Sunday, November 29, 2015


Life Along the South Texas Sand Sheet

Not far from here a lady named Adela has a garden.  Now and then I’ll visit the garden and invariably find Adela tending the seedling plots or perhaps she’ll be in the strawberry field or even out in her small vineyard examining the plants.  Everything growing around her was borne from her hands.  Usually, she works alone but occasionally someone will stop by to lend a helping hand.  No one with any sense tells Adela how plants should grow; after all, someone who works day after day in a garden gets to know the plants on deeply intimate terms.

Chile Pequin

Adela has hundreds of chile pequin plants in her garden

I seldom say much when I’m in Adela’s garden as not to disturb her work.  I get the impression she has little time for small talk and besides, the concentration on her face tells me not to bother her when she’s in the “flow”.

Adela tending her seedlings

Pumpkins or watermelons or perhaps onions and garlic or rarities like pepino del monte, Adela grows them all.  So you see, there’s always something new to observe.  Granted I am a lover of native plants.  I can spend an entire day roaming the quiet woods looking at the foliage.  Keeping track of growth patterns and making note of soil types; I find very few things as pleasing as wandering the woods amongst the plants.  In that respect, Adela’s garden is an anomaly amidst the natural world; and though I’ve never been too keen on modern agriculture, prone as it is to destroy the land, I do find the concept of a small garden, built from the mindset of self-sufficiency and with nary a thought about pesticides or artificial fertilizers, a good and practical idea.  Granted that Adela works diligently five or six days a week to make her garden productive, but if one is tactical and frugal then a minimalist garden will produce all one needs to become self-sufficient.

The seedlings have been moved to larger pots

Pepino del Monte grows in a vine along the ground

Wild Cucumber or Pepino del Monte

Wild cucumber or pepino del monte is an introduced plant that’s now essentially native in this region.  I grow tired of that anthropocentric term “invasive,” a prejudicial word that eschews one life form and then fully accepts another that is perhaps as “invasive” or more so than the first.  None of it makes much sense until one realizes that most everything in this life is predicated on making one person happy at the expense of others.  So it is that mesquites (that are definitely not invasive) are often called “invasive” and cows (that are absolutely invasive) are never considered as such.  Regardless, the world is constantly changing and plants and animals move about now with mind boggling frequency.  The Columbian Exchange, the Asian Crossroads, the North/South Fluctuation, and now the advent of Global Warming, Climate Change, Chaos (choose your preferred phrase) and the entire concept of what is native and what is soon to be native and what is overwhelming the other and what is mutating into something else has become an evolutionary video flashing before us.

Pepino del monte, by the way, can be pickled or it can be cooked fresh.  My preferred way of eating pepino del monte is as follows.  I should note that my relative, Dario Guerra, makes the most scrumptious pepino del monte I’ve ever eaten.  As I understand it he saut├ęs slices of pepino in oil and then adds tomatoes, onions, a little bit of chile pequin or some other hot stuff and then adds salt and pepper.  Not much to it but Dario combines the ingredients perfectly and I love going over to his house for a bowl of pepino—or picadillo or frijoles y arroz or whatever he has on the stove.  Dario is a born cook or perhaps I should say, chef.

I told the young man from Texas A&M Extension Service to pay close attention to Adela’s advice.  “She knows more about plants in this area than anyone,” I said.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


Gourds have been used as containers of various sorts for centuries.  But the idea of a coffee maker made from a gourd came to me after looking at the hourglass apparatus my oldest son brought home last summer.  It’s called a Chemex® and it’s a simple device into which one places a heavy duty filter filled with coffee grounds and then pours boiling water into the container.  The water passes through the coffee grounds and through the filter then collects in the bottom section of the flask.  The family loves the device claiming it removes the bitter oils and makes a more delicious cup of coffee.  Nonetheless, the idea of a gourd coffee maker that I could place in my haversack came to mind.  I plant gourds every year and several were drying.  After the first few dried I selected a medium size gourd to try the experiment.  Cheap to grow, completely organic and ultralight; I figured this gourd coffee maker would be perfect for my stealthy camps in the woods.

