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 fa├žade.  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