Mocotaugan: The Story and Art of the Crooked Knife by Russell & Ned Jalbert ©2003 RRJCapeCod@aol.com
Pssst! To see more of the book AFTER reading my article, Click on the Horse!
The crooked knife is a one handed draw-knife designed aeons ago, originally using flint instead of steel, by aboriginal people in what is now Canada. It is a superb tool for shaping handles, paddles, snowshoes, canoe frames, baskets, hunting bow and arrows and many other useful items. In fact, besides the bow, hatchet and a few needles and awls, it was nearly the only tool a 1st Nations person needed to provide food, shelter, transportation, clothing and fire. Each person, male and female, had their own knife, often self-made.
I learned to make the crooked knife from an 80+ year old master guide in Queens County, Nova Scotia, who had lived much of his life in Mi'kmaq camps. Andrew Moores, part Mi'kmaq himself and a great woodsman, had learned the craft in those camps and over the years had refined the tool until it reached a kind of artistic and practical perfection in his hands. Andy made and sold dozens of knives over many years.
It's called "crooked" because the blade is set with the tip rising up from the handle and also bent or curved to the left or right, depending on which hand it is meant for. These crooks keep the blade parallel to the work while drawing toward the user and lift the shaving in a smooth curl. Making "fuzzy sticks" for fire starters out of kindling is a good way to learn how to use the knife. Just hold one end of the stick in the free hand and rest the other end against your chest and draw the blade toward you. It's safer and easier than it sounds! Compared to the Euro method of pushing a "V" edged knife into the work, drawing a chisel-edged crooked knife offers much greater control (Boy Scout advice to the contrary!).
There is a long history of crooked-knife-making in Nova Scotia by both Mi'kmaq and also the whites and blacks who originally borrowed the craft from them. Old Lunenburg county knives often had German-style chip-carved designs on the handles. Makers along the shore often used their skills of casting metal weights and jigs to cast fastenings to hold the blade in the handle, rather than the more traditional wrappings of split spruce root, eel skin, waxed linen thread, fishing line or brass snare-wire.
There are several variations and ways of making the crooked knife. Here is mine: The blade has a short, narrow tang that is bent at a right angle, like an L. The handle has a slot cut in it to receive the tang, with the bit at the end dropping into a drilled hole to really anchor the blade. Then a sliver of wood is glued over the tang, filling the slot. The wrapping holds everything snugly together. Incidentally, wraps do break sometimes and blades come loose, even with modern epoxy glue. If this happens, simply get a roll of snare wireand rewrap it. A fine drill-bit is all that is needed to make the tiny starting and ending holes for the wrap. Tap a sliver of wood into the holes to hold the wire.
Crooked knives are made either right or left handed. Snow-shoe and canoe makers would often use one of each so they could always be cutting with the grain on curving material. Basket-makers had special blade cross-section patterns--very wedgy for splitting wood strips, flatter for smoothing the strips. There are even blades with hooks at the ends for doing hollow-work such as bowls, cedar boxes and spoons.
The crooked knife is a wood and leather-working tool and not the best for slicing tomatoes or bread! On the other hand, it makes a general purpose knife such as my trusty Swiss Army, Grohman Russel Belt Knife or even my laminated-steel Mora seem clumsy when it comes to working wood.
Early makers often got their blades ready-made from the Hudson's Bay Trading Posts. I actually have a few of those blades, as they were carried until recently by "The Bay"! The pattern had derived from farriers knives used to trim horses' hooves. Other early blades were fashioned from straight razors (which had enough metal until hollow-grinding was invented).Today, Grohman (maker of the famous Dean Rusell designed belt-knife) in Pictou, Nova Scotia still makes a rough and ready crooked knife for the splint basket-making trade. Mostly I make my blades from old files that have seen better days. This is traditional, too. The steel is annealed (made less hard), by heating red-hot and cooling slowly. Then it is ground on a bench grinder or filed with metal files, from one side only, to shape, giving it a chisel-edge. Heated red-hot, the tang is bent in an L at the narrow end and then sideways a bit where the tang meets the ground section of blade. It is also crooked a tad at that place to give it a canoe shape along the back (like the whole knife, the blade is "crooked" in two planes). Then the business end is reheated cherry red and hardened by quenching in motor or cooking oil (peanut is best!), while the tang is kept cool with a wet rag or leather. I hand-sand the blade until it is bright. Next the blade is gently torch-heated until the back turns dark blue and the edge turns straw to light blue in colour. The edge can be kept cooler during this process by either coating it with heat-sink oil or burying it in a cucumber! As soon as the desired temper colours are reached the blade is very quickly quenched in oil.This gives a springy, break-resistent blade with a hard edge, good for staying sharp.
Some makers develop a handle design and repeat it as closely as possible from knife to knife. I follow Andy's way--each handle is a unique work of art, allowing for the spirit of the wood and the inspiration of the maker. In twenty years of making, I've never repeated a knife-handle design! I've used fruit-woods such as apple and pear and cherry; black locust, which is really honey-coloured; old lilac with purple streaks; lignum vitae and purple heart, both heavier than water; morula, hand-gathered in the Kalahari Desert; deer and cariboo antler and bone; oak from a 300 year-old sunken ship; yellow birch and swamp maple from the annual fire-wood pile; hard maple from an ancient sunken forest. Every knife has a story. As I have grown in my shamanic knowledge I have begun drawing on the personal "medicine" of clients who commission a knife, to develop totem handles uniquely suited for their use.
In conventional modern knife-making one often sees a convergence of superb precision machining and artistic creativity. In the crooked knife one finds a creativity and craftedness that is closer to the bone, more rough-hewn and individualistic. Modern hand-made knives often have the romantic appearance of magic. The best crooked knives are filled with magic and spiritual significance. I strive to make the best!
On belt or in the hand; in the woods, on the farm, or on the workbench, there is no other knife like the crooked knife.
Umset nogha ma---All my relations. Ho!
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