Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Whittling Knives

Whittling is one of those nebulous terms that can imply a range of activities from carving figurines and geometric shapes to nothing more than sharpening a stick.  As in a lot of things the definition rests more with the skills of the doer than with the word itself.  There’s nothing wrong with that since whittling is meant to be a solitary experience.  One sits down with a sharp knife and a piece of green wood and, assuming proper technique, shaves and cuts and otherwise whittles.  Years ago I saw a man whittling with a piece of glass and I suspect the first whittler used stone flakes or sea shells.  Venus sunray clams were used by Indians along the Texas Gulf Coast in pre-Colombian times for scraping and woodcarving.  Nowadays people use knives.  The classic whittling knife is probably a slipjoint (pocket knife) with from one to three blades.  Assuming sufficiently hard steel a slipjoint makes an excellent whittling tool and I use pocket knives more than any other knife.  Even so, I’ve made fixed-blade woodcarving knives and now and then I’ll toss one into my shoulder bag and find a quiet spot and then sit down and begin whittling.  It’s as much a moment spent in contemplation as anything else.  Mind you, my whittling endeavors do not amount to anything fancy.  I might throw in a hook knife and make a spoon and, in fact, I could use the “hook” for the entire process; but being an aficionado of the knife I like carrying more than one cutting tool.  Life should be eclectic in that sense.  And besides, one should do things incorporating more than a singular mental or motor pathway.  If you work on a computer all day, for example, then perhaps you might crochet at night.  But then I don’t crochet so I make knives and selfbows, spoons and bowls.  I also enjoy playing the guitar.

Please allow me to show you some photographs of a couple of whittling and woodcarving knives I made a few years ago.  They are very sharp and they work very well.  In fact, I’ve thought about making some more of these knives since there is a satisfaction in having made the tool that was later used to whittle a piece of wood and thus form something else.

The steel is 1095 and the wood is Texas ebony.  Softer steels will work but not as well.  You can buy a nicely made Chinese slipjoint pocket knife for less than fifteen-bucks but invariably they are made of 440A stainless steel.  If the wood is green and soft then 440A works okay.  If the wood is hard then 440 of any sort works poorly.  There are other steels but 1095 is easy to cook and pound and I see no reason to experiment with anything else.

Blade lengths need not be more than a couple of inches.  With the two knives pictured I can make an impromptu walking cane or fashion a trigger for a snare.

Beauty is something humans enjoy incorporating into their tools whether a small whittling knife or a 16 gauge double made in the Basque country.  Thus a well-shaped blade and pretty wood make for an attractive knife.

I have to be in the mood to make a knife.  Sometimes I’ll go for weeks and not make anything.  In the interim I’ll spend my time doing other things.  Of course, there is always woods roaming.  The excitement of the long walk does not fade.  Day before yesterday I surprised a big boar hog while on my walk and two days before that I took note of the leather-stem (Jatropha dioica) now covered in leaves which is rare.  Sometimes I can’t sleep and so I’ll get up and grab a flashlight and go for a hike.  A while back I spotted two amber eyes looking at me.  I stopped and stared and the eyes stayed fixed.  I moved closer and the eyes held still.  I began making the sound of a rabbit in distress and noted an abrupt change in the eyes…as if through the amber reflection a new found interest emerged.  I moved closer but the eyes held.  This went on for at least five minutes until I was within a few yards of those beautiful eyes.  It was then that I was able to make out a round face and long body and a tail as long as or longer than both.  It can’t be, I thought.  But it was.  And that’s all I’ll say on the matter….

Monday, May 27, 2013

How Lazy Scientific Documentation Makes for Bad Language

This post is about how lazy documentation befuddles language.  In my neck of the woods we have a good example brought to us by someone who didn’t take the time to check facts.  Farther north someone else (perhaps a geologist or geographer) gave us another doozy: A word so convoluted that when I tell Spanish speakers about it they shake their heads and utter something like, “How ridiculous can somebody be?”  Now I’m not calling anyone ridiculous…at least not overtly.  Still, bad scientific note taking can lead to things as foolish as making the adjective “the” into a proper noun and calling a puddle a beach.

A few years ago I was asked to contribute to a book about geographical terms.  The idea was to take local geographical (or geological) common names and explain them to a greater audience that might not be familiar with those words.  I thought that was a wonderful idea and still do.  After all, most of you have never heard the words mogote or charco or brecha.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a dictionary written by experts in different parts of the country who can explain those local terms to everyone?  So a bunch of us stretching from the East Coast to the West Coast set out to write the book and the university funding the project put it all together.  It was fun and worthwhile.

