Winter Count is Coming

I’m happy to say that I will be heading to the annual primitive skills gathering known as Winter Count down in the Sonoran Desert. Thankfully, it has moved to a more remote location further into the desert and far away from the Phoenix sprawl.


I will be teaching a course that I have been doing for some time now; Constructing the Ancient Frame Saw. I say “ancient” because this style saw goes back to the very beginning of metal working. It is a way to create an extreme amount of tension, and thereby stiffness, on a very small piece of metal; saving on a very precious resource.

Even though this, in essence, can be thought of as a one-off craft project. I hope that people will take time to learn the skills and take away more knowledge than a simple material good.


I think it might be easy, at first glance, to think of a project like this as a cheap way to get something that you might not be able to afford otherwise; and that is fine. However, learning basic skills like layout, simple joinery, and the use of hand tools are transferable skills that can be used for a myriad of other projects; from constructing a spear-thrower to timber frame building.

There is even plenty of opportunity to add one’s own style and artistic flare to the project.

Learning to operate even a few simple hand tools, edges and wedges in this case, connect your brain to your body in a way that pushing buttons and looking at screens could never do.

Working directly with a raw material like wood, with its own unique properties, connects us to a deeper understanding of the wider world.

Maybe I’ll see you there someday.

The Joys of a Morning Quickie

Sometimes you have needs

And also the solution.


I needed a net bag for my water bottle while I’m on the road. I knew this was going to be a problem when I left home so I threw in a ball of string in case I had some time on my hands. I almost always bring something to keep myself busy. Idle hands are the something’s something, or whatever.

The bottle in need and the raw material to make it happen.

I’ve been making nets and net bags for a very long time. Decades in fact. Some are fancy but most are quite plain and utilitarian. This one definitely falls into the latter category. However, it will serve the purpose and I suspect will be around for quite some time.


I took a few photos along the way and thought I would make a short tutorial as even simple knot work is often mysterious to the uninitiated. I hope this helps someone. It’s a great introductory project.

INSTRUCTIONS

This little bag uses a simple overhand knot technique and is probably the simplest mesh you can make. Other than a cutting instrument there really are no required tools for this so gather your string, fetch the object that will be held (in this case a water bottle), grab your knife and we can begin.

String is measured and cut.


For a regular cylinder that’s about 3:1 height to width you need to have at least twice its height in netting material. Each string will doubled so that they meet at the bottom without a complex knot.

Centers of the first strings are joined in a square knot.


The next thing to figure out is how many strings you will need. Much of this will have to do with how small you want the holes in your net; more holes, more strings. I estimate this bottle is about 12 inches in circumference and I thought the minimum number of strings I could get away with would be about 16. Since they’re doubled in the middle that means there will be 8 strings cut at least four times the length of the bottle.

The second pair of strings is added across the first.


And pulled tight.


After the first two sets of strings are put together the remainder are added like spokes on a wheel. If you’re going to use a lot of strings, say to make a cast net in this way, you would need to add a ring of cordage as the center to attach all the spokes to. Otherwise, you would end up with a bulky knot in the middle.


After all the spokes are added it becomes a simple project of making overhand knots in pairs.

The first set of knots made.


Here’s where it seems to get tricky for some people. The next step is to connect neighboring strings to create a diamond pattern. That is to say, each half of a knotted pair will join its neighbor.

It’s helpful to tie it to something when you’re working.


Connecting the alternate pairs.


Repeat ad nauseam.


If you notice your bag is coming out too skinny you need to space the knots further apart. If you need to taper it in at the base or the top, make the knots closer together.

The body of the net is finished.


Instead of binding the top in any fancy way I simply ended the last round of knots folded back to the previous. See the picture above.

I added reinforcement.


All I had was the string to work with so I had to make a heavier cord from this for a drawstring and strap. The simplest solution was to just braid up a heavier cord. In this case I just did a simple three strand braid. If I were making something more lasting I would probably finger weave a strap or maybe use a thicker, more complex braid.

Three 10 ft lengths of string become an 8-foot cord.

I ran the strap underneath the canteen to help support the weight.


The finished product closed.


