Thursday, April 28, 2016

HELPING THE HOMELESS WRENS

All news is local.  But then so is all life.  Ultimately, everything boils down to what’s going on within the couple of square miles where you live.  Yes, the National Media, Talk Radio, and the hysterical political class want us focused on everything at once and simultaneously on nothing at all.  Keep the public off track and unbalanced, their blood pressure up and their nerves frayed.  Weekenders show up from the city and all they talk about are the same things they’ve fixated on back in suburbia, which is mostly politics.

In the meantime things seem to go on as always and the only time our routines get changed is when, once again, city folks arrive with ideas on how everything should be modified to mirror their perception of how things ought to be.  A constant struggle between harmony and chaos.  My best bit of advice is to learn how to live your life without looking through the eyes of others.  Flick off the Tube; switch off the radio; and if you have to be bombarded by sound then listen to some sort of mellow music.  I occasionally listen to Pandora “ambient music” when I’m working on the keyboard.

Allow that two square mile radius to shrink to one mile and then to your private backyard or maybe a quiet corner at a nearby city park.  Find a wooded path somewhere and search out a hidden spot and set up your hammock or pup tent and make that your private world.  Learn to look at individual things and not just at the entire panorama.  You’ll spot an ant or beetle walking between blades of grass and you’ll wonder about the life of that ant or beetle, or perhaps a bee buzzing from flower to flower.  Realize that you, and only you, will ever know that ant, beetle or bee.  Examine the leaves on a shrub and take note of how they’re shaped.  Look to see if there is any variation between the leaves.  Often you’ll find that shrubs and trees have distinct leaf variations on each individual plant.  I take things a bit further and dissect hardwood branches to learn about fiber structure and color differences.  I’ll take note of fiber separations as the wood begins to dry.  In my world I’ve learned the most intimate things about our local hardwoods.  Show me a cross-section of a branch and I’ll tell you what species of plant it belongs to.  I do not need to see the leaves or flowers but instead just the wood.

Stressed out?  Then make your life smaller not bigger.  Rein things in.  Learn to concentrate on the minute and not the “grand picture.”  Now’s not the time to try to analyze the bedlam beyond your secret enclave.

In my world the hot news goes something like this: Tololo’s brown cow just delivered a cute bull calf.  The orioles are moving through so we’ve set out extra orange slices to keep them nourished: Bullocks, Baltimore, Altamira, Orchard, Hooded; Audubon.  We’ve had our share of rattlesnakes too this spring.  A few days ago my wife, Norma, and son, Matthew, had a close call with a rattlesnake in the front yard.  The snake almost bit Matthew.  I was outside pruning some branches when I heard that distinctive rattler buzz.  It sounds like air rushing out of a flat tire at a high rate.  I saw Matthew jump back and the rattler arched its head up threatening to bite.  So I ran inside, grabbed a 20 gauge, and then back on the porch handed the shotgun to Matthew.  That was just too damn close!  Don’t even think about preaching to me about catching snakes and then transferring them someplace else.  I’ll dub you as one more na├»ve slicker who comes to the woods now and then with all sorts of high falutin ideas stemming from a complete lack of woods experience other than an occasional two-hour “field trip.”  Note: We leave all rattlesnakes alone if they are beyond our yard.  We don’t collect rattlesnake skins to make belts or hatbands.  We loathe rattlesnake roundups; that’s a Chamber of Commerce thing.  By the way, we have just as much disregard for those who come out this way and don’t know one snake from any other and have to shoot every snake they see because, after all, “It’s a snake.”

