Ancient Tools for Modern Times

The Adze, The Drawknife, and The Mocotaugan

By Camille Coy

It’s always exciting to see the similarities in woodworking tools across cultures and millennia. Working wood is truly a uniting human quality. I’ve always thought woodworkers (particularly hand tool users) would make good time travelers—they’d be able to seamlessly slip into a profession almost anywhere they ended up.

Adze

The adze seemed a good place to begin because of its incredibly long and diverse history. An adze is similar to an axe, but with an arched blade that is set at a perpendicular angle to the handle. The construction of an adze is particularly adept at smoothing and shaping wood, felling trees, and working with curved surfaces.

How to Use an Adze:

An adze with any length handle is held at a slight angle to the wood, and hit repeatedly, towards the user, moving down to remove even sections to scrape away stock.

Specialty Adzes

Foot adzes were designed for heavier work like boat building and construction. These are generally used from a standing position, and swung towards the user’s feet, working backwards. Hand adzes have shorter handles and blades with a deeper curve for specialty uses like bowl carving.

So, maybe you’re too enamored with your elegant Japanese hand plane to consider using anything else (understandable), but it’s worth mentioning that adzes make decent planers. The advantages are that it can handle large areas at once and leaves rustic blade marks. Some adzes sport a short curved double handle specifically for this use. Hand planes are pretty ancient, but adzes shaved wood even earlier. So, give your kanna planes the day off and try planing like it’s 5,000 BCE!

History of The Adze

Adzes have been used for a range of purposes on a range of continents, from boat construction in ancient Egypt to Native American bowl making. Evidence of artists using adzes for carving and crafting goes back thousands of years and continues even today. Though adzes have not commonly been used for functional construction since the mid 20th century, they are still used by artisans, artists, and enthusiasts of people-powered woodworking.

The earliest evidence of adzes occurs over 50,000 years ago, and intact examples of adzes dating around 10,000 years ago have been found in disparate corners of the earth. The Nachikufan culture of Southern Zimbabwe (~4500 BCE) used ground stone adzes, and the Manglemosian culture of Northern Europe (9,000-6,000 BCE) used similar adzes made of bone.  

In the Māori culture of New Zealand, adzes hold ceremonial significance. A toki poutangata was carried as a symbol of rank or leadership and was an adze with an intricately carved wooden handle a jade blade. Today, toki pendants carved to resemble the adze blade are ornamental symbols of power. A testament to the cultural significance of hand tools.

Adzes Today

Though modern tools such as powered hand planes have largely come to replace the adze, there is a thriving community (like the one on here on The Art of Hand Tools) of woodworkers and artisans who prefer to work unplugged. Adzes today usually have wooden handles and steel blades.

There are also many indigenous artisans who continue to use adzes in their traditional crafts. I found this beautiful film in my research that follows Wayne Price, an indigenous Alaskan artist as he builds a traditional adze from scratch.

Buying an Adze

Like many hand tools, adzes tend to be on the pricey side, particularly those with hand-forged blades, which all seem to start at around $100 and go up as high as $400. But don’t fret! I also found an adze with very good reviews on Amazon for $25. If you’re just curious about the tool, and you’re not sure how often you’ll get a chance to use it or if you’re going to enjoy working with it, go for the cheaper option and go from there.

Project with an Adze: Large Bowl

Because an adze can be less than delicate and is adept at removing large pieces of stock at a time, it’s advisable to make a larger bowl. You’ll need to start with something rather large, something large enough to create a bowl with depth. In many ways, preparation for this project won’t be that different from turning a wooden bowl using a pole lathe.

Tools:

  1. Adze/Foot Adze
  2. Adze with a shorter handle
  3. Bowl gouge (optional)
  4. Adze plane/hand plane

Designing + Planning:

Consider your piece of wood and decide what shape and size of bowl is best for what you have. It all starts with understanding your materials and planning for them. Every piece of wood is unique, so it’s important to wait to design your bowl until you have all of your raw materials in hand.

Remember, the adze will leave lots of gorgeous blade marks in your piece, so it might not be the best situation to pull out that expensive burl with the beautiful grain patterns you’ve been saving. Or maybe it is! You’re the maker, so it’s your call, but design intentionally knowing the tool will leave marks. Those unique marks are like brushstrokes in impressionist paintings, and certainly part of the appeal of working with an adze.

Steps

Using an adze with a long handle or a foot adze, begin by sloughing away in one area at the center of your stock. Depending on the size of your stock you can work with it on the floor using a longer adze, or on a work bench using a shorter one. If you’re doing the latter, be careful bracing the stock against your leg (a common habit for this project).

Begin making yourself a circle, gradually making it deeper and wider.

When you’ve gone deep enough for your bowl, switch to an adze with a shorter handle. Work along the sides of the bowl, a little more delicately, to define it shape.

Optional: Use a bowl gauge to refine the inside of the bowl.

Turn your stock on its side and begin using the adze to slough off large pieces and begin to form the outer shape of the bowl. There’s no wrong way to do this, and your design is up to you.

Be careful working on an unbalanced project, if you can find a way to grip or weight it down you should. Some people grip with one hand and work with the other. If you choose to do this, be careful and make sure you’re not working near your hand.

When you have a decent bowl shape ready, use an adze plane (or any hand plane) and clean up the outside of the bowl.

To finish, use a food-safe, nontoxic finisher. Linseed and flax seed oils are nice but be sure that the brand you purchase doesn’t contain chemical additives.

