The North American Frontiersmen








   Smoke Signals

                   Jul./Aug. '09



Crook Knives, Shovels & Hoes

By John “SnakeOyl” Kramer, NAF #4M

Back in the early seventies we could still buy Sheffield crook/canoe knife blades identical to those traded for more than two centuries. Since the eighties those have disappeared from world trade and we’ve had to make do with other sources many of whom are not aware of the many subtleties of crook knife manufacture.

Most think the name is a result of the bent blade seen on many examples but there are curved blade and straight blade knives both common in museum collections. The better consideration is that the name is the result of the handle which is made to ease using the tool as a one-hand draw knife.

As children we were taught to never cut toward ourselves yet a crook knife is designed to do that very thing. The trick is to keep your elbow tight against the trunk of your body to limit the travel of the blade so if it slips in the cut – it can’t cut you. On occasion the knife will be flipped over and used in reverse when it better accommodates the work.

There are a few characteristics common to all good crook knives. Crook knives are sharpened on one edge only like a chisel or plane blade or a knife designed to cut cordage (a few homemade knives particularly those made from straight razors are the exception) . Every knife is right or left-handed. Nearly all were hafted by the first owner.

Some of the more refined patterns mount the blade at a 20 degree angle from the axis of the handle.

The blades may be a foot long 2” wide and a quarter inch thick or 2” long, 3/8” wide and 1/16” thick. They may be bent, curved or straight.

Each design has its purpose as evidenced by the many names attributed to them over the years. In various cultures they are known as “man’s knife”, “canoe knife”, “bent knife”, “bowl and/or spoon knife” and many more. The bent/curved blades can scorp out a bowl or help carve a thwart. The straight blades can split ribs and lashings, carve a paddle, do fine carvings or flesh a hide.

Crook knives are one of the most useful tools you can carry to aid comfortable wilderness living. Choose wisely.

There are many forms of crook knife which are known by other names. The one most common to what we do is a hoof knife. The bend in the blade is on a tighter radius than most crook knives but it can be used for the same purposes study the curvature and choose the one you need.

Many of the bent blade knives used by wood carvers are just variations on the ancient crook knife theme.

A few years ago we had a long discussion on an Internet history list about shovels. I had never thought much about shovels assuming they were as common and useful then as now.

In digging through old records it has become apparent that very few shovels made it to the mountains only a very few are listed on inventories and invoices and though digging caches is a fairly common thing mentioned, seldom does the mention include a shovel. I also made inquiry with the salvager's of the 1850 Steamboat Arabia – another surprising lack of shovels, plenty of hoes.

Perhaps it was something made at the Forts and Trading Posts by the local blacksmith, as flat steel was easier to transport? No indications one way or another. Seems unlikely as making a good shovel requires real skill and a fair expenditure of labor.

One thing that did turn up pretty often on trade lists were hoes. There is at least one mention of digging a cache with knife and skillet; I'm certain some were dug with nothing more than sharpened sticks.

Today my shovel is an important part of my camp gear because it aids things of greater significance now than then. It helps maintain tight control over the fire, digs convenient cat-holes in the woods, pounds stakes, and much more. These things were of less importance in the Early Nineteenth Century. Shovels are heavy and awkward to pack. On reflection a hoe (Dutch or American pattern) would be of greater utility and much easier to stash in a pack.

You can often use a hoe in place of a skillet for cooking chores, it can be used to flesh and break hides, it only takes moments to fashion a suitable handle of any convenient wood (even pine and aspen) or the leg bone of a buffalo; and it would be superior to a shovel for quickly digging the kind of hole needed to make a cache in the Rocky Mountains. It can also be used to manage a fire and dig cat holes.

We need more hoes in camp.

“Early cast shovel & hoe”


  • “From top to bottom; canoe knife made from old file, cheap import hoof knife, quality USA hoof knife, cheap import hoof knife, personal crook knife made from old style Sheffield blade, 1 doz quality USA hoof knife blades NOS.”





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updated  07/10/2009   

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