Now on that same day that Matthew almost got bit and about an hour after sunset I walked out on the front porch and noticed that my blue-heeler, Oy, was acting kind of squirrely and hugging the front door.  You get to know your dogs—especially if they are indeed part of the family.  I checked around the front porch but saw nothing.  Walked inside and told my wife, “Something’s wrong.  Oy is acting strange.”  She took the flashlight and said, “Let me go check.”  A minute later, she called out, “Arturo! I found it.”  How she spotted that snake I have no idea other than she’s a country girl and having lived with a woods rat for thirty years, and having run into hundreds of rattlesnakes during that time, she’s learned a thing or two about the Brushlands.  So I grabbed a .22 revolver loaded with rat-shot and centered the milled sights on the snake that lay coiled between a molcajete and a small box.  Then two nights ago my wife stepped out on the front porch and as she approached the walk-around leading to the utility room she spotted a big rattlesnake slithering away from her.  “Arturo!  There’s a snake on the walk-around!”  I grabbed the Judge and a pair of ear protectors and faced a very angry snake.

We’ve tried all sorts of “snake repellents” purchased at the hardware store but none of them work.  In other words, they're all just a waste of money.  I’m going to buy some geese and guineafowl because they make good rattlesnake watchdogs.

Lots of local news but let me tell you the story of the homeless.  The homeless wrens, that is.  The little wrens are the busiest and probably some of the best parents you’ll ever meet.  They’re absolutely devoted to their babies and both the daddy and the mommy work tirelessly to protect and feed their children.  Don’t you wish humans were all like that?  Anyway, the little wrens look for any small cubby they can find to build their nests.  The best cubby is at least four feet off the ground, nicely protected from predators with small openings big enough to let the parents fly in and out but too small for things like hawks and owls to enter.  The only problem is that the cubbies are sometimes not practical.  Take for example the wrens that try to make a nest every spring in the lock drum at the second gate about a mile and a half away.  The little wrens will work hard…as in manual work, as in by themselves, as in not hiring anyone else to do it…and then along will come some dude in his pickup truck and he’ll try to turn the knob to open the gate and he’ll find the nest in the way.  A sweep of the hand; a poke or two with a stick; perhaps even a curse word or three…and all that hard work gets tossed onto the ground.


The above photo was taken at the second gate.  Notice the half-moon opening on the bottom of the lock drum where the wrens had built a nest.  Cleaned out and now doused with axle grease.


The above photo is from the first gate where a bit of good luck saved daddy and mommy wren from losing their casita.  The gate shifted and the lock drum is temporarily disabled so we placed a chain around the gate to allow entry to our place and my cousin’s place on the other side of the private ranch road.  Country folks don’t mind this setup and will wait patiently until the babies are raised before fixing the gate.  Anyone who complains is looked at as immature and spoiled.  End of that story.

A NEW BEGINNING
Now the old man who lives in the cabin surrounded by trees and who keeps mostly to himself and devotes a lot of his time to staying quiet and private, and who makes knives and an occasional bow, and who enjoys roaming the woods and bird watching and especially studying native plants…Well, he decided to help the homeless wrens.  So he’s been busy building bird boxes of all sorts but for right now the focus has been on wren boxes.  Plans are to set a couple of wren boxes near the second gate (nicely hidden so passersby won’t get curious) and to set a couple of boxes near the first gate for the same purpose.  The old man already made some wren boxes for the back porch and they were occupied this spring.  The parents will be back in a few weeks to raise another family.




There’s this fellow named Ken who lives in East Texas near Houston, I think, who loves to go off into the woods and “stealth camp.”  He finds a solitary spot and spends a few days hidden in the forest.  He’s never said so but I think that’s where he really lives.  When he’s back at his casa in the gated subdivision he just exists.  But when he’s resting in his hammock or tucked away in his secret tent then he’s living.  There’s a lot of symbolism associated with that if you’ll just bother to think on it a spell.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

