Review: Bark River Golok

Some bushcrafters feel like the Bark River Golok approaches that fictitious Nirvana of a single-tool solution. Whether the Golok deserves that level of praise is up to you to decide. We can safely say, however, that if you’re looking for a lightweight woods tool to fill the gap between your belt knife and your axe, then it’s worth taking a good look at the Bark River Golok:

While it doesn’t fit the image of an American woods tool, it might surprise you what it’s capable of. I’ve been using the Bark River Golok for a couple of years now. Read on for my take.

Just What Kind of Knife is the Bark River Golok?

Don’t call the Golok a knife. There’s no poking or stabbing or drilling with the Golok, which actually gets wider and heavier towards the end, ultimately terminating in a blunt, round tip. At the same time, don’t call the Golok a machete. Machetes employ a long, thin blade for fast slicing. The Golok’s fat blade (at almost 1/4″ thick) barely stretches past 10″ long — shorter than some survival knives. Short and stout instead of long and thin.

Why this design? It’s best to hear it right from the mouth of its designer:

The Golok’s Capabilities

The Golok’s features combine to give it a surprisingly broad set of abilities, some of which it executes elegantly:

First, it chops like nobody’s business thanks to its forward-weighted blade and its ability to do a “draw-cut”. To explain, most chopping tools do a blunt-force strike, meaning that the blade comes straight down into the material. A Golok, on the other hand, does a combination slice + chop, meaning that while you bring the blade down, you also pull it towards yourself. If you execute the swing right, the Golok has been slicing into the material for most of blade before sinking the chop, resulting in a bite you’d never expect from such a short, nimble blade.

Second, the Golok’s stubby blade height and aggressively convexed sides help this guy split wood like a greased wedge. Taller blades can bind if the wood fights back at all; the Golok has yet to bind on me. With the longer blade, the Golok almost becomes a froe (minus the ability to pry).

Third, the Golok has enough machete in it to make it the best tool I’ve ever used for clearing trails. One-inch branches don’t even slow it down. Three-inch branches give up after just a few swings. I also use it around the yard for pruning and in the garden for cutting down corn stalks.

Fourth, the Golok works quite well as a drawknife for removing bark or planing. A drawknife normally has a handle on each end with a blade between that, as the name implies, shaves wood as you “draw” it towards you. While the Golok lacks a second handle, the blunt tip makes it safe to hold the end of the blade. I’ve never used mine in this context, but I’ve seen it demonstrated and while the Golok’s geometry may be a bit thicker than a dedicated drawknife, it performs better than you would expect.

Finally, the Golok balances a couple of inches forward of the first finger, a feature which lets you choke up and use the first 2-3″ of blade for fine carving or making feather sticks without the rest of the blade battling you too much. Granted, a knife will perform better here, but the Golok does surprisingly fine cutting and shaving for its size.

Case in Point: Hacking Apart a Tree with the Golok

I’m trying to start a new tradition in my family. In the last weeks of winter, when the sun still drops early and the evening skies still cling to that last edge of darkness — even as spring comes creeping up on the horizon to push it away — we gather as a family around the back yard fire pit and enjoy one last hour with our Christmas tree, this time soaking up the warm ambiance and the pitch’s aromas and pops while the tree burns hot and bright, bidding winter a fond farewell and spring a welcome return.

Doing this, however, requires that I limb the tree and chop it down to burnable pieces. This year, the Bark River Golok did the job in less than 15 minutes:

But don’t look at the trunk or the branches for the real capabilities of the Golok. Look at that pile of chips in front of the logs. We measure the effectiveness of a chopping tool by the size of the chips it can throw. A weak chopper nibbles away at wood; an effective chopper takes huge bites.

And this picture tells the rest of the story:

After all of this chopping (and much more before it), the Bark River Golok still slices paper cleanly. That’s the edge-holding power of the premium A2 tool steel that Bark River uses for the Golok.

What Tools Does the Golok Replace? Axes? Saws? Knives?

Forget the Golok for dressing game. And I would never expect the Golok to replace a small knife, if for no other reason than the knife point. Likewise, the Golok won’t do the work of a full axe, nor will it get through a 5″ log as fast as a saw.

Every task in between, however, falls well within the Golok’s sweet spot, a spot that’s usually handled by some combination of a saw, a hatchet, and/or a large knife. In that range, it can replace any of them — or all of them together.

