Monday, April 18, 2011

Crooked Knife Series: No 4

Here are a couple of crooked knives I’ve had in stock for about a year. Both were made from six-inch steel files.

The first knife is set into a white-tailed deer antler tine. The shape is quintessential crooked knife with the sweeping thumb perch and blade angled upward from its juncture with the handle in order to augment its ergonomics. 

The second crooked knife is what I call a “hybrid” style. You’ll note the lack of a thumb perch although the handle does have a slight curving contour.  This allows the user to employ either the classic palm upward hold or a non-conventional palm downward hold. I switch back and forth as I work to reduce wrist fatigue. The second knife’s blade employs a curve that is primarily crooked knife style angling upward from its union with the handle. But it also has a deep curve ala hook knife style. 

Both knives have a shallow chisel grind of about 22 degrees which allows me to shave the wood. The handle is guayacan which has a specific gravity in the 1.0 range. That, my friends, is extremely hard wood.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Living off the Land: Texas Ebony Beans

Human migration across the globe was ultimately a quest for food. Whether following grazing herds or combing landscapes for edible plants, people wandered the earth in order to sate their hunger. But imagine what it must have been like to enter an area where no other human had ever set foot. No roads or corner stores; no medical facilities or hotels to spend the night; no restaurants to serve the weary and no way to communicate ones needs or dreams or findings other than to those who walked the silent paths at your side. In years past I have camped in places where the nearest road was six hours away, the closest telephone a day’s journey, the chance to obtain medical aid a torturous thirty hours of nonstop traveling. But at least we could get help if needed. In a land heretofore unknown, opportunities for assistance were solely dependent on fellow travelers. Even then the ability to survive was as much a matter of luck as on what knowledge the collective group harbored.

Early humans quickly learned the need for a balanced diet. Through trial and error as well as a burgeoning ability to reason and calculate, people constructed their lives to revolve around the presence of food.

In deep South Texas and on into northeastern Mexico we find a plant that provides an abundant source of protein even in the driest years. Surely the discovery of what we now call Texas Ebony was for the first inhabitants of the region a miracle of sorts. Ebony beans were easily harvested and prepared. They arrived at a critical time when other food sources might have been low. And most of all they were scrumptious.

Texas Ebony (Pithecellobium ebano; syn. Pithecellobium flexicaule) is one of the bigger trees of the region growing to a height of 15 meters or nearly 50 feet. The trunks can measure up to ten feet in circumference. In pre-Columbian times Texas Ebony trees were in such abundance that some areas were choked with tens of thousands of these Brushland monsters. Rampant clearing for agriculture destroyed most of the ancient ebony groves leaving only sparse remnants of the land the way it existed before Europeans arrived.         

Texas Ebony Beans (Photo By: Dean Moss)

Green Texas Ebony pods are cut in half revealing the beans.

Remove the capsule around each bean to expose the tender “meat” within.

Here’s a picture showing the meaty portion within the capsule as well as the capsule that enclosed the edible portion. You can eat the meaty portion which is full of protein and vitamins.

Some people boil the beans for about five minutes in order to open the pods.

Here you can see the pods opened after five minutes of boiling.

A bowl full of the beans after they were removed from the pods.

The beans can then be dry roasted. Afterword, you simply squeeze the beans and the meaty portion pops out easily. You can eat the roasted beans or add them to salads. Some people mix the beans into picadillo or ground meat cooked with tomato sauce and a variety of spices.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Air Now Website

I’ve had several requests for more information on air quality. Here’s one of the best sources covering the USA with daily maps on air pollution levels as well as computerized formats showing particulate drift patterns and concentrations. Now you can access information on your area as well as places you may be planning to visit.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Inexpensive Woodcarving Axe

In just a few centuries we went from a species that contemplated the intrinsic value of every item it possessed to a group that obsesses over the acquisition of every item it can acquire. Our ancestors—whether they sailed from Europe or Africa, crossed the Bering Strait, or island hopped across the South Pacific—carried only what was absolutely essential and made everything else as needed on the spot. Gobs of goods were considered more a burden than a luxury. Today, however, we purchase and acquire repeating the process over and again as if looking for a fix that constantly eludes us. Take note of the commercialism of bushcraft (an obvious oxymoron) and remember that in its purest form bushcraft is about simplicity, knowledge and self-reliance. Admittedly, I’ve been as guilty of worshiping the purchase monster as the next guy.