HOW TO MAKE DARTS FROM NOPAL CACTUS FLOWERS

Back in the days before kids spent all their time plopped on their butts staring trancelike into smart phones and tablets; and when television was black & white and consisted of only a couple of networks; and when the idea of getting something didn’t mean a trip to the store but instead the act of making it….kids used to spend most of their time outdoors; they were skinny and lithe; and most of all they were creative.  When I was in Junior High and High School there were only two chubby kids in the whole school.  Nowadays, it seems only about one in four is slim.  I went to a marching band contest a few years back and was amazed at how many of the kids were overweight and looked barely able to move around.  When I was a kid, the population of the United States was around 160-165 million.  There were many places to hike and roam and camp and wander without having to run into a dozen or more folks trekking down the trail or without looking across the landscape at a subdivision or shopping center in the distance.  We left our front doors unlocked, our car door unlocked and no one (unless they were suffering from paranoia) walked around packing a pistol.  Drugstores sold medicine and cosmetics that weren’t sealed because no one had come along to put poison in the jars or cans.  In High School you’d see guys driving pickup trucks into the parking lot and perched against the rear window was a lever or bolt action rifle that was considered just another tool to be used around the ranch.  I have no idea what was going on along the East Coast or out in California back then other than what I’ve seen in movies but it’s obvious those people developed different attitudes about things.  Over time the Easterners and Westerners started moving westward and eastward and they brought their mindsets with them.  The overall population climbed meteorically and so crime rose correspondingly.  Today the US population is around 360 million and growing.  With only a few exceptions, gone are the wooded enclaves where people used to find solace—and this applies to every part of the contiguous 48 states.  Go online and you’ll see hundreds of websites about Bug Out Bags and the coming Societal Collapse.  You’ll watch videos on “tactical” this and “tactical” that.  By the way, the word tactical has become the hypnotic buzz word in many circles.  The quality of life in the US is now measured in quantitative terms and as such the idea of acquisition trumps the idea of tranquility.

Oh well.  Please, however, allow me to take you back fifty or sixty years (and in so doing you’ll be going back even further) to a time when kids made things instead of bought things.  Allow me to give you one tiny example of something ranch kids did in the way back yonder.  The game was called darts.  You’ve heard of that game, I’m sure.  But in the way back, kids didn’t have the money to buy a set of darts and even if they’d had the money I doubt they would’ve wasted it on something they could easily make for free.  The darts, you see, were made from nopal cactus flowers and the spines of the nopal pad.  I have no specific recollection of who taught me to make these darts but I imagine it was my Uncle Bill who was raised in the ranch country and was always interested in woods craft.  My Uncle Bill died in 1998 but he still holds the World’s Record for an alligator gar caught on a rod and reel. I pulled the following off the Internet: The Texas state record, and world record for the largest alligator gar caught on rod and reel is 279 lb (127 kg), taken by Bill Valverde on January 1, 1951 on the Rio Grande in Texas.

So now allow me to show you how to make a dart from a nopal cactus flower and spine.

Shown above is a nopal cactus flower.  Notice the green stigma with the ovary below it.

Be careful when reaching into the flower because they are usually full of stinging insects.

Pinch the bottom of the ovary and then pluck the stigma and the ovary out.  The stigma is sticky but not very much.  Now clip a cactus spine from one of the pads.  Please be careful when you clip the spine because at the base of each spine is an aggregation of smaller spines that will prick you if you are not careful.

Now insert the rear of the clipped spine into the top of the stigma as shown in the photograph below.


The nopal cactus comes with a readymade dart board.  Ranch kids would hold impromptu dart throwing contests by assembling darts and then throwing them at a pad.  If a dart happened to break they’d simply made a new one on the spot.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

THE HUNTER'S KNIFE

Visit bushcraft websites and you’d think the world revolves around the Scandinavian knife bevel.  Over the years bushcraft has somehow morphed into hiking and camping.  A guy takes a knife and makes fire sticks and then batons a small branch into two pieces and declares his knife a genuine bushcraft knife.  Truth is, however, that outside the industrialized world not many people think the same way.  In fact, tell someone your knife is an excellent woodcarving knife and he’ll wonder why you brought it into the brush.  You see, deep-rural folks are looking for a knife that will gut, skin and debone a deer or hog, maybe an elk or moose.  They want a knife that cuts through fur-ridden skin without snagging; a knife that stays sharp so time isn’t wasted having to re-sharpen it. Granted a lot of dudes shoot their animal and then truck it to the butcher shop.  But in most parts of the world—and around places where men are particular about who fillets their game—all the work is done by one or two fellows.


