Traditional Work Knife: Malay Barong


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Brian Dale
June 18, 2008, 02:31 AM
Back in the Carter years, my Dad spent two months in Southeast Asia, processing folks who wished to immigrate legally to the United States. He spent a month of that on an island in Malaysia. When he returned, he brought with him a big knife in a wooden sheath. I'm calling it a bolo because it looks like a Philippine bolo knife to me. It doesn't exactly match any of the bolo shapes at Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bolo_knife), but it's not far from the shape of the general purpose bolos labeled "1" shown in This Photograph (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:P1000318e.jpg). The knife that Dad brought back is about machete sized, with a thick, heavy, leaf shaped blade. It sat in the family room for years.

Now it's mine. Right now, we're remodeling the kitchen and today (well, yesterday, looking at the clock) I pulled up the vinyl and thin chipboard that have covered the kitchen floor for thirty years. The chipboard had been stapled to the original (1927) maple floor, then the vinyl had been glued on top. I slid a flat pry bar between chipboard and maple, then lifted the two top layers. The chipboard is in 4 x 8 sheets and the vinyl is continuous, so I folded back each 4 x 8 or smaller section after I'd lifted it from the maple. Hmmm...I could use my skilsaw, set for a shallow cut; I'm not going to use any of my new pocket knives (about which I'll start a thread later); I use utility knives all the time and I'm looking for an excuse to have some fun...Aha! that bolo's been sitting on shelves, looking cool but forlorn, for twenty-five years or more...and before he died, Dad kept it with his tools.

Hmmm...

Down to the basement I went.

Oh, yeah. This will do the trick, I thought. It has the fit and finish of a soup-cans-and-string telephone, but it feels good in the hand. The curved, wooden handle looks awkward, but it's very comfortable. No guard, no ferrule, no pommel, no name on the blade...you can see hammer marks on the blade. This is either cheap junk that some twelve year old hammered out in his Dad's garage to sell to tourists or it's the same kind of work knife that the locals have used for many, many years. Knowing my Dad and his eye for Good Stuff, I bet that it's the latter.

Here's the knife and its wooden sheath, with a 20-oz. Estwing hammer for scale:

http://img77.imageshack.us/img77/7880/bolo1whammerod9.jpg

Overall length is 21 1/2 inches and the blade is just over 15 inches long. It balances a little more than five inches in front of where the blade meets the handle. Blade height is just over two and a half inches at its widest. The blade tapers from a full quarter inch thick at its junction with the handle to an eighth of an inch near the tip.

Just holding it brings thoughts of the Spanish-American War and the Moros that our guys fought in the Philippines. If I were faced with a tough country boy running out of the jungle waving this at me, I'd want to invent the 1911, too.

I thought some more before I put knife to vinyl: do I really want to do this? I remember cutting linoleum and how dulling of knives that stuff could be. Hey. It's a sturdy knife, not a fancy knife. It's dying of loneliness and it's begging to be used. I looked closer: there's some darkening of the wood on top of the handle close to the blade, where the web of the hand goes (which is where dirt collects when you use a tool like this in the field). It's ground-in dirt. That's it, then. I bet that Dad bought one of the local guys' spare work knives.

The tension mounted: how would it do?

I applied the edge to the bent fold of vinyl between two sections of chipboard and began to cut...
.
.
.
It was like hitting a daffodil with a car.


http://img149.imageshack.us/img149/6623/bolo2cuttingzc9.jpg


Cutting resistance felt about equal to cutting a two-inch-thick piece of suet with a good kitchen knife. No problems at all.

When I used a simple, back and forth slicing motion while drawing the blade through the flooring, it seemed to almost propel itself through the material. That startled me. My strong impression is that this sensation is due to the shape of the blade.

The leaf-shaped blade had seemed "kinda neat" to me, in a "Bronze Age Greek meets Asian Hillbilly" sort of way. Now I understand. This blade shape is traditional, and now I grasp that the reason that it's traditional is that it works--well--for heavy cutting.

You can see the "pommel area" protruding slightly past my glove. Again, this handle is very comfortable and it fits my hand well. This would be a great handle design to have on your knife when doing heavy chopping in hot weather (I sweat like a big, sweaty guy).

Next time I have to do any heavy cutting or chopping out in the sun, I'm taking this. That's overly specific; I'm going to use this knife a lot. A machete's good, but frankly, my machete is going to sit in the barn until either
(1) I have a task where I need a blade that's much thinner and lighter than this one, or
(2) a satellite crashes on this one.
The satellite wouldn't hurt it, but the recovery crew would probably see it under the wreckage, recognize a good thing when they saw it and confiscate it "for testing and evaluation as a part of the crash site." ;)

My hat's off to the guy who made this blade and attached this handle, and to the generations of his ancestors who figured out by the sweat of their skulls how to lessen the sweat of my brow.

This one's a win.


Edited to add: I've changed the thread title from "Malay Bolo" to "Malay Barong" based on new information from CWL. Thanks!

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JohnKSa
June 18, 2008, 02:45 AM
That handle style is about as good as it gets, especially if it incorporates a guard to keep your fingers off the blade.

It would be interesting to know what the blade was made from...

CWL
June 18, 2008, 03:20 AM
That knife is more accurately called a "barong" (or parang) and is a universal design in that part of the world. Probably hammered from the proverbial truck spring by a village smith. Great balance & power-to-size ratio as a chopping knife, but capable of detail work by gripping the spine.

I happen to have a Bill Siegel version sitting right next to me as I type this. 9" blade length. This has become my primary 'big knife' and has beat-out many other big blades that I have been collecting over the years. I think that it is a great multi-purpose knife, is more rugged and can go toe-to-toe with knives much longer/bigger than it. The broad belly centers the weight so that it is easier to control than longer blades without sacrificing cutting power.

Brian Dale
June 18, 2008, 03:28 AM
That knife is more accurately called a "barong" (or parang) and is a universal design in that part of the world.Barong/parang it is, then. Having once spent a month in Thailand, I think that I can hear the pronunciation.

Thank you, Sir.

It would be interesting to know what the blade was made from...I agree. It rusts if it gets the chance. Beyond that, I'm clueless. A truck spring (thanks again, CWL) wouldn't surprise me.

hso
June 18, 2008, 08:51 AM
Can't go wrong with a barong. I have a couple and they're impressive.

Carl Levitian
June 18, 2008, 09:07 AM
I absolutly love posts like this!

What I love is the fact that its a real working blade, made by some guy who really knows what a well deigned knife should be. So many times I've run into this senerio, where I'll find some low tech, low price knife that out performs most of the custom high dollar stuff being made here. To me, the beautiy of the object is in the funtion of its intended task. How well does it work.

Great knife, Brian. Thank you for posting it.

Skofnung
June 18, 2008, 09:37 AM
That is too cool. I'm glad a good blade is getting some real work!

JShirley
June 18, 2008, 08:43 PM
Nice parang. My younger brother has one picked up by our grandfather during WWII.

John

sm
June 18, 2008, 08:52 PM
Neat!

Thanks for sharing with pictures!

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