Posts Tagged ‘Cariboo Blades’

The Crooked Knife

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Crooked knife made by Registered Maine Guide Don Merchant. The carbon blade is relatively short and rigid. This type of crooked knife is best used for carving concave shapes such as bowls, spoons, etc.

“The most valuable things that I own are my ax, my wife and my crooked knife.” ~ “Blue Coat”, Northern Cree

 “No (Northeastern Woodlands man) ever goes off on a journey without this knife, no matter how short the distance …and (he uses the knife) to make one thousand and one indispensable objects.” ~ Major John Wesley Powell, explorer of the Grand Canyon

“On a wilderness trip you need three knives: (1) a belt knife; (2) what is called a crooked knife…and (3) a penknife” ~ Calvin Rutstrum

 

Though most contemporary outdoor folk have no idea what a crooked knife is, the tool has been exceedingly important to northern native peoples.  So much so, that it has become an inextricable part of their culture.  Crooked knives are easily identified by their narrow, flat blade, usually terminating in a curved tip.  The curve at the tip can vary from very shallow to a near “L” bend.  In addition to the unusual blade, handles are also bent upwards, like an “L” on its side with the long end pointing toward the tip of the knife.  It is the bent handle that gave rise to the “crooked” appellation, not the blade.  Some crooked knives have entirely flat blades, yet are still considered crooked knives.  Blade lengths vary from 3 to 6 inches.  Blade characteristics also vary from some being short and rigid and others being long, thin and flexible.  Knives with short, rigid blades were developed to carve cups, bowls, and spoons.  Knives with long, flexible blades were developed to shape canoe ribs and paddles, snowshoe frames, smoothing planks for a toboggan etc.

Crooked knives are essentially a one-handed drawknife and like a drawknives, has the bevel ground only on the upper edge of the blade.  This means that you will often see both right and left hand crooked knives.  In use, a crooked knife is drawn toward the user, with the bend in the handle serving as a thumb rest.

 

This is the most common way to hold and use a crooked knife.

 

Crooked knives are perfect for gouging a hole or making a trough.

Illustrations from “Woodcraft” by Bernard S. Mason, A. S. Barnes and Company, 1939

With just four tools: the saw, ax, knife, and crooked knife, the old-time woodsmen accomplished tasks normally requiring an entire chest of standard tools (chisels, drawknives, spokeshaves, and wood planes etc.).  Today, the crooked knife is not an essential tool for general camping.  Its value is as a tool for those who live or travel in very remote places.  For people who cannot rely on a store or trading post for resupply and who continue to use wooden equipment.

Only a few commercially made crooked knives are found today, ranging in price from $45.00 to $150.00.  For most folks, that is just too costly to justify experimentation.  One inexpensive way to try your hand at using a crooked knife is to purchase a hoof or farrier’s knife.  A hoof knife is similar to a crooked knife in that the blade features the same one-sided bevel.  Differences include a more tightly curved tip, handles that lack an “L” shaped handle and the temper, which tends to be more brittle. Mora of Sweden makes their Mora/Frosts Equus 180 (wide blade) Hoof Trimming Knife.  It is an excellent model to start with as it can be found for around $17.00.

Traditional Crooked Knife Construction 

The traditional way to make a crooked knife is shown in the below.  Ellsworth Jaeger illustrated the finished handle being bound with rawhide but the more traditional method has been to use tarred marline, also known as tarred yacht marlin.  Tarred marline was a hemp cord used for rigging in sailing.  The waterproof tar coating prevented the hemp from quickly rotting by being constantly exposed to the wet and damp.  Modern “tarred marline” is made from coated polyester but luckily, genuine hand-tarred hemp marline is available once again.  It is expensive but in my opinion, the only proper way to bind the handle of a crooked knife.

 

Ellsworth Jaeger shows us how to make a crooked knife.
(from Wildwood Wisdom, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1945)

 

All native-made crooked knife blades were made from worn out files.  At present, I haven’t learned how to make a blade like that.  However, you can purchase crooked knife blades and make your own crooked knife very easily.  Even natives used factory made blades (though they generally preferred to make their own crooked knives to meet specific needs).  All of the old trading posts stocked such factory made blades.  Many native made blades were highly embellished, with handles carved into all kinds of fanciful designs.

Why the crooked knife largely disappeared ~

Crooked knives are woodworking tools.  When many items in a woodsman’s kit were made of wood, they were an important tool.  When wood was replaced with plastics, the importance of the tool declined.  Additionally, crooked knives were used in an era when folks made much of their own gear, something that is almost non-existent today.  Surprisingly however, crooked knives continue to be regularly used by the northern native peoples of the United States and Canada.