Which in a roundabout way brings me to woodcarving axes: I admire the Bushcrafters on YouTube, “Hobbexp” in particular, who make a point of using the most inexpensive knives, axes and camping items available. Check out his tea pot by-the-way. They’re not fixated on buying but instead dedicated to learning and making what they need. Hobbexp does not use, to my knowledge, a handcrafted, “top of the line” axe. Instead he uses a practical “hardware store” purchased axe that low-and-behold gets the job done with absolute precision.

I don’t use axes much except when woodcarving, and in that sense I use small axes with heads weighing from 1.0 to 1.5 pounds. When it comes to woodcarving I’ve found that the slightly heavier small axe outperforms the lighter axes. The reasons are simple. Woodcarving with an axe is not a matter of chopping so much as it is an exercise in sculpturing. The experienced axe woodcarver seldom uses much more than the first inch of blade using a choked grip and does not slam the head against the wood but instead drops or shaves the head onto the wood. From there the keen convex grind (almost a Scandi grind) honed to a razor sharp edge performs the miniscule cuts that ultimately create a bowl, spoon, selfbow…the list goes on and on.

So the most important part of a good woodcarving axe is located from blade edge to about one or two inches back towards the axe’s “cheeks.” This is where dimensions play a critical role. If the edge is too robust or wide in thickness then the blade will constantly bounce off the wood thus wasting a lot of energy and ultimately producing inferior results. On the contrary, the finely tapered axe edge coupled with sufficient axe head weight allows the carver to tune each cut and thus produce superior workmanship.

But you don’t need a $200 axe or even a $100 axe to achieve those results. All you need is a little patience, a fundamental knowledge of metallurgy and a few simple tools. You can turn a ten or twenty dollar axe into a fine woodcarving axe.

Here is the result of about thirty minutes of regrinding on an inexpensive axe from the Sears Craftsman line. Note the fine taper in the last two inches toward the blade edge and adequate transition into the cheeks.

The little Craftsman’s axe is made by Vaughan in the USA and cost me, with sales tax, about $20.00. Admittedly, this axe took more work than other inexpensive axes I’ve re-profiled. I used a 4.5 inch angle grinder for some of the work reshaping the cheeks but most of the actual blade area work was performed with a steel file. Of course, when using a power tool it’s important to keep the steel cool by constantly pouring water over it. The final result is that this little inexpensive axe works and I’ve experienced no troubles of any kind. I should also note that I purchased the axe at a Sears store and examined several before I selected the one I wanted. My I suggest you do the same.

Here’s a primo little axe with a nice 1.5 pound axe head weight distributed by Northern Tool and Equipment. I purchased this axe about a year ago at the San Antonio, Texas store. It cost me $10.00. The head required only minimal work on the last quarter inch just posterior to the blade edge. With that slight modification it created a top quality woodcarving axe. While the Craftsman pictured above has a 1.25 pound head the Northern Tool small axe’s quarter pound more head weight makes it, in my opinion, superior for dedicated woodcarving tasks. Remember, I’m not interested in chopping but in sculpturing.

Northern Tool and Equipment small axe.

Not every inexpensive axe can be modified for woodcarving. The Truper 1.25 pound small axe pictured above should, in my view, be avoided. The dimensions are in a word, crude. The slope from blade edge to cheeks is poorly conceived and though I gave it a try I finally relegated this small axe to “pickup tool box” carry where it will suffice for whacking fire wood and similar tasks.

 The Truper small axe head shown from above. Even after a lot of work the profile was still unsatisfactory. This little axe cost more than the Northern Tool small axe so why bother? One of my sons will tote this axe in his pickup and give it the respect it deserves which is minimal. When it finally craters we’ll use it as a wedge for splitting logs.