It was during that assignment that I began thinking about how certain terms are valid and others are illogical.  Some were derived by adopting ancient words while others resulted through carelessness.  In the United States for example many geographical names are actually Indian words either changed into an English-sort-of rendition or they are the original Indian word.  Sometimes, however, things go terribly wrong and invariably that’s because someone was negligent.

Take the word la for example.  In Spanish the word la is the feminine form of “the”—and el is the masculine form.  I hope that’s not confusing.  Say, for example, you were to say la musica.  Translated that means, “the music.”  Here’s another example: La muchacha which means “the girl.”  But once upon a time someone was out in the field obtaining the “common names” (also called “folk names”) of various plants.  This uninspired person might have had a bad day, i.e. too much sun, not enough water, too many plants to name.  Who knows, but when our less-than-industrious so-and-so asked his/her local guide about a certain plant the guide probably said something like, “This is the coma.”  Except in Spanish it came out like, Esta es la coma.  I imagine that whoever was taking notes nodded and said something like, “Hmmm.”  And then he/she wrote down, la coma.  For years afterwards the little plant that goes by the scientific name of Bumelia celastrina or Sideroxylon celastrinum became “la coma” which translated into English is “the coma.”  Mind you the two Latinized names above are for the exact same plant; and perhaps you were taught that the “scientific name” is the definitive name.  Well, here’s a bit of bad news: Not even scientific names are sacrosanct these days.  Some texts have as many as three or even four “synonymous” scientific names which is another confusing story that perhaps I’ll try to tackle at some later date.  But let’s get back to the subject of lazy science and bad language.  Some of the more obsessive-compulsive science aficionados raised all kinds of hell when they started reading the words, “la coma” in botanical texts.  “That’s nuts!” we (I mean, they) yelled.  Little good it did because for years—as if immune to accuracy or legitimacy or even logic—the texts kept appearing with the words la coma written under the little woody plant that bears edible bluish-purple berries.  Over and again a dedicated group kept saying that the term was wrong and should be corrected.  But it was perhaps too late.  The botanical community had entrenched itself with the name la coma and no amount of reasoning or logic seemed to dissuade them.  Years went by and nothing changed.  Now, after a lot of preaching, people are starting to drop the word la and simply say, coma.  And that’s the real name.  It is called, coma.

But the real doozy is a word used by geologists and geographers that is so bizarre it boggles the mind.  That word is “playa” that for nearly 500 million Spanish speakers around the world means “beach.”  Somehow, the word “playa” became a big puddle.  Well, it’s a bit more sophisticated than that from a geological perspective but essentially it’s a puddle.  So here’s my take on how a “beach” became a “puddle.”  Once upon a time a non-Spanish speaking persona was walking around with his/her guide (who may not have been all that adept at Spanish) and this persona asked, “What do you call that?”  The guide was confused but not wanting to sound ignorant or even stupid said, “playa” referring to perhaps the sandy edge of the puddle that reminded him of a beach.  “Ah,” the persona said trying to sound wise and contemplative.  And he/she wrote down in his/her notes that a puddle was called a playa.  And that sounded kind of neat so from hence forth said puddles were called playas.  Years ago I even saw a book entitled The Playas of Madison County” or something along those lines.  Actually, I think it was called The Playas of Kansas or maybe it was The Playas of Frisco Bay.  Either way the title threw me because on the cover was a picture of all these giant puddles.

So when I set out to contribute to the book on geographical names one of the words that landed on my desk was…yes, you got it…“playa.”  I asked one of the editors what definition they were expecting and the editor referred me to a geologist who said, “Well, everyone knows a playa is a well-drained….puddle."  Except, of course, she didn’t say the word puddle even though I kept imagining a puddle, or at least a small pond, as she spoke.  She seemed not the least concerned about the word’s larger meaning.  What mattered was how the word had been defined (regardless of how poorly) by her fellow geologists or geographers.  In an attempt to be tactful I wrote that what we were seeing is language evolving; and in fact that’s probably what is occurring.  Still, all of this mess results from someone’s laziness or ineptness in collecting proper terminology.

Trivialities to some; important issues to others.  But words matter and oftentimes people are lax in what they say or how they interpret what has been said to them.  It’s something worth thinking about.


