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The puukko
Every Finn's companion knife

Puukko is one of those words that is very Finnish and quite difficult to translate, just like sauna or sisu. The artefact it describes belongs to the great family of knives and sharp weapons, but forms a sub-category all its own. It is the name given to a utensil that is used as a tool for all kinds of carving, and especially to work wood. Like a dagger, a puukko can serve as a weapon, but a dagger it is not. Neither is a small puukko a penknife, even though it is ideal for sharpening a pencil. Hunters and anglers can use a puukko to clean their catches, but a puukko is far more than just a hunting or fisherman's knife. It is a puukko.

For a long time a puukko belonged just as much to a man's dress as his trousers. This picture was taken in 1911.
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The basic components of a puukko are a hilt and a blade along with a sheath, which can be attached to a belt. Over time its form has evolved into something that is both suited to its purpose and beautiful. Making a good puukko requires a lot of different skills: those of a blacksmith, a leatherworker, a jeweller, a designer and sometimes even mastery of the difficult art of weaving birchbark into utility and ornamental articles.

The finest puukkos are still hand-made, but there is also an old tradition of industrial production. The latter dates back to the 1830s, when English and Swedish master cutlers arrived in Finland to work at the Fiskars knife factory and passed on their skills to Finnish artisans. In 1981 Tapio Wirkkala designed a puukko with the hilt and sheath made of glassfibre. It has become a classic.

Image size 14 Kb Even in an era when lifestyles are so technology-centred, the puukko has managed quite well to hang onto its status as an important tool. Virtually every Finnish man probably has one of his own, or has had at some time in the past. The cheapest ones can be bought at any service station for less than the price of a pack of cigarettes, but the more ornate ones can cost hundreds or even thousands of markkas (1 Euro=5.95 markka).

The oldest, elaborately-decorated puukkos have become popular collector's items. The oldest-known Finnish puukko with the date engraved on it is from 1749. Much older cutting weapons have been found in archaeological digs, but they hardly qualify for the name puukko.