Puukko, the free man's knife
Finns get their first sheath knife or puukko during childhood, and learn to handle it as a part of their apprenticeship for life. Parents consider carefully when a boy or girl is ready to have his/her own knife.
Finns love sheath knives. And they manufacture them like no other people, from elements such as wood and bone that their own natural environment provides them.
A sheath knife (or 'puukko', as they are called in Finland) is an essential instrument for those people who love life in contact with nature. Finnish men and women always carry one when leave the comforts of their homes and jump into the wild, in search for relaxing experiences throughout the woods or activities such as hunting and fishing.
A puukko is also an omnipresent item in the thousands of cottages that are all over the country.
A man purchasing a puukko from a stand of the International Market that runs through Finland. Photo: © Foreigner.fi.
Finns get their first knife very soon, during childhood, and learn to handle it as a part of their apprenticeship for life. Finland is a hard country, where the eternal struggle between the human being and the environment lasts for much of the year. And especially in the northernmost areas, humans are far from dominating the forces of nature.
Therefore, "the carrying of the puukko has been in the north since ancient times the symbol of a free man", explains Teppo Korhonen, Professor of ethnology of the University of Turku, in an article included in the book 'Finland, a cultural encyclopedia', published by the prestigious Finnish Literature Society.
The last relic
According to Professor Korhonen, "the iron puukko has remained in the hand of man and -on a smaller scale- woman for 2,000 years". "The puukko with its sheath is the last relic of the folk costume of Finnish man". And as such it can be seen by the side of builders, fishermen, huntsmen and ordinary holidaymakers.
New colours for the new times. Photo: © Foreigner.fi.
The blade and handle of the traditional puukko are both, in length, equal to the width of the user's palm. Since the blade is straight on the back and curved on the cutting edge, the point is asymmetrical (unlike the dagger, whose blade is always symmetrical).
"The blade of the crafts puukko is considerably shorter than the handle. The handle is ordinary or coloured burr birch; another traditional handle is made of layers birch-bark piled on top of one another, resulting in horizontal stripes. Bone handled knives have also been made in Lapland. The sheath is traditionally made of birch-bark or leather", Professor Korhonen points out.
From childhood to military schools
The article published by the Finnish Literature Society remarks that the Finns practise their skills with their knives since they are children, first in play, whittling small objects, but the puukko is still the measure of a man. Parents consider carefully when a boy or girl can be given his or her own knife. Graduates from the Military Academy are given a puukko as a memento.
The uses of the puukko are wide. It is used for carving and whittling, flaying and skinning, chopping and scraping. Because in using one of those knives, serious work becomes fun.
Professor Korhonen explains that in the hands of an expert a puukko becomes a decorative tool that produces "beautiful utility objects, earlier even presents for one's bride, whose purpose was to assure her that the maker was not all thumbs".
Photo: © Foreigner.fi
In the wilderness
On journeys in the wilderness, the puukko is often first aid and only tool. In moments of danger, such a knife can act as an ice-pick, it can quickly cut through a rope or strap, it might cut wood for a fire, and sometimes it is needed for primitive medicine.
The book 'Finland, a cultural encyclopedia' also explains that the Finnish man feels "incomplete" without his puukko. In ancient times it was taken off his belt only when he went to a funeral, a wedding or a law-court, in order to prevent the possibility of taking up arms in anger, or to defend one's honor when drunk.
In the 1920s and 1930s various rules forbidding the carrying of knives were issued, concerning cinemas, dance halls and other public places.
The puukko industry
The puukko became common once more during the times of the Second World War. Making knives with their various metal and wooden sheaths was a popular pastime at the front.
Then the puukko industry developed too. Knives and sheaths were made in more varied forms than ever before, even exotic ones inspired or adapted from far-off countries.
Nowadays both decorative puukkos and traditional forms are on offer in supermarkets and souvenir shops. Well-known industrial marks of knives based on traditional designs are Iisakki Järvenpää and Marttiini, from Lapland.
"Gilded by war romanticism and ideas about life in the wilderness, the puukko is an apt present for a man, for it is a utility object that represents the best of Finnish arts and crafts", concludes Professor Korhonen.