After cutting the gourd into two parts, my first thought was simply to poke a hole in the bowl section and then set it over a tin coffee cup.  There are several commercial versions of this type of set up but I was unaware of them when I started the project.  Regardless, I prefer making as many of my camping tools as possible.  Examining the bowl, however, I decided to instead save it for my oatmeal and use the funnel-shaped top portion of the gourd for my coffee maker.  In this way I’d be able to use one gourd for both a bowl and for making my coffee.

The only prerequisite is to clean out the gourds thoroughly.  I intended to use one of my hook knives for the process but my hooks are far too sharp for that.  Instead I used a metal spoon as a scraper.  I carefully removed the inner membrane until the gourd was clean.  But before poking a small hole in the funnel (that would be at the very top of the gourd) I filled the funnel with hot coffee and let it sit for about an hour or perhaps a bit less.  After dumping out the coffee I again cleaned out the inner gourd with a cloth and then poked a 3/32 (2.4 mm) hole in the top of the funnel.  Remember that when in use the top of the gourd becomes the bottom of the coffee maker.  BUT it didn’t work.  The funnel was just too small to put over my tin cup which I had already figured out but was too stubborn to admit.  I then went around looking for a suitable tin can but decided I was just being hard headed.  I’ve got other gourds and I could use one of the others for my oatmeal bowl.

So I repeated the process on the bowl section.  The gourd coffee maker is so simple to make and so neat to use that I’ve already had someone else ask me to make one.  If you use a tin cup then this bowl gourd coffee maker is perfect.  I’ve experimented with several types of filters and to me they all seem to work about the same.  A two-cup filter fits perfectly but you can reuse a white cotton cloth when you go camping.  Just place the filter into the bowl and add your coffee grounds.  Place the bowl over your tin cup then pour boiling water into the bowl.  I boil water in a tin can.  The gourd coffee maker works just like any electric coffee maker except you’re out in the woods.  It seems the more I use it the better the coffee tastes.  It weighs less than half an ounce and is surprisingly strong but I imagine that the round (arched) shape gives the bowl its structural reliability.  Enjoy!

Friday, October 2, 2015


My son, Matthew, asked me to make him a new knife and after drawing several designs on a piece of paper he said, “I like the way the bevel curves on this one but could you make the blade a bit wider?”  So I widened the blade and then cut out the template and Matthew approved and the results are pictured below.

Now I’m a bit backwards when it comes to this sort of design because I know diddly about specialized knives.  These days it’s all about market forces; and if I may drop my two cents in all this derives from a society high on abundance and consumption and low on skills.  There’re guys out there who own hundreds of knives and are looking for excuses to buy new ones.  There’s the bushcraft crowd, the “tacticool” groupies, the hunters and “sportsmen,” and the survivalists.  Then there’re the Ninja types and the guys and (ladies) who think those reality naked & starving shows and the dueling ego episodes are actually worth discussing, gossiping over and writing about.  The loyal fans rush out to buy copies of the knife used by their latest hero… “Isn’t that the same knife that Max Steel uses in Alone Against Nature?”

Not long ago I was visiting a relative who owns a ranch not far from here and on that day a couple of slickers showed up from the city to hunt hogs.  Somehow my relative had agreed to let the guys hunt (he must’ve been drunk at the time) but anyway they showed up ready for action and in nearly identical uniforms: Camouflage from head to foot, snake-proof boots, baseball type gimme caps, wrap-around sunglasses, and toting monster military assault-type rifles with tactical scopes.  Oh, did I mention they drove up in a 4-wheel drive diesel pickup truck?  A page right out of Outdoor Life or Field & Stream or maybe Guns & Ammo.  “I’m out of here,” I told my relative.  He said, “Let me go put these boys in a couple of blinds and I’ll be right back.  Don’t go anywhere.”  So the two slickers climbed into the back of my primo’s pickup truck and then deposited them in their respective blinds.  Then he drove back and we sat under the porch talking about old times; you know, when hunting was actually hunting and guys walked around with 30/30s and .250 Savage 99s and wore blue-jeans and crumpled felt hats and wedged-soled leather boots.  Flannel or wool shirts and carrying carbon steel knives they’d bought at the Feed & Seed store.  Antler handles, three or four-inch blades, modified convex grinds.  If you paid more than twenty-bucks you were either too dumb to know any better or you were from the big city and so not knowing any better wasn’t held against you.  But these two “hog hunters” were carrying contraptions that looked like knives but only in the most remote sense.  I mean they had blades and bevels and handles but beyond that they looked more like something you’d encounter on the set of Star Wars.