And open.


Ready for the trail again.


I realize these instructions are not very detailed but this level of Technology is extremely simple and has been reinvented time and time again. It needs a little detailing if you are willing to spend the time and experiment a bit. Don’t be afraid to tie and untie things, to add more string, to have a less than perfect outcome.

This is how we truly learn. When we have to make decisions on our own based on the skills, materials, and information we have at hand.

GOOD LUCK!

Making a Self-Bow

A pictorial step-by-step of the bow-making process. 

This quick look isn’t intended to replace the one-on-one learning of a real teacher or to cover all aspects of the art that come from years of practice.  Expect both success and failure and don’t let either one dominate your learning.  Education is a process, not an instance.

splitting stave

Felled stave that has aged a couple years in the dark and relative dryness of the barn.

Splitting the seasoned Osage orange (Bois d’Arc) stave is shown above.  Not visible here are short hickory wedges that are jammed into the growing crack to keep the stave from snapping shut.  With some woods the staves will simply pop apart but it seems that, more often than not, the splitter must overcome the tenacity of the fibrous wood.  Power sawing is definitely a possibility but requires more tools, more energy, and does not show the irregularities as well.  Splitting puts you in touch with the soul of the wood.

 

split open

Laid open, it is time to examine for undiscovered twists, knots, and other irregularities.

 

Splitting can be a tough process. As can be seen in the photo above, I use an axe, froe, and hammer.  I’m awful when it comes t remembering to stop and take photographs.  After cleaning up and heading to the next phase, I had to re-stage this photo and forgot to put the wedges back in.

de-barking

Stripping down to reveal the beauty underneath.

Some species of white woods debark quite easily and the bow can be made directly from the outer growth rings.  Not so with Osage orange. The whiter new wood is visible in the stave above as the outer rings are worked down to a single thick growth ring.  This process is easiest with a sharp draw knife working downward.  Your weight can be used to pull through the bark.  Gravity is your friend.

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Revealing the different look, color, and texture of the growth rings.

Above is a close-up of working down to a single growth ring. With Osage, there is a white, porous, vesicular layer between hard wood rings. This is just visible here as the white wood.  It should be worked down to a single, dark and dense layer; preferably a thick, slow-growth year ring.

 

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Sighting down the clean stave.

Not perfectly straight, but then it would hardly be Osage otherwise.  I can work with this. It’s time to imagine a perfectly straight line down the back of the bow.  This will be your starting point when laying it out.

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Another look at growth rings revealed.

The growth rings are quite visible in this low, raking light. The smooth area nearest the viewer is down to the desired ring.  This will be the “back” of the bow, meaning the side facing away from the shooter.  Crossing the rings could cause the limb to “lift” and crack as the rings are stressed and pulled apart.

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Shaping and thinning.

This is nearing its final shape. This is a different stave from the one shown above but gets the point across.  I’ve documented the next part of the process elsewhere but will recap soon.

If you want to make a bow, dive in, don’t be afraid.  Get a piece of wood and go to it.

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Gourd Bottom Bags and More

Stacey has been adding her art to the shop lately so I wanted to give her a bit of a promotion here on the blog.  Among other things, she produces meticulous and beautiful art, beaded bags, earrings, and fiber arts.  Here are her latest additions to the shop.

The smaller bag on the left is jute and the larger is hemp, both with braintanned buckskin trim stitched into a gourd bottom.  The darker color is a homemade American walnut dye.

Here is a small sampling of what she makes below.  I’m sure she will be adding more in the coming weeks.  Consider checking them out on Etsy and “favoriting” our shop.

Crochet felted Icelandic wool hand bags.

Brain tanned buckskin medicine bag.

Buckskin neck bag.

Tanning Leather: Not a Lost Art

Many years ago, in Morocco, I was able to tour an ancient tannery and see some of the process of creating beautiful leather.  I use leather for many projects and although I do some brain tanning myself, I purchase all of my truly “tanned” leathers from others.

Click the image to visit the Moroccan National Tourist Office on Facebook

Click the image to visit the Moroccan National Tourist Office
on Facebook. If you are interested in a description of the tannery at Fez, have a look at Becca’s post about it over on AlwaysCarryOn.

