Tod's Stuff Scottish Dirk with Buffalo Horn Grip
A hands-on review by Chad Arnow
Like many Americans of European descent I come from a mixed cultural background. While my last name is an Americanized version of a Spanish surname (Arnau), I also have grandparents of German, English, and Scottish descent. I've joked that this means I can wear lederhosen with my kilt on Cinco de Mayo. I am very drawn to the Scottish heritage side and I've always tried to include some quintessentially Scottish weapons in my collection.
The Scottish dirk is one of those quintessential items; no Highlander would have been complete without one. Earlier dirks generally fall into one of two groups. Both groups have flat pommel caps and a cylindrical grip. The difference lies in the size and shape of the haunches. The first group has rounded haunches clearly reminiscent of the medieval ballock dagger while the second has parallel-sided haunches. A dirk descended from the first group resides in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland and is dated to the first quarter of the 18th century. Like many dirks in that first group, it features no knot-work carving on its grip, made in this case of horn. It is clearly ballock-dagger inspired and retains the characteristic crescent-shaped inlet where the blade meets the haunches. It is a large weapon, 20 inches overall, and has a 15 1/2 inch blade. Though it lacks the knot-work we often see on dirks, it is still a wonderfully classic example.
Though I've owned several dirks now, I recently decided to have one made that would fit a slightly earlier period and would have a few different features from what I had previously. I had read good things about Tod's Stuff, a custom knifemaker from the United Kingdom.
Leo Todeschini, known as Tod, has been a knifemaker since the late 1990s. He began his career as a knifemaker quite humbly, simply trying to find one good dagger to complete a re-enactment kit. His philosophy is simple:
I try to make honest pieces that feel good, look good and work well, but above all have the soul of a piece made long ago. If I have a personal goal, it is that a cutler of 5-600 years ago would look at a bench with my work on it, would pick up pieces, perhaps examine them and find nothing unusual about them.He used both forging and grinding in his blades, noting "I use machines in my work where I can as I am not a masochist, but turn to hand methods as soon as economically viable." His blades are made from 01 steel or EN45 spring steel and are oil-quenched.
Tod sells custom knives through his own Web site as well as stock knives through The English Cutler. In addition to knives, Tod makes and sells other reenactment goods and supplies through his own site and through Traditional Materials. While he generally makes knives to order, he typically has a handful of ballock, quillon and rondel daggers on hand for immediate sale. Tod has supplied many distinguished British organizations with his goods, including The Royal Armouries, Leeds, The Tower of London, The Mary Rose Trust, The Royal Shakespeare Company and The Shakespeare Globe Theater.
In addition to his knifemaking, Tod has also worked for years in the special effects industry and currently serves as staff engineer for the British television program Scrapheap Challenge.
It was a joy to work with Tod, though this knife was received later than the original quoted date. In fairness to Tod, both his quoted delivery date and the actual delivery date were faster than the majority of custom smiths. Throughout the process Tod was always responsive to emails and very helpful. As a side note, it's often costly or difficult to work out payments with vendors overseas, as wire transfers or international money orders are often required. Tod, though, can take payments via the ubiquitous PayPal, making payment easy, fast, and secure.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Tod's Stuff of Oxford, United Kingdom.
As can be seen from the stats above, this is a big dirk, just like its inspiration. It is, however, not unwieldy in any way. The large brass pommel serves as a nice counterweight to the long blade and it feels very nimble in the hand. In fact, during cutting against light targets with this dirk I was able to perform the most clean and precise cuts I've ever made. Tod put a very nice edge on it.
I was worried that the polished horn grip would be slick, as its surface is quite shiny. I was pleasantly surprised to find it is easy to hold onto even with bare hands, as the grip doesn't feel overly slick at all.
Some surviving Scottish dirks have grips that are quite small, though not the one that inspired this one. On this reproduction, the shape and size of the grip are basically perfect for my hands, as the hand naturally locks in between the haunches and the pommel. This holds true in the ice-pick grip (point-down) as well. It feels very secure in the hand.
Fit and Finish
This dirk and its scabbard have a wonderfully period feel to them, in keeping with Tod's philosophy. As Tod has said:
When I make something I want to give it my soul as well as my time and whatever skill I have; I personally feel that my soul is not imparted into a piece through a pair of vernier calipers with all the modern precision this brings. My good moments and bad will show in every piece I make (unless it really was a bad moment) just like every original piece you look at.
The blade is well-formed, though its level of finish is not quite as high as the grip. I'll admit I've often been particular about having a nice finish on all my weapons. I've been fortunate enough to be able to view more antiques and museum pieces in recent years and have seen that a finish that is too even and perfect can make a great piece look too artificial and modern. The blade of this dirk is generally well-done, but there are some grind marks and a handful of small, deeper scratches here and there. I initially thought these would bother me, but they don't. They contribute to the look Tod seeks: it isn't perfect from a modern standpoint, but it's not meant to look like a modern weapon. I have no problem with the blade's finish. The Wallace clan motto (Pro libertate: "For liberty") and Tod's maker's mark adorn one side of the blade. The motto is nicely done, and is easy to read without looking overly modern.
The sheath is one of my favorite parts. It's made of two layers of thick leather; the outer one is stitched up the back in a not-quite-straight seam and is dyed black. The brass fittings are relatively simple, but incorporate some file-work on their edges, adding just enough detail to break it up. The chape has a nice button on its end, while the top locket has a brass ring on its back that a leather thing could be looped through to tie it to a belt. The leather body of the sheath is extensively tooled. Tod's inspiration for the tooling came from a dirk sheath also housed in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, from the mid-eighteenth century. Tod tooled three panels with double X's on them, separated by bands with two and three punched dots. I was surprised to find tooling even on the back of the sheath. Near the edge on each side, Tod tooled a set of four parallel lines. All in all, it's a very nice sheath that really gives the whole ensemble a great look. The fit is tight on the blade, though the contours of the sheath's top don't perfectly follow the shape of the underside of the haunches.
I must admit I'm pretty thrilled with this piece. While the overall blade shape and the hilt shapes are slightly different than the original dirk, it captures the feel of that dirk very well without being a carbon copy. It has a handmade feel to it that is not sloppy in any way but gives off an air of a weapon made with quick, sure hands that is designed to give good service. I have another project in the works with Tod's Stuff already and wouldn't hesitate to place another order in the future.
About the Author
Chad Arnow is a classical musician from the greater Cincinnati area and has had an interest in military history for many years. Though his collecting tends to focus on European weapons and armour of the High Middle Ages, he enjoys swords, knives and armour from many eras.
Scottish swords and dirks: An illustrated reference guide to Scottish edged weapons (Stackpole arms and armour), by John Wallace
Photographer: Chad Arnow