First what makes a good spoon carving hook knife?
It needs to be sharp and hold a good edge, all the knives I mention below will do that and all except the Frost come ready to use. The curvature of the blade is important, tight curves and short blades are easy for beginners to use but leave a bit of a ploughed field effect which most resort to sandpaper to remove. A more open curve allows a clean cut surface to be created quickly but takes more time to learn to use. My personal taste is for a gradually tightening curve on the knife this means I have whatever curve I want somewhere on the blade and can do everything with one knife. Next the profile. The blade has to run through a curve and if it is wide front to back the back edge catches on the inside of the curve and makes the edge dig in, this results in chatter rather than a smooth cut. There are two ways round this either you make a very thin narrow blade which works but flexes, or better have a broad blade but grind off the back corner and smooth it so that you have a lovely polished rounded surface running over the inside of the spoon bowl. Finally the handle, this is largely personal preference, some like small handles, others larger. Most makers give us short handles and this restricts the number and range of cuts that are possible. I like a handle around 6-8" long.
What is below then is a subjective overview of the knives I have and I shall also include links to other makers who's knives I have tried but don't own.
Frosts/mora hooks. The frosts 106 is my preferred straight knife, cheap, good wonderful. Sadly the hooks are not as good. The best of the bunch is the 164 which is currently around £17 online, when new they have a rather heavy secondary bevel and are not always sharp out of the box. If you know what you are doing and round the back off with coarse emery paper then sharpen it well the 164 makes a reasonable tool. I toured the Frosts factory with Wille Sundqvist in 2003 and we talked with the owners asking why they did not make better hooks, these hooks have been unchanged for over 20 years and really should be better.
Svante Djarve, these were the first decent hooks that became available in the UK around 20 years ago, they have a distinctive ridged texture to the handles. They were far better than anything else at the time. The small hook is very very easy for beginners to use but it's tight curvature means it leaves a series of grooves across the work. To remove these you need a more open hook or you will have to resort to sandpaper. Many people bought this hook, use nothing else and are very happy with it, if you are serious about spooncarving though you would do well to learn to use a larger hook. Svante Djarve large hook (pictured below), this is a very good tool amongst the top three or four hooks available and the fact it is easily available mail order is good too. At the time of writing these are retailing at £42.50 which makes them a few £ more than others.
Ben Orford, when Ben made his first knives they were straight copies of Svante Djarves small hooks which are always popular with folk who have not yet put in the time to learn to use a larger hook properly. He also produces a more open thin knife which will smooth out the rough cuts of the small hook, I find these flex in use and chatter if used for heavier cuts. I also prefer to be able to do the job with one knife rather than having to use several. I worked with Ben a little on trying to develop a better profile not sure if this ended as the flatter curve crook knife or medium knife on his site, they were better but still not quite there for me. Ben's handles are all quite small so folk on courses with small hands always like them, he's a really nice guy and gives good customer service.
Hans Karlsson, is undoubtedly one the best green woodwork toolmakers out there. I have used many of his tools and he is the only smith where I can say every one has worked really well. This is his hook, when I first saw it I though it had drawbacks, the curvature is fairly even without the wide flat section I like and it is quite narrow front to back which sometimes results in flex. For some reason in use none of this matters, it is a wonderful knife in fact this is the knife I recommend above all the others that are easily available at the moment. Currently £34.50 and very good value.
Del Stubbs of Pinewood Forge makes excellent knives, his straight sloyd knives are the best I have used, the hook knives are very good and I would always recommend them to anyone in the US though Del currently has a long waiting list.
Now I have saved the best to last. in 2004 I worked with a smith at the national folcraft school in Sweden who had completed his dissertation on woodworking tools, surely here was the man who would make me the perfect spoon knife? No he told me that knife was already made by someone else a chap called Bo Helgesson. It changed everything I thought I knew about how these knives worked, the very broad blade should have chattered through the cut but being very rounded off at the back it flowed smoothly through, the high polish and incredibly fine 17 degree edge angle go through wood like it's not there. I was lucky to buy a few batches of these and still use them for my courses though Bo is not always easy to buy from. If you see them in stock anywhere buy one. There are probably only two folk who have used more spoon knives for longer than me, Del Stubbs and Jogge Sundqvist and both rate the Helgesson as the benchmark knife.
It's 5 years since I was last able to get a batch of Bo's knives and it has been difficult having students using them and then having to buy something less good. I have worked with various smiths and companies getting prototypes made in the UK and never been happy. I have now finally got prototypes of spoon blades which are excellent. They are made from flat bar rather than round, I rate them as virtually as good as the Helgesson hook. They come razor sharp and hold an edge extremely well. I am not sure how long the first batch will take to come through so in the meantime there is plenty of choice in the links above.
For the sake of completeness I would like to add three other good makers, I don't have these knives but I have used them.
Dave Budd nice hand forged ethos
Dorset Woodland Blades top quality control good blades
Nic Westerman excellent blades