One very important lesson about tanning I learned in Africa was that I never want to work in a African tannery when it’s 100 degrees in the shade.  The smell makes a feed lot in Texas almost seem habitable and hits one in the face like a dense fog.

Well anyway, Markus at the huarache blog has done it again… forced me to steal his excellent article and link to his great research in Mexico.  The post gets a very close inside look into the tanning process; a somewhat secretive business in my experience.

img_0237img_0646img_0160Great set-up for the beams.  Spacious, indoors with a cleanable floor.

img_0218I think anyone who has tanned hides will appreciate this solid set-up.

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img_0782This is just a picture preview.  For much more in-depth information, have a look at the article on the Huarache Blog by clicking here.

I appreciate this work so much for having done some myself.  Tanning hides is tough, back-breaking labor that goes unappreciated.  It’s good to know that there are still folks out there keeping these important skills alive.  More importantly, to know that there are alternatives to corporate factories producing little more than garbage and waste.  It must be tough on these small family businesses but I hope, for all our sakes, that they find a way to survive.

http://huaracheblog.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/taller-de-curtiduria-gonzalez-making-the-best-vegetable-tanned-huarache-leather/

Arrows from Planks

Dowel Cutter – A useful tool for large-scale production

A version of this post appeared here in 2012 but here is an update as prelude to a coming post.

I’ve been using a Veritas dowel and tenon cutter to rough out arrow shafts from planks.  Quite a while ago I posted about the jig I built for cutting the shafts and thought it might need some follow-up.  Although I didn’t have much in the way of appropriate wood available for arrows on the day the cutter arrived, I did have one well-aged straight-grained poplar board that had been set aside to age for arrows to experiment with.  The cutter, once set up, takes a piece of square stock of 7/16″ – 1/2″ and cuts it down to a 3/8″ dowel.

Looking through the feed end of the dowel cutter.

When the shaft comes out of the cutter it tends to start wobbling and the effect increases quickly.  The solution is to create some sort of guide for the shaft so I came up with wooden blocks, as seen below with slightly oversized holes drilled inline with the cutter.  There is a second identical block set back a few inches further to increase stability.  After the first few experiments I could really tell that the stabilized shafts were much smoother than the unstabilized ones.

Shavings as they exit the cutter.

The wood can be turned by hand or a wrench or, as in this case, it can be driven by a drill motor chucked with a square socket (not pictured).  The drill motor is not only faster but seems to cut smoother due to the high rate of rotation.

Before and after a light sanding.  Sharpening the blade reduced this spiral of fuzziness.

The above photo is blurry but the right shaft demonstrates the rough “fuzzy” state as they come out of the the jig and the left is after a few minutes with some 100 and 220 grit sandpaper.  They are subsequently burnished and await nock reinforcements as the next step.  After putting a better edge on the blade, the shafts come out a littler smoother but it really seem to vary with the type of wood being used.

Image from the English War Bow Society. Click the image to link to their site and find out more about English warbows.

I was able to turn out eight experimental shafts in a short time.  Two were rejected immediately as they has little kinks in the grain and two were rejected during sanding due to blemishes in the wood.  They’ll probably be okay for light weight kid’s bows but are not acceptable for heavy, fast bows.  The spine feels a little light to me but I’ll hold out to see what comes of them.  The goal is to create some fairly standard issue British war bow arrows and see how they perform.  Since I use wooden dowels to peg together many other projects, very few shafts have gone to waste since this purchase.

Note: many great arrows have been cut with the Veritas cutter since the original post in 2012 and I will do my best to continue documenting the work.

Updates to follow soon…

Bamboo Arrow Construction

Several years ago I starting documenting some of the arrow-making I do. I wrote the original version of this piece in 2012 but as it always draws a lot of interest I have re-edited it and am posting it again.

Arrows have been much on my mind after seeing how ratty some of mine have become.  Even though shooting takes its toll on the fletchings, it seems they get at least as much damage in storing and travel.

