Besides having a particularly fitting (and frankly awesome) name for a rugged 19th-century trapper, Manly Hardy was a celebrity of sorts. He had gained fame in central Maine and beyond for his knowledge of plant and animal species of the North Woods, and for his almost legendary exploits of wilderness skill and endurance. In an era of lumbermen, river drivers, and hunters, Hardy knew the woods and waters better than anyone. In the fine style of 1800s naturalists (such as John James Audubon, whose taxonomical methodology for studying new or rare species was shoot first, ask questions later), Hardy put together an extraordinary collection of more than three thousand mounted specimens of North American birds. And he knew how to survive in the wild.
There was one tool that Manly Hardy was never without when he traveled into the forest. In a quaint essay he wrote in 1900, towards the end of his life, Hardy extolled the virtues of this tool – the crooked knife. It evolved directly from an indigenous tool called mokotagen (a Cree word that means “to bring the spirit out of the wood”) that originally featured a bone or beaver-incisor cutting blade but quickly evolved to steel once that material became available. These blades were commonly fashioned from old files or razors, annealed and tempered in a campfire. (I wrote more about the mokotagen in Issue Seven.)
Hardy wrote, “Whittling with a crooked knife is fast becoming a lost art. Nowadays with wooden articles being turned out by machines and sold over the counter, men feel that there is no need of knowing how to make an axe handle, paddle, setting pole or the 101 other things that make life easier in the woods.
“With gas, oil, and electricity in our kitchens there is no need of even whittling shavings for the morning fire... Nevertheless, any man who goes into the woods should have a crooked knife in his kit and know how to use it. On most every long trip there comes a time when you need that kind of a knife and need it badly.”
Hardy’s essay is fortunately available online as a PDF of a typewritten draft. It’s worth reading.
As ubiquitous as these tools once were here in Maine, vintage originals are difficult to come by these days unless you are willing to pay a hefty premium. I’ve tracked down a couple in my (admittedly miserly) price range over the last few years: a simple Penobscot-made tool with a copper-wire binding (I modeled one of my shop-made versions on this example) and an antler-handled, file-bladed variety that is something of a blend between a crooked knife and a sheath knife. These tools were almost always custom-made by the user, with considerations of angles, bevels, and often intricate decorative carving playing major roles in the design.
An extravagantly carved crooked knife. Image Courtesy: The Met.
Cutting towards yourself (as with a drawknife) takes some getting used to, but a great deal of power can be generated as one hand pulls the blade and the other (holding the stock) pushes away. There is actually more control in this orientation than in cutting away from the body, as the elbow acts as a natural “stop” and prevents less-than-desirable interactions between flesh and blade. Hardy said this: “People often ask me, ‘If a crooked knife is as good as you say it is, why isn’t it used more?’ All I can say is that we are educated against it. To most people a knife is a knife and when they think of pulling a knife towards themselves, they have a creepy feeling in their ‘tummies.’ It has been ‘whittle from you, never cut you’ with the idea that the only knife ever used is a jackknife.”
It’s a beautiful and effective tool with a storied history. Hardy’s advice sums it up: “If you think you would like to do a little whittling to quiet your nerves, make yourself a crooked knife. Use it until it belongs to you.”