A couple of weeks ago my son, Jason, shot a large feral hog sow with a head shot.  Jason has been shooting since he was about five years old and he was hunting with his old man even before that.  Along with Jason was my son, Matthew, who first spotted the pig and then called it up.  Matthew spent the first five years of his life living in a cabin in the woods and is as adept at bushcraft as any man.  In fact, I’ll take it a step further.  In my life I’ve only known two men who could complete the process of butchering a deer or hog from gutting to producing professional fillets and various other cuts of meat using nothing more than one knife.  Heck, I can do all that but I’m by no means an artist like Matthew.  His cuts are made with such geometric precision you’d swear they were done with a bandsaw.  The other fellow I knew was my grandfather, Trinidad M. Valverde Sr.  My granddad was a master butcher, master carpenter, master woodsman and regional ethnobotanist.  He passed away when I was 24 years old but I spent my youth with him and got my start in the woodsman’s life from his tutelage beginning at about the age of four.



 After much effort we were able to bring the sow to the compound where we hoisted it up on a heavy A-frame for butchering.  Matthew went into the house and brought out a basket full of knives.  For whatever reason he started out with a Mora knife but after a few seconds he said, “Dad, this knife doesn’t work.”
          “Try one of mine,” I said and then handed Matthew one of the knives I’d made for him.

Matthew's number one hunting knife

We learned a valuable lesson that night that I’d like to share with you.  If all you’re going to do is tote along some packets of freeze-dried food and your tent or hammock; and your woods experience amounts to a few nights sleeping under the stars making fuego with ferro rods or fire steels then you’ll be fine with what has become known (incorrectly) as a bushcraft knife—or a pocket knife for that matter.  On the other hand, if you’re off to some foreign land or maybe into a real wilderness area where you’ll have to hunt or trap your food and then you’ll need to butcher it and prepare it and cook it you’ll need a different kind of knife.  This is where the stout blade with a deep secondary bevel works best.  I no longer see any reason to make woodcarving knives since I can buy them for ten bucks a copy from Brother Ragnar at his Ragweed Forge.  But when it comes to hunting knives or what some call “survival knives” or “camp knives” then I make my own.  I make them from 1080 or 01 steel 1/8 inch thick at the spine.  Blade lengths range from 3 ½ inches to four-inches.  The handles are always Micarta that I made from old jeans, brown canvas or cardstock.  I’ve also made general purpose knives from 15n20 steel at 3/32” spine widths.  The steels mentioned are excellent for all-purpose knives (hunting, butchering, camp-craft etc.) and when mated with secondary bevels at from 40-45 degrees they will cut through fur-ridden skin like a Scandi knife cuts through a piece of wood.  And no, I don’t sell my knives.


 Here are some of Matthew's hunting and general purpose knives. 

Below are some of my favorite general purpose knives







So then where can you buy a knife that would make a good hunting/general purpose knife?  First, I must admit that I’m not that experienced with using store bought knives since I always make my knives.  I’ve never even handled an ESEE knife but it seems to me that the ESEE 3 would make a good all-purpose knife.  I think that general purpose/hunting knives should be no thicker than 3mm (1/8”) at the spine.  Granted, I also make big choppers.  But those blades are simply hatchets made in the form of a knife.  I use 5160 steel for those blades.  They work for building camps but if I’m going to carry one of my choppers I’ll always carry a carbon steel pocket knife for carving or butchering.  (More on that in an upcoming post)  The ESEE 3 has a 1/8” blade.  The ESEE 4 is IMO too thick at .188” and so I don’t think I’d find it all that interesting.

