Saturday, December 27, 2014

BRUSHLAND SLEEPING PLATFORMS

Years ago I discovered a Long Distance Traveler living in one of my old deer towers.  I’d built the “blind” for the kids but after a decade it began falling apart so I decided to tear it down.  Approaching from a distance I saw someone climb down and scoot into the brush.  I slowed keeping an eye out for the woods ahead of me but when I examined the blind I saw where someone had set up his casita replete with a bed made from sticks and his gear stored in one corner.  I proceeded to knock the old tower down and then built a bonfire.  Later on I learned someone had been raiding hunting trailers a couple of miles away and I figured it was this same fellow.  Anyway, he disappeared and nothing marks that spot now but a few herbaceous shrubs and a matt of needle grass.  Whoever that fellow was he knew a thing or two about sleeping in the Brushlands.  The same goes for the deserts to the west.  Despite what you’ve seen in Hollywood westerns nobody with any sense sleeps on the ground around these parts.  Scorpions, centipedes, black widow spiders, pamorana ants, velvet ants, and the mean tempered Western Diamondback rattlesnake.  By the way, we’ve also got coral snakes slithering around at night.

About thirty-five years ago I ran into a Boy Scouts troop and their leader at my uncle’s place.  Some of the boys were working on merit badges and they’d made three wickiups with the intention of sleeping in them.  With as much finesse as possible I urged the Scout leader not to let his boys sleep in those upturned bushel baskets even if Indian lore said they’d bib wacked in them back in the old days.  “You don’t want to get one of your Scouts scorpion bit or even worse,” I said.

When I was a boy we’d travel down to my Dad’s ranch east of the town of San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico.  That was wild country back then.  Before my dad built a stone cabin we’d sleep under a feeble covering of sticks and branches set atop four mesquite posts propped up with boulders.  Now and then my Dad’s brother and his sons would join us but they were city slickers and refused to sleep under the stars.  They’d hide themselves in the back of an old truck with a tarp over them scared to death and constantly complaining about one thing or another.  My dad’s brother worked for my dad so there wasn’t much I could say or do other than keep to myself and away from them.  I was maybe ten years old at the time and one afternoon my dad took me aside and said, “The vaqueros admire you for sleeping with them out in the open.”  They constructed simple cots made from baretta limbs but my dad had an old Army cot for me to use.

I’ve never been much for tents.  Even when I’d camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula I’d build a simple lean-to covered with pine boughs in near zero degree weather.  Here in the Brushlands I sometimes build a bed frame reminiscent of what those campesinos made long ago.  It’s basically a typical cot with two Xs on either end and reinforced with cross beams to keep the Xs from expanding.  Of course, it all depends on the available wood and sometimes it’s best to sling a hammock and be done with it.

In some places where I’ve camped there were thousands of vampire bats and lots of jaguars and so the shelter design had to accommodate both the bats and cats.  No one ever slept deeply in jaguar country.  Besides, you’re constantly making sure your legs aren’t touching the mosquito netting since Desmodus rotundus will suck your blood through the net.

I knew a fellow who built his own portable lightweight hammock frame using ¾ inch PVC pipe.  He’d attach the pieces into two small tripods then hang a hammock between the two pods.  Except the hammock always rode too close to the ground and though it would keep him safe from scorpions and other stinging critters it did little to protect him from rattlesnakes.  A large rattler can rear its head up to nearly knee height and so I like to be at least three feet off the ground.

The hard part in making a makeshift cot is finding the six foot (or longer) poles onto which you’ll slip a sock to sleep on.  Most campesinos huddle up and sleep fetus-like in order to save finding long poles which usually aren’t available.  It’s not all that uncomfortable and one gets used to it.  It’s a compromise and I always save the poles to make walking sticks or some other piece of camping equipment.  I reinforce the cross-members with parachute cord, jute or even twine and sometimes peg the frame to the ground.  You don’t need to use para cord for everything.  Besides, that gets expensive.  You only need two tools to do the job: A machete and a pruning saw.  The pruning saw makes the work easier but you can get by with only a machete.  Remember this if you forget everything else: A machete is the one tool in desert, brushlands and jungle regions that you absolutely need if you plan to build a comfortable camp.  All other cutting tools are secondary.  I carry a pocket knife but I’ve never had much use for the typical “classic” bushcraft knife with its Scandinavian four-inch blade.  That’s fine for softer climes but in the desert, thorn forests and jungles you’re better off carrying a machete.  I should add that hammocks are sold in every market throughout Mexico and Central America and so you’ll see people carrying a hammock over their shoulders with a few supplies wrapped within.  When it’s time to sleep they set up their hammock and tuck in for the night.

One thing to remember is never leave your shoes on the ground.  Hang your shoes from the frame or from a branch and keep a small flashlight close by (usually next to you) so you can scan the ground around you in case nature calls during the night.  Also, consider bringing a mosquito net along even if there aren’t any mosquitoes around.  Chagas beetles are appearing more and more in the American Southwest and those bugs can carry Chagas Disease.  In cold weather you need not worry as much about scorpions and other stinging critters unless you’re sleeping on gravely or rocky terrain.  Scorpions will hunker under a rock for warmth and when you set your bedding on the ground they’ll come out from under the rock and join you.  Hammocks aren’t comfortable in cold weather.  Sometimes people will place a pad (a silver vehicle sunscreen or a horse blanket) over the hammock and then set a sleeping bag on top.  Other people will attach an under-pad that affixes beneath the hammock.  But it’s never really all that comfortable when temps plunge below 40 degrees so a small tent is prudent.