Friday, May 24, 2013

An Array of Crooked and Hook Knives (Part Two)

There’s not much deviation in design in the traditional crooked knife.  The hook knife on-the-other-hand can be quite varied.  That’s because the hook knife’s applications and thus specific shapes depend on the intended woodcarving.  For example, “hook” dimensions vary with the size of the spoon’s bowl or in making a ladle or coffee scoop.  Likewise, hook knives intended for carving figurines can have shallow hooks or deep hooks.  I’ve seen woodcarvers with as many as twenty hook knives in shapes and sizes to fit their many needs.  The knives pictured below are pretty standard though two of the hook knives have pointed tips and another hook has a flattened tip.  Novices will probably prefer the flattened tip hook knife but pros find the pointed tipped knives perhaps a bit more versatile.  Both crooked and hooked knives should be tempered between 58 and 63 Rockwell.  They are not intended for dry wood but nonetheless work better in that hardness range.

Handles can also vary with hook knives and even with crooked knives.  The traditional thumb perch in a crooked knife can be acute or moderate or even nonexistent to facilitate various handholding positions.  Native Americans used crooked knives in the palm up fashion.  I assume it has something to do with my wrist shape but I seldom use the palm upward handhold preferring a palm-downward handhold.  My wrists start aching when I employ the palm-up handhold, but I find no hindrance in using the knife palm-down.

Below are five more of my recent crooked knives and hook knives.  (Refer to my last post for additional photos of crooked and hook knives.)  These knives are fun to make though, as with any knife, caution must be taken to properly heat treat and temper the blades as well as obtain an exact chisel bevel.  A muffed bevel will make your knife difficult to use or perhaps even useless.  The exact angle varies in accordance to the application and likewise to the way you hold the knife.  It takes practice making knives and you’ll make dozens before you get it just right.  I was lucky to have grown up next to a blacksmith shop and thus learned the art of knife making as a kid.  I enjoy making knives as a hobby and occasionally sell one or give one away.  Here’s a note to those of you who might be thinking of making and selling knives.  Research the market carefully making extra note of liability and insurance costs.  A knife is a potentially dangerous tool and thus opens the maker and seller to certain legal issues.  Such is the litigious world we live in.  Some have suggested incorporation or LLC but I cannot address those issues and one should seek professional advice.  Risk/benefit criteria applies here and would-be knife-makers need to consider those realities. 

The above hook knife was made using a six-inch mill file and a piece of knifeleaf condalia.

The above crooked knife is a six inch mill file with a piece of mesquite root.  The root was lying out by a fence and had been there several months so the boring beetles had gotten to it.  I decided to use it anyway and filled the tiny holes with epoxy.

 Another crooked knife made from a six-inch mill file.  The wood is knifeleaf condalia.

 Hook knife above with a knifeleaf condalia handle and mill file blade.

 Hook knife above made from a mill file and piece of brasil wood.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

An Array of New Crooked and Hook Knives (Part One)

It’s hot and humid and we finally got a few inches of rain the other day.  I’ve had some encounters with rattlesnakes but as long as they’re not around my front porch I leave them alone.  The other night I taught my son, Matthew, the finer points of working with a crooked knife.  We debarked several pieces of wood destined to be various things and then worked two of the pieces down to form handles for take-down bows.  In this post and the post to follow I include photos of some of my latest crooked and hook knives.  I hope you enjoy looking at them.  I still consider these knives my favorite woodcarving tools.

The knife above is guayacan wood mated to a six-inch mill file with the traditional chisel grind.  The thumb perch is exceedingly comfortable on this knife.

The three photos above are of a mesquite handle crooked knife.

This knife is a hybrid between the traditional crooked knife and the hook (or spoon) knife.  The blade is 1095 steel.  Note the sharp curve at the end of the blade for detail woodcarving or spoon making.  Also note the long straight blade section ideal for fine shaving tasks.  The handle is a species of Condalia.

The two photos above feature a detail-working hook knife for making small scoops or delicate woodcarving cuts or shaving.  I have another knife like this I’ve used for years for making coffee scoops.  The wood is lotebush and that’s a hard wood to work with because it tends to crack and check and must be dried very carefully.  The blade is 1095 steel.