Sometime around five or so we heard a shot and then about ten minutes later another couple of blasts rumbled across the flats.  My relative got a call (old timers would’ve been amazed at cell phones) and so mi primo stood and said, “They want me to go pick them up.”  Both fellows had nailed a couple of boar hogs that stunk to high heaven and when my primo got out of his truck he gave me a look and the two bloodied hunters climbed down off the back.  The hogs were lying in the pickup bed and I asked one of the guys, “How’d you get so bloody?”  He said, “Picking them up.”  I didn’t say anything but noticed my relative didn’t have a speck of blood on him.  “Made them do all the work, I mumbled.”  He snickered and said, “Damn right.”

In the interim Julian had showed up.  Julian is an old ranch hand who looks pure Yuma and I’d guess that’s accurate seeing as how every other Yuma I’ve ever met looks just like him.  He’s maybe in his seventies but he’s still as strong as a bull.  He was drinking a cup of coffee under the porch when my primo showed up with the dudes and so he walked over and watched as the slickers dragged the hogs out and plopped them on the ground.  “Should’ve shot a sow,” Julian said.  “They’re much tastier.”  But that remark went right past our two hunters who were at that moment trying to judge who’d shot the bigger pig.

My relative drove his tractor over to the expired boars and inserted a bar into their front legs and then using the tractor’s shovel lifted one of the hogs into the air.  “Okay,” he said.  “You can gut them out here and then back your truck underneath and I’ll let it drop into the bed.”  Confused looks, hesitation, a desire to speak; but the two guys kept silent.  My primo, Julian and I walked back to the porch to gawk as the two dudes pulled out their fancy “hunting” knives and went to work as if they were picking up fresh cow pies.  We watched and watched and after about twenty minutes it became obvious that if we let these boys do the job it was going to take until midnight for them to finish.  “Give Julian twenty bucks and he’ll gut out those hogs for you,” said my primo.  “Okay!”  Big smiles, looks of great relief, sighs.  So one of the hunters handed Julian his hunting knife and Julian, ever polite, smiled and said, “Esta pesado.”  He went to work on the hanging hog but after about thirty seconds handed the “stainless super steel, top of the line, very expensive” knife back to its owner and slipped the knife he always carries out of its sheath and in about eight minutes had the first hog gutted and ready to be dropped into the diesel’s pickup bed.  This is the knife Julian takes with him everywhere.  It’s a fixed blade, carbon steel boning knife that has a dark patina but is kept clean and ultra-sharp.  The blade was originally six-inches long but somewhere along the line it broke off at about 3.5 inches and so Julian reshaped the blade and with precision formed a new bevel.  The handle either broke or the scales became loose because they are now wrapped in electrical tape.