My Crooked Knives ~

Currently, I own two crooked knives.  The knife I started with was not a crooked knife at all but the Mora/Frosts Equus 180 Hoof Trimming Knife described above.  Though not a true crooked knife, the 180 can be modified to work like one.  The birchwood handle of the 180 widens to a paddle shape at the rear.  This provides enough material to reshape the handle into a mild “L” of a real crooked knife.  The very tight curvature of the tip is not ideal but for the price I can hardly complain.  I’ve heard that some folks with blacksmithing skills have opened up the radius of the tip.  With the handle reshaped and the tip curvature relieved, this could be a great crooked knife.  Had I been able to rework the tip I would likely have used the 180 for a longer time but I was lured by the crooked knives shown in the old woodcraft books.

 


Mora/Frosts Equus 180 Hoof Trimming Knife with wide blade. The handle has been modified to work like a crooked knife.

The old woodcraft books describing the crooked knife always included an illustration of the long, thin-bladed type and that image became my idea of what a “real” crooked knife looked like.  I’d read numerous references of the Hudson Bay Company stocking crooked knife blades and knives of the long, thin variety, at company posts.  Some have said these were good knives, some have reported that they generally avoided by natives who preferred to make crooked knives to their individual tastes.  It seems that the HBC offered crooked knives at least up through the late 1970s and from what I understand; the later models did not simply curve at the tip but featured a twist in addition to the curve.  Right-handed knives curved but also were twisted about 30˚ to the right while left-handed knives had the 30˚ twist going to the left.  The twist eliminated having to make that motion while carving and so, made carving easier.

The HBC crooked knife blades, and later, complete knives, were made to their specifications in Sheffield, England by George Wostenholm and Son (est. 1823) under their historic I•XL (I excel) trademark.  From what I understand, Wostenholm had the contract for the HBC crooked knives from when they were first offered until they were no longer stocked. Still, I wanted a Hudson Bay crooked knife because it was, for a time, a ubiquitous item of wilderness equipment in the far north.

About a decade ago, Gary Arenson of Haines, Alaska sold reproductions of the old Hudson Bay Company blades.  These were very high quality, Sheffield-made blades that were patterned after a vintage original in Arenson’s possession.  Like the originals, the new blades were stamped with the “I•X L”.  Unlike the originals, the reproduction blades were produced in stainless steel.  For some reason, the factory put a slight bevel on the bottom of the blade.  As delivered, the reproduction blades were also rather dull.  However, with some time spent flattening and smoothing the bottom side of the blade and honing the top bevel, they make wonderful crooked knives.

 

Traditional embellished crooked knife made from an Arenson reproduction HBC blade. The handle is of walnut, carved in the shape of a loon. The knife was made the traditional way with the additional step of gluing the two halves of the handle together before binding with tarred marline. The thin, flexible blade is best used for carving snowshoe and canoe frames, canoe paddles, toboggans etc. The knife is carried in a birchbark sheath and was photographed on a piece of the bark the sheath was made from. (if I can make this anyone can!)

Crooked Knife Recommendations ~

For bushcraft work, the rigid, short-bladed crooked knife is more useful as it can be used for making the depression in the bearing block of a bow-drill kit, or spoons and bowls, etc.  Thus, a modified Mora hoof knife or one like that made by Don Merchant would be the type I would consider.  After using the Merchant-made knife for a couple of years I can say that it is a superb crooked knife.  You can find crooked knives with more embellishment and handwork but I honestly do not believe that you could find one that performed better than his.  Note to those folks with small hands: I found Don’s handle to be too large for my relatively small hands and had to thin it down considerably before I was satisfied with the knife.

For most folks, a crooked knife with a blade like Arenson’s is one to play around with, to carve on something in the backyard and learn what it was like to use a crooked knife back in the days of the Voyageurs.  There is value in such an education.  For example, some canoeists may want to make their own paddle.  Some may want to build a birchbark canoe, a skill that attracts a small, dedicated cadre of enthusiasts.  For them, the long, flexible crooked knife is indispensable.

Luckily, Don Merchant’s online shop Pole and Paddle Canoes and Gear continues to list the Arenson reproduction blades and of course his own crooked knives.  In addition to Pole and Paddle Canoe, Moose River HandcraftsCariboo Blades and Henri Vaillancourt also offer excellent crooked knives.

Those who aspire to join the ranks of woodcraft should learn crooked knife skills – so buy a crooked knife or better yet, make one and start today!