I am pleased to feature the work and writing of Anssi Ruusuvori in this post. Anssi is a puukkoseppä, historian and author of the landmark book “Puukon Historia ”. I am happy to say that Anssi is working on an English translation of this book.
The 704 page hard cover book includes over 2300 color photos and shows an impressive array of local Finnish puukko-models from the Iron Age to the modern times. Several of the puukko-models included are presented here for the first time. The book is based on meticulous and painstaking survey of several museums and private collections. The most important part of the study is based on the unique knife collection of National Museum of Finland, which has been gathered since 1830’s, but has never been scientifically studied or published in print until now.
The last part of the book contains a picture gallery where each knife is presented on a double page with high quality images from several different angles, a table with precise measurements, material data and additional information about each item. I am happy to say that Anssi is currently at work on an English language version. You can order it from the publisher’s web store http://www.apali.fi/kauppa/product_details.php?p=398
“I am a part time maker. By profession I am an architect and acoustic consultant. What makes me forge blades and build knives is an urge to do something totally different to my everyday work with computers, something with my hands, gladly something beautiful and useful. Also, as modern design has always been a passion of mine, I find it very pleasing to be able to first design something, then make it, and then even use it to make other things. Sometimes I have carved a handle of a new knife entirely with a knife I have made earlier. I think that’s kind of interesting.
Also what makes making knives so interesting, is that it is so damned hard. There is always some guy who is better at it, someone who makes more beautiful knives than you and someone who makes everything look easy when you struggle. But still, as long as you keep honing your skills, there is a chance to …well not to beat them, but at least be at the nearly same level.
When I reached six years of age, my father thought it was about the time to teach me and my brother how to handle a traditional Finnish puukko-knife in wood carving and other related tasks. We were staying at that time at our summer cottage far away from the big cities (and hospitals). The story goes that my mother was so terrified that she locked herself in a closet for the rest of the day. Well, I ended up not killing myself, but instead started to learn steadily how to use the famed puukko in all possible ways, carving wood, making toys, building birdhouses, dressing fish and such. In 1993 I was once again at my family’s summer cottage and was trying to find something meaningful to do. I looked around all the plastic handled puukkos I had been using for years and started to wonder whether I could make a better grip and sheath for them. Being an architect and always keen on design, I started by sawing off the handle and then designing and building new “innovative” forms for the ancient tool. Of course I was way off and managed to design somewhat nice-looking but cumbersome “designs” that did not do justice to traditional forms. After many mistakes I finally found some new designs that were stylish and interesting enough to be elected to the “Young Forum 1996” exhibition at the Finnish design center (Design Forum) in Helsinki.
After that my work started to move steadily towards more traditional and functional forms, although at the same time, I tried to incorporate a few new ideas to the old tradition: creating for example a streamlined “desk puukko”, designing a new type of half wooden leather sheath and using some new details and materials in my knives.
My first knives had simple factory made blades, but luckily in 1995 I bumped into the famous Finnish blade smith Jukka Hankala, who agreed to make blades based on my designs. I decided to create two basic models. First model was for a traditional puukko and the other for a “hunting puukko”, with wider blade and a moderate finger guard. I used mainly Jukka’s blades for my knives until I finally started making my own blades in 2005, and since 2007 all my knives have had a blade forged by me (except for the damascus-blades). My blades are traditionally oil tempered with differential heat treating using 0,8 % carbon steel. Recently I have also started to experiment with stainless steels like ATS 34. In my experience nothing can beat a zone tempered 0,8 carbon steel for wood carving and whittling, but for hunting and fishing modern stainless steels are naturally a safer choice.
Next to the steel, I feel the angle and straightness of the grind, amount of second bevel and the final finishing of the mouth of the blade are in every way as important as the material of the blade- sometimes even more important. To shape and sharpen a blade correctly isn’t an easy task and it is quite easy to ruin a superb piece of steel with bad design and sloppy finishing. I have actually found that some of the old Finnish puukko models, that have had an exceptional fame as good carving knives owe their reputation at least as much to the fine finishing of the mouth of the blade as to the blade material or overall design. So it is vital to learn how to sharpen and finish a blade correctly.