This is the most expensive of my inexpensive small axes and it’s made by Fiskars. I purchased it at Walmart for about $30.00 with sales tax. You’ll note the axe head looks die cast and I’ve been told it is some sort of metal powder process. I’m not sure. Either way, I’ve got mixed feelings about this axe. Surprisingly, despite its seemingly wrong grind (a sort of straight V-pattern) it works okay for some woodcarving applications. I own two Fiskar’s small axes, one an older model and this newer model. I’ve made dozens of selfbows with the first Fiskar’s axe. My only complaint is that the steel is exasperatingly soft. In other words, it bends easily and when used against super hardwoods it fails. For that reason I’ve not used the Fiskar’s axe much recently. I guess this purchase can be blamed on the purchase monster.

The Fiskars small axe.

 Too much of a good thing. This is not an inexpensive axe. This Roselli small axe would probably make a good all-around camp splitting axe, and some have suggested it makes an adequate skinning tool. Perhaps, but it falls short of the ideal, in my view, for woodcarving. Said plainly, the axe tends to bounce a lot.

I included the expensive Roselli small axe to show you the other end of the spectrum when it comes to bevel contour. Yes, it’s a fat one. And yes, it looks kind of neat. And no, it does not make an ideal woodcarving axe. My opinion, others may disagree.

One more note: Steel type and hardness play important factors in determining the suitability of any woodcarving axe. Ideally, the steel must be tempered to a point that will allow it to withstand repeated impacts but not so low that it will be too soft to hold a sufficient edge. Surprisingly, that is not necessarily something confined to how much the axe costs. Remember as well, that when considering the price of an axe you must also consider the cost of the labor that produced it. It would not be unfair to say that a $75.00 axe produced in one country often equals a $10.00 axe produced in another country. Quality in a world market then becomes associated not so much with cost but with….well, quality. That’s a concept some find hard to digest. I’ve seen $100 axes that were not as good as $10.00 axes. The moral of that story is to gauge quality on qualitative terms and not simply using quantitative criteria. In other words, prices can be fooling. Let the buyer beware.  

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Slash and Burn Smoke

This time of year South Texas takes a hit from the thousands of Indian villages in Mexico and Central America that still employ slash and burn agricultural techniques. Slash and burn farming methods predate the arrival of Europeans. Mexico’s presidents have always defended the practice when US citizens complain about the copious amounts of smoke drifting northward between March and May.

We must, however, understand that Indian populations have increased as much as a thousand fold since distant pre-Columbian times. In 1998 the smoke from slash and burn farming wafted as far north as Illinois and the associated health effects on those of us living north of the Rio Grande were severe.

This year has the potential to be another nasty smoke year. Extensive droughts, despite the impact of several tropical storms last summer, have exacerbated fire conditions. When droughts occur the purposely set fires often get out of control and may burn into June.

Hopefully, this year will not be a year like 1998 but with continued chaotic climactic disruptions we can expect to see more episodes of smoke drifting north into the United States. People suffering from lung diseases like emphysema, asthma, obstructive pulmonary disease, and chronic bronchitis will endure the severest problems. But those suffering from allergic rhinitis and occasional bouts of bronchitis will also experience medical problems.

Healthcare costs will increase accordingly.

Here are a couple of websites in case you want to keep track of the fires on a day to day basis. May I suggest you keep abreast of the situation even if you live in the Midwest or even Upper Midwest.

The Ranch

Not long ago a fellow I know said, “I can’t understand why people around here refer to their fifty acre properties as ranches.” To which I replied, “Because that’s what the word actually means.”

For example, the Apache had settlements the Spanish called Rancherias and that name is still used in parts of Mexico for agrarian farming settlements. In fact, the term “ranch” as applied today is a distortion of the original meaning of the word which was a small farm. In South Texas the term ranch is employed in its traditional sense and families refer to their rural homesteads as ranches.

Here’s an interesting site on the Native Peoples of South Texas. You can read more about Apache Rancherias at this site.