28th Sep, 2011

Alaskan Ulu Knife

It seems that every time I go to research a cool topic, the name Old Jimbo keeps popping up in my searches and he is always YEARS ahead of me : ) Not to mention, that his research tends to get really in depth. I will research in depth to, but he documents it! Bless you Jim!

The situation was no different when I wanted to make an Alaskan Ulu Knife. Jimbo’s article on the topic documents his experience with different styles of Ulu’s made by a local maker, as well as digs into the history and the regional differences in the shapes. If you have any interest at all in the topic, I highly suggest you read his article.

I have had my own experience with Ulu’s. Both the common “production” style that you seem to see everywhere, as well as other handmade ones. I have had my own ideas on what features I wanted to put into one for some time, but have delayed making one. The reason is, if I make something, I obviously want to make it available for sale too. The way I wanted to sell it is with a matching cutting board/bowl, and possibly stand, depending on the cutting board I came up with. Not having the tools to make the cutting board, I delayed the entire project.

Then, one of my friends came back from Alaska, and it got me all excited about taking on this project again. I figured out the a couple paths to take care of the cutting board. But, I am not sharing either at this time, until I figure out which one I like better : ) But, the Ulu is here for you to see.

There are at a least a couple ways to grip an Ulu. One of them involves putting the handle right through the palm of your hand. It results in your hand being directly over the cutting edge. This type of grip results in a tremendous amount of push cut power. I have found that almost any Ulu shape, handle and design work decent in this grip.

Another grip, which I use for finer work, like mincing vegetables, is to get your hand off to the side. The reason for this is that the Ulu can be rotated very fast, with a minimum amount of motion on your part. If your hand was on top, your hand, wrist and at least forearm would need to rotate. With your hand off to the side like this, basically just your hand and wrist need to rotate. It is quite fun to use like that.

Many of the Ulu’s I have seen and used are not the best for this type of grip. If it has the “hole in the center” generally the grip is very wide and making that grip not too comfortable. If the Ulu has the “T” style of handle, the grip is pretty much not even possible at all. In Ulu’s similar to mine in design, and even the one in Jimbo’s article, tend to have lines and sharp angles in that area of the handle. While I am sure they work, they do not seem optimal, in my mind. So, I incorprated a radius both in the Ulu and in the handle to allow your thumb and whichever finger you prefer to rest comfortably.

So, a bunch of pictures. Whatever, right? What are the benefits of a crazy shaped knife like this? Certainly there are advantages and disadvantages to everything. But, I will focus on the advantages of a tool like this, and let you make up your mind on the usefulness.

First, I think this particular knife is cheap and cheesy. And this video is totally “infomercial.” But, the guy is pretty darn good with the knife, and with a video, you can “see” how a knife of this style can be useful.

In doing my Youtube searching, I also came across this interesting video of an Alaskan woman filleting salmon with a rather large Ulu. Even though you may not want one that large, or fillet salmon, it is cool to watch.

Finally, just based on my experience, I put together this list of what I thought were the benefits of this style of knife. Some are demonstrated in the video, but I will put  it into words anyway.

1) Pressure. The force you apply is directly over the cutting edge. In a traditional knife, it is a lever-arm scenario.

2) Curved cutting edge. For some reason, with a traditonal knife, I don’t like too much curve in the blade (for a kitchen type knife). Because you have to rock it to get all the way through what you are cutting, and your hand being way back on a handle exaggerates the amount of movement you need. But, when your hand is on top of the cutting edge, the rocking motion is really quite fun. So, mincing can be done really fast. But the curve does another thing for you. Much like an axe face has a continuous curve, so does your cutting edge. What this does (for both) is makes a small amount of blade to be in contact with what you are cutting at any given point in time. A fraction of a second later, a different portion of the blade is being used. If you compare that to a realitvely non-curved blade a larger portion of the blade is being used at any given time and therefore requires more force.

Pairing it up with the “curved” cutting board or cutting bowl is quite neat. Before using it, I didn’t get it. My thought was “Here you with a knife whose advantage is supposed to be a curved cutting edge, and then you purposely take that curve away by making a cutting board to match it.” Well, that is only half true, and all good : ) You still hav ethe curved blade advantage of cutting power when cutting into something, because the bowl does not come into play a that point. So, you slice nice and easy through something, But, as you get ALL the way through, your bowl and cutting edge line up together and do not require you to do any (or minimal) rocking motion to cut completely through what you are cutting. Pretty neat.

3) Compactness. These are made in all different sizes. I made mine 7” from tip to tip. In that 7” package, I have just over 8” of cutting edge. A traditional knife with 8” of cutting edge is probably going to just over a foot long.

When I was younger, and group of friends and I used to venture really, really far north into Canada in the spring for walleye fishing. The places we went were generally “fly-in” lakes, although use poor saps used to spend hours in our boats getting there. On trips like that, we could carry more weight with us in the boats than say backpacking or canoeing, but you don’t want to go crazy with too much stuff. We used to bring a lot of good food. I wouldn’t usually use my belt knife on food, and something like this would have been great to take. Both for the fish and for the food.

4) Efficiency of movement. In the infomercial video, the guy shows butteflying a porkchop. I also mentioned having 8” of cutting edge on my knife. I can use every bit of that cutting edge without my forearm moving at all. One wrist movement. If you compare that to a traditional knife, the hand, the wrist the forearm and upper arm all the way up to the shoulder would have to move to use 8” of blade. That move that sliced through the pork chop can definitely be used in skinning animals and filleting larger fish.

Anyway, those are the advantages I see. I don’t mean to talk about it like it is the perfect tool for everything. I could probably make a very similar lists for disadvantages too. Still, I really like the tool, and it is definitely work exploring, even if you try out a $17 cheapie, or go to Jantz supply and try a $6 blank to handle yourself.

Once I get my cutting board/bowl scenario worked out, look for this one to have its own page for sale as well.

Thanks for reading.


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