I love working with different woods for handles. Every piece is different and sometimes you find a block of wood that just makes your day with its expressive forms and colors. I have used about 50 different woods for my knives and still find new interesting materials to try. I have to confess though that the traditional Finnish curly birch remains my favorite and I have used it more than any other handle material. Along with curly birch, one of the best knife handle materials, if not the very best, is definitely birch bark. It is practically indestructible, warm and soft to hold and beautiful. It is also very typical in Finland, so I just got to love it. I also love to try occasionally rarer materials, like carbon fiber, mammoth tooth, ivory and stabilized wood. The right balance of the knife might be harder to obtain with heavy materials like mammoth tooth or ivory, but they certainly make a difference in appearance. I usually draw the wooden parts of the knife(handle and occasional bottom of the sheath) in mixture of varnish and wood based turpentine for a day, let it dry for at least a week and then polish it with carnauba wax. For the guard and butt cap I choose mostly nickel silver, aluminum or brass, occasionally also copper, tin, reindeer -, moose – or buffalo horn and sometimes moose shin bone.
My influences can be found mostly straight from the long traditions of puukko making in Finland. On the other hand, when it comes to designing a new type of knife, I think my influences can also be found from the pure forms of traditional Japanese artifacts, modern design (like Tapio Wirkkala, Philippe Starck or Ron Araud) or even from the modern art scene. I think beauty can be found anywhere and it all affects how you look at the world and how you try to incorporate at least some of the beauty you have seen and experienced into your own work, be it architecture or knife making. Even music can be an influence. But in the end I it all comes down to an old phrase “Form follows function”, and there is no better proof of that than the traditional Finnish puukko.
As for the workmanship I have to say that I have been immensely impressed (and accordingly influenced) by the work of our modern master blade smiths, like Jukka Hankala, Arto Liukko, Pekka Tuominen and Mauri Heikkinen to name a few. They all make beautiful, perfectly finished knives without ever forgetting the functional demands. Also I have to raise a hat to the great Bob Loveless. He really understood what is a functional knife. I was also very pleased to learn, that he named one of his models as “puukko”.
After my back was badly insured in 2005, I had to stay in bed for a long while with nothing to do. It was then that I realized, that although there were several books written on Finnish puukko knives, there were serious gaps in the history of the puukko which no one had tried to fill. After I was able to move a bit I started to contact our regional and national museums and collectors to study their collections. I was immensely surprised to learn that there were priceless collections of puukkos in our regional and national museums, gathered for over 150 years and no one had seriously studied before. To cut a long story short, I spent the next four years photographing, measuring and studying several museum and private collections. The end result was a 704 page book on History of the puukko (Puukon Historia, Apali Oy 2009) which was nominated in 2010 as one of the best Finnish science books of the year. I have also just completed the second part of the book, with will be published in 2012.
The studying of puukkos also made me an enthusiastic collector. I have in my collection over 300 historical puukko-knives now and about 150 other edged weapons from around the world (among them a mint condition Loveless drop point I’m glad to say).
Since 1994 I have been attending the Fiskars knife making competition each year, which has had the official status of national championships from the year 2000. After a few third and second prizes I won gold medal at the 2002 championships in hunting knife division. After that I have been invited to Fiskars competition as a judge for a few time (including this year), but I also have continued to enter the competition whenever I’m not judging. My latest prizes include bronze and silver medals in the championship-series (intended only for the previous national champions).
At the moment I am working on a design for a modern butterfly knife (which construction still isn’t forbidden, thanks god, in Finland). There is a tradition for those knives in Finland (the Hackman “Vietnam butterfly knife”), so it would be great to be able to continue that tradition with a modern well designed model. I had the prototype in Helsinki Knife Show 2012 and it created major interest.
In future I would also love to design knives for the knife industry: especially for the famed Fiskars factory, which at the time doesn’t produce any puukko-style knives, only some cheap “builders knives” that do not deserve the term. To design a beautiful modern puukko-knife series for them would be a real dream job.”