Hanging a hammock becomes a problem in places where there aren’t many trees.  In that case you’re probably better off climbing into a tent.  I always look for shade but sometimes there’s none around so you’d best bring along a tarp for cover and a good ground cloth to protect your tent.  Weight, of course, becomes a problem if you plan on walking far.  I’ve seen people so burdened by their pack they trudge around like zombies.

Water is the most important thing to carry in the desert and thorn forests.  Bring along as much water as you can tote and add a water filter to your gear—and pray you find water along the way.  If you run out of water you’re dead!  Next in line is food and shelter.  If you want to be macho and make a bow-drill then that’s up to you but don’t be foolish and leave your ferro rod or butane lighter at home.  I like to make hidden camps where I can bird watch and keep to myself.  Crowds just complicate things as far as I’m concerned but to each his own.

Camping in the brushlands or Southwestern deserts takes forethought.  I always told my sons to “think.”  Don’t pick up rocks or rotting branches without first checking underneath.  Never take a step until you know there’s nothing coiled on the ground in front of you.  Desert Rats do these things automatically just like urban dwellers look both ways before crossing a busy street.


A cool weather hammock from Mexico.

Friday, December 19, 2014

MINI WOODCRAFT TOOLS

There’s a sheltered trail my son made where I sit on a wooden chair beneath sprawling mesquites and brasil trees and engage in a bit of woodcarving.  This is utilitarian carving for spoons, ladles, scoops and even small bowls.  Practical carving, I call it having never been much for trinkets and the like.  There are other places nearby to sit and carve.  Shade helps as does an abundance of quiet.  I bring along a hatchet or Woods Roamer knife as well as a couple of small crooked knives.  You’ve probably seen pictures of the woodcarving tools I make.  I’ll add a pocket knife to the mix and a little pruning saw I made years ago.  If I walk a ways I prefer keeping the pouch carrying my tools as light as possible.  Back at the cabin axes and chopping knives are heavier, hook knives longer, a bigger saw.  But for the deep woods there’s satisfaction in totting the essentials in a bundle that takes little space in my shoulder bag.  In fact, I’ll leave the pouch in my bag just in case I decide to do some carving.


It begins with the saw.  The one pictured above is feather light.  There’s little need to carry an expensive folding saw when a portable double toothed saw can be made for only a few nickels and it takes up much less room and makes your pack infinitely lighter.  I’m not sure where the original blade came from—something I picked up at the hardware store a decade back.  From the original blade I made two little saws and thus the venture turned out even less expensive than originally anticipated.  The blade measures 5 ½  inches long with a 3 ½  inch handle wrapped in clothes line sealed with 5-minute epoxy.  Simple, practical, feather-light; I made the sheath from the pocket of a Harbor Freight welding apron wrapped with duct tape.  I’ve used it to make everything from camping bed frames to pot holders, spoon blanks and tent pegs as well as cut selfbow staves for the tillering tree.  If I ever wear it out I’ll make another one for a couple of bucks smiling every time I see yonder bushcraft dude take out his official forty dollar folding contraption he saw recommended on YouTube and read about in Bushy Crafty World, “Because you just ain’t no bona fide bushcrafter unless you’re using this and wearing that….”


There’s a story behind the mini axe pictured above.  When I bought it I’d never heard of a Gransfors Bruks axe and had no idea they were considered holy or something like that in bushcraft circles.  In fact at the time I’d only heard the word bushcraft a couple of decades before and that was from a college buddy who applied the term to a completely different endeavor.  Anyway, around these parts there’re people called “Old Time Woodsmen” and then everyone else.  The genuine articles grew up in the ranchlands learning the ways of the woods (el monte) from about the age of five or six.  By the time they reach their fifties they’re experts like none other.  Give them a pocket knife and maybe a machete and they’ll build you a camp, trap you some food, fix you a meal and then slip into the woods like ghosts to reappear in some other place far away.  Funny now to hear thirty and forty something’s referring to themselves as “bushcraft experts.”  But the story goes like this: I bought the curious little axe (I called it a “baby axe”) at a store where a fellow had brought it in as part of a trade for a used Winchester model 63 .22 Long Rifle.  I paid $25 for the baby axe which meant the store owner probably had no more than about ten bucks in the deal.  The baby axe sat in a drawer for a year or two then one day I re-found it and started using it.  Is it a good little axe?  Yes it is.  Is it worth a pile of twenty dollar bills, your oldest daughter, and your favorite dog?  No, not even close and neither is any other Gransfors Bruks axe.  And please don’t lecture me about steel quality and grind and profile and that sort of thing.  I know a thing or two about metallurgy and grinds and profiles and wood sectional densities and about marketing hysteria as well.  Regardless, my hat’s off to Gransfors Bruks or anyone else who can persuade the easily convinced (those 20, 30 and 40 something’s) that if they don’t use their products and pay their outrageous prices they’ll go prematurely bald, will start speaking with a lisp, and have to start using Cialis®.  Well, the baby axe is a good one but not as good as the two knives pictured below.



No heavier and yet substantially more versatile than the mini-axe, the Woods Roamer knife was designed for woodcraft and woodcarving.  Yes, I’m prejudiced.  Enough said.




Maybe you’ve seen pictures of my crooked knives and hook knives.  The two knives pictured above are miniature versions and the centerpiece of my deep woods woodcarving kit.  They are essentially modified or hybrid crooked knives with sufficient hooks to make nice spoon bowls and string notches on selfbows.  Lots of other uses as well and so I never leave home without one.


