A Knife From The Hood

birck-ft

birck

At first, I thought the above knife was a German style paring knife, but now I’m not so sure. German knives are almost always somewhat flexiable, and this one is very rigid.   Notice the small recess on the handle, near the blade, perhaps worn by fingers gripping the handle over the decades.  Even a light surface cleaning could destroy not only important use evidence, but the overall beauty of the knife.  As I have said before, the over-cleaning and “restoration” of  hand tools is perhaps the most significant ongoing loss of cultural property  that commonly occurs.   The blade is full tang and has a gradual taper in thickness towards the cutting edge. Judging from the scratch patterns in the top picture, the owner must have had a stressful encounter with his grinding wheel!  But I find these marks interesting evidence of the history of the tool, as well as a visually refreshing antidote to the ubiquitous monotony of the highly regulated machine grind marks found on new tools.  The handle is an unidentified light colored wood that has been stained and is still firmly attached to the tang. The edges of the handle is still quite sharp, and the various ways I have tried to hold it all are somewhat uncomfortable.

Matt Murphy  found some information about Fred J. Birck:  “From 1903-04 he worked at 93 Essex St. In 1905-06, Fred. J. Birck is listed as being a part of Birck & Zamminer Cutlery, which is located at 154 Essex St.  In 1908-1912, Birck is listed at two seperate addresses, 132 Essex St. and 17 Cooper Sq. East. In 1912-1913, the primary address is changed to 17 Cooper Sq. E.  In 1913-1914, the partnership must have been dissolved, because only Birck is listed, and the only address is 17 Cooper Sq. E. until 1925.  Also, Mr. Birck made his home in Jersey City, New Jersey, as his address is often listed as 144 Hutton St. (Which still stands to this day.)”

So the knife is possibly from 1913-25.  Aside from the beautiful, insanely deep makers mark, I was attracted to the fact that another knife-maker worked in the East Village of NYC, only about 5 blocks from where my studio is now. There is even an old bar,  McSorley’s, established in 1854, still operating right around the corner from Birck’s 17 Cooper Sq. address. Perhaps Birck had a drink there.  I’ll raise a glass to him next time I’m there.

 

Don Rash posted a similar looking knife on his blog, unfortunately no makers mark.  I looked through Salaman’s Dictionary of Leather-working Tools c. 1700-1950 and couldn’t find any similar knives, and Salaman covers some pretty obscure leather-working trades ( ie. gut string maker, hydraulic pump-leather maker) but tends contain more English rather than American references.

 

Below is the German knife from Zaehnsdorf’s The Art of Bookbinding, 6th Ed. 1903. It almost looks like the knife is shaded more heavily on the top edge, to make clear the blade tapers toward the other edge?

german-paring-knife

7 thoughts on “A Knife From The Hood

  1. Don Rash

    That’s quite a knife.

    Could we have been overlooking the existence of an American style of paring knife? Given that both this one and one that I have seem to be pretty uncomfortable to use, perhaps they became extinct by way of natural selection in the workshop…

  2. Jeff Peachey

    Interesting thought. Could you post a picture of the one you have on your blog? Does it have any maker’s marks?

  3. Tom Conroy

    I have four paring knives that have the wide skew blade and offset handle. Two are nearly unused, with handles that look like some form of paler masonite, and unmarked; they have an edge that is flat and a good bit less pointy than 45 degrees to the long axis of the knife. I remember seeing similar ones in Gane Brothers catalogues twenty-five years ago. The third is my favorite knife, a Dexter (I have never had a bad Dexter tool) with a deeply stamped mark and a comfortable narrow-tang walnut handle; it was badly abused before I got it, but the angle probably started around 45 degrees. The previous owner said that she had used it when studying with Edith Diehl, then it went in the garage and stayed there from the early 1930s until the early ’80s, when my teacher bought it with other remains of her bindery and passed the knife along to me. I slicked a blue diamond stone getting the pits off the back of that knife, and have never felt the same about diamond stones since then. The fourth is marked by Langbein in New York (I misremembered this mark as Laubenheimer, a real but different company, in commenting on the knife shown on Don Rash’s site), with the mark stamped deep and an edge that is well-curved but probably started as a straight edge at an angle more pointy than 45 degrees to the long axis (sorry I am not using the proper terminolgy, but I’m under time pressure and can’t look it up). The evidence suggests to me that they were used in America in the other leatherworking trades as well as by binders, and that most of the ones that turn up were probably from other trades.

    Al Stohlman’s excellent book on sharpening leatherworking tools shows the style for use in skiving general leatherwork, and I think it must appear in Osborn lists (maybe still, but I don’t have time to check their site before my computer time runs out). Stohlman didn’t know how to use it, he shows it upside down in a ridiculous manner, but Stohlman was a round-knife saddler and probably felt a degree of contempt for anything else. It is worth locating his sharpening book just to see the photo of his favorite round knife, with four-fifths of the metal worn away (from the original 5″ half-circle) by thirty years of use.

    I have three German knives, two recent acid-marked Kollers and an older and better deep-stamped Henckels. I find that my German knives, all with rounded offset edges, are quite stiff; but the difference between them and the “American” knives is that the German ones have thick backs (or left sides) tapering to a right side that is unsharpened but thin enough that it could be sharpened— sharp enough for discomfort, andyway. The “American” knives all have flat blades.

  4. Jeff Peachey Post author

    Thanks for the info, Tom. I did a couple of quick searches- Osborne doesn’t make a knife like this, and Dexter seems just to make kitchen knives. If this knife was used for heel paring, why would the handle be located on the opposite side, since the base of the blade near the top of the handle is fairly uncomfortable?

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