There are scores of “hunting” knives and again I admit I’m not familiar with any of them other than what I’ve seen in photos.  Nonetheless, I prefer blades that have a basic, simple, no frills design.  I don’t care for gut-hooks.  I don’t like “tacti-cool” motifs.  I’m not into sweeping distorted blades that look like something out of a sci-fi movie or what Rambo would carry.  In other words, I’m not into the bizarre nor do I find those models practical or even aesthetic.  Some folks go ape over the tacti-cool stuff but those mutations are like the old “California gunstocks” of the late 1950s and 1960s with their flaring Monte Carlo combs and exorbitant cheekpieces and white-line spacers and box-like forends and diamond inlays.  Jeez, I hated those styles even as a kid.  It wasn’t until Ruger came out with the classic model 77 design back around 1967 that things started to settle down.  Until then I was on a steady diet of Jack O’Connor and Warren Page who understood stock design and acquired their rifles from the likes of Al Biesen and Jerry Fisher, Dale Goens and a fellow named Milliron.  Well, knives are as crazy these days as rifles were in the 1950s and 1960s.  Perhaps that’s why I prefer simple, reliable designs like ESEE and a few others.  But again, I’ve never handled an ESEE.  Maybe someday.

For now I’ll settle for my own handmade knives with secondary bevels.   They’re perfect hunting knives and “around the camp” knives.  Also I’m a stickler for proper heat treatment and tempering.  My personal knives work.  I’m content.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

ATTRACTING SCREECH OWLS TO YOUR HOMESTEAD

 
I was out on the road for about a week and it’s good to be back at my cabin.  Before I left I made several more screech owl boxes to add to the boxes I’ve already placed strategically around the homestead.  Owls of all sorts are the best non-pesticide method of getting rid of rats on your property.  Besides, there are few night sounds that can compete with the hoots and yodels of owls.  Interestingly, the screech owl does not screech but yodels instead.  In addition, the barn owl screeches; and though both owls can live in barns I think that someone along the line inadvertently switched the names.  The barn owl should be the screech owl and the screech owl should be the barn owl.  That aside, I've had an infatuation with owls since I was a boy.

Screech owls are small and cute.  Their yodels are mesmerizing and when coupled with the whistles of the pauraque they make for a lovely evening chorus.  I’ll sit on the front porch or in my little shop listening to owls far into the night.  I’ve got a screech owl named Henry that lives at the far end of our “front yard” and a young lady named Gertrude who lives in another box near the porch.  In the evening they’ll dart into the woods surrounding the cabin and begin yodeling.  Right now the screech owls are looking for mates and their courtship call is a series of loud whistles.


You’ve heard the saying, “If you build it they will come.”  Well, the best way to attract screech owls is to build comfy boxes for them to roost and nest.  I prefer cedar wood but just about any sort of pine or even plywood will work.  There are no set dimensions other than that the box should be between 8-10 inches wide and from 10-12 inches long.  A 2 ½ inch slot below the roof overhand is adequate for screech owls or you can drill a 2 ½ inch hole about 1-1 ½ inches from the top.  Drill a few drainage holes on the floor and make sure your roof slants enough to allow rain to drip off.


I prefer hanging my screech owl boxes instead of nailing them to posts or trees because it’s more difficult for predators to gain entrance into a hanging bird box.  Set your owl boxes in cool, shaded areas that are relatively secluded.  You’ll have more success if you give the screech owl a private, reclusive residence.

We have small ponds hidden in the woods and fed from our well.  The ponds provide water for wildlife including birds.  We found that allowing the water to run into a tub and then overflow into the rest of the pond is a better method than simply releasing the water onto the sandy soil. You'll note the concrete block in the tub. We placed those specifically for screech owls because it gives them a perch and also allows them a safe exit in case they fall into the tub.

Depending on where you live it will take anywhere from three months to over a year before an owl moves in.  Your biggest competitors will be large woodpeckers like golden fronted woodpeckers.  You can always build other boxes for your woodpeckers.  I’ve found that dried agave stalks make excellent woodpecker “houses” if you cut the stalk and then drill a two-inch hole into it so that the hole will be at least ten feet off the ground.  Your two-inch hole only has to be a starter hole that enters about ½ inch into the stalk; the woodpeckers will finish the work from there.  That way your screech owl boxes are left alone for the screech owls.

An extra large screech owl box

You can build your screech owl boxes any time of the year but expect occupancy to begin in the spring.