Then there is my number one knife, a Case Trapper.  Years back sodbusters were the favorite amongst the locals but those days are gone and now the trapper style rules.  Admittedly, most trappers are stainless steel affairs, many of them Chinese knockoffs, but you’ll not catch me with anything other than carbon steel.  I don’t discuss pocket knives much around here so I can’t speak for why others have chosen this style but for the Ol’ Woods Roamer nothing else works as well.  Woodcarving, whittling, making traps, scraping, and even burnishing; nothing beats the trapper’s model.  I use my Case CV trapper daily and have learned to rely on it.




And, of course, the proof is in the pudding or perhaps better said that cup of freshly brewed coffee percolating as we speak.  A heavy cloud cover, a slight breeze out of the north, a covey of bobwhite quail munching on the handful of grain I tossed out to them and the mini-scoop I just completed using nothing but my little saw (to cut the branch), my Woods Roamer knife (to rough out the blank), my crooked/hook knife (to form the bowl and do most of the shaping) and my Case CV trapper as scraper and burnishing tool to get it as smooth as glass.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

WOODCARVING ROUGH OUT KNIFE

Most people use a small axe to rough-out spoon blanks or bowls.  That’s what I’ve always done and have become so accustomed to using an axe for the initial shaping in woodcarving projects that anything else seems odd.  I’ve seen videos where people perform their rough-out work with large knives but it always looks clumsy.  I invariably ask: Why doesn’t that guy just use an axe?  Even so, I started employing some of my Woods Roamer knives for the initial shaping and found them quite comfortable.  The typical Woods Roamer knife is designed as an all-around survival knife and I still think it’s superior to most other designs because its overall shape lessons hand and wrist fatigue.  But a small axe (especially with a 1.5 lb head) makes the work easier because the wood carver can use the weight of the axe to do a lot of the work.  Still, I wanted to create a large knife I could utilize expressly for woodcarving.  I refer to the concept as “Completing the Circle.”  A man acquires a piece of steel and a branch.  From those two things he makes a knife.  Then he takes the knife he’s made and uses it to carve a spoon or bowl or tiller a selfbow.  The circle is completed because everything the man uses he made himself and one project leads to another.  Nothing was purchased at a store.  Total and Absolute Self Sufficiency.


The knife pictured above is a concept tool and so far I am quite pleased.  In fact, I’ve taken to using this knife for just about everything.  Camp craft, woodcraft, bushcraft…you name it this knife works as well, if not better, than a small axe.


I used a piece of 5160 spring steel acquired from a small trailer for the project.  If you can’t find a used leaf spring from a trailer then you can buy leaf spring sets at either Northern Tool or Tractor Supply.  These are smaller leaf springs than found on automobiles and they make excellent knives.  Most of these leaf springs are about 0.25 inch thick or a tad thicker and you really don’t want anything more than that because a heavier spring requires much more pounding and if left too thick won’t work adequately for woodcarving.


I canted the blade about 1/8 inch to the right so that it would allow me to keep my wrist absolutely straight when chopping or rough shaping a blank.  I made three prototype knives using a wooden handle and cardboard blades to get the angle perfect.  If you want to get an absolute custom design made exactly to your specifications then you need to build a few prototypes first.  Commercial knives are built for the masses and as such the blades are kept straight.  But a custom knife need not be held to those specifications and can be made to fit the user’s style.  Think of this along the same lines as a custom gunstock with canting along the comb in order to fit the shooter perfectly.  Knives can be built along the same lines though most people don’t realize how much better an ergonomically designed knife feels.


I looked around for the perfect handle shape and was lucky to find two nicely curved pieces of wood.  The other piece awaits its blade.  The stick tang is 4.75 inches long and robust.  A 4.75 inch long tang is essentially as long or longer than your average bushcraft knife handle and thus just as strong.  In effect, this amounts to a full tang when considering stress factors associated with light chopping.  I triple pinned the tang with one of the pins concealed beneath the copper ferrule.


As always there are other projects in queue.  A man should know how to make things.  Until you learn to make your own knives and bows and woodworking tools; and you learn all the plants in your region; and you learn biological ecology and ethnobotany and conservation biology at more than the superficial level; and you learn to make your own traps and cordage….Well, until you learn all of those things you’ll be a shopper but not a bushman.  But then after you’ve spent a few years (as in a few decades) honing your skills you’ll start looking at just about everything around you and you’ll think: You know, I can make a better one.  And you know what?  You will!

Blade Length: 7.25 inches
Mesquite Handle Length: 6 inches


My Next Post will be about Mini Bushcraft Tools.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

LIVING IN THE TEXAS/MEXICO BORDERLANDS 1875


NOTE: After deciding I’d cease and desist back in September I was flooded with emails from people wanting to know why I’d stopped writing this blog.  The reasons centered primarily on commitments to other projects.  Many readers suggested I write when I could and so I’ve decided to post articles as time permits.  Look for a new article about every ten days to two weeks.  I’ll write more if possible.  As before, the posts will deal with topics related to ethnobotany, especially primitive technologies, and with knife-making, historical themes and issues associated with keeping our lands clean and free of pollutants.  May I offer a special thanks to all those who took the time to write me and I hope you enjoy what’s coming down the pike.



