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Early American Trade Knife

Discussion in 'Shop Talk - BladeSmith Questions and Answers' started by Rod Dewald, Jan 4, 2009.

  1. Rod Dewald

    Rod Dewald

    Jul 18, 2004
    Sometimes called River Trade knives. After hand forging, the entire blade needs to be etch,similar to damascus. I am looking for any information on these early american blades and how to put it all together.

  2. Will Leavitt

    Will Leavitt

    Jul 28, 2006
    Rod, I do some period knives, although I'll bow to other makers. A big argument of mine with the reenactors is that the knife shouldn't look old. The knives weren't old when the people carried them. Also the roughness of the blades is an insult to the smiths that made them. A lot of even the trade knives were well finished knives.

    One of the common "tricks" was to take bad steel and press the blade while hot between 2 file shaped dies. The Indians believed file knives were special, so by imprinting a "file" shape to the sides of an inferior blade they could get more in trade.

    A lot of those knives were nothing more than large kitchen knives, same with belt and cartouche knives.

    Etch in warm vinegar and spray with windex or baking soda water to neutralize the etching. Use mild steel, copper or brass for fittings, handle material should be either horn or wood native the US, usually maple or oak. I've seen rawhide used as a partial wrap on the handle. Most of the tangs were either through tangs and peened on the end or patrial tangs.
  3. Rod Dewald

    Rod Dewald

    Jul 18, 2004
    Thank you for the advise on the trading knife.And I would expect that a person should keep it in the warm vinegar bath untill it changes to ones satisfaction.On this application there will be no etching solution such as Ferric Chloride?Which would be just fine with me.Thanks again Will,I would like to see some of your early period knives.

  4. Will Leavitt

    Will Leavitt

    Jul 28, 2006
    No need to use Fe CL.... a lot of us etch in warm vinegar. I etch for a couple of minutes, rinse it off and repeat until I get the finish I'm after. If you want more of a patina finish rather than an etch you can use mustard or some other acidic food product, I'm thinking about trying ketchup one day.

    I'm about to work on a 5" folding soldier's knife for my father in law... going to use horn scales and brass bolsters. Going to be traditional and use a square tang.
  5. LRB


    Feb 28, 2006
    You must be refering to 19th c. trade knives. 18th c. trade knives were imported from England, France, and other Euro countries. I have never heard before that the NA's prefered file knives. There is much controversy among researchers as to 18th c. file knives. Files were very expensive, and coveted as tools. A few have shown up that can be documented to Rev war period, but not very many, and no trade knives with impressed file markings, or etched blades. The grips were most commonly, one piece Euro boxwood attached to a tapered partial tang with two, or three, very small iron rivet pins of around 3/32", to 1/8" in diameter. The blades were finished bright. Kitchen knife is a very good description of these. English blades generally ran from 1/16", to 3/32" in thickness, and the French usually about 1/8". As far as I know, there were no American company type trade knives, at least in any quantity, until well into the 19th c. unless you count the independant smiths who may have done a little Indian trade on the side. If you are working in 18th c. styles, use brass and copper sparingly. Iron was the common material for mounts, and it is rare to see any other metal used for pins. Here is a close copy of a French trade knife of mid 18th c. I used 01 and walnut, although boxwood is more proper.
  6. SDS


    Oct 22, 2007
    Can anyone list some books where a person could go to research knives from the mid 18th century to the late 19th century? I haven't been able to find much in the way of resources like this.

    Thanks in advance.
  7. Will Leavitt

    Will Leavitt

    Jul 28, 2006
    LRB, I'm just passing on what my father in law says when I ask him about materials and styles. He does a lot of reenacting and I make knives for the family and some of his friends. The file knife thingy was told to me by some Indians/Native Americans at a Rendevous last year when I asked about the funny file mark looking stuff on the sides of one of their knives.

    I dunno... I'm not an expert just passing on what I'm told and see.
  8. Dixieblade57


    Jun 20, 2007
    I ain't no expert either and not downing anyone but, you will be hard pressed to find a man that knows more about this particular subject than LRB! He is a very well respected bladesmith who has crafted many knives from this time period and is actually quite knowledgeable on this time period in many areas as well!
  9. Pipeman


    Dec 2, 2004
    This may be of interest and others have probably discovered the same technique. I'm making a Hudson's Bay trade dagger and decided to vinegar etch the blade. If you wrap the blade in paper towel and soak it in vinegar and then move the paper towel around ie: pull it into small piles running across the blade (wrinkled) it will come out looking somewhat like ladder damascus. I have cleaned off the etch about 5 times to try new patterns. I dry it over a heating vent and peel the paper towel off after it's dry.


  10. SDS


    Oct 22, 2007
    Thanks for the reference Scout77.

  11. Stuart Willis

    Stuart Willis

    Nov 6, 2006
    I second This.
  12. sugarbear


    Oct 7, 2010
    I am not trying to hijack this thread but I am a newbee on this forum and and trying to post some pictures of what I think is a period trade knife. It might be helpful to your research but also it would be helpful for me to have the experts give me their opinion as to weather it is a skinner, kitchen, of scalper. Is there anyway someone could post a couple of my examples on this topic from my picture files by email? Thanks, Bill
  13. LRB


    Feb 28, 2006
    I'll take a look at them, and post them if you want, but when you say "period", which period? There are differences in 18th c. and 19th c. trade knives. Not always a lot, but some, and it depends on the degree of period correct you want. Chuck Burrows knows more than I do, and may be of help if I can't.
  14. sugarbear


    Oct 7, 2010
    I can provide pics by my email but I have not yet found the way to post them on this forum.
  15. Ed Fowler

    Ed Fowler

    Jul 21, 2001
    I Willson Sheffield was the work horse of the frontier. You can find old catalogs of their knives on the Internet. Not fancy, not great knives compared to what we can make today, but they worked and were shipped to the colonies by the thousands.
  16. Wild Rose

    Wild Rose

    Aug 23, 2002
    Here are some places to start researching the actual knives and sheaths of the American West pre-1899.

