The mokotagen is a tool completely unique to the North Woods, and is much less familiar to most woodworkers today than the others used in the Four-tool Philosophy; however, it was considered by many to be the most useful and indispensable of the four.
Mokotagen (with a variety of spellings used) is a Cree word meaning “to bring the spirit out of the wood.” The early French explorers and voyageurs of Canada called it le couteau croche, “the crooked knife,” and quickly recognized the immense utility of the tool – Dillingham refers to it as “the indigenous version of a Swiss Army knife.” During the river-driving heyday of the 1800s, it became common in lumber camps in Maine and was used to quickly fashion new axe handles and poles when needed. Manly Hardy, a legendary Maine outdoorsman and naturalist of the 19th century, wrote that “any man who goes into the woods should have a crooked knife in his kit and know how to use it.”
The tool is used primarily with a pulling stroke, like a one-handled drawknife. As in the Japanese tradition, this kind of movement efficiently engages the core and allows for powerful work from a sitting position. The blade of the mokotagen is sharpened with a single bevel on top. Subtle variations in blade and handle geometry can allow the tool to work hardwoods or softwoods, smooth basket splints to perfection, or hollow the bowls of spoons and drinking cups. The blade was often fashioned from an old file or straight razor – this recycled carbon steel could be annealed in a fire, filed, bent to shape, then tempered to appropriate hardness on the coals. The blade was inserted into a groove carved into the handle, then wedged in place and wrapped with cord or copper wire. The handle was shaped to fit the hand and preferences of the user, with complex considerations of blade angle, skew, and wrist orientation as part of the design. This tool required practically no workholding beyond what the human body alone could accomplish.
–Michael Updegraff, excerpt from “Freedom From Vises: Workholding Solutions From Three Traditions” in Issue Seven