The “Four-tool Philosophy”

“As the unique traits of every culture shape its woodworking traditions (and vice versa), the North Woods traits of adaptability and mobility wove themselves into the way indigenous craft evolved. The tools themselves developed to meet these criteria, being portable, versatile, and endlessly repairable. They could all be used one-handed, with the other hand (often in conjunction with the body and feet) providing the necessary workholding. Only four tools (with variations of each) composed the “tool-box” of the Northern maker, and every necessary wooden object (from spoons, bowls, and snowshoes up to canoes and shelters) could be made using this minimalist kit. Modern practitioners of this ancient means sometimes refer to it as the “Four-tool Philosophy.” Nick Dillingham, a skilled practitioner of this philosophy who is based in Michigan, explained the concept to me:

Cree camp of the 1880s, Quebec. Note the three men carving canoe paddles with crooked knives. Courtesy of Cherry Gallery.

‘The tools themselves are simple; an awl, belt knife, axe, and crooked knife or mokotagen. But you should be able to make anything you’ll need with just those four tools. This system of woodworking requires more knowledge of the material than most – it’s 90-percent mental and 10-percent physical.’”


– Michael Updegraff, excerpt from “Freedom From Vises: Workholding Solutions From Three Traditions” in Issue Seven, available here.


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