This post features Risto Mikkonen; a look at a few of his puukko and a WIP on how to stitch a tuppi, or sheath using the puskusauma style. This method of stitching makes for a low profile and an attractive seam.
Thank you very much to Risto Mikkonen and to Juha Nikki for translating Mr. Mikkonen’s text. Risto Mikkonen puukkos are available at lamnia.fi
“When I was working as a sales manager for a big Finnish company, I didn’t have time nor possibility to do handcrafting. When I retired, at the end of the 90s, my interest in puukko making was on the rise. This also was because my older brother, Esko Mikkonen, was a smith and among other things he crafted puukkos. In summer 2000 I took my first try at puukko making at my brothers smithy. I made my first puukko there.
A few years back my wife and I bought a small farm in Laitila, a village north of Turku. Then I built a small workshop in the old barn where I first made some woodturning with a lathe, but after trying knife making I was more excited by it. I made a liquid propane forge, got an anvil, necessary tools and then started practicing. I took one puukko class, but that wasn’t exactly motivating as we made puukkos from ready forged blades and traditional forging was missing.
I felt making puukkos was my thing, so I went really deep into it. My brother was a lot of help: we went through many phone conversations almost daily and many times I visited his smithy for some practicing. Due to strong determination I achieved a professional education as puukkoseppä in Savonlinna school in 2003. That same year I was invited to Vakka-Suomen folk school to teach puukko making and I’m actually still working there. In my lessons I try to emphasize the tradition of the Finnish puukko and its making, but to be honest some amount of “modern time” has come in, in form of machinery. Still, we start making the blade by hand forging. During 12 years of teaching some from the hundreds of students I had, have become good smiths and had won awards in Finnish competitions, even first places.
In my courses blades are primarily forged from carbon steel, which I sometimes use too, though I’ve mainly shifted to stainless steels such as Niolox and RWL-34, both representing the best in wear resistance. Also their heat treatment is demanding and interesting. As handle materials I have moved more and more, partly due to customers’ requests, to birch bark, which is very pleasant in hand as it’s warm and grippy.
I do the sheaths with traditional stitching which takes a lot of attention and care and is much slower than vastasauma. This is the conventional stitching used in puukko making: they put the leather around the insert and the knife, close the leather so that its edge-to-edge and then stich the leather. So the stitching is about 2-3mm high and it takes 15-20 minutes all in all.
I use the puskusauma, made without the knife or the insert inside. I measure carefully the dimensions of knife and insert and then do the stitching. This stitching is only about 1 mm high and more eye pleasing.
In 2004 began an interesting 10 year period in my life when I was chosen as a secretary and treasurer in the Finnish knife makers guild, the Finnish Puukko Association. I was the secretary for 10 years and I’ll be treasurer until spring 2016. The time as a secretary was very much giving. I got to know Finnish and other Nordic knife makers, even the best of them, and learned so many new techniques from the conversations with them. So much giving has also been being the jury secretary during puukko making SM competitions. A couple of times it has been interesting to evaluate and guide soon-to-become puukkoseppä final works and master puukkoseppä final works.
Nowadays teaching and making custom order puukkos for my own firm is taking most of my time. A good and necessary contrast to this lonely work is classical music. I go to concerts in Turku philharmonic every other week. Music takes me away from puukkos and everyday life.”
WIP: Puskusauma style tuppi
My attraction to the beautiful and stylish butt seam in a knife sheath has become noticed among knife smiths, and several requests have come in for written instructions complete with photos and associated captions. It’s worth mentioning at this stage, that the instructions I’m about to present aren’t the only way to make a butt seam. For example, Erik Nylund’s book “Korupuukko” mentions another style, chiefly originating from Sweden.
Making a butt seam requires great accuracy and patience. It is slower to make than the ordinary plain seam, but a good end result will reward the maker.
For making a butt seam you’ll need two needles, thread, beeswax, a puukko knife and the insert for the sheath, e.g. a Stanley or a craft knife, a piece of leather, a stitch marker, awl or a miniature drill, a pencil and some squared paper.
Combine the insert and puukko and attach a piece of masking tape along the entire length of the knife and insert. Draw a horizontal line across the top of the paper, which will be equal to the top line of the sheath. Draw a vertical line in the middle of the paper and make a scale for the measurements at every other square, and number it.
