Introduction: Crooked Knife

About: Tim Anderson is the author of the "Heirloom Technology" column in Make Magazine. He is co-founder of, manufacturers of "3D Printer" output devices. His detailed drawings of traditional Pacific I…

The northern Nomad's woodworking tool. All the northern tribes in North America and Asia have their own version of it. My farm relatives use them to trim their horse's hooves. Whatever wave of invaders brought horse culture to Europe must have brought this style of knife with them.

I made this particular knife years ago from plans in the book "Wildwood Wisdom" by Ellsworth Jaeger, C.1945
Continue on to see those plans...

Step 1: Ellsworth's Plans

His drawings are a bit vague about blade shape. When held as seen in the previous photo, the side of the tip is bent toward you. The side of the blade facing away from you is left flat. Don't grind on that side at all. All the grinding is done on the side of the blade toward you.

He says "He then tempers the blade, hard at first, and draws the temper by heating to a yellow color."
By "yellow color" he means a yellow oxide layer, not a yellow heat glow.
In 1945 everyone would have known exactly what he meant from watching blacksmiths at work. Today these words need further explanation. For more details read "The Making of Tools" or any other blacksmithing book from your local library.

Here's the full text of Ellsworth's book, starting on p. 168:
"Crooked Knife: A common wilderness knife found among the northern Indians and Eskimos is their famous "crooked knife", so called because of its shape. With this knnife the Woods Indian can make many things he needs, from noggins and ax handles to canoes and canoe paddles. It is really an aboriginal draw knife, for in using it, the indian draws it doward him.
The Indians trade for files at the Hudson's Bay posts and make these into knives (Plate 88). A flat file is used, cut down to 4 or 5 inches (A). The small end of the file, or "tang", is left on; for this fits into the wooden handle. The file itself is then ground down to a cutting edge (B). The Indian then heats it to a cherry red and bends the front of the blade as (C) shows. The tang is bent in the opposite direction (D).
He then tempers the blade, hard at first, and draws the temper by heating to a yellow color. The handle is made from a bent root or branch. The tang of the file is placed against the handle and its outline traced upon it. This part is cut out deeply (E) so that the file and a wooden plug (F) will rest flush with the handle. When the wooden handle has been smoothed and shaped to the Indian's satisfaction, he places the file in its notch (G), and the plug is hammered home. The handle is then bound with sinew which shrinks as it dries and binds the blade as with an iron band (H).
Eskimo Knives: The Eskimos make a knife of bone or ivory that roughly resembles a cutlass. This is used to cut the snow blocks in fashioning their snow houses or igloos. Plate 99 (bottom) shows its shape. Another knife used by the Eskimos is the strange crescent-shaped knife called the ullo. This is of steel and is used in numerous ways including the scraping of skins."

Step 2: Knife Details

I made this knife just that way, except I used an industrial hacksaw blade instead of a file for stock.
Some saw blades are made with hard teeth and a soft blade, but the back of this one is hard enough to hold an edge without any hardening/tempering.

I carved the handle from a chunk of an elm tree in our yard that was dying of Dutch Elm disease.
I wrapped the handle with a strip of elm bark to hold the side plug in place. The wood of the handle shrank and gripped the tang of the blade as it dried, so the whole thing is very secure.
The handle is a bit small, since my hand has grown a lot since I made it. It fit perfectly at the time.
Now that I've seen and used many crooked knives, I would make the handle much smaller where it meets the blade.

Elm is really nice wood. It's tough like oak but much lighter. Like oak it has transverse rays in the grain that prevent it from splitting. It's too bad all those trees died. The beetles were only in the inner bark.
The big trunks of those trees could have been sawed into boards to plank longships. But they mostly got burned or just rotted away in people's yards.

Step 3: Hoof Knife Modifications

The quickest way to make a crooked knife is to modify a hoof knife from a farm supply store.
Here's one I made in about half an hour.

Some pet shops carry them with the horse equipment.
The hoof knife tip is for cleaning a horse's hoof. The tip fits into the contours around the "frog", which is the living part of the underside of the hoof. For carving wood you don't need that much of a bent tip.

A Finnish friend gave me this sharpening stone in a leather sheath with Sami glyphs on it. It works perfectly as a sheath for the crooked knife with the blade next to the stone.

Step 4: Cut, Cut, and Straighten

Cut off the end of the handle so it feels better on your thumb.
Cut off the curled-over tip of the blade.
Straighten the blade to suit yourself.

Here's a finished knife next to a stock one for comparison.
Suit the bend to the work you're doing.
The knives used for finishing cedar canoe planks are mostly straight with a slight bend in the tip.
The Salmon People use a crooked knife with a very long handle and a very small bent blade. They use it for carving details on totem poles among other things.

I bought this unmodified hoof knife for $5.35 in a feed store.
It was made in Pakistan. It has a stainless steel blade. Non-stainless is usually better. A blade that can rust is usually much better steel.
Be aware that hoof knives come in right-handed and left-handed versions.
Get the right kind for your handed-ness.

to be continued with details of proper posture for crooked knifing...

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