Making the Mocotaugan: The Crooked Knife

The first crooked knife I held was given to me by Michael Kohout, as I and some friends began helping him build his 25th birch bark canoe. I didn’t know what it was, had never seen one before, and did not know what to do with it. He showed me, pulling it towards himself with one hand while holding the three-inch wide cedar canoe rib with his other. It evenly shaved a thin, tight curl down the length of the wood. Beautiful. And then I tried, and it skipped and stuttered and dug in and wasn’t beautiful. So he had me sit down at the shaving horse – a large, wooden bench with an adjustable clamp to hold your work piece – and set me up with a two-handed, stable drawknife to carve the canoe ribs. The lesson was, I’ll have to practice on my own time.

 

Anyway, that’s what I did. And I discovered a tool which, paired with an ax, allowed me to make whatever I wanted out of wood, wherever I went. I needed no workbench, no shaving horse, nor clamps, nor vices, nor anything. It fit in my pocket, or hung on my belt, and that was that. Splitting logs apart with wedges, hewing them to rough shape with an ax, and then finishing them with my crooked knife became an obsession. If a tool can make a person feel free, then it did that for me. Birch bark canoes, snowshoes, paddles, ax handles, basket rims and pieces, this and that, whatever was needed.

The crooked knife is a tool of Native American origin, easy to carry and always on hand, used for working wood into any shape for any project, perfectly suited to a nomadic life. There were many names, the most widespread being the variously-spelled Algonquin “mocotaugan,” which is one of the names that still sticks today. “Crooked knife” comes from the French “Couteau croche,” which I am told refers not to a crooked blade, but to the way the blade is fixed at an angle into the handle. These are things I have read, so I can’t say too much about them.

In use, it functions like a one-handed draw knife, pulled towards the user, while the free hand takes the role of a clamp, holding the wood piece in place. While it has a curved tip, this is not so much meant as a hollowing tool, like you would use for spoons and bowls. It can do those things, just not as well as a short bladed tool, rounded along its length, specifically for hollowing out objects. The curve on a crooked knife allows the user to work on the far side of a wide board without picking up the board and turning it around. You simply lift the handle up, point the blade at a downward angle, and then you can have your working hand directly over the board – instead of off to the side – while you carve with the subtlely rounded tip. Do not worry if it doesn’t make sense to you in writing, it will make sense if you start using one. The curve also works to “remove the chip,” which is to say it smoothly breaks the shaving you are carving off, without digging in and leaving a mark from the knife tip.

 

When I set out to make my own crooked knives, I undertook an ancient tradition: Repeated Failure. There are many details to the blade design and handle shape that lie outside of any other knife making, and since not many people in this country know how to make or use them anymore, I had few people to talk to about it. I call this “going through the process.” In order to really understand how to make or do something, you have to go through the process of experimentation, upheaval, frustration, and failure. I really haven’t been able to avoid this. If you can stick it through, eventually – maybe – you’ll emerge with a well-rounded grasp of the task or thing. You’ll know what you’re doing.

 

My friend Jarrod Stone Dahl also went through this process, in its entirety, long before I did, and he passed along what he’d learned in his trials. So in the end I got the greatest shortcut there is – receiving teaching from someone who knows. Thanks! Then he also passed along the crooked knife making class he taught at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, MN, which I have just returned from teaching as my own class as I write this. Thanks again.

I occasionally make and sell the knives, but I stress occasionally. Stay tuned for any in the future. In the meantime here’s a few looks at a crooked knife in use – one taking a very fine, long shaving off a piece of canoe cedar, and another where I’m aiming to remove material quickly, pulling much more aggressive curls from the flat face of that same board.


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