This profile is unique in that it is about an American puukkoseppä working in Finland. Theo Eichorn moved to Jamsankoski, Finland in 2010 to study puukko and smithing. He has written a very interesting account of his background in the U.S.A. and his study in Finland for Nordiska Knivar. Part two of Theo’s story will be posted next week. I really like Theo’s work and recommend you visit his website at http://www.theoeichornknives.com/Theo_Eichorn_Knives/Welcome.html
“I was born and raised in California near the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. As a kid I spent as much time as I could running around those hills, catching snakes and lizards. That was freedom for me.
My exposure to puukko came early. You see, my uncle, while chasing his wife to be around Finland in 1964, sent my mom a Kauhava Hevosenpää puukko, which was kept in our camp chest. When we went camping my parents let me carry it, which gave me great pride, probably using it mostly to whittle sticks into spears for roasting marshmallows. But it planted a seed… I loved that knife and it sort of became iconic to me. To me it was “the” camp knife.
Then, when I was 11, my cousin came from Finland and stayed with us for a year so she could go to school and see what America was all about. That Christmas she gave me a puukko of my own, a Martiini, my first sheath knife. It was the greatest gift ever. It was then that I made a curious discovery. My grandfather had taught me to sharpen knives by laying the blade flat on the stone, then lifting the back of the blade just slightly so you only removed material from the edge. This worked to an extent, but my knife never seemed as sharp as it was when it was new. Was I doing something wrong? Then I got down the old puukko from the camp chest and compared the blades. That’s when I noticed that the puukko has no secondary bevel, that it is sharpened from the thickest part all the way down to the edge. Wow! Amazing! I started to think of other tools, chisels and scissors and what kinds of edges they had and why. I became so intrigued, it made me curious enough to want to make a knife.
Somewhere about this time I found out that you can make a knife from a worn out file. No problem, I could easily acquire one of those… And my dad had a little stone bench grinder. I was in business! Now, I knew enough to keep the steel cool and that if it started to show color that it would be soft. But that was it. I knew nothing of annealing. So, I got to work on this fully hardened file. It took hours and hours. I ground my dad’s stone down to a nub. (fortunately my dad was rather tolerant of my “learning experiences”!) But eventually I came up with something that was vaguely like a blade. This was in 1983. I was in high school and it was back in the days before there was so much fear around school violence, so you’d never be allowed to do this now… But I took that brute of a blade in to show my art teacher.
To my amazement he told me that the other art teacher was a knife maker and took the blade next door to show him. This teacher, Patrick Donovan, told me he’d teach me to grind for real and that I should sign up for his jewelry class the next semester, where I would learn some other valuable skills. This is how I was introduced to the world of hand made knives and knife making.
So, through the years, I have continued, sometimes more, sometimes less, mostly depending on what kind of access I have to a shop. All this time the puukko has been a huge influence on my work, but I never, or rarely, made what I considered a true puukko. Part of the issue is that most Americans don’t like the single bevel. It feels too thick, too wedgie compared to what they are used to. We don’t, for the most part, understand how to use it. I know this probably sounds crazy to you Finns who have grown up with puukko, but so much of what we are used to with tools is actually cultural.
An easy comparison would be Japanese saws, which cut on the pull stroke as opposed to Western saws which cut on the push. At any rate, I tried all kinds of things, puukko-like knives with guards, grinding them with a more American style of grind. I knew they were not puukko and told people they were not, but I didn’t really understand puukko anyway. But it was enough I guess that people recognized the style and I would often hear “oh, you do the Skandi thing”.
I had been hoping for years to come to Finland and study puukko. I always thought you could never understand something like that unless you actually went to the place they are from and learned about the land and the culture they come from. Not that you can ever have the same appreciation as someone who is from the culture, but just seeing a picture in a book gives little context. For instance, I never knew that a traditional puukko is a straight knife. I’ve always seen puukko with the half ponsi and modern puukko that have taken on some of the curves of Scandinavian knives, so I never understood that is a more recent development. But I think that is a fairly common misunderstanding amongst us in America. Although the puukko has become more broadly known in the last ten or fifteen years, there is still not very much information and a lot of confusion about what a puukko is. It tends to get mixed in with the other Nordic knives and is thought of in more general terms… Like Skandi.
So, now I’m here in Finland, I’ve been here about two and a half years, and I feel like I’m just at the beginning. Definitely a beginner at puukko. I think it took me a year for it to really sink into my head that the traditional designs are straight and that all the sexy curves were a more recent addition. Not that the traditional designs don’t have sexy curves, they do! It’s just more subtle, and actually makes them that much more difficult to make right. Each millimeter of material matters and can make all the difference between a graceful puukko and a clunker.
Another aspect that strikes me about puukko is that they are generally made to really tight specs from model to model. I had no idea that the dimensions were so formalized, down to the point that blades and handles and sheaths can be interchanged, and often were. I don’t understand the full story, but I have a few ideas as to why that is. One aspect is that the designs were refined over the years to the point that for the most part everyone agreed what was best. Also, especially when looking at the Kauhava model, it was a cottage industry and makers would get fairly standardized parts, so while they were hand made there were still aspects of mass production.
Even when the parts were all hand made by an individual they used techniques that were like a small scale manufacturer, for instance making the tuppi over a model, making ferrules on a mandrel, casting pommel, all things that would lend to standardized dimensions. We in America, on the other hand, don’t have standard designs. We have a few that are considered classics, such as the Bowie, but we don’t really even know what that is and people debate over what the original even looked like. We have an iconic image, but there is no standard at all… It is open to interpretation. I think that was the biggest surprise to me. I had always thought of the puukko as this kind of rugged, outdoors, guys in cabins, roughly hewn kind of a knife. I had no idea how refined it is (for the most part… I mean there is still the country puukko, probably the grandfather of them all, which is a rough tool for work in the field) and that when I made a certain model that someone with experience would say that it was too wide or too pointy or whatever. I was so surprised when I took my first puukko class and everyone started whipping out their micrometers. The puukko has been around for a long time and the traditional models have been refined to the point that the differences in style from maker to maker usually come down to fractions of millimeters.”