When I was taking pictures of the screech owl boxes I ran into to this nasty bit of sign, a very unfriendly neighbor.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A MESQUITE NEVER LIES


Some years back I ran into a testy fellow at a bookstore who snapped at me when I made a comment about summer.  The month was May and I’d said it looked like summer had arrived.  “Summer doesn’t start until late June,” the testy fellow blurted out.  I smiled but said nothing more.  But for those of you not familiar with South Texas it’s worthwhile knowing that this subtropical climate doesn’t follow the seasonal rules common to temperate regions.  We have no fall to speak of, and our spring is a short-lived, humid, and often windy affair that begins while most of you living to the north are still experiencing winter.  Spring is the time of wildflowers and a few spotted rains.  Fall on the other hand is nothing more than a subtle feeling that prompts old timers to say, “Summer’s over.”  A delicate change in the cast of the morning’s light with nights five-degrees cooler than the week before; when fall arrives there are no changing colors other than the reddish coats of whitetails and coyotes begin shifting to dark gray.  Mind you that July, August and September will often see midnight temperatures in the high 80s.  September brings an occasional monsoon in the form of a tropical storm.  Winter heralds its beginning with one cool snap that usually blows through in the pre-dawn hours.  City people may not fully understand the meaning of this first gentle occurrence but for grizzled woods rats that’ve walked the trails for six or seven decades, that first mild norther says the brushlands are reaching the end of another cycle.  The whitetail bucks will already have their antlers.  It’s sad how hunting has changed over the years.  In South Texas, deer season means business and not much else.  Gone are the times when people used to actually hunt.  Now all you’ll see are dudes wearing camo uniforms, snake-proof boots, gimme caps with some outdoor company’s logo, and driving four-wheel drive pickups pulling ATVs.  Long gone are the days when a woodsman entered the brush dressed in worn khaki or denim pants, a flannel shirt, a canvas fedora and cradling a Winchester .30/30 or perhaps a Savage 99 in .250/3000 or maybe even an old 92 in 44/40.  They’d find a crossing and sit patiently, sometimes for hours without moving; and when the right moment came it was performed honestly and honorably.  The few old timers still around can dress a deer and bone it out for the freezer using nothing more than a knife and a saw.  But those are nothing more than memories.  Today’s “hunter” looks like a page out of a Cabela’s catalog.  So he drives his truck to a deer tower where he locks himself away peeping out a gun port.  He sits there with a coffee thermos at his feet and perhaps even a cooler filled with beer and goodies.  Then down a long trail, called a sendero¸ a deer or hog crosses and our hunter pokes his rifle’s barrel out the gun port and fires.  The animal drops; the camo-clad dude comes down the ladder and gets in his pickup truck then drives to where the beast fell.  Our dude manages to put the deer into the bed of his truck then takes a photo or two with his Smart Phone.  Then he drives back to town where he drops the deer off at a butcher’s shop that cuts everything into steaks and sausage.  There’s really not much to it these days.


 One day, as if to say enough, winter heads back home.  Perhaps it grows weary of pushing so far south, or maybe it sees the whole endeavor as pointless.  Gone are the hordes of slickers who finally rumble off in their four-wheel drive pickups still wearing camo costumes and snake-proof boots.  Back in the day a deer ate naturally, feeding off the shrubs growing wild in the woods.  But today the business model dictates quantity over quality so the deer are shot up with growth chemicals, sometimes pen raised and nearly always fed a steady diet of corporate protein.  The dandies don’t seem to care, but the old timers turn away in disgust.  You know, decades ago the idea was to hunt and not engage in a contest.


A week ago a relative of mine and I sat on my front porch looking at birds feasting at my feeders and gulping water from the faucets.  “I can sense that it’s going to change any day now,” I said.  The mesquites were still wearing their skeletal and bone naked coats of bark and slender limbs.  The winds of March had yet to kick up.  Somewhere nearby a couple of green-jays began a conversation and about thirty bobwhite quail sauntered out of a granjeno mott then began scratching the ground looking for seeds.  My relative still can’t believe how the quail run to me when I walk out to the woods bordering my yard.  Like chickens, they follow me around.  I’ll call out, “Okay everybody.  I’m here.  Come on everybody.”


