I love my billhook, but that is a natural thing since you could say that its an ideal and traditional tool for working in British woodland, where we deal more with smaller under storey wood, rather than with timber from large mature trees.
It is a tool that became the tool of choice for British agriculture, forestry and principally hedging - particularly here where Farafoot is based in the Welsh Marches where the tradition of laying hedges is still very strong. Therefore it is not surprising that in British bushcraft, it has become a tool that is being chosen in favour of the axe by those involved in bushcraft woodland activities.
Obviously I have axes as well, which we use on Farafoot bushcraft and survival courses and who wouldn’t when there are now some almost strikingly beautiful examples of handmade axes from Sweden such as the Gransfor Bruk, Wetterlings from Storvik and Hultafors from Östergötland as well as a range of modern produced axes that do the job just as well. However, day-to-day on Farafoot bushcraft courses, I find myself using a billhook far more than my axe and therefore the billhook tends to follow me around the woods every time I set off to do something that involves timber and the axe tends to stay in camp.
Why the billhook? Well there is a far great cutting surface on a billhook and the curved hook does help when cutting small rounded timber. Equally, you can use a billhook almost like a knife for fine detail work, and although I know Ray Mears shows how an axe can be used for similar work, I myself find it much easier with a billhook.
There are some things that billhooks aren’t good for. Obviously splitting hardwood is difficult with a billhook, because it lacks the wedge shape of an axe and you are in danger of damaging the cutting edge of the billhook, since it is much thinner than that of an axe. Equally, having a hooked end means that you can’t easily cut wood on a cutting log, unless you have a double-edged billhook, which I feel makes for a too heavy and cumbersome tool.
When it comes to which billhook to choose, that really comes down to personal taste, like any tool. The weight of a billhook is just as important as an axe as the more weight in the blade, the more work it will do an also, just like an axe, the length of the billhook will determine the amount of work it will do. It is interesting to note that Richard Morris from Billhook makers A. Morris & Son, points out that the only difference between the billhooks they use to make and today, is that they used to be made up to 13 inches, but now they don’t make them longer than nine and half inches because people are just not as strong. Having watched people cut timber in bushcraft camps, I kind of agree with that statement.
Billhooks have also become something of a collector’s item with many antique billhooks going for quite decent prices. However there are some traditional style billhook makers still working in the UK. The principal one of these is A. Morris & Sons at Dunsford in the heart of Devon and of course you can use a modern alternative like the Fiskar Brush Axe, basically a billhook with a fibreglass handle. Although you may hate the modern look, it is actually a decent tool with a nice feel to it and very effective for bushcraft work.
I’ve use the Fiskar for a while now and the only complaint I would say is that the fibreglass handle becomes slippery when wet, but there are ways of compensating for that, such as using a grip tape on the handle. All-in-all an effective and lightweight tool that has served me well, but it does lack the weight on a real billhook and therefore is very much a “light-weight” bushcraft tool.
Whatever you choose in terms of a billhook for your bushcraft activities, do make or buy something that you can use as a sheath since otherwise you will forever be fretting over the exposed blade.