Content note: there is a gif near the end of this post.
My first thought was that this is the kind of book I might give as a gift - perhaps to friends with kids who enjoy spending time outside and might want to get their teeth into a few projects when camping or on a day out in the woods. It’s a hardback, with a tactile, cardboardy cover and a nice bit of utilitarian graphic design on the front.
My second thought was, "Uh, I don’t think my Swiss Army Knife is the right one."
I noticed, though, that it was Felix Immler himself doing most of the work - and the work looked quite complicated to my inexperienced eye. After a couple of casual rounds of page flipping without success, I wondered if I’d made a mistake offering to review this book. I didn’t feel like I could review it properly without trying at least one project, but a lot of of the projects looked a bit too big or time consuming or complicated - and the ones that didn’t seemed a bit . . . stick-y?
On the other hand, some projects seemed enormous, like a huge sloping-roof open shelter (first, construct a ladder and a leaf rake…) and a stone oven (“To carry the heavy rocks from the streambed to the camp, I made a hauling mechanism out of two small logs and a sturdy crossbeam”). I wondered, is a pocket knife - even one like Dan’s - really the ideal tool for this kind of thing? If I wanted to make the kind of bench that would require sawing through multiple small saplings or large branches, maybe I'd get a hand saw instead of using a knife.
Leaves are crucial for all sorts of bushcraft and survival projects, especially for making insulation, padding or sealing in the roofs of shelters. In all of these cases, large quantities of leaves are required. It is therefore worth having a tool that allows you to rake up large quantities of leaves effectively.
OK. "But I can buy a leaf rake for £10," I said, "or borrow one from a neighbour for free, so why spend hours of frustration trying to make one out of twigs and branches and twine?" That odd survivalist undertone of bushcraft doesn’t make much sense with regards to leaf rakes, either. We’ve evolved our tools and tastes for thousands of years until we’ve ended up with what we have now, i.e. a specific rake for leaves. Fine. But if the apocalypse happened tomorrow, I don’t think the majority of people would be specifically concerned about the leaf rake factory ceasing production. If we wanted some leaves off our patch of post-apocalyptic forest floor, or if we wanted to collect them to insulate our dystopic dens, we’d probably go back to simpler solutions, like, I don’t know, using a branch? Or we’d pop into town to loot the abandoned hardware store.
(Just watch me, now I’ve said this in public, I’ll probably become obsessed with leaf rakes. Look out for my next long distance walk, where I’ll be trying to find a good, lightweight leaf rake to strap to my pack.)
To undertake some of these projects you need to find a place with the right materials nearby, a place where you’re allowed to use those materials and where you can spend a decent amount of time. Most of the timber used in these projects is soft, European, forest wood - this is not a book that’s particularly relatable to, say, an Australian environment. Some of the projects use a lot of wood and other natural resources, and I think most people in the UK would be hard-pressed to find a campsite or woodland that would allow them to gather and process that much material. A one night camp is probably not enough time to build a stone oven or a stationary bench - and it’s certainly not enough time to truly appreciate your achievement.
Despite everything I’ve just said, I can definitely see the appeal of crafting something from scratch - just for fun, or with a practical purpose in mind. I can also see how doing a bit of bushcraft could really change your view of the world around you. Suddenly, all kinds of things can be purposed and repurposed into tools, the woods become a hardware store, the river becomes your electricity supply.
There are some projects in the book that look like they’d make a fun and productive day of work for my hypothetical outdoorsy-family-with-a-couple-of-kids. Imagine making a three legged stool, sitting on it as you construct a bark ladle or whittle a spoon, building a pot holder to cook your soup over your wood fire, then serving the soup using your ladle or eating it with your spoon. Pretty cool! There are a few projects that would be great to do with kids as a way of learning about early humans, too. (I mean, yes, making a stone or wood knife using . . . a knife you already have . . . seems a bit redundant, but it’d still be quite the learning experience.) Plus, some of these projects look like a lot of fun to attempt, even if the likelihood of success is relatively slim - one that springs to mind is creating a water powered rotary spit for your campfire!
All in all, I stand by my initial impressions. The Swiss Army Knife Book is a good looking, nice feeling book that would make a fine gift for an outdoorsy person or family that might like to try out a few new things. I'm gifting my copy to Dan's school library in the hopes that some intrepid teenager will make something wonderful from it!