The two most popular fellows on the Texas Mexico border in 1875 were named Oliver and Samuel.  There wasn’t a ranch house within a hundred miles of the Río Grande that didn’t have their namesakes tucked into a holster or hanging from nails hammered into hard-plastered walls or hand-hewed lumber.  Not too many people knew them by their first names but Winchester and Colt was good enough.  Back when I was a kid there were still plenty of 44/40s and .45 Colts in cabinets and closets and even riding the racks of pickups.  Backwoods types had learned long ago that nothing matched the feel and balance of a Winchester carbine and the hand-hugging warmth of a Colt Peacemaker.


There was good reason to own a gun or two back in 1875.  Cattle rustlers, bandits, marauding Apache and Comanche and other ornery characters scoured the countryside looking for loot and captives.  In 1875 a few houses were made from uninsulated boards set on concrete blocks but that wasn’t the norm.  Some parts of South Texas had been so overrun by Indian attacks that they’d become no man’s lands.  Of course, that game will never end as one group comes in and displaces another and people fight over land and resources.  A hundred and fifty years earlier or around 1725 Catholic missionaries living in what is now San Antonio noticed the Apache had vanished.  Now to these Christian sorts the Apache constituted a fresh batch of converts.  Change their names, erase their cultures, show them a “better life” and usher in a brand new flock.  I guess you’ve heard that story.  But when these parishioners-to-be grew sparse the missionaries became concerned.  After all, how can you spread the Gospel when “there ain’t no one to spread it to?”  The priests grew anxious but then someone finally told them the Apache had been shoved aside by a new bunch of potential believers.  What’re their names the priests asked?  “Them’s the other guys,” someone told them.  But the word came out sounding like comanche so Comanche it became.

Now people have affinities for family members and these other guys—like the other guys before them—enjoyed stealing pilgrims to become slaves.  Shucks, the white folks should’ve been used to that I heard someone once say.  But that’s another story.


Along the borderlands these raids were common and, in fact, in some places where the King of Spain had given away big chunks of territory called porciones the new landowners had no peace at all.  You see the previous landowners (just like the landowners before them) still considered what we now call South Texas their home.  A never ending story of conflict and bloodshed; by the time 1875 came along these Celtic Iberians had learned a thing or two about thick walls, gun ports and family bonds.  Nearly every old-time family in the region has a story or two about some ancestor who was kidnapped by either Apache or Comanche.  In some cases people who’d been kidnapped were able to escape years later and make it back to their families.  In other cases those who were kidnapped never returned.  But even when children were abducted and managed to break free they are said to have never fully acclimated back into the European lifestyle.  Some came close but none of them ever forgot their Indian ways.  It seems “the Christian life” was kind of boring and lacked all those neat adventures of the Indian way.


In order to make a proper defensive home one needed thick walls and enough places to return fire should the need arise.  Families kept close to each other and maybe that’s one of the sad parts about modern life because these days families split away like wood chipped from an axe.  That’s not to suggest that families didn’t go their separate ways in the old days because when people journeyed to America from homes in England, France, Spain, Galicia, Asturias and other places they were more often than not gone forever.  Their families back in the Homeland might get a letter or two in the next forty or fifty years but that wasn’t common.  Come to the New World and never have any contact with the Old World again.  Kind of sad when you think about it but I imagine I have distant grandfathers and grandmothers who said goodbye to whatever life they’d known and even if they looked back now and then there was nothing much to see.  It turns out that the Apache and Comanche had a similar history in that regard.  The Comanche were never a tribe in the traditional sense but instead groups or bands connected only by a common language and culture.  Other than that they roamed their respective territories and oftentimes a family member joined another band as a result of marriage or some other circumstance and if that band drifted far enough away then chances were an individual might never see his family again.


The old houses pictured go back to about 1875.  They’re made of mud and limestone slabs carefully stacked one atop the other then plastered over to form a uniform inner and outer skin.  The original roofs were also covered with sticks and mud then overlaid with grass seed to form a living roof so-to-speak.  Later on someone came along and replaced the original roofs with corrugated metal.  The influence is strictly European since these early settlers arrived from the Celtic kingdoms of Galicia and Asturias though there were also a few Basque in the mix.  Later on other people showed up from the region that once constituted the kingdoms of Spain, Castile and Granada.  The priests in San Antonio finally had their way and got to “save” a bunch of Natives who didn’t really need saving (but that too is another story) and most of the Natives were assimilated into the greater society having lost their original Indian names, cultures, myths, songs and even a knowledge of their glorious past.  Oh well, I guess all I’ve done here is open the door to telling a bunch of other tales about life in South Texas by common folk who came to homestead and live close to the land and didn’t’ care much about building "empires" or becoming scripts of cheap Hollywood movies and, if truth be known, were the ones who really built the region.  Not by destroying it but instead filling it with romance, adventure and a love of family.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Taurus Judge: Life Saver in the Brushlands