So after I’d made Matthew this knife someone told me, “That’s a neat looking skinner.”  I didn’t know what to say.  I thought a skinner was something that looked like the Old Hickory skinners or the modification Nessmuk gave his blade.  Afterward I looked up skinner on the Internet and what-do-you-know there were a bunch of knives that looked very much like Matthew’s knife.  Scandinavian blade, 1/8 inch 1080 steel, paper-micarta scales.  I figured it would make a nice EDC blade for around the ranch.  But no, it’s a skinner.  Just like if you Google “bushcraft” knife you’ll see a bunch of knives that look exactly alike and for whatever crazy, bizarre, nonsensical reason those are official bushcraft knives.  Travel to South America and the natives make everything with one machete.  Mosey on down to the agrarian villages in Mexico and all the natives carry kitchen knives to gut, cape, bone-out and otherwise prepare their cabrito or maranitos or guajolotes.  No super stainless steels, no high price tags, no fancy collections, no camo uniforms, no assault-type looking rifles with fiber-optic scopes.  How do those people possibly survive?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Mora knives are inexpensive but they’re not cheap.  While you can buy a Mora knife for well under $20 they are of superior quality made from the finest steels and provided with nearly perfect Scandinavian grinds and well-made handles.  Made in Sweden, the Mora knife is really a miracle of sorts in a world focused on obsessive cost cutting that when it comes to knives translates to low quality steels and oftentimes poor workmanship.  Pretty doesn’t amount to much if all you’re getting is 440A or 420 stainless steel.  Years ago I purchased three Gerber knives at a gun shop only to find they wouldn’t hold an edge and were practically useless when preparing game.  The knives came in three sizes and along the way I loaned the smaller knife to a friend who ended up keeping it.  No le hace; I didn’t like the knife anyway.  I used the other two knives for shop knives until I finally broke the tip off of one of the knives and misplaced the other.  But Mora knives are made of high quality 1095 carbon steel and their stainless models use proprietary steel called Swedish Sandvik 12C27.  The carbon steel Mora’s are heat treated to 59-60 on the Rockwell scale and the stainless models are held at 57-58 Rc which is actually higher than many high priced semi-custom knives.  Mora also produces laminated blades especially made for woodcarving.  Lamination is a process where high carbon steel is pressed between two layers of lower carbon steel.  The process allows the high carbon steel insert to be heat treated to above 60 Rc while the outer steel layers remain soft to assure durability.

The knives pictured above are classic Mora 510 carbon steel models that became popular among American woodcrafters.  Note that the blade on the left is pitted and worn, the result of the previous owner not having taken the best care of his knife.  When I reclaimed the knife I polished it up as best I could but the pits remained.  1095 steel is exceedingly tough and when properly heat treated will hold a razor edge.  It will, however, rust and stain.  The stain creates no problems and some even prefer the patina of a well-used carbon steel knife.  But the pitting can ruin the knife over time.

I’ve owned dozens of Mora knives and have given many away as gifts to folks interested in woodcarving.  And that’s where the Mora knife shines.  No, I don’t consider the Mora knife an ideal survival or bushcraft knife, especially in regions where the wood is ultra-hard and every plant comes decorated with long thorns or spines.  Mora bevels their knives using a grind named after the region where it was popularized thus the term, Scandinavian grind or “Scandi grind” for short.  With a bevel that forms a V from about 6mm to 10 mm from the knife’s edge and runs from the tip to the ricasso or the blade handle, the Scandi grind provides one of the best woodcarving bevels with the possible exception of a hollow grind that is both fragile and more difficult to sharpen.  Mora knives also come with partial stick tangs and some people complain that a partial stick tang is not as rugged as a full tang.  Maybe, maybe not.  I’ve seen a few “full tang” knives snap in two because of improper heat treatment.  I’ve never heard of a Mora knife snapping at the tang though I imagine if you abuse it enough you can snap it.  Most of the times when people snap the blades or tangs it’s because they’re behaving foolishly.  I’m not sure where or why this became a popular thing to do but batoning a knife is a good way to ruin the bevel and snap the tang.  Most genuine woods sorts don’t abuse their knives in that manner.  They’ll instead pick up dried pieces of wood and build fires with that.  They’ll break apart rotting limbs and make a fire that way.  They’ll carve out a wedge and split wood in that fashion.  Or they’ll be smart and bring along a hatchet, a froe or a steel, splitting wedge and break up wood for the campfire.  But they won’t do the city-slicker thing of batoning wood with their knife.

 Regardless of the Mora’s few shortcomings these little knives exemplify the ethic of performing top quality work seen in most Swedish products.  Recall the great small-ring Mauser model 96 that was perhaps the best made Mauser ever produced.  I never found its cocking on closing a problem.  Besides, the workmanship on those old Husqvarna rifles is superb.  My point being that the Swedes (and Scandinavia in general) give us the ultimate in craftsmanship and I would guess that anyone who has ever owned a knife made in Sweden, Norway, Finland or Denmark probably agrees.

I own quite a few Mora knives and use them for making spoons and bowls and cups and for all tasks related to woodcarving.

