I have a shelf in the corner of my shop where I pile my collection of tape measures. They frequently fall off the shelf, and this past week I finally got tired enough of picking them up off the floor that I put them in order. In the process, I noticed a drawer in a small parts organizer that the tapes had been hiding. The drawer was marked “Knives.” The handwriting, in black Sharpie, was mine, but I didn’t remember putting any knives in that organizer. When I pulled the drawer out I immediately recognized one of the knives in it. “Oh, there you are,” I said out loud as one does when finding a member of the family in an unusual place in the house. It was my marlinespike knife, which had been missing for over ten years. The last time I’d seen it, I had taken it apart to replace the pins holding it together—they had loosened considerably with age. The knife had once belonged to my grandfather, Francis Cunningham, Sr.

My grandfather, Francis Cunningham, Sr., dressed for sailing in an outfit that was at once natty and ratty.

My father, Francis Jr., was born and raised in Lowell, Massachusetts. Every two or three years we spent our summers in Massachusetts, splitting our time between my grandparents’ home in Lowell and a rented summer house in Marblehead, a harbor town just down the coast from Boston. On one of our stays back east we took a trip to New York City. I think it was in 1960; I was just seven years old then, so my memories of the trip are quite dim. I remember going shopping with my father for a birthday present for my grandfather, Papa, as my sisters and I called him. We went to Abercrombie and Fitch. It wasn’t at all like it is now, a source of trendy, upscale fashions for those who can afford to show a bit of midriff. It was the store for adventurers outfitting safaris and expeditions. I recall a high-ceilinged showroom with dark, wood-paneled walls covered with the mounted heads of African wildlife. Dad bought a folding marlinespike knife for Papa. We then visited FAO Schwarz, and Dad picked out a toy sailboat with a bright royal blue hull and a sloop rig. I liked it, and in my young mind I saw no reason that my 71-year-old grandfather wouldn’t like it too, as one of his birthday presents. As we were leaving, Dad asked me which gift Papa would like most; I could have the other one. I picked the knife for Papa and the sailboat was mine.

My grandfather’s boat, MOLLY MAY, was a 31′ auxiliary cutter designed by Wilder B. Harris in 1931. On hot summer days with light wind, Papa would trail a line from the stern so I could jump in the water and get towed behind the boat.

Papa would have used the knife for working on MOLLY MAY, the 31′ cutter he kept in Marblehead Harbor. After my grandfather died in 1965, Dad brought the knife home with him and used it working on his 27′ Tumlare sloop. In the ’60s, when I took an interest in maritime skills, Dad gave the marlinespike knife to me. Its blade held a good edge and was the best I’d ever used for cutting rope.

Eventually the knife got a bit loose and the marlinespike wouldn’t snap open and stay steady, so I took the knife apart, intending to fix it. I was at a loss for how to go about the repair and I put the knife away, in pieces. As it often is with important things put away carefully so they won’t get lost, I forgot where I put it. Having the knife once again in my hand, I straightaway set to putting it back in working order, using common nails to make new pins and replace the missing bail.

I sharpened the blade and, just as I remembered, it cut through rope with ease. I haven’t seen Papa for more than 55 years, but when I look at the knife, I imagine it held in the hand of my grandfather and think, “Oh, there you are.”

Putting the knife back together

The pins holding the wood covers to the liners hadn’t loosened so I had left those parts together. My goal was to make the knife functional again, not make it look like new. The knife had never rusted, so the steel had no pits and I could keep the patina of age.


I used two sizes of nails to make new pins for the knife. They were oversize, so I chucked them in a cordless drill and spun them against a fine sanding belt to get them to fit the holes in the liners.


The nail marked with the arrow presses against the two-ended spring to tension it. I couldn’t reassemble the knife with it in place, so I set it aside while I joined the liner and cover with the other pins.


With the pieces assembled, the pin that tensions the spring is driven in. It’s already seated here, marked by the arrow, with its point in a hole in the piece of wood under the knife. An extra tensioning pin, at left, shows the point beveled on one side. It functions a bit like a drawbore pin in a mortise-and-tenon joint, creating tension between the pieces being joined as it’s tapped in.


The beveled end of the tensioning pin is visible below the knife. With all of the pins in place, they can be trimmed and peened.


I kept the heads on the finishing nails I used for the new pins. That saved me from having to flare both ends of each pin. The belt sander took the extra metal off both ends of the pin. I left enough metal on the cut ends to flare them when peened.


The reason the knife loosened up in the first place was that the peened ends of the pin were pressing against wood, not metal (except for the blade’s pivot, run through metal bolsters on either side). I flared the pins wider than the originals had been to have a longer-lasting hold on the wood. My anvil is, I believe, a train-car’s roller bearing, which I found by railroad tracks.


I used another nail to make a new bail. The original had been lost quite some time ago. The nail’s steel was soft enough to hammer cold to make the ends flat and wide.


After years of sharpening, the tip of the blade was no longer buried in the handle.


The projection on the blade’s tang is called the kick. It keeps the sharp edge of the blade from making contact with metal inside the handle. Trimming the kick on the belt sander will allow the blade to sit a bit deeper.


With the kick shortened, the blade is fully buried in the handle.


Peening the pin ends flared them, but they were shaped like the bells of trumpets and had sharp, proud edges. To roll the edges down and create mushroom-shaped ends, I used a diamond Dremel bit to shape a concave end on a pin punch.


A few taps of the modified pin punch rounded the rivet heads.


Back in good working order after serving the family for 60 years, my marlinespike knife is ready for future generations.