I was intending to start with a set of British longbow style arrows but having received some beautiful arrow bamboo (Pseudosasa japonica) from a friend who grows the stuff, I changed plans to suit the new material.  Prior to this project I had never used real arrow bamboo but have used it’s distant cousin the american bamboo or rivercane (Arundinaria gigantea).  It could not be much more perfect for the job.

Since I hoped to do this right, I decided to photo document the process as best I could.  Good arrow making isn’t easy or fast so unless you are dedicated to perfection, you are probably better off buying them.

Matching shafts.

High-grading the materials

The first thing to do is to select shafts.  I didn’t have hundreds to choose from but these were pre-selected for diameter (hence spine), straightness, node alignment, etc. so this made my work easy.  I parsed out a half-dozen I liked for starters and cut them to length.  Note similarity in diameter and node alignment.  The scale above the shafts is in inches.  I could hardly ask for better.

A preview of shafts selected, straightened, and cut to length.

Attributes to look for in bamboo or cane shafts

Your arrows should be a consistent diameter, consistent weight, similar spine, long lengths between nodes, similar node placement, with very little taper overall.  Most people seem to think that bamboo is straight coming right out of the ground but this is rarely the case.  Expect to heat straighten and you shafts. Your best work will be done in groups to get a consistent set, not just a one-off product.

After a lot of reading, I decided to approximate Korean style arrows with inserted wood nocks.  These have worked well for me in the past but I have never started with this great of bamboo.

Remove the flares at the node sections.

Cleaning up the shafts

Raw bamboo has a flair at each leaf node that must be removed for a smooth arrow shaft.  I do most of this with a knife but a small plane or file will suffice.  You don’t want something bumping over the hand or bow as the arrows is loosed.

Smoothed node.

The node above is cut smooth.

Further smoothing.

I have a neat little shaft plane (made by Dick Baugh) that helps at this stage but a rasp or sandpaper will work too.  You might have a divot at the joint but this won’t really affect your arrow.

Nodes are smooth.

The nodes of the set are now relatively smooth.  Now, any final straightening should be done over gentle heat.  This can take several hours so don’t rush it.  Keep  fixing little bends and make sure to heat the entire shaft to temper it.  I stand over the stove for this but have used coals from the fire in a pot to achieve the same purpose.  Wear gloves and be patient.

Whittling nock inserts.

I selected Osage orange for the nocks.  Horn or other hardwoods can be used here as well.  The above photo shows a blank and finished nock preform.

More whittling.

This photo shows the basic method.  With a very sharp knife, score a ring around the nock.  Whittle away from the score to narrow the piece slowly.  Repeat until it fits the shafts.  At this point I will say that I omitted a photo of an optional, but I think important, step.  That is, to wrap the end of each shaft with sinew and hide glue to prevent the shaft from splitting while pressing in the wood.  If, for some reason, sinew isn’t available, silk thread can be used in its place but you should top the silk with a little thinned white glue to help prevent it unraveling through abrasion.  As sinew is free and carried around inside all the higher life forms, it should be pretty easy to get some.

Almost a tight fit.

As you get close, keep test fitting the nocks until they are a perfect fit.

A perfect fit.

You can see the sinewed shaft ends being fit with the inserts.  Glue the nocks in place with a water-soluble wood glue for easier repair.

Steps in forming the notch.

At this point, several simple steps create a nice notch.  First, wrap the joint with more sinew and coat in a thin layer of hide glue. Second, drill a small hole through the nock, preferably at 45 degrees across the grain.  Make a small saw incision to start the carving and remove the waste with a small knife.  Use a very small file or sandpaper to open the notch and smooth the surfaces.

The finished product.

At this point, you have the essence of an arrow.

Foreshafts, points, and fletchings

The next step to make these fancy sticks into arrows is to fletch them with feathers.  To make fletchings, the best feathers must be selected.  I am using some goose wing feathers given to me by a friend which have been graded to the last three per wing.  Perhaps common knowledge in the fletching world but it worth noting that all three feathers must be from the same side of the bird (i.e., all right wing or all left wing).  I cut a template from Bristol board to serve as a guide so that all the fletchings are the same size and shape.  After the quills are split and trimmed, the bases (where they will be glued to the shaft) must be trimmed smooth and sanded flat to lie against the arrow.  This is a very time-consuming task but critical in proper fletching.

