Weaving Splint Baskets

pounding an ash log to remove splints
Interpreter pounding an ash log to remove splints at Old Sturbridge Village
Natives of the northeast made their woodsplints from the trees of Brown, Black Ash (Fraxinus nigra) and Oaks. In addition to these splints, sweetgrass, (sometimes braided) and in much later historic times, twisted Hong Kong cord (an imported twisted grass) are sometimes woven in. Ash is the preferred material for fine woodsplint basket making. Some sturdy workbaskets were made with oak for their durability but the time-enduring silky appearance of woodsplint baskets comes from ash. The best ash trees for basket making are those which grow vigorously during the summer months, creating the dense growth rings which are separated by pithy winter layers. When these porous layers of the ash treeís rings are pulverized, the wood comes apart into separate dense layers used for woodsplints

splint splitter
Tantaquideon Splitter
Before pounding an ash log to remove the splints, it must be selected, cut and emersed in a body of water, swamp, bog or pond for at least a year. Once thoroughly soaked the ash log must be quickly debarked using a drawknife or a spud specifically designed for the task. While it still retains itís moisture, the log is scored along itís length and the width of the splints following the natural grain of the wood. The scored log is then pounded down itís length at close intervals with a wooden maul to separate the layers and lift the woodsplints.

beaver incisor
Beaver Incisor
If the raw woodsplints were thick they could be further slit down with a device called a splitter, of two lengths of wood, using oneís knees to apply pressure to the splints, which are pulled apart with oneís hands. The splints would be coiled up, dried and stowed for later finishing. Splints were soaked again and refined with planes, drawshaves, crooked knives, and basket guages to trim splints to the proper thickness and width needed. At first Native woodsplints were made freehand, without using special knives or gauges. Some basket tools have Native beginnings, such as the crooked knife used to thin woodsplints (and for woodworking in general). Crooked knives originally had a beaver incisor for a blade (Speck 1915), but by the 1600's it had a metal blade, set at an angle, into a wooden handle (Snow 1980).

Nipmucs, Mohegans, Pequots, Niantics, and Wampanoags living in region east of the Connecticut River eventually used a draw knife, (a blade with a handle at either end held with both hands), to shave down woodsplints; so the splints from this region resulted squared edges. Other Native groups such as the Schaghticoke, Mahican, Paugusset, and Tunxis living in the western region of southern New England used the crooked knife (held in one hand) to thin the wood, leaving the splints with tapering, beveled edges.
Fruit basket with porcupine twists
Large, bold 'curly-que' twists
on a basket from southern New England
Fruit basket with porcupine twists
Small, intricate porcupine 'curly-que' twists
on a basket from northern New England

The baskets of groups living to either side of the Connecticut River were also woven in different ways. Nipmucs, in imitation of Pequot basketry, often wove in a band of narrow-fitting splints or they painted 'bar' designs that have the same visual effect. Baskets of the western region of southern New England are noted for the 'porcupine twist'; a way of twisting the splint weft into a 'curlicue' as it is woven over the splint warps. The Schaghticoke associate the splint 'curlicue' with the form of a shell, and similar techniques are used in traditional porcupine quill work (Speck 1915).

Splint Basket Traditions Splint Basket Industry