A Crooked Knife With a Twist

After some email with Gary Arenson in Alaska, I got one of the crooked knives that he's had made in England. These are patterned after one that he has in carbon steel. There's actually more than one little twist to the story of these blades, so I wasn't just trying to make a joke!

On the other page about crooked knives, I'd been trying to give some advice on choosing a blade that would help a person carve out a cup or other small item. Gary's blades have some slightly different intended purposes, and certainly some neat features. That's great because with a lot of blade work, a simple ten dollar Mora hoof knife will work very well as a crooked knife for small jobs, and it would be hard to compete. Even blades like the Stuben Austrian Carver's Hook don't do all the same jobs as this one from Gary.

I guess I'd been away from traditional crooked knives for too many decades, because my first thoughts on this blade were about how long it is, and how much leverage it would put on the hand. It's long for a reason of course, and that reason is that it's used with a slicing motion - and needs the length to work correctly. Certainly most people seeing one of these blades for the first time are going to come to the same conclusions, until they see one in action - and then use one. The blade is close in terms of length to the Hudson Bay trade crooked knives, which were the most popular crooked knives in the north. This blade, like those was a woodworking tool for larger as well as smaller projects.

The first questions most people will want answered is what is special about these blades, just what they might be used for, and of course how well they work. I rarely think of blades in terms of collector items, but some users will want to consider that aspect with these. They carry the George Wostenholm stamp, with the I*XL. Maybe a person can't afford one of the Sheffield bowie knives, but you can certainly own a piece of history with one of these blades!

I was quite amazed to find that the blade was stainless when I began flattening the back, and putting the bevel into proper shape (More on these points later). It was pretty clear from the wear resistance of the steel, and later I confirmed the stainless part with Gary. I found this pretty shocking, because everyone knows that woodworking tools are best made from carbon steel: and then I began to think things through. A crooked knife is always used to cut with the grain of wood and so a steel favoring wear resistance as much as toughness is logical. It's true too that such knives are used in places where rust might really cause problems. Being still doubtful about the ability of stainless to hold up, with the thin edge of a crooked knife, I ground the blade back smooth, put on a razor sharp edge, stuck the tang in an old Mora handle I had lying on the bench and went at some seasoned white birch. I wanted to get an idea of how well the edge stood up compared to other acute bevelled blades - expecting a figure like 70%. As the long shavings began to mount up, and my nice pounding block began to disappear - well I began to wonder... To cut a long story short, you put a polished edge on one of these blades and it'll hold up much better in proper use than you'll be prepared to believe.

Naturally at the end of all this concern over stainless, I realized that the Mora hoof knives are stainless, and I've happily been using them for over a year. Such is getting old....

The thing about these blades that makes them special to users like me, is that such blades are incredibly hard to come by. You don't just stroll down to the local knife store and pick one up. You can't just get onto the Internet and order such a knife easily either. About the only way that a person can come by such a tool is picking up an old HBC blade at an auction - with all that involves, or ordering one hand made.

If a small hoof knife is a neat tool for whittling out spoons and cups, it won't be so useful in working with large items like smoothing out planks for a toboggan. There you need a blade with a long flat section, and a curve just at the end. In fact for working with any long pieces wood effectively, you need a long blade so that the slicing action removes the wood with little fatigue. The object is to remove thin slices as long as your arm, not nibble the wood away with the small slices that you'd be limited to with a shorter blade. I'd sort of guess at this point, that a lot of people would be questioning whether they'd ever need to be doing such a thing in the first place and if they did, why not use a regular knife. Realistically, for many people, the possibility of going out to chop down a few trees to make a birchbark canoe or toboggan, just doesn't exist. These are the days of hiking on trails and only building fires in designated sites, for most. Even for people like me, the possibility is limited. I long ago found some huge birch trees that would give me the raw material for such projects and laws here allow me to go out and cut all the deciduous trees I want on crown land. I have a canoe, though, that is probably going to outlast me, and too many creatures need those trees more than I do. Carving paddles though is a distinct possiblility!

I believe that the main reasons that most people will want to get one of these blades is to find out just how things were done in the old days. You don't need to cut down a tree and split out blanks - it's fun just doing some whittling with a small sapling. You don't even need to be out in the bush, since scrap 2x4 is easy to come by. A 1x10" board should prove just fine for whittling a paddle from - just choose the spruce if you want to be traditional!

As to why you can't shape a large piece of wood with a regular knife; well you most certainly can, but it won't work well unless you go extremely slowly and carefully, and the wood is very soft. If you try it, you'll usually notice that your flats are very wavy as the knife as cut deeper and shallower. With the crooked knife and curved handle, it's far easier to make very uniform cuts. You really can shape a piece of wood so that it looks as if it had been planed: you can put in curves too! Here's what Brad Angier had to say so many decades ago in his book "Skills for Taming the Wilds":

"The famous crooked knife is one with a thin curved blade of about six inches long. It is the Indian's and occasionally the backwoodman's substitute for a plane, drawknife, or spokeshave.

The crooked knife is used for making snowshoe frames, paddles, and thin planks for toboggans. It can be invaluable in the home manufacture of cabin furniture. The worker holding it in his hand, and, drawing it toward him, can easily shave wood to any curved or flat surface.

Crooked knives could once be had from many of the Hudson's Bay trading posts in Canada. Now, often unheard of in a lot of these, they usually can be secured from the Hudson's Bay headquarters in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They are made in both left and right hand models. You put on your own handle."

I wouldn't count on getting one from The Hudson's Bay Co. - they stopped carrying them many many years ago. Now the blades are worth lots at auctions.

Putting the Blade Into Shape and Sharpening:

Always doing things sort of backwards, I like to sharpen first. It might be a better idea to sharpen last - and even then tape the blade well while fitting the handle!

When I said that I wanted to try blades rather than completed knives, Gary was quick to warn me that the factory didn't do a very good job of finishing the bare blades. For some reason they'd put a slight secondary bevel on them. This is bad news because the bottom of the crooked knife blade has to be completely flat: that's what allows such precise shaving. I used a belt grinder and new 120 grit belts. Even with those, a lot of care had to be taken not to overheat the highly wear resistant steel. By hand, using large sheets of emery cloth, you are looking at several hours work: I know because I tried that too! Luckily I had two blades to experiment with.. For the top edge and the inside of the curve at the tip, emery cloth wrapped around a piece of wood from a broom handle works fine. One the top edge you're only working on reshaping a narrow bevel to a proper convex, not working on the whole width of the blade.

In the end, when the blade is getting close to flat on the bottom and the top bevel is in good shape - you move to fine emery cloth and spend a lot more time creating a smooth bottom to the blade and a polished bevel. By this time it'll be far sharper than most knives, because the bevel is so acute. This is the time when you are getting impatient to finish up - and is the time when you have to be most careful! You sure don't want to get a slicing cut from this blade!

Choosing wood and putting on a handle:

Assuming that you've decided to go the traditional route and buy just a blade, you'll be needing to put on a handle. It isn't that hard, and you might as well go with the traditional. Full instructions are provided with the blades.

Step one is finding a suitable piece of wood with a large branch. Have it slightly thicker than you believe you need - by holding it - so that you can whittle it down to comfortable shape. I've deliberately gone with wood that I cut green and dried for just ten days. The handle that isn't carved on yet is driftwood from our beach.

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