Feathers to fletchings.

Again, there are only about three feathers on each wing suitable for fletchings and all three on an arrow need to come from the same wing to have the same shape and twist.  To produce the needed 18 fletchings I cut about 24 as some may go to waste.  I always ruin a few in the final trimming or end up weeding them out due to defects.  Save them for later repairs if you have any left over.

Serving the feathers with silk.

After gluing them in place by hand, the ends are served with two layers of fine silk.  This is a slow and tedious job and neatness really shows but the end product will be sturdy and handle a lot of abuse through shooting.

Silk in the sunlight.

The arrow above is now fletched, reinforced, and has a sturdy wooden nock.  Real silk is strong and shimmers beautifully in the light and comes in virtually any color.

Inserted wood nock and goose fletching.

It takes me nearly an hour for each arrow so I took a break after the first four.

Footings

The foot is the front portion of the arrow that reinforces the shaft and connects to the point or head.  This was done exactly as the nocks above but instead of drilling and cutting a slit, they are tapered to match the heads they are to be attached to.

Bodkin, foot, and sinew reinforcement.

As for points, I chose some traditional bodkins since they are good looking and very efficient.  Many cultures came up with this essential design.  These are English copies and are known to punch through heavy armor.  They are surprisingly sharp and tear through most targets easily.

Bodkins test fitted.  The joint at the wooden “foot” is reinforced with sinew.

For the photo, I dropped these from about six inches above and they all stuck in the oak.  I should mention that these points haven’t had the final fitting yet and are just stuck on by friction.  If you look closely in this photo, the ferrules don’t quite fit the foreshafts yet.

First four finished.

Arrows are difficult to photograph so I took this high oblique shot to show them as nearly done.  I hope these images help a fledgling fletcher somewhere as it isn’t an easy task.  Be patient, don’t lose hope, and be consistent.  Good things take time and it really shows in their performance and longevity.

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A bit of red ochre paint completes the set.

I marked my shafts with a little ochre paint made with a base of boiled linseed oil with a drop of turpentine and ground pigment.  I love the natural look of ochre and enjoy knowing I found and ground the pigment myself.

These remarkably fast and true arrows suit my bow very well.  A little luck, experience, and patience pay off big rewards in the end.

Now, time to shoot.

Primitive (but useful) Sewing Kit

bonetools

Tools, clockwise from lower left: large awl, sewing awl, rivercane needle case, bone toothpick, sewing needles in center.

Sewing

I do quite a bit of sewing and I feel it is an essential skill for nearly everyone.  My sewing includes new buckskin trousers, cotton shirts, shoes, a few leather bags, backpacks, and repairs to clothes to name just a few projects.  All this has caused me to think about sewing without manufactured goods.  Over a few evenings I decided to make a better primitive sewing kit. Although I can’t say that bone could fully replace the smallest steel needles in my day-to-day sewing basket, I have been able to make some very small ones indeed from some deer legs I have lying around.

This 7 centimeter (2 3/4 inch) needle, dated to approximately 50,000+ years before present, was made and used by our long extinct Denisovan ancestors, a recently-discovered hominin species or subspecies.  the material is bird bone.  Photo: Siberian Times (click the image for the full article).

Needles

I’ve learned that very small holes can be made with a largish stone flake or knife if it has a sufficiently acute point, drilling from one side and joining it with a hole from the other.  From a sewing perspective, the smallest hole possible will provide the strongest needle. during the finishing on the smallest needles, I had a 50% failure rate splitting out the eye.  It isn’t generally a total loss since the needle can be shortened and the hole drilled again.  I actually found that using the flake like a knife (as opposed to a drill bit) was the best way to start a tiny hole, scraping a small slit until a significant indent is made.  As with all new skills, knowledge and experience were gained along the way.

Eyed needle from the burial at Horn Shelter, Texas (links to overview of this remarkable shelter). Click the image for and article explaining the needle context specifically.

