Introduction: Handcarved Native American Halibut Hook

About: I'm the kind of person who's mind doesn't stop. Literally, I take medication to fix that just so I can sleep at night. I have an unhealthy obsession with making things and believe, firmly, in sharing what I le…

I've always had a fascination for lithic cultures. More than the weapons or crafts, that are often the subject of popular interest, I've always loved the mundane implements that aboriginal cultures used to make life better for themselves, and their tribes.

For me, it started when I was very young. My parents worked for Museums of Canada (retired now), meaning that school holidays and vacation time were often spent among the exhibits, with museum security as my babysitters. As I got older, I was 'voluntold' to spend summers working behind the scenes. Mostly it was menial tasks like painting the walls in the observatory, or scraping down an old train, but occasionally I was able to spend time in the conservation department, assisting the folks who devote their days to restoring artifacts. That experience grew on me, and I became curious about many of the items that I was fortunate enough to see that the public rarely did. There's something amazing about seeing the wrappings removed from a tool that hasn't been used in hundreds of years, and catching a glimpse of the nuances that went into its creation.

As it isn't a weapon, or something crafty like a pair of moccasins, I'm not sure if folks will be interested in this project, but it's something I've been wanting to share for a while, having had the pics on my hard-drive for more than a few years. It's a representation of one of the many halibut hooks that populate the museums, and based on what I gleaned from my time in conservation. If there is interest in this type of recreation, I'll post more of my work, as I've recreated many of the artifacts I've been exposed to over the years.

There is as much variety in halibut hooks as there are fish in the sea, and honestly, never having used one, I can't say which is better. I can say, however, that many of the features I've put into this one are very common among the more worn ones, where wear and tear is a factor, for me, that it was a model that worked well and was thus used more than others.


The halibut hook wasn't for catching small fish. They were going after the big ones. Because of its construction (which I will go into later) it was designed to float upright and had the bait wrapped around to top limb, where the barb resides. It was set on a long line, with a dozen or more other hooks, and used stones to keep it just off of the sea floor. For coastal cultures, it was the most effective way to secure large amounts of meat with the least amount of effort, meaning it was both sustainable, and efficient.

This isn't, by any means the only method they used, but it is a favorite of mine.

Step 1: Tools and Supplies

99% of this project was done by hand, using hand tools. As I go on with the instructable, you'll understand why that 1% is there. That doesn't mean that you're obliged to do the same, however, for as labor intensive as it is, there's a certain satisfaction in working with hand tools. Feel free to break out the power tools, if you choose. There's no shame in it and in fact, when when the conservation department fixes an artifact, they don't break out the flint tools.


  • Axe
  • Sharp carving knife
  • Drawknife
  • hook knife (optional)
  • saw (optional)
  • Flint shards (optional)
  • Round river stones (optional)
  • shovel (for digging up roots)
  • vice or shaving horse


  • L shaped cedar limb
  • Hardwood - maple, oak, ash
  • Spruce roots or cedar bark (I use spruce, but I show how to harvest cedar bark)
  • Bone - since narwhal tusks are rare around where I live, I opted for cow bones stolen from my dog.
  • Bear grease - ya right...beeswax and almond oil mixed 1:5 will do just fine.

Step 2: The Design

Whenever I'm in the museum, I take lots of pics, and these are just a few. One thing you notice, right off the bat, is that there is as much variation in styles and construction as there are fish in the ocean. Even though, there are a few fundamental similarities that, once employed, will allow you to stylize the rest, giving it a personal touch.

The first is in wood type. I've been fortunate enough to see halibut hooks being used, and notice that the vast majority of them use a combination of soft 'buoyant' wood for the top limb, and harder less buoyant wood for the bottom, with the most common combo being cedar and maple or ash. There are variants that use a single piece of steam bent wood, which is aesthetically pleasing, but these tend to float poorly compared to their two wood design.

The second is the material used for the barb. I've come across a few that use metal, (I've included a pic of one above) however the vast majority use bone. There's no real advantage to either, as far as I could see, but bone would be more 'traditional'.

Finally is the binding. Native tribes used dozens of different materials for binding, however the most common is spruce root, which I'll detail how to process later. If you don't have access to spruce trees, don't worry, they also used other natural fibers when necessary.

Step 3: The Barb

This is where the 1% power tool comes into play. Carving bone is hard work, and when I say it's difficult, I mean there's a reason that they used it for the barb. There are ways to make bone more malleable, such as soaking or boiling, tho over boiling can make the bone brittle and useless.

Acquiring bone;

The easiest way it to stop at your local butcher shop and pick up a thick soup bone. You have to be careful tho as many soup bones are close to the knuckle, and are very thin walled. If you ask your butcher for 'dog' bones, he'll give you one that's farther down the leg with much thicker walls. Here's my suggestion on how to clean the bone; give it to your dog...that's it. They're pretty efficient at removing every piece of meat from a bone, including the marrow so your dog will make short work of it. Just throw it in the freezer and then give it to them raw and frozen. Your dog will love you for it, and you'll end up with some good crafting material. Note: If you've never given your dog a raw bone before, it may affect their bowels for the next 24 hours. Don't panic, it'll pass and once you get into the cycle of giving them bones, they'll adapt. It's great for their teeth, and it'll strengthen their digestive system. I feed my dog raw meat and can set my watch by her yard "visits" know...ya...that's my perspective.