I’ve read articles written by what I presume are city dwellers regarding the Taurus Judge.  The articles slammed the revolver as inaccurate, impotent and an otherwise poor choice for self-defense.  So I’ve decided to set the record straight and make clear to those writers that the world is not one dimensional nor is it construed in such a way that all things are equal in every environment.  Now I’ll admit I’m not not much for city life.  It’s not hard to imagine however that some folks have different requirements when it comes to packing a pistol.  What I find amazing is that so many city folks are unable to think of any sort of world other than the concrete enclave surrounding them.  Now consider the Brushlands and desert regions of the Southwest United States.  Add to that the people who live far from things like sidewalks and asphalt and street lights and honking horns and McDonalds and…what’s the name of that coffee place?  Oh yes, Starbucks.  Imagine if you can a world where one can actually see millions of stars every night and where great-horned owls hoot from the trees outside the bedroom and coyotes sing sweet songs from just beyond the barn come midnight.  Add to that a place where regardless of day or night one can walk out on the front porch and water the grass, so to speak, and where occasionally one hears a loud piercing buzz emanating from a few feet away if the sun is on the wrong side of the earth at that moment.  Like someone said in a movie once upon a time, No Brag Just Fact—but I’ve probably got as much experience as anyone else living today when it comes to meeting up with rattlesnakes.  If you’ve read any of my books or simply kept tabs of this blog then you know I’ve known a few rattlers in my time.  I’ve been forced to take rattlesnakes with every kind of weapon you can imagine.  I’ve popped them with .22 long rifles and 12 gauge shotguns.  I’ve clobbered them with slingshots and shovels.  I’ve whacked them with machetes and big sticks.  I even squashed one with a cast iron frying pan a few decades back.  Nowadays my main rattlesnake gun is a Taurus Judge.  I sometimes carry a cute little J-frame S&W stoked with snake shot but the Judge is el Supremo when it comes to delivering the coup de grace on rattlers.  I never shoot rattlesnakes away from my yard but what I’m talking about here isn’t confined to el cascabel.  A few months ago one of my blue heelers decided to chase a bobcat that crossed in front of us as we circled the woods near a pond.  Unbeknownst to the old Woods Roamer and his dog was that a large boar was chasing the bobcat away from the pond and we didn’t see it until it appeared about twenty yards in front of us.  I carry three 300 grain .45 Colt handloads in my revolver and two 2 ½ inch .410 shells loaded with #6 shot.  The first out the pipe are the .45 Colt rounds because I can always rotate the cylinder for the .410 shells if I happen to run into a big snake in my “yard.”  But in wild hog situations there’s no time to mess around and I need three powerful slugs on my command.  It was a big hog and as it crossed in front of me I held on the vitals and popped off a round and then another.  The hog twirled like a ballerina a couple of times but didn’t move from the spot.  It took my strong 26 year old son to help load that hog onto the pickup bed.  That particular blue heeler, by the way, will never learn.  He’s been bit by a javelina.  He’s been bit by a rattlesnake.  And on that occasion he almost got gutted by a wild hog. But of course we love him dearly.



You see that little Maltese on the left. She almost got bit by the rattler I'm holding. My son made sure that didn't happen.
I have no idea what these city fellows are talking about when they say the Judge is inaccurate but I figure it’s because they spend a lot of time at the “gun range” shooting paper targets and maybe steel gongs.  But I don’t have anything like that around here.  All I’ve got are rattlesnakes with heads the size of your fist and bad tempered hogs that insist on chasing my dogs.  So I’ve never actually “grouped” any shots with the Judge and the only targets have been either fanged or tusked.

It seems like some folks spend too much time conjuring up scenarios about running into one bad guy or another or getting car jacked or maybe being robbed.  We’ve had an occasional moron come around here too but usually they’re dissuaded by six sets of canine teeth, a shotgun or two and the Taurus Judge.  Big holes at the end of barrels seem to produce a calming effect.  Anyway, I’d rather not imagine having to take the movie to the endings envisioned by some folks.  Lots of anger out there, I gather.  But while I respect every gun owner’s right to spend hours talking about this caliber and that gun I also know a few things about firearms underscored by things other than paper targets and gongs.  And the Taurus Judge is one hell of a revolver if you happen to live in places where diamonds come in rows and grunts mean trouble.

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Couple of New Woodsman Knives and Some Thoughts on Knife Design: Full Tang vs Stick Tang

A proper woodsman’s knife has three characteristics.  First it must be capable of taking abuse.  By that I mean the knife might be called upon to perform tasks ranging from digging to butchering to building a small shelter.  Second, the blade’s bevel must be strong enough to take light chopping as used for acquiring kindling or other camp craft.  For that reason a Scandinavian grind is not the preferred bevel if the knife is used in regions where hardwoods have specific gravities above 0.75.  Third, the design should promote ergonomic compatibilities associated with prolonged use.  Finger grooves on the handle, for example, might look cool but are a hindrance over time.  A woodsman’s knife is not a lightweight but neither is it a ponderous contraption.  George Washington Sears (Nessmuk) decried the use of bulky knives preferring instead a thin bladed butcher knife.  But Nessmuk carried three blades instead of just one and as such his heavy blade was a small axe.  He also brought a pocketknife on his camping trips.  Mind you, a pocket knife should be part of your always carried items along with a butane lighter, bandana, some cordage and a sharpening device.  But a woodsman’s knife is a generalized tool used for building traps, batoning firewood, constructing wickiups, making a selfbow and marking trees along the trail.  As such the woodsman’s knife is perfect at nothing in particular and yet perfect for all things common.

A woodsman’s knife is made heavier with a full tang but that is the preferred design.  Allow me to make a point: First, not every knife that is claimed to have a full tang has a full tang.  This is perhaps one of the most important bits of information you will come across regarding knife design.  There are stick tangs out there that far surpass the strength of many so-called full tang knives.  This requires some elaboration so please bear with me.  In order to lighten the knife some knife-makers skeletonize or “Swiss Cheese” their full-tang models.  You will purchase a knife thinking it’s a bona fide full tang but if you look beneath the scales you’ll see that in fact your full tang is but a façade.  Now this is the important part: The most stressed area of any knife is just beyond the handle at the end of the blade and immediately to the rear of that section within the handle.  Please refer to the photos below.  If a knife is going to break its most likely spot to crack or split is in the area described above and shown in the photos.  If a knife has been overly skeletonized in the area described then you have a tang that is inferior to the oftentimes belittled stick tang.  And here’s even more bad news: Many of the most popular full tang “survival knives” are overly skeletonized.  In fact, I’ve examined some of the bestselling survival knives and found them wanting.  I won’t mention any brands or makes but armed with this information and you’ll be able to spot the inferior designs yourself.  I am convinced that many knife-makers do not consider the physics involved when designing their knives and this goes for even some of the larger manufacturers.  One popular brand “survival knife” I examined has only two small steel connections beyond the end of the blade.  Between the two connections is a large hole aimed at lightening the overall weight.  Even if properly heat treated and tempered at those two points the knife is still fragile and given the right sort of bump and chop it will break!  A sturdy and sufficiently long stick-tang therefore is preferable to the poorly thought-out “full tang” that’s been given the Swiss cheese treatment.