“My dad said a mesquite never lies,” my cousin said.  “Yep, never lies,” I repeated.  You see, mesquites tell us when spring officially starts in South Texas.  Naked one day and then loaded with Kelly-green leaves the next.  Like waking up on Christmas morning and running down to the Christmas tree to see what Santa left overnight.  A colorful present; spring is here.  Of course that means come May we’ll be in the throes of summer.  Come to think of it, I wonder what ever happened to that testy man.  I wonder if he ever learned.

Monday, February 22, 2016

THREE KNIVES FROM ONE

If we were practical sorts we’d think on knives as just another tool.  Of course, just about any knife works in the wilds if necessity dictates it must be used.  After all, our ancestors used rocks and bone to cut their way through everything from skin to wood.  Venture to faraway places and you’ll find knives that, from an American or European perspective, appear primitive, almost comical.  “Well, that’s not a knife.  This is a knife!”  But, indeed, those are knives and I’d venture to say that the thin-bladed, stick tanged designs seen in Africa and amongst the aborigines in Australia and the jungle enclaves in New Guinea are used more regularly and with greater proficiency than by any American who has a trunk full of knives, most of them barely used; and when those knives are employed they see nothing much beyond a feather stick or that tortuous practice called batoning.  Have you noticed that most of the knives displayed on the various knife forums and YouTube look unused?  Ah, but of course modern man (or woman) has other jobs for a knife like slicing tomatoes or cutting open cardboard boxes.  We are, however, as obsessed with knives as our brothers and sisters in other lands.  Our preoccupations are the product of a deeply seated collective unconscious that selected for those who could make and use knives as opposed to those who failed.  As such the knife holds a special place in our minds; a place reserved for those items wedded to our genetics through thousands of years of breeding and surviving.

We discuss steel types and blade designs and tang shapes and spine thickness and handle materials then go looking for the magic that will somehow turn us from novice to expert.  All the while the true practitioner takes a blade purchased at some market or even from a local peddler and plies his trade with nary a thought about the finer points of knife construction other than sharpness as it translates to cutting abilities.


This young fellow approached me and asked if I wanted to see the knife he carried.  He worked on a small piece of property attending to chores and helping with the garden.  The knife looked well used but functional.  He said he’d bought it la pulga (the flea market).  Stainless steel of what I imagine is 440A with plastic scales.  It looked sharpened with a mill file and as such had a burr-ridden edge.  But the knife served its purpose of cutting twine and jute rope as well as trimming stems and other odd jobs.

As with a lot of you, knives are an innate passion of mine.  I go about making knives and, as of late, buying puukko blades to attach all sorts of woods and antlers.  I’ve rescued dozens of machetes that had seen years of service and were but half as wide as they’d originally been.  I’d find them dumped into boxes or wooden crates and left to rot in barns or fields.  In my opinion the only machete worth saving is a Latin American machete because they’re made of good quality carbon steel usually between 1070 and 1075.  Sometimes I’ll reheat treat the steel and bring up the temper and other times I’ll just clean off the blades, reshape them into a smaller knife and go from there.  Peruse this blog for photos of my rescued and modified machete blades.  Recently, however, I did something I’ve not done before and that was to take a brand new machete and make it into three knives.  Made in Colombia, the Gavilan is, like all machetes, thin bladed and flexible.  The original blade length was 22 inches.  I cut the blade to ten inches leaving me with a 12 inch piece of blade steel that measured from 1.5 mm to 1 mm in thickness.  Using an angle grinder I cut out two knife blanks with the remaining 12 inches of steel.  It’s important to keep a can of water nearby to immerse the steel in the water in order to keep it cool.  Beveling thin blades is quite easy but thin blades heat up quickly.  So work for a couple of seconds and then immerse the blade in the water.

Once the blades had been beveled I scrounged around for some pieces of my micarta and found one made from cardstock and another from cloth.  I attached the cloth scales to the larger blade and the piece of cardstock micarta to the smaller blade.










