Neil Armstrong, microwave ovens, President Eisenhower, color TV and the Internet: Throughout six decades of modern marvels, one thing has remained consistent, steady, reliable and enduring: the Woodman's Pal. It's a uniquely shaped axe-and-machete combined in one utility tool, and it's still handmade in Pennsylvania with the same quality and traditional craftsmanship as when it was known in 1941 as the LC14-B Jungle Fighting Knife, issued to Marines and other GIs in the Pacific Theater.
Pro Tool Industries still crafts the Woodman's Pal with the same 23-step operation. Second-generation workers carry on traditions handed to them by their fathers. Each blade is hand-sharpened and, at the end of the line, an American flag emblem is affixed to the shipping box.
The Woodman's Pal is an amazing tool, and not just because it's unchanged since hacking its way through palm fronds on Guadalcanal. Just as the Marines found on Iwo Jima and Tarawa, the Woodman's Pal has a natural-feeling heft with the blade-heavy balance that makes chopping, brush-clearing and general camp maintenance an easy job.
While my experience around a campsite with the Woodman's Pal is considerably more prosaic than that of one PFC Henry Luke who wrote a letter to the factory in 1944 from the Pacific stating, "Besides my rifle and my compass, it is my most valued possession and I cannot see how I could get along without it," I found the tool to be a handy replacement for a camp shovel, firewood axe and machete for clearing brush.
Perhaps not realizing how "retro" would one day become cool, the factory refers to the original LC14-B Jungle Fighting Knife as the Woodman's Pal Premium with its knuckle guard and leather-wrapped handle. The standard Woodman's Pal comes without the hand guard and a hand-polished ash handle. Both come with high-carbon manganese tool steel blades hardened to Rockwell C47, which gives both strength and flexibility.
In a deer blind, I would prefer the Woodman's Pal Junior Premium with its 10-inch tool steel blade instead of its full-size brother's 11.5-inch blade. On the other hand, for trail-clearing or brush-excavating for a large tent, I would opt for the Woodman's Pal Long Reach with an extended ash handle to lengthen the tool to 22 inches overall with a sixteenth-inch-thick blade (versus eighth-inch-thick and a length of 16.5 inches for a standard tool or 14.5 inches for the Junior).
I tested a Woodman's Pal Premium, the World War II version with the knuckle guard, on a patch of saplings all about thumb-thick. The blade hissed through the air and lopped down the saplings in one swing. Impressive. To deal with some thorny vines underfoot, I reversed the tool and used the unique sickle-shaped "hook" and cut out the creepers and thorns easily.
The factory sells a circular sharpening stone for the sickle hook, but sales are not brisk. "Don't know why you'd ever need a stone," one customer wrote. "Had my Pal for 40 years. Never sharpened it yet. Doesn't need it."
Sheaths are sold separately. There is a black nylon version, an unfinished leather one, a hand-rubbed, oil-finished leather sheath and of course a reproduction olive drab canvas sheath with the Army Signal Corps logo. Guess which one I picked?
Other accessories include a metal preservative called Schmutz that is, for lack of a better description, a Pennsylvania Dutch concoction that prevents rust on metal. It's the only preservative the factory has found that works in their humid warehouse. They also sell a product called ProGrip, which is a gritty adhesive to give a better purchase on the polished ash handle models, like pine tar on a baseball bat.
The Woodman's Pal first served in World War II, but it's been a GI's buddy ever since. It was issued in Vietnam as the Survival Tool, Type IV, to air crewmen and even went for a stint in the sandpit during Desert Storm. If you order the Nostalgia Kit that comes with the Woodman's Pal Premium (LC14-B Jungle Fighting Knife), a reproduction World War II sheath and a sharpening stone, also included are four miniature Army Field Manuals that hearken back to an era of frankness and honesty that's unacceptable in today's PC-culture. Trust me, they are must-reads.
Even the lowly canteen has been updated and reissued to American soldiers, but not the Woodman's Pal. It remains a classic, battle-proven, combat-tested, consistent and enduring. It's a reminder that somewhere in America, in a small hamlet in the Pennsylvania heartland, men and women still hand-craft American steel and locally grown ash into as fine a utility cutting tool as you'll ever swing, whether in a steamy jungle or your own back yard.