Note the two small steel pieces posterior to the forward pin hole.  That’s your tang and everything beyond those two points is superfluous when considering stress factors.

The stick tang knife shown in the above drawing is actually stronger than the “full tang” knife above it because the stick tang has more mass to absorb stress.

This is the type of stick tang that is useless for absorbing shock.  Many of the Scandi-blade knives from Northern Europe have this type of tang.  Remember, however, that most woodsmen in those regions are working with softer hardwoods and they invariably bring along an axe for the tougher chopping jobs.  The knife, for them, is a woodworking tool and nothing else.  People in other regions of the globe have erroneously believed these Scandinavian knives can be used for working on hardwoods like mesquite, ebony, brasil etc..

This is a small “Woods Roamer” design incorporating a true full tang.  The mass is increased at the tip to give the overall blade added structural integrity for batoning ultra-dense woods like mesquite and guayacan.  It incorporates a true full tang with only three 1/8 inch pin holes.  The knife features a lazy-S pattern that aids in reducing hand, wrist and elbow fatigue.

This is the knife drawn above brought to fruition.  Made from quarter inch thick leaf-spring 5160 steel the knife was designed around the parameters noted at the top of this post.

KNIFE NUMBER ONE
Blade length 7 inches
Handle Length 4 ½ inches
KNIFE NUMBER TWO
Blade Length 7 3/8 inches
Handle Length 4 ½ inches





Both knives were differentially tempered with the hardest along the bevel edge, softer along the spine and softest at the main stress area at the juncture of blade and handle.

A woodsman’s knife in desert and brushland regions is quite different from what many are used to seeing in northern forested areas.  To begin with the need to make feather sticks—which seems to be paramount in the northern climes—is of little consequence in the desert and brushlands.  Deserts and brushlands are dry climates where one seldom encounters wet wood.  Even when it does rain, the experienced woodsman knows what hardwood shrubs to gather that are filled with flammable oils that catch easily when struck with a spark or flame.  Furthermore, brushland and desert regions are known for exceedingly hard woods.  The often pictured “bushcraft knife” with its short four-inch blade and Scandi-grind is more often than not useless when encountering ultra-dense woods covered with two or three inch thorns.  Cute little knives might be just the ticket for Swedes and their neighbors (They sure do live in beautiful country!) but they are too anemic for places where wood grows hard and dries into rock and where everything you encounter is going to prick, stick and otherwise jab you.


One of the knives pictured has a hole; a vestigial leaf-spring connection that I find useful in making arrows as it’s perfect for sizing and straightening.  One more note: While other steels are quite useful I selected 5160 because of its robust qualities especially when used against South Texas hardwoods.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

When People Say Dumb Things about Environmentalists



Every genuine woods-craft, woodcraft, bushcraft expert I’ve ever met is a dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore, gung ho environmentalist.  They might take a deer or trap a wild hog for the kitchen table; they might whack a rattlesnake that’s settled down for the night in the dog’s house; they might pop a few rabbits with a slingshot for a deep woods supper.  But darn it if they aren’t environmentalists.  Talk down nature to them and they will get very upset.  Knock down their favorite trees and you’d best move far away.  Pollute their fishing stream (or any stream or lake for that matter) and they will make war with you.  And dare tell them that they don’t know anything about the woods and they’ll go find a brujo and put a curse on you.  The real, genuine articles; the true blue woodsmen are fanatic environmentalists.  They know that without nature they can’t survive.  By that I mean that they make no distinction between nature and themselves.  And when some dude comes along and starts lecturing them about things they grew up with and then has the audacity to suggest that they don’t know anything about the woods…well, that’s taking it too far.  When somebody submits that environmentalists “don’t spend time outdoors and would rather debate things they know nothing about” like I read in a recent article then I think something should be made perfectly clear: If you aren’t an environmentalist, nature freak, Tierra Primero! type then you aren’t a real woods-craft, bushcraft, woodcraft kind of person.  A genuine love for the woods, for nature, for the wilds is at the heart of every real woodsman or woman.  And saving it and fighting for it runs in their blood! They are environmentalists to the core.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Growing Gourds in Hot Climates


Most articles on growing gourds are written for folks who live in temperate regions.  The advice is usually to plant them in full sun, water them occasionally and otherwise leave them alone.  Sound advice, I assume, if you live in places where summer temps hover in the 80s with an occasional push into the 90s.  But you need a different strategy if you want to grow gourds in places where 100° Fahrenheit is common.  In South Texas westward to Southern Arizona temps can go even higher.


I use gourds mainly for birdhouses; in fact, I think the prettiest purple martin houses are made with gourds.  But they also make excellent water containers, bowls, decorative pieces, musical instruments, rattles and even flower pots.  I saw a fellow once who made flutes with gourds.


