We humans are problem solvers and tool makers, and we have been making tools and solving problems for thousands of years. So naturally we have a tendency to make specialized tools which make specific tasks easier. Today we even have the skill and technology to make smaller versions and combine them into multi-tools to make more of these tools easier to carry at once. Yet just because something is available, does not necessarily mean we will have them on us in a time of need. Luckily we are also known for our ability to adapt and overcome challenges. The ring-and-break stick cutting technique is one of the methods that can be used to do larger work with a smaller knife, such as one may carry on a day hike.
Most of us know that when it comes to carving tools and utensils from wood, green wood is much easier to work with for all of the cutting. It is also easier on the knife's edge, being softer and less abrasive than hard seasoned wood is. But we also know that breaking green limbs into smaller sections produces jagged ends that once dry are somewhat like having a porcupine on the end a stick. The shattered ends require a good bit of clean up to get a clean end.
Small thin knives with tapered tangs are fantastic for long hikes. They will do all of the normal knife tasks one may encounter on a day hike, and you can actually forget they are there until you need them. So they are seldom if ever a burden to carry. However they are known for their simple elegance and light weight, not for having brute strength and chopping ability. So performing larger knife work with them requires approaching it with a philosophy of finesse over force.
For the ring-and-break technique, obviously the first step is to cut the ring. This is done by making biased cuts into the wood, rotating the stick as you go so that you have made a series of small cuts all the way around the circumference of the twig. With a nice sharp edge on a thin blade this is easily done. On small diameter limbs the cuts don't need to be very deep at all, but on larger diameter branches it can be better to make two or more passes around the circumference of the stick.
Twisting the knife handle at the end of each cut, to pry the cut wood out away from the branch, will make it easier to see how deeply you have cut. This way you can see if you will need to make another pass in order to get the clean end you are going for. With a sharp edge, odds are that you won't have to make a second pass unless the twig is larger than 1-inch in diameter. Branches 2-inches in diameter and larger may require more than two passes around. A good rule of thumb is to cut through 1/3 of the wood all the way around, leaving one third or so in the center to break.
With smaller branches, you will be able to snap them them in-two with just your hands in most cases, but with larger ones pushing, or smacking, the cut section against a tree or rock will usually break it very easily. Making sure the ring is the at the point of force or impact, will require less applied force and energy used if you are in a survival situation. Using this technique you can turn a 4-foot branch into 8 6-inch pieces pretty quickly with much less wasted length than with breaking them.
Clearly, in this method, one end is much cleaner than the other initially. Yet it is still nothing like the fractured end of a broken branch. With the flared ends being caused by a knife edge cutting into the wood rather than lateral force, the end of the stick is not a mass of splits that can run an inch or more down the length of the stick. In this case it is just a matter of cutting the feathered edges away as the stick is rotated, and you have two cleanly separated ends with no fractures or splinters.
Granted sticks with clean ends aren't something that are needed on a regular basis, but this technique can really come in handy when they are. It is a method that can be useful whether you are making things as complex as trap components, or as mundane as a simple fork to cook with. It is a technique that can be used on branches of various sizes, from 1/2-inch in diameter to 2-inches in diameter. With a well made knife, a small baton, and some common sense, a similar technique can be used to cut even larger diameter limbs by truncating them all the way around the circumference. By using this method I have sectioned 3-inch diameter limbs with a knife that had a 3-inch blade. Just remember finesse over force. The idea is to tap the blade down into the wood with relatively gentile strikes, not to beat upon the knife blade like you are trying to kill an attacking rodent.
The ring-and-break technique is one I stumbled on and developed in my youth. I needed clean ends on some 1-inch diameter limbs to make a few drying frames for furs, but the only cutting tool I had was a slip joint folder. The folder survived several such times with no issues before I switched to a fixed blade. So any small fixed blade of good quality should not have any trouble with it. It is a technique I have been using for more than forty years, and I have yet to break a knife in the process.
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Brian Griffin is an author, photographer, wilderness and survival skills teacher, knife enthusiast, outdoor gear researcher and product development consultant. He has a decades-long history of using and developing outdoor related tools and gear.