    - "Fur Trade Cutlery Sketchbook" - has scale drawings of knives well dated from the 1500's to the 1800's – a real cheap source and one of the best for ALL periods........

    - “American Knives, The First History And Collector's Guide"
    Harold L. Peterson

    - "The Knife In Homespun America And Related Items"
    Grant, Madison

    - "American Primitive Knives 1770-1870"
    Minnis, Gordon

    - “The Bowie Knife Book”
    Norm Flayderman

    - “Bowie Knives and Bayonets of the Ben Palmer Collection”
    Ben Palmer

    - “Bowie Knives”
    Robert Abels

    - “Early Knives & Beaded Sheaths of the American Frontier”
    John Baldwin

    - “Peacemakers”
    R. L. Wilson

    - “The Skinning Knife”
    M. H. Cole

    - Firearms, Traps, and Tools of the Mountain Men
    Carl P Russell

    These are just a start and some may be out of print so use your local Interlibrary Loan to obtain them: there are many other books on the general time period/subject one chooses (i.e. Rev War, Mtn Man, Civil War) as well with several or maybe just one or two knives included, magazine articles, auction catalogs and websites (e.g. Cowans, Apache Junction, Butterfields, Greg Martin, etc., museum catalogs and websites (e.g. BBHC.org, Splendid Heritage, Autry Nat’l Center, etc.) all have good examples of actual period knives & sheaths and IMO are worth the time spent searching.

    I also agree that Wick is very knowledgable on 18th century trade knives - the only thing I would add is at least for the later 1700's and on into the 1800's other common woods for trade knife handles were: Indian Rosewood, Gaboon Ebony, water buffalo horn was used on some types, and buck handled knives (most likely Sambar) show up frequently on English/American trade lists.

    So much depends on what and where as to what is "correct" i.e. what was correct in 1750 Kentucky will not be the same as 1820 New Mexico. Also when discussing period knives one must realize there was a difference between trade knives, simple basic knives built in factories by the thousands, and the locally produced knives by American cutlers and blacksmiths.

    Will - I must repectfully disagree up to a point.
    1) Not all knives were new at the time, many were passed on from father to son, etc. so there was a variation in age and wear - a concept that many re-enactors follow i.e. the gear they have represents gear from 10-20 or 30 years prior to the date they are re-enacting - a concept well documented by period sources. Secondly living under the conditions that the frontiersman did at the time can age a knife and other gear real fast - I once spent 10 month living as close as possible to the conditions the Mtn Men did using only items they would have used and my gear, even when taken care of as well as possible aged FAST - there were periods when things just did not dry out for many days for example. Using a piece on weekends, or for even a few weeks of time, even over a long period does not age in the same way or at the same speed as long stretches of contiguous time. This is not only my personal experience either, but the experience of the original Mtn Men as written in the period resources as well as others who have lived the life for long periods of contiguous time.
    2) As to the roughness of the blades - well not all smiths were that good even back then and not all were made by trained smiths and not all blacksmiths were trained cutlers either. There are plenty of rough looking originals that were made by locals who had basic smithing skills only. See teh books by Madison Grant and Gordon Minnis above for examples, but as with all research cross reference.
    Also in the SW for one, there are plenty of old knives that were almost 100% forged and retained that from the forge look - not necessarily crude you understand i.e. no deep pits, or heavy hammer marks, or slag inclusions, but well forged with minimal filing or grinding much like the camp and bush knives that Tai Goo makes as an example.
    3) For many who do the old thing it's a fantasy trip in many ways - i.e. grown up cowboys and Indians or Last of the Mohicans, et al, and for them it's what they want and it can be a good market for those so inclined - plus not all "period" knives are for re-enactors, many go to collectors who can be interested in the Frontier as colored by Hollywood, etc.
    My own work for example includes both types - well documented styles like documented originals and "fantasy" pieces which can be very lucrative. IMO one should know the difference though and that takes research and being honest with the recipient/customer about what one is making.
    4) There are period references to using files for blades but it was always localized and mostly post-1800. As to the imitation file blades such types of "mythology" unfortunately are rampant when it comes to history - doesn't matter who makes the statement such things should ALWAYS be verified by several sources when possible. On the other hand there is plenty of documentation for the NDNs knowing the difference between plain iron blades and real steel blades, whether knives or axes.

    BTW - the term "fantasy" is not necessarily derogatory, but is a term coined by Alan Gutchess and the other Smiths at Colonial Williamsburg to describe work made with an old time look/feel, but that are not exacting replicas of original pieces.

    There are several pics of excavated trade blades on the web - see here for just some examples - scroll down:

    Also look here - Lucas hasn't updated in a while but he has done some serious research into English trade blades:

    A trade knife paper - based on excavated examples:
    http://www.wyandot.org/petun/RB 31 to 36/PRI35.pdf
    Last edited: Oct 9, 2010
  17. Rick Baum

    Rick Baum

    Mar 14, 2000
    Great, informative post Chuck! Definitely printing your list of references for future research.

  18. winterbear


    Jul 24, 2009
    I wonder if he is talking about emulating the finish on the contemporary brand "River Traders" knives.
    go to knives and then trade knives on my site, since I can't post oics yet

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