The crooked knife is an essential tool in the building of a birchbark canoe. All the parts of the craft are shaped with it; the builder handles the knife with such dexterity that all the finished parts end up perfectly uniform.
The knife is usually handmade: it consists of a flat blade, bent laterally upward and sharp on one side. It is set into a wooden handle that projects away from the user, thus providing a place for the thumb to rest. The shape of the knife, and the way it is handled, permits very close control of the blade. The blade is not pushed away from the user as with a normal knife, but drawn toward him; the hand is turned to the side and moves parallel with the work, the thumb resting on the curved end of the handle. This technique considerably increases the user’s control over the blade as well as the amount of pressure that can be exerted on.
A crooked knife is called “crooked” because of the bent handle, not because of the curved blade. Not all crooked knives have curved blades. You hold a crooked knife in your right hand (if you’re right-handed) with your palm up and with your thumb along the bent part of the handle. You cut towards your body as if it was a one-handed draw knife. Native people didn’t have a vice to clamp their work in so they held it with one hand and used a crooked knife with the other.
A steel awl is used to punch holes in the bark for the root. It too was handmade, from a round file ground to an angle on three or four sides, and fitted with a straight handle. The “canoe awl” of the fur trade was a steel awl with a blade triangular or square in cross-section, and was sometimes made of an old triangular file of small size. Its blade was locked into a hardwood handle, and it was a modern version of the old bone awl of the bark canoe builders, hence its name. Many builders use two types of awls; one with a round blade; another one with a triangular blade which is better for making holes in birchbark because it is less likely to split the bark. The size of the awl you need depends on the thickness of the spruce roots you are using. You want the hole to be just big enough to get the spruce roots through.
A wooden mallet is used to push the ribs into vertical position on the inside of the canoe. It is used with a wooden drift so as to direct its impact with greater precision. It has no special characteristics, except that the handle is at a slight angle to the head.
This instrument is used to gauge the distance to the thwarts from the bottom of the canoe; it consists of a wooden stick notched in three places, corresponding to the central thwart and the two pairs of thwarts on each side between the centre and the tips of the canoe. These measurements are standardized; for a 12-ft. canoe, the height of the central thwart is the span of the thumb and index finger, or about 8 in. Half an inch is added for the first thwart on either side of the centre, and an inch for the second. Although the rounding of the bottom when the ribs are inserted increases the depth of the hull appreciably, the same proportions are retained. The builder uses the same gauge to build a number of canoes of the same length. Recording these measurements on a wooden gauge ensures a perfect symmetry for the canoe, front and back.
This is a wooden measuring gauge used to mark on the gunwales the spaces where the ribs will fit between the lashings. Ribs and lashings alternate the length of the canoe. On a 12-ft canoe, the spaces are double the width of a thumb, or about 2¼ in. The thumb measurements are marked on the tibwehitaban carried by the builder.
Another measuring device that should be mentioned is the line-level used over the building bed to indicate the horizontal. There are many ways of measuring without graduated instruments. We have already mentioned the width of the thumb and the thumb-index span. To measure a foot, the canoe buider places his hands flat on the work with his thumbs extended inward and thumbnails overlapping. Outstretched arms measure 6 ft, a measurement used when cutting the gunwale members. The distance between the nose and the tip of one outstretched arm measures half this distance.