A quick note on hatchets. For me, the Golok completely supplants a hatchet. It does more work at a fraction of the weight (17 oz vs. 24+ oz), and does it safer than a hatchet — at least in inexperienced hands. The margin of error for a hatchet is the length of its bit; if you miss or glance off the material, the hatchet’s on a dangerous trajectory. The Golok’s margin of error is more like 11″, making it much harder to miss the target; not to mention that the balance of the Golok gives you better control to begin with. Just keep your hand away from the strike zone! Of course, it goes without saying that any blade put into motion must swing in a safe direction: always away from you, not into you.

The Bark River Golok as a General-Purpose Woods Tool

There’s a class of woods tool that I unaffectionately call the “platypus” tools because they take features from other classes and morph them together in some incredibly ugly yet surprisingly effective ways. I’m speaking of the Beck WSK, the Trackers that descend from it (like the Tops Tom Brown Tracker and its variants), and … uglier than anything else out there … the Woodsman’s Pal. They borrow features from small knives, big knives, hatchets, pruning hooks, sometimes saws, and maybe even sprout a few appendages of their own. I bring this up because, while I’ve never done any comparisons, I could see the Golok holding its own against any of the platypuses. The Golok chops, splits wood, limbs, makes fine shavings, and does it all at a mere 17 oz compared to 24+ oz for most platypus tools. The one place it falls short: tasks that require a sharp point, like drilling.

Notwithstanding that one drawback, if I were forced to subsist in the back country with only one woods tool to sustain me, I have enough confidence in the Bark River Golok that I’d have a very hard time choosing between it and the Wetterlings Bushcraft/Outdoor Axe (see my review).

How Do You Do a Draw-Cut with a Golok?

OK, we touted the Golok’s ability to do a draw-cut. I can’t tell you I’m doing the draw-cut with the best technique, but I can describe how I do it.

First, people who are used to chopping with a knife typically snap their wrist to accelerate the chop. I did the same thing with the Golok when I first started using it. This worked fine but didn’t sink the chops as deeply as I was expecting.

Then I stiffened my wrist and things changed. I initially focused on keeping the knife at a 90° angle with my arm through the entire swing. That forced the blade to cut along the length until the final impact. Suddenly I was slicing instead of chopping and limbs began flying off.

Lately I’m still holding my wrist fairly stiff but allowing it to snap just a bit — maybe 45°. For me, this strikes a balance between slicing and accelerating the blade. I get some very deep cuts.

Start with a stiff wrist to get a feel for slicing, then slowly relax until you find your own sweet spot. Once you get the technique down, you will be surprised at how effectively the draw-cut works.

The Final Verdict

There’s never a final verdict. I’m always willing to let a new tool take the throne if it deserves the honor. But with that said, the Bark River Golok blows my socks off again and again and again. The Golok sets the bar so high for a general-purpose woods tool that another contender will be hard-pressed to match it, much less dethrone it — especially at under 18 oz. If I lost my Golok, a replacement would be in the mail the same day. I don’t hesitate a second in recommending it.

OK, I’m Sold. Where Do I Buy a Bark River Golok?

Sometimes a Bark River Golok will show up on Amazon. I, however, recommend going through an authorized Bark River distributor. They’ll give you the broadest range of handle choices and excellent customer service.

My favorite distributor is DLT Trading. I have used them many times. They have a close relationship with Bark River Knives and they’ve usually got the Bark River Golok in stock at a very competitive price with free shipping to boot.

And don’t forget, Bark River warrants all of its knives for life, including lifetime sharpening/reconditioning for the cost of shipping.

Any Cheaper Goloks Available?

Yes, the Bark River Golok is pricey. Two reasons: premium tool steel and a hand-ground blade. Here’s what I mean by hand-ground blade: Bark River knives are semi-custom, meaning that Bark River’s steel blanks come pre-cut (to their specification), but everything is done by hand from there.

So are there cheaper options? Sure, though I can’t vouch for any of them from personal use. One that looks interesting is the Condor 11-Inch Pack Golok which has roughly the same length and thickness as the Bark River Golok. It’s a much softer steel (1075 carbon), so be prepared to maintain the edge. Still, from the reviews, it might be worth considering if you’re on a tight budget.