears; depending on what we want to do, we’ll choose different blades and sizes, even if my gramps tend to make damascus blades, i.e. hand forged blades that have been soaked in acid for a while. Generally South Saami handles tend to be shorter than North Saami ones – rather than going for Rambo, we tend to make handles that fit your hand perfectly.

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Anyway, carry on; in order to make the handle, you’ll need to cut your antler into a number of pieces, which you then slowly attach to the blade – this process involves cursing a lot, using a knife, cursing even more, using a drill and then finally superglue the pieces together and leave them for a week in something resembling an instrument of torture.

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My knife looks nothing like a real knife at the moment, but it will, once I finish it this summer.

And after a week or more, you’ll start polishing the handle, which will take a considerable amount of time – cursing is encouraged, ask my gramps – as you’ll be using a rasp, followed by several files and finally sandpaper.

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Now, I’ll finish this post with a short explanation as to why our knives have generally been decorated with highly stylised geometrical patterns – as much as these patterns are beautiful, they serve a practical purpose first and foremost, in that they make the knives less slippery when wet. Further north, wood and leather was used to create the same effect, but not so much in the South of Saebmie. Naturally these knives became symbols of one’s status as well, and a good way to impress a prospective wife was to give her an intricately decorated knife. Nowadays many South Saami women wear small knives as alternatives and additions to wedding rings, as any knife that is smaller than 10 centimetres long doesn’t qualify as a weapon according to Swedish weapon laws.

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