Gourds are not hard to grow in desert climes.  First, don’t plant them in full sun.  They will wilt and use so much energy trying to survive the heat they’ll simply remain dwarfed.  In other words, the plant will stay but a few inches high and no more.  You must plant them in the shade.  I planted gourds beside mesquite trees in front of my house and placed dried carrizo (Phragmites australis) alongside the plants to aid in climbing.  IMPORTANT: You must water the plants daily.  You need not soak the plants but instead give them a healthy sprinkling.  Otherwise, the intense heat will burden the plants and they won’t produce many flowers.  I start my gourds in cardboard oatmeal containers.  Everyone has a “comfort food” and mine is oatmeal.  Sprinkle blueberries or dried cranberries on top and you’ve got a great meal.  Empty cardboard oatmeal boxes make perfect planters because once the seedling is a few inches high I transplant the box into the ground where it quickly rots to rejoin the soil it came from.

This year I performed an experiment to see which plants would thrive given a variable.  One group was planted in direct sun as advocated by many articles.  The other group was planted in shade alongside my mesquite trees.  Within about four weeks the results were dramatic.  The gourd seeds planted in full sun had struggled to survive despite daily dousing.  By the end of the day the plants looked horrible.  They were always wilted and seemed about ready to die.  The water of course revived them but they didn’t grow beyond a few inches in height.  The seeds planted alongside the mesquites on-the-other-hand thrived.  They took off like rockets heading skyward.  In just four weeks the shaded gourds were already several feet high.  I felt guilty about the gourds planted in full sun so I transplanted them next to other mesquite trees and fortunately all of them seem to be getting along nicely.  They aren’t as big as the plants originally placed alongside the trees but I think they’ll catch up.

Notice how these plants are smaller than those in the photos above.  These gourds are playing catchup as they were originally planted in full sun and did poorly under those conditions.

I’m going to keep posting articles on the gourds showing you how they are doing.  Afterward we’ll make some bird houses and a few other things.  I also planted some estropajo (est-tro-pah-ho) Luffa cylindrical alongside some of my mesquite trees.  They are doing nicely as the photo below attests.



This is a busy time of year and I’ve not had much time to post.  In South Texas the dog days of summer are called, la canicula.  Days drag out and the heat is oppressive.  But there’s a white noise in the woods that’s quite soothing.  Cicadas drone from the mesquites, brasils and granjeno.  Ghost doves and mourning doves coo softly from the deeper woods.  I haven’t seen any rattlesnakes, knock on wood.  Neither have I seen any long distance travelers.  South Texas has endured serious grief in the last few months.  Meanwhile politicians and various advocacy groups and whatnot squabble amongst each other.  Meanwhile the people of the region are held hostage in the middle.  But of course no one seems to care.  I work in my little shop in the evenings a pistol strapped to my waist.  Calls from distant neighbors saying their dogs have alerted to things that might have evil intent.  At ten o’clock in the night the temps are still in the high 80s.  Close by a great-horned owl begins hooting.  A haunting echo.  I look up into the sky and see the full moon sliding behind clouds moving west by northwest.  I can hear a dog barking.  I know that dog.  It lives at a little ranch three miles to the south.  A wind scorpion scurries about the floor at my shop looking for ants.  I completed a few new knives.  Just for fun, a nice hobby.  Full tanged survival type knives.  It keeps the old man occupied and distracted.  Some Border Patrol dropped by to visit.  They like my large choppers.  I tell them they’d be better off with the new smaller full tang designs.  One of them says, “Mr. Longoria I think you're right.  These are definitely more practical.”  But they are fascinated by the big choppers.  Ah, youth.  By the time you become wise it’s time to go away.  No wonder things never change.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

An Easy to Make and Easy to Use Tortilla Maker


The tortilla maker pictured above is nearly 70 years old.  You can make your own in less than an hour if you’ve got electrical tools and a little bit longer with hand tools.  All you need is a 1x10 inch board, a one-pound tin coffee can and a few nails or wood screws.  With a bandsaw the circular piece can be formed in about sixty seconds.  With a Dremel® tool the cutting strip is removed from the coffee can in less than a minute.  But you can use a coping saw to fashion the circular piece of wood and some heavy duty metal shears or even a hacksaw blade to cut the tin.


I decided to take this old tortilla maker out of storage and let it do what it was made to do decades ago.


The process is quite simple.  After you make the tortilla dough you plop a lump of it into the center of the circle as pictured above.  I experimented and placed wax paper under and over the tortilla maker and then I tried using a plastic baggie cut into two parts.  Of the two methods the plastic baggie worked best.





Place a pad of tortilla dough on the plastic in the center of the circular piece of wood as shown in the photo.  Now cover the dough with the other piece of plastic and carefully roll out the dough until it spreads past the tin lip.  The tin lip will cut off the excess dough leaving you with a perfectly round tortilla.


Carefully lift the dough off the circle then place the tortilla on the griddle and cook it.  It’s so simple you’re probably asking, “Why didn’t I think of that?”  My grandfather, Trinidad M. Valverde Sr. made the tortilla maker in the photos.  He’s been gone over forty years.  I think he would’ve liked knowing the old tortilla maker was used one more time.  But it’s too precious for me to mess up so I’ll go ahead and make a new one.  And then I’ll place the old tortilla maker in a spot where I can look at it and think about my granddad.  I learned a lot about the woods from him when I was a kid.  He knew every edible and medicinal plant in the Texas Brushlands.  He was a master carpenter.  And he loved to hunt and fish.  I miss him.