Drawknife

https://www.pexels.com/photo/blade-carpenter-carpentry-craft-461086/

Types + Intro

A Drawknife, also known as a draw shave, is a tool for shaving or shaping wood by “drawing” the blade towards yourself. Drawknives can be used to create paper thin shavings or to slough off large pieces of stock, depending on the hardness of the wood and the angle that it is held to. Drawknives are particularly adept at shaping curved pieces of wood and because of this have been used for thousands of years to debark trees and remove square corners to make blanks for lathe work. Hand tool enthusiasts use drawknives as a more powerful plane, particularly for rounded objects, or generally for hollowing out or shaping wood.

How to use a Drawknife

Drawknives are held at a slight angle and “drawn” towards the user. Repeat the motion until desired amount of stock has been removed or finishing effect has been achieved. Drawknives are often used with a shave horse/shaving bench, a sort of workbench that the worker sits astride like a horse. A clamp is operated with the feet using a treadle bar, like a pole lathe. The shave horse is helpful for preparing stock for the lathe or for any drawknife work.

The drawknife is a handy, powerful tool with a long history, and like the adze, drawknives give you intimate control over the creating and finishing of rounded work—a concern of many power tool users when considering the switch to unplugged.

Drawknife Construction

A drawknife consists of a blade with a beveled edge like a chisel, that is usually gently curved but can also be u-shaped or straight, with a wooden handle at either end. Today the blades are frequently made of steel, but historically they were made of iron, as steel was quite a precious commodity. Steel only came into wide use in Rome around 16 BCE when Noricum, a Celtic kingdom hailing from modern Austria and Slovenia, joined the empire bringing its powerful Noric steel. Even then it was mostly used by the military for weapons.

History

Roman drawknives have been found in both Pompeii and London. An impressively intact example in the British Museum was discovered in England and dates back to the mid 1st century (the Early Roman period). It has an iron u-shaped blade, a specialty drawknife used in antiquity for hollowing wood, but is more recently (over the past few centuries that is) associated with coopers. Roman drawknives sported wooden handles, but, unlike their modern descendants, these handles were fixed at either no angle to the blade, or a very slight one.  

Though there haven’t been many discoveries of early drawknives compared to other tools, we know the Vikings used them based on one chance discovery. In the 1930’s a Swedish farmer discovered the Mästermyr chest, a treasure trove of Viking (793-1066) tools, with over 200 intact examples, including 2 drawknives. Their original handles had rotted away, but the curved iron blade survived, and closely resembles the Roman examples that dated almost 1,000 years earlier. For that matter, it closely resembles modern curved or “bowl” drawknives. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Drawknives Today

Today, drawknives have fallen out of common industrial use, except perhaps for coopers or chairmakers, but woodworkers and artisans continue to use them. Drawknife blades are steel and have wooden or occasionally metal handles.

Buying a Drawknife

There are drawknives of every length, curve, and size available for purchase online. There are even replicas of the Viking Mästermyr chest drawknives available for sale on Etsy. Various makers on Etsy also sell hand-forged pocket drawknives that have finger/thumb holes instead of handles. I also found tiny drawknives with only 3-inch-long blades for making spoons or detail work. Buy a leather drawknife cover, as a drawknife is little more than an exposed blade, making it difficult to store safely. There are many examples online, but this company based in Texas offers several colors and sizes of hand-stitched English bridle leather drawknife covers.

Projects with a Drawknife

This inspired project, put together by permaculture enthusiast Oliver Holmgren, utilizes a drawknife to create textured, natural looking elements for a beautifully rustic fence.

The Mocotaugan

The mocotaugan, or the “crooked knife” is a one-handed knife used by Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands, which is now the eastern United States and Canada. A curved-blade mocotaugan is used for hollowing out curved objects like bowls and canoes, while the straight-bladed version is used for whittling wood and basketmaking. The term “crooked” doesn’t actually refer to the blade, but the oblique angle of the handle to the blade. Some have a blade with an upswept tip for gauging.

How to use a Crooked Knife:

Crooked knives, like drawknives, are drawn towards the user, with the thumb pressing along the flat end of the handle. Clench your hand with the palm facing up. This position puts more force against the wood and gives the user more precise control. As it is a one-handed knife, there is no need to use a shave horse. One hand holds the wood and the other holds the knife.

History of the Crooked Knife

“Mocotaugan” is derived from Cree, a dialect of Algonquian, an indigenous North American language that is now a recognized official language of the Northwest Territories of Canada. Historians believe that the knives were originally made with sharpened beaver mandible, sharpened buffalo ribs, obsidian, or copper. When it became available, iron or steel was substituted to make the blades. Some infer that the shape of a crooked knife was inspired by the incisors of a beaver, as they have a long curved “root” ending in sharp, angled edges.

Most surviving antique examples of crooked knives are from the 19th century, and feature intricately carved handles, but these were likely made to sell to Europeans.

Crooked Knives Today

Crooked knives are wonderful tools that have found wide appeal among woodworkers and artisans. They give you precise control over your work, and they’re very attractive tools.

Buying a Crooked Knife

NativeKut is an indigenous-owned Etsy shop that sells a Crooked Knife.

The complete knife is $70 and the blade-only option is $50

https://www.etsy.com/listing/194409011/m3-northwest-crooked-knife-with-blade

Project with a Crooked Knife

Spoon Carving

While crooked knives are good candidates for many projects and tasks, a good beginner project that you can complete mostly using a crooked knife is a spoon.

This video has a great overview of using a knife (a hook knife, but the effect is the same).

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