I purchase my Mora knives from Brother Ragnar, the good man who owns Ragweed Forge and who offers all sorts of Scandinavian knives as well as knives made in the USA and in El Salvador.  If you’re interested in things related to the Celts then Ragnar carries a supply of Celtic items as well.  By the way, Longoria (originally spelled Llongoria) is a name that comes from the old Celtic Kingdom of Asturias.  When the Moors invaded the southern Iberian Peninsula and occupied the southern kingdoms of Granada and Spain, the Visigoth Germans entered the Celtic regions in the north to help keep the Moors out.  With the help of the Visigoths the Celtic people in Galicia and Asturias (the two main Celtic kingdoms) were never occupied by the Moors.  Even today those areas in the northwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula do not necessarily get along with the rest of Spain.  Their national instrument is the bagpipes and they are of Germanic/Celtic decent.  Catholicism is the primary religion and when those people migrated to South Texas and northeastern Mexico they, for better or worse, gave their names to many of the indigenous people of the region just as the English gave their names to the Africans.  I wonder how much richer the local culture would have been had the indigenous people been allowed to keep their religions, their names, their cultures, mythologies and histories.  But the Catholics made sure all of that was erased and as such produced a people with no knowledge of their roots or remembrances of who they were and what they believed.  More’s the pity.

Above an altered old model 511 and a new model 511

I have large hands and sometimes find Mora knife handles a bit small.  The 510 and 511 models are not very comfortable but I am going to modify one of my old 511 handles to fit my hand better.  The Clipper and Companion style handles are quite comfortable and I consider those models superior to the smaller handled 510 which is the same handle provided on the older model 511.  I recently purchased a newer 511 model and found the new handguard cramps my hand and I’m probably going to have to cut it off using a Dremel tool.

My new favorite general purpose Mora knife is one I just bought called the Soft Grip.  The longer handle that slopes gracefully at the rear is what I prefer about the knife and not necessarily the softer rubberized grips.  I’ve noticed that the carbon steel example I now own has a bit more robust blade but yet not so thick as to interfere with carving.

Mora stainless steel models come in various blade shapes and handle dimensions.  I seldom use my Mora stainless knives with the exception of fishing trips to a place called Port Mansfield where I enjoy staying a few days in a condo and spending my nights fishing for speckled trout.  I have a couple of Marttiini fillet knives and use them as well but my Mora stainless steel knives are my favorite.

A few years ago a fellow brought me a Mora knife he’d used to butcher a deer.  The edge had folded over when he tried to use the knife to cut through the bone or joint, I’m not sure which.  Apparently, he attempted to baton the blade through the bone and that proved a bad idea.  There was no way for me to fix the knife other than to give it a secondary bevel and slightly convex the blade.  He didn’t really care since he only used his fixed blade knives for butchering hogs and deer and he’d ordered the Mora through Amazon because he’d read about it on some forum.  Scandi, convex, flat grind meant nothing to the man; he just wanted a knife to butcher game.  I suggested he buy a dedicated hunting knife so he invited me inside and in his office he opened a drawer full of hunting knives.  “Which one do you think is my favorite?” he asked.  I looked at about a dozen then said, “Damn if I know.”  So he pulled out a couple of Marble Ideal knives.  He held one of them up and said, “This knife belonged to my father.”  Then he held the other one up and said, “And this one my dad bought me in 1966.”

The photo above shows a couple of laminated carbon steel Mora knives that have been around the block—or more accurately said, All over the woods—and have been used for everything from carving tent stakes to making impromptu bows and arrows to fashioning triggers for traps.  The handles are short and not particularly comfortable for anyone with big hands but they are sweet little knives no longer made (to my knowledge) by Mora.

The above woodcarving laminated steel knife had an odd looking handle that I reshaped to fit my hand.  It has since become one of my favorites.

The 2.5 inch blade laminated carbon steel woodcarving knives are perhaps the best of all the carvers.  The short blades are ideal for close-in work especially when making spoons and bowls.  Notice that two of the knives have a curved bevel edge while the third has a straight edge.  The straight edged knife is one every woodcarver needs to own.

I don’t use the longer blade laminated carbon steel woodcarving knives as much as I use the shorter blades