I’ve done other similar projects in the last few months.  They’re fun to do if not a bit nonsensical.  In this case I took a ten dollar Gavilan machete and made three knives with it.  I used discarded pieces of micarta and some epoxy and I made some functional knives.  Don’t ask me to explain why I did this.  It’s not my fault.  Blame it on my ancient Celtic ancestors or maybe the people who lived even before them.  They passed along this passion for the blade.  I’m but an innocent recipient.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

MORA 511 HANDLE MODS

It’s good to be back after two months working on another writing project.  More on that later but during this hiatus I found time to make some knives and leather sheaths and I plan to spend the next few posts focusing on various mods and knife styles.  There are other things to talk about and those are in the queue as well.

As always I’d check the various knife and bushcraft forums and YouTube videos to see what others are doing and it’s interesting to see how people approach both subjects.  Take knives for example.  About every two or three months someone will come along and say that the Mora knife is “a good beginner’s knife.”  Now that statement has always seemed odd to me.  Facts are that there’s no such thing as a beginner’s knife or a master’s knife or professional’s knife or anything like that.  A man or woman adept at using a knife won’t make distinctions about knives as long as the knife used fits the occasion; and even then people will make do.  In other words, some knives are probably more suitable for gutting and skinning a deer as opposed to carving a spoon or a kuksa but an experienced knife person will make it work regardless.  But here’s the important point: If a knife is intended for woodcarving and costs ten bucks and it’s well made regarding heat treatment, steel type, tempering, and if the bevel is properly designed then what more does anyone need?  You can spend hundreds of dollars on a beautifully made knife but you won’t have anything better than a good old Mora when it comes to woodcarving.  A carbon steel Mora knife comes as close to the perfect woodcarving blade as one can get especially when using one of their woodcarving-specific blades.  One of my favorite pastimes is sitting out on the front porch or under a tree out in the woods carving a spoon or small bowl with a Mora and one of my crooked knives.  There is, however, one small complaint I have about Mora knives and that’s the handles.  With the exception of the model 711 and its stainless steel cousin and a few longer bladed models, I find Mora knife handles either too short or simply uncomfortable.  Of course, the answer is to remove the handle and make a new one from a branch or block of wood.  Attaching handles to stick tang knives is as easy or hard as you want to make it.  But if you’re not fussy then simply grab a suitable branch, drill a hole into it, fill the hole with epoxy, insert the tang and wait a few hours.  Make sure the hole is in line with the branch and the tang was inserted straight.  Otherwise you’ll have to use a rasp or heavy sandpaper to true up the lines.  But aside from that it’s an easy process.  Admittedly, I prefer puukko blades that are a bit fancier with different woods on the handles and brass bolsters, things like that. But I didn’t go that far on two Mora 511s I own.  One is the older model with the extended handguard and the other is the newer model that came out about a year ago.  Brother Ragnar sells both models at his Ragweed Forge.  As much as I’ve tried to adjust to the Mora 510 and 511 handle design I find it awkward and a bit small for my large hands.  And the newer model 511 is just too short of grip area for my hands to fit.  So the solution was to modify them and that’s what I did.

Older model Mora 511 as sold by Ragweed Forge

(Left) Modified Old Model 511 with (Right) Mora 510 for comparison

Note the older 511 above.  Aside from taking the handguard down considerably I reshaped the back of the handle into a gentle curve.  The knife is now comfortable to use and as mentioned above, you can’t beat the Mora for woodcarving.

New Mora "Basic 511" as sold by Ragweed Forge


Two photos above show New "Basic 511" with modified handle

Now the new model “Basic 511” presented a few more problems because the space between the rear of the handle and the front of the handle is just too small for anyone with large hands.  One night I decided to wrapped the blade and put the handle to a 2x48 belt sander and in about a minute I had an entirely different knife in my hands.  I really like the way I modified this knife.  It feels natural now and fits my hand perfectly.  I’m going woods roaming in a few minutes.  It’s a cloudy day and the breeze is blowing out of the north: A perfect late afternoon for moseying through the woods, contemplating things and being renewed.  We’ll get together in just a few days.  No more long respites because I’ve got a lot of things to say and talk about.  So please stick around.