Despite their fragility, bone needles are found far back in the archaeological record of Europe, Asia, and North America.  Small, eyed needles are generally considered, in the Anthropological community, as proxy evidence for tailored clothing or, in a few cases, surgical or first aid related.  Unfortunately, needles don’t often survive and, no doubt, many small and broken fragments have been lost through the screen during excavation.

Awls

Awls are essentially a small spike used to pre-punch holes in tough or thick materials.  Both the awls shown here are also based on archaeological examples; the awl being a universal tool in human communities.  The metacarpal “knob” on the sewing awl still needs a bit of refinement but the round handle works well for repeated stitching in buckskin.  Bone (and antler) can be made surprisingly sharp and hold an edge reasonably well.

Storing the Needles

Needles are sharp and dangerous to leave lying around so the next obvious step was to make a case to hold them.  This is a simple affair made from rivercane with a yucca stem stopper.  The cordage strengthens the tube and prevents splitting and the whole thing was rubbed down with pine tar for preservation (hence the dark coloration of the cord).

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In use on buckskin lacing project.

Finally, with a thin scrap of bone I ground out a bone toothpick to keep in the travel kit as a toothpick is always a handy thing to have in the bush.

The Magic of Sinew

SINEW

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Elk leg sinews dried and ready for processing.

Sinew  is the term used to describe tendon or ligament in more formal English. It is the cord that connects muscle to bone or bone to bone in skeletal animals.  Like rope, it is made up of bundles of bundles of bundles as shown in this anatomical illustration.

Foot Anatomy

For our purposes, sinew is a true gift to the primitive technologist, survivalist, or low-tech hunter as it provides us with so many possibilities.  Sinew is the fiber stripped from animal tendons and used as a strong thread or it can be braided or plied together to make a stronger cord or rope.  It can be used to make bow strings, tie objects together permanently, backing and strengthening a bow, or lashing spear or arrow points onto their shafts.  It binds well with hide glue, having almost identical chemistry (collagen).  This causes it to act a lot like duct tape, binding and sticking to most surfaces.

It is also important to know that every human on Earth had access to and likely utilized sinew in the pre-modern world.  It is a gift of nature that aided our ancestors in the making of compound and composite tools.

Here are two recently hafted spear points points.  If you haven’t worked with sinew, its difficult to convey just how amazing and useful this material is.  It has been called the “duct tape” of prehistory but it is even better than that.  It not only holds well and is remarkably strong, but shrinks and strengthens as it cures.  The points above were hafted (tied on) with sinew dipped in hide glue to create a solid  and tight hold on points.  This method holds up very well for throwing darts or spears and is nearly impossible to break.

https://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/nepe/exb/dailylife/FoodGathering/NEPE1796_Bow2.jpg

Sinew backing and binding on a Nez Perce bow. Courtesy of NPS.

If you hunt (or know someone who does), you can acquire this from the legs and back straps (the strap covering the tenderloins) of nearly any animal of size.  Elk, bison, and deer are obvious candidates for long pieces and are readily available in North America. Smaller animals such as rabbit can be used, but as in so may things, longer can really be better.  The main issue I have with the shorter sinews is that it is more difficult to work wet as it must be continually added while binding.

Plate LXIXThe more you know…

On the Antiquity of Gourds

Gourds have played an important role in human history in both the Old World and New.  The origin, domestication, and spread of this and other plants was a topic of much conversation when I was in graduate school.  It seems now that its antiquity and introduction to the Americas is becoming much clearer.  This humble but amazing plant is securing its place in early American prehistory.

Ancient Humans Brought Bottle Gourds To The Americas From Asia

Thick-skinned bottle gourds widely used as containers by prehistoric peoples were likely brought to the Americas some 10,000 years ago by individuals who arrived from Asia, according to a new genetic comparison of modern bottle gourds with gourds found at archaeological sites in the Western Hemisphere. The finding solves a longstanding archaeological enigma by explaining how a domesticated variant of a species native to Africa ended up millennia ago in places as far removed as modern-day Florida, Kentucky, Mexico and Peru.

Read more about it here:  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/12/051214081513.htm