Define/mark the top edge of the sheath into the puukko, which you’ll then align with the horizontal line on the paper. Then copy the scale with its numbering from the paper to the knife’s masking tape.
From same leather as you intend on using for the sheath, cut an approx. 3 mm wide and 15 cm long strip, which you’ll use to measure at each point of the scale the circumference of the puukko and insert. Mark the circumference into the strip with e.g. a pin.
Measure the circumference and add 3 mm to it. For example, circumference 85mm + 3 mm = 88mm. Divide this figure by 2 and mark the lenghts on either side of the vertical line. DO THE MEASUREMENTS AND MARKINGS ACCURATELY!!!
At the bottom of the pattern about ½ cm from the tip of the insert, draw a horizontal line, which extends 9mm either side of the vertical line. Combine the measured points and draw the pattern, into which you should add extra in the shape of the attaching point for the belt loop, any type you choose (the “ears” at the top of the pattern).
After checking the pattern is symmetrical, cut it out draw the pattern with a pencil onto the top (good) side of the leather.
Cut the leather out accurately along the line with the top of the knife tilted 30-40 degrees outwards. Thin the leather on the reverse side around the belt loop attachment extensions and at the bottom end of the sheath, in order to make it bend more readily. You can also cut the top edge at an angle, unless you want to fold it double. If you do want a fold at the top, you’ll need an extension at the top, which you’ll thin down.
Draw a line with a pencil on the top side of the leather 2.0 – 2.5 mm from the edge, along which line you’ll use the stitch marker to mark the spots for the stitches. The hole will extend to half way of the slanted cut surface or a tiny bit below it, but under no circumstances beyond the edge of the cut surface. With half-tanned leather you can also make the holes such that they don’t extend to the raw layer.
You can make the holes in the traditional manner with an awl, in which case you should make the leather wet. A modern and quick alternative is to drill the holes with a miniature drill or Dremel into dry leather. A dentist’s flame bur is well suited to the job, as long as you sand down some of its roughness from its outside surface. The variations of leather hardness won’t make the job any more difficult when using a Dremel for the holes. The method is excellent for half-tanned leather. When making the holes, you should have a piece of firm foam under the leather.
Stitching the sheath, I use a dacron fly fishing bottom line at the strength of 20 pounds, the length 7 times the length of the sheath. I remove the slipperiness of the thread by treating it with beeswax. A saddler’s round tipped needle to each end of the thread such that at first I put the needle through the thread about 5 cm from the end of the thread, and then thread the end of the line through the eye of the needle. This way the thread won’t slip out of the needle. If the sheath insert isn’t very much wider than the puukko handle, the sewing will start from the bottom end of the sheath. If this is the case, you’ll have to count the holes on either side, so they’ll match at the top end.
After starting the stitching, it is useful to attach the leather into a “sheath stick” in a vice and tie the leather with rubber bands in order to keep the sheath steady and free both of your hands for stitching. It’s good practise to lock each stitch such that you put the thread through the loops formed, one side of the seam from top to bottom and the other side bottom to top. Once stitched to the end, it’s good to backstitch about three stitches and you can cut the threads by burning.
Before putting the puukko and lesta into the sheath, it is imperative to protect the (especially carbon) blade by oiling it and the whole puukko by wrapping it into cling film or a piece of a freezer bag. A freezer bag has less friction than cling film and hence it is easier to get the puukko out of tighter sheaths. You can rub some candle into the insert to reduce friction and then put the puukko and insert into the sheath. Check to get the seam straight, after which you can start forming the sheath with e.g. a bone tool. When the sheath starts to dry, it’ll get lighter in colour, and it’s time to make decorative patterns into the sheath. While drying, it’s useful to keep pressing the leather surface down with a (bone) forming tool, which is when it’ll get a nice even shiny finish.
The free drying time of the sheath is at least 48 hours.
There are several alternatives for belt hangers and loops. If your attachment is like the one on the left or in the middle, it is worth putting a slightly thinned down piece of leather between the leather and the sheath in order to have space left for the hanger attachment.
You can position the seam on either side, front or even twisting around the sheath.
Finished butt seamed sheaths with different belt hangers. The sheaths on left and in the middle have been made with a natural colour leather, the left one has been dyed with a leather dye. The one on the right has been coloured at the tannery.
Leather is sheath leather by Lapuan Nahka Oy.
Photos and text: Risto Mikkonen