Corn Tortillas date back several thousand years in the Americas 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sharing With the World from a Cabin in the Woods…

 Looking Down a Sendero

Blogs come in all varieties.  There are blogs about celebrities and blogs about buying things.  Product reviews and healthcare advice; there are blogs about love and even about hate.  What makes someone want to start a blog is difficult to say but I think those reasons stem from many places.  Perhaps most of all it’s about wanting to share things with others.

I believe things like blogs have nudged aside the novel and the non-fiction book.  That’s not to suggest those forms of communication are not popular but blogs give readers immediate access to so many things freely and—given our increasingly limited attention spans as well as the demands on our time—blogs provide education or emotional comfort in just a few words.  That’s important in this hectic age.  A friend told me the other day that Woods Roamer is not your average outdoor, hiking, backpacking, product-reviews blog.  He said people come to this blog looking for one of two things.  “They want to learn the ways of the woods from someone who’s lived it…and they want to know about the experience of the woods from a man who feels it in his heart.”  He told me to keep that in mind and so I will.

Back in the mid-1980s I lived in a 26-foot Avion trailer at the edge of a large lake.  In the evenings I’d look out across the water at mountains to the southwest.  I’d see storms building with lightning pulsating downward over the distant peaks.  Now and then I’d hear thunder bellowing across the flats.  From that small trailer I wrote news articles that made national headlines and were discussed on everything from the major television networks to talk radio.  When I’d roam the cow trails in the nearby woods I’d often think about the irony of talking to the world from a tiny trailer bordered by water on one side and thick brush on the other.  All these years later I guess things haven’t changed much for me.  As I write these notes I see several coveys of bobwhite quail pecking and scratching in the dirt out back.  Three ghost doves are trying to push each other aside at one of the feeding stations.  And pyrrhuloxias and green jays are perched on the branches of a granjeno.  Several painted buntings came to visit a while ago.  In the night I’ll hear great-horned owls and screech owls in the woods behind the house.  I’ll listen to coyotes singing melancholy songs as well as pauraques whistling.  I sometimes take long midnight walks down the narrow road leading away from this place just to enjoy the quiet and stillness.

I think about the people who read this blog around the world.  Name a country and there is somebody there who has read Woods Roamer.  I have readers in the Ukraine and Russia and in Malaysia as well.  There are readers in Australia, Argentina, Spain, Germany, Sweden and many other countries.  And yet here I am in this little cabin in Deep South Texas where my nearest neighbor is almost four miles away.  This region is in the news a lot lately.  I’m not sure what to make of what’s going on sixty miles south of us and about thirty-five miles to the west.  It all seems a bit odd.  All of a sudden people decide to flee en mass to South Texas?  It’s not as if there is a sudden revolution or a monumental collapse in those Central American countries.  In fact, things were the same five years ago and ten years ago and twenty years ago.  So why the influx now unless somebody somewhere is manipulating things.  Regardless, I’ve witnessed firsthand what happens along the Rio Grande when people swim to the US side.  There are trash heaps like hillocks made of plastic bags and inner tubes and discarded clothes and tossed soda cans and nylon rope and glass bottles and a hundred other items that poison the ground killing the trees and nearly all the wild creatures that live there.  I’ve seen the bleached shells of tortoises and the remains of raccoons and bobcats that either choked to death when they were snared by the trash or died of poisoning when they attempted to eat the refuse.  That’s a story you won’t hear on the nightly news.  No immigration reform advocate wants you to know that truth.  Even this far north there are areas where the trash is disgusting.  Known smuggling trails are littered with everything from tossed shoes and tin cans to Santa Muerte emblems.  We’ve been warned by the US Border Patrol to be on guard for criminals and Central American gang members and even terrorists who might use the current chaos on the Rio Grande as a means to sneak into the country.  So we keep an eye out and sometimes at night we hear or see BP helicopters flying along gas pipeline right-of-ways a few miles to the east and west.  By the way, those natural gas pipelines have proven to be a significant problem for many people.  The corporations that own those pipelines have no qualms about destroying ranchland for their own profit.  Politicians have stolen the land via eminent domain so that their contributors in the oil and gas industry can have the land for themselves.  If the land means anything to you then you’ll understand how tragic it is when these multi-national conglomerates arrive and rape the earth and pollute the groundwater as well.  Some ranchers to the west of us are at their wits end.  I wonder how long their patience will last before things start to happen.  Those things sometimes make the news but the National Media is a fickle bunch that runs around chasing event after event yet never really comprehending what’s actually going on.

It seems that people who arrive at this blog want to know more about doing things for themselves than about what to buy at the store.  A lot of them also share my love of nature and my passion for wanting to save it.  Yes, I include politics in my posts and I get mail from both the Right and Left regarding some of my statements.  So be it.  For me it’s all about the land and by that I mean nature.  I advocate for wilderness, plain and simple.  If you’ve bothered to read any of my books you know what I’ve seen happen in these parts.


I appreciate the emails I get from those of you who love the backwoods.  I thank you for sharing your thoughts about nature and your ideas about preserving it.  There are more things to impart to you about living in the brushlands and about making things for yourself.  About being self-sufficient; and focusing on the quality of your life and not the quantities in your life.  About the importance of family and truth and about protecting what has been given to you for free—that which has no voice of its own unless you speak for it.  Whether it is the bobcat or the mesquite tree, the hawk or the tortoise; unless you stand up for them no one else will.  One more thing: I’m always eager to hear from you so don’t forget to drop me a line at thewoodsroamer@gmail.com