For the first part of the project, I thought it would be fun to demonstrate using a piece of english flint to carve a shard from the bone. This was an hour and a half worth of work, and that was only one side, so you'll understand why I resorted to power tools for the rest. I performed the roughing out of the barb using sanders, but the fine polishing and sharpening was done by abrading using river stones and flint shards.

It's created as a single sided bi-facial point, meaning that one side is flat, while the other has a central ridge separating it into two faces. It's a pretty standard design, as far as I've seen, tho I have seen some flatter designs. The reason I opted for this shape was for strength alone.

The overall dimensions are 1/2" wide x 3" long. It's actually pretty short compared to others I've seen, but again, there are instances of all sizes of barb in the record. My limitation was based on the size of the bone I could wrestle from my dog. If I were to pick the perfect barb it would be 1/2"x 4.5"

Step 4: Roughing Out the Shape

The overall dimensions, of the hook, are between 10" - 14" long, depending on the size of catch you are after, with a height of between 6" - 8" between the limbs. There is a 2" - 4" section where the two limbs will be joined together and bound.

The Bottom board;

The bottom limb is carved out of harder wood such as maple, ash, elm, oak, etc. I've squared mine, but I have seen them rounded as well, so it's a bit of a personal preference. Just be certain, if you round your bottom board, to leave a flat section at one end where it will join with the top limb.

The Top Limb;

The top limb is best carved from a branch, from a cedar tree, with part of the main stem still attached. This help in the creation of the 'C' shape and allow a tail end that will be bound to the bottom board. Again, be certain to flatten the bottom of the tail so that it sits flush with the bottom board.

Step 5: The Bindings

You'll want to prep these early on as they will need to soak for at least 24 hours, if you intend on harvesting your bindings from nature. I've included two potential types of natural binding, including cedar bark, which can be extremely strong, or as I used, spruce root which wraps more evenly, and is in my opinion, more authentic looking.

After soaking, cedar bark will need to be processed by scraping and hammering to break down the fibers. It's a lot of work, but will yield a very strong natural fiber.

Spruce root is handled a bit differently where the processing takes place before soaking. You should gather various widths of root, from 1/4" to 3/8" as the bindings on the hook tend to be a bit thinner than the binding holding the limbs together.

Debarking the roots should be handled as soon as they are dug up since the process gets harder once the root dries. There are a few ways you can do this, including sandwiching it between two boards and pulling, but honestly, the easiest way is to simply twist the bark off by hand. Trust me when I say that it tends to come off in large sections and does so much more cleanly than scraping. It took me less than 5 minutes to process 20' of root.

Next is splitting. Using a sharp knife, press your edge into one end of the root starting a 'split' point. From there on you don't need to cut. By twisting your knife, the root will begin to split on its own pretty evenly so that you can simply pull the two halves apart by hand. Don't worry if the split starts to run closer to one side, you can simply put more bend in that side, and the split will redirect to the thicker one. If it doesn't, usually because of a knot, you can use your blade to change the split direction without much trouble.

Once your spruce is split, wind it up, and set it into the sun for a 24 hours to let it shrink and dry. This will set its 'shrunken' length. When you're ready to use it, just submerge the spool of root in a bucket of water for a few hours, and it will soften and stretch. In this way, when you work with it, it will shrink again, as it dries pulling your material tighter.

Step 6: The Barb Slot, Binding Notch and Tether

The Barb Slot;

The barb slot is cut at a very sharp angle so that when the fish puts its mouth over the top limb, it is unable to retract and the barb embeds into place. The back edge of the limb should be concaved a bit, so that the bindings don't slip, but the image that I took of that feature ended up blurry, so I've included a finished image in its place. You should be able to assess the overall shape from that, however as mentioned before, very few rules apply and you can design this as you see fit.

The Binding Notch;

As you can see in the fifth image, the two boards marry up flat against each other, but you'll need to carve a notch into both to prevent slippage of the bindings. This notch should be the full length of the tail end, leaving a knob at the end, of each to stop it from slipping off.

The Tether;

The tether is a 12" - 14" piece of rope, with an eye at one end that is either bound around the bottom limb, or more commonly passed through a hole half way along the bottom board's length and knotted. This can be easily carved using a knife, or you can drill it, if you opt to use power tools.

Step 7: Binding Your Parts Together

You should now have a curved cedar top limb, a flat hardwood bottom board, a bone barb, and various thicknesses of spruce root, ready to be assembled.


One of the advantages of using spruce root is how evenly it binds, due to its shape. Shave one end until it is nearly flat, and insert it between the two haves of your hook. Then, gripping it tightly together, begin winding your root around, pulling firmly as you bind the two haves into place. To finish just pass the end under the final loop and pull tightly, cutting off the extra material. Trust me when I say it won't slip at all and no extra attention is needed. Almost 90 percent of the ones I've seen were done this way, which I found to be a bit surprising, however I can only assume that, as the binding shrinks, it locks it into place.

The binding on the barb is done the same way, but using much finer root, and crossing over and under the barb, holding it snugly in place.

Step 8: Protecting Your Hook

It's important to protect your hook from swelling, and the bindings from stretching again by coating in a thick organic oil, or grease. Traditionally, they would have slathered it in bear grease, but you can easily use a beeswax/oil blend, such as the one I posted in an instructable here;

Step 9: Finished

That's it. It's interesting when you look at primitive cultures beyond their weapons and see the implements they used in everyday life. As I said before, this is one of my favorites that I've wanted to share for a long time.

As usual, I hope you enjoyed the instructable and thanks for following.

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