In my next post I’ll feature five more knives.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Random Thoughts from a Couple of Weeks in the Life

A fellow lives in a big city surrounded by tens of thousands of houses with expressways nearby and jet planes flying overhead.  He retreats into his backyard amidst the noise and congestion and makes a selfbow and a set of arrows from a piece of elm and a bundle of river cane.  In an even bigger city on the other side of the country another fellow lives in an apartment encircled by more apartments and houses and tall buildings and dingy factories.  He sits in his living room watching television shows about survival as so-called “experts” go off into the wilds to battle the elements…replete with film crews and nearby helicopters just in case their skills fall short.  Midway in between the two great cities a man makes YouTube videos about “sustainable living.”  In the background one hears 18-wheeler trucks rumbling past on that great highway connecting the two megalopolises.

I recall a line from the old movie, Red Dawn, where the character playing the downed pilot says about war, “It’s here every day.”  Like that stretch of highway between San Antonio and Dallas or maybe between San Diego and San Francisco or Allentown and New York or Gary and Chicago.  Millions of cars and trucks race north or south or east and west.  You can stand ten miles away on either side of those freeways and hear the howling of all those vehicles.  If you happen to live near an international airport like DFW between Dallas and Fort Worth you no longer know what it’s like to live in quiet.

A few weeks ago I was in Galveston, Texas and as I skirted that place called Houston I came under the flight path of airliners queued into the distance making their approaches.  Twenty-four hours a day those planes land and on the other side they take off.  Does the mind become immune to the constant noise, I wonder?  Or does it work its way into the brain via channels that cannot be closed and then festers in places like the heart and lungs and even the bones?

I stayed at a motel in Dallas the other day and like every other motel in Texas saw that the people who keep it operating come from other places.  Cleaning the rooms and mowing the grass they speak no English.  Saw road crews manned by these same people.  Saw houses being built by the same crowd.  I see farms run by their kin and in fact I know of a nearby “farm” that were it not for those laborers there would be no food produced, no eggs gathered, no fields tended.  They are the bosses and if anyone thinks otherwise then they are simply fools!  Without them the entire system collapses within hours.

People struggle to make ends meet.  The masses often live from paycheck to paycheck.  They exist powerless: mere pawns and minions agreeably tethered ideologically, religiously and politically to their masters.  They turn on their radios or television sets and listen to people who tell them how and what to think.  They vote as instructed with nary a thought as to whether they have just acted outside their own interests.

I heard a lady say the other day she wanted to ban assault rifles and high capacity magazines because she wanted to “save lives.”  So I proposed a solution.  You say it’s all about saving lives, I said.  Okay, so let’s ban all assault rifles and high capacity magazines and make it illegal to possess them.  But at the same time you must ban abortion.  There was a moment of quiet and I asked: You want to save lives right?  The lady nodded but I could tell she wasn’t pleased with my plan.  So I said: How is it that you were so worked up about the killing of twenty innocent five-year-old children but then walk those same children back a few years (four, three, two, one and then a few months) and it’s perfectly okay to kill them in the womb?  If it’s really about saving lives then let’s save lives, I said.  But the lady countered with, “We don’t want women seeking abortions in unsafe places where they might die.”

There were one-million two-hundred thousand abortions (1.2 million) in the United States in 2011.  There were about 32,000 gun related deaths (most of them suicides) in 2011.  Now let’s do the math.  It would take 37.5 years of gun related deaths (at the 2011 rate) to equal one year of abortions in the USA at that same 2011 rate.  It would take 60,000 Newtown, Connecticut shootings to equal one year of abortions.  What happened in Newtown was beyond horrific.  For a man whose life is his children the thought of what those families are going through is impossible to comprehend.  Many of those parents went to Washington DC and pleaded with Congress to pass some sort of gun legislation.  But did you notice that not one (Not One Single Parent!) of the 1.2 million aborted children went to Washington DC to plead for any sort of anti-abortion bill?

I saw where one group is all lathered up because the IRS apparently targeted right-wing groups for scrutiny.  But that same group says nothing about the fact that the IRS did the exact same thing against left-leaning groups during the previous administration.  So maybe the real scandal is in allowing the tax exempt status of organizations (right or left) that are politically motivated while pretending to be socially focused?  Maybe that’s the cancer we need to excise?

A group of rose-breasted grosbeaks and blue grosbeaks came to visit and we watched them munching on suet and bird seed.  And last night the coyotes took to singing an old song I hadn’t heard in ages.  It was the one by Roy Orbison called, Crying over you.