Sunday, April 19, 2009

Knives I Use, Hook and Bent

I forget the exact circumstances, but I was tweeting with Kari Hultman, accomplished woodworker and new spoon carver, that I had several hook knives and had ordered some new bent knives. I mentioned that the two types of knives were different, something of which she wasn't aware. Since I just received two new bent knives from Preferred Edge I thought I would blog about it.

Now, keep in mind that I am no expert on the subject. This is just my take. If Mike Komick from Preferred Edge or Del Stubbs from Pinewood Forge want to weigh in on this in the comments, and correct anything I say or expand on it, they have my explicit permission to do so.

In general I distinguish between bent knives and hook knives by their origin. The way I see it, bent knives are of aboriginal American (I refuse to use the term "Native American", but that's a rant for another time), and hook knives are of European origin. Their design and method of use are similar, but different.
For instance, what you see here is called a high-curve, inside bevel, bent knife from Preferred Edge. The blade is 1/4" wide, 1-1/2" long and made from 1/16" thick tool steel. The inside bevel allows for deep cuts and moving lots of wood. It comes straight from Mike sharp enough to shave the fuzz off a ripe peach without breaking the skin. Keep in mind that I don't sand any of my pieces. Using the right technique, these knives leave a smooth, glossy finish. Mike's website has a great section on the history and use of the bent knife.

I used it to start the eye sockets on this Santa, work on hollowing the cheeks and relieving the rectangular areas in the base. You can get a nice, flat surface with this knife. That thing in the photo with the Santa and the knife is the sheath I made for the knife. Apparently the traditional way to store and transport bent knives is to wrap them in a rag (or, more contemporaneously, a tool roll). I have never been happy putting sharp edges inside of fabric. Call it a quirk. So I made a wooden sheath that opens like a book and is secured by a 1"-wide strap of cordura nylon with a velcro closure. It is safer and affords more protection to the blade.

Moving right along, I've had that knife for a while, but I just received two new knives from Mike: a high-curved and a hook outside bevel knife. Here are all three of them together.
The two knives on the bottom are the same knife except that one is an outside bevel and one is an inside bevel. The difference is that the outside bevel allows you to make thinner shavings more easily. The blade tends to rise out of the wood rather than digging in like the inside bevel does.

You can see how the blade is attached to the outside of the handle rather than inserted into it. This allows you to get really close to the work. This type of knife also requires a different hold than a more conventional knife. It's a reverse grip like the photos below. Before you get all excited about how unsafe I'm being, I have to say that I was not actually carving when I took these photos. These are just for illustrating the grip. While they are really well suited for carving in one's lap, I DO NOT recommend working like that without a board or other means of armoring your legs!
As you can see, I use these knives when I'm working on some of my smaller things. The thin, short blades make them great for hollowing out small spoon bowls. Of course Mike makes a wide variety of knives of all sizes as well as the largest selection of adzes that I've seen from one place. 

You might think that these blades, being so thin, are fragile. They are NOT! In learning to use that first knife (still learning) I did some things I probably shouldn't have done. In the interest of not incriminating myself, I shall not enumerate those things. The point being (ha, ha) that the blade didn't bend, chip or break. Mike makes one tough knife.

On to the European-style hook knife. I think more people are familiar with these. Some of the best knives made in this style are by Del Stubbs at Pinewood Forge. Of the eleven carving knives on his catalog page, I own eight. And he's coming out with another one! Del, ya gotta stop doing that! My wife is gonna kill me.
These are the hook knives he makes. He forges the blades himself, as does Mike Komick. These knives are so sharp they'll cut you if you even think about touching the edge. Actually, that's not strictly true. You have to think real hard! 

You'll notice that the handles are relieved on the edge side of the blade so you won't be bumping into the wood as you carve. Just one of the many thoughtful elements of design of these knives. Del's knives are single-edged so he makes these in both right and left hand models.

Some people don't like the roundness in the handle, but I don't see it. The finish Del puts on his handles provides a good grip. My hands sweat a lot, and I have no trouble hanging on. I use these knives with a conventional grip rather than a reverse grip.

I've probably rambled way too much here, but, hey, it's my blog. I can ramble if I want. If you have any questions, leave a comment, or (my recommendation) get directly in touch with Mike or Del. Both of them are friendly, great guys to deal with and very willing to share their knowledge. I use both makers' knives, and I love both makers' knives. You can't go wrong.

Until next time, let the chips fly!


  1. I never knew a man could own so many knives. I have never used the bent knives and it would be interesting to do so. What I want is a hook knife with a long handle 16 inches or so. I have seen them used with top of the handle in the armpit. I know I could get some good leverage with it. I have also taken to using a shaving horse and drawknife to do most of the hard work and finishing the spoons with knives. I would use such a long handled hook knife to take out the majority of the bowl, used 2 handed it should take a few seconds. This tool is called the Twca cam a Welsh name.

  2. I have enough knives to start my own retail shop. I've seen that long-handled knife in videos, but not used as you say. I've seen it used with a neck strap that attaches at the ferrule. That gives you a huge amount of leverage. They could really hog the wood out with that. I haven't seen any cataloged anywhere, but I'll bet Del Stubbs would make you one. I've even considered it myself.

    BTW, have you seen any plans for a small shaving horse, something more like a lap-horse?

  3. Very Interesting! Very Informative! Now I gotta find out more. The big question seems to be, "which came first? the new knife, or knowing how to use the knife"? Seems to me I'll have to buy one first, so I can learn how to use it.

    Any suggestions?

  4. Tom, I got the knife first, then taught myself (am teaching myself) how to use it. Since you like to carve small, I'd go with the Preferred Edge knife. He makes one smaller than the ones I've got. The blade is 1/8" wide by 1" long, double edge. The handle is still full size, so you've got plenty to hang on to. Like all knives it cuts better with a slicing cut. Not an intuitive move. I call the movement a push/pull/twist of the wrist. Can't do it all the time yet, but when I get it right, man, it's a sweet cut!

  5. Question: I am starting to learn a bit of carving b/c i've wanted to carve some tiny spice/ salt spoons. Being that they are so small 3-5 inches at most- what tool (s) do you recommend? Will a hook knife of the smallest size even work for such a small spoon bowl? Thanks for your time. :)

    1. North Bay Forge makes some mini-bent knives that would do what you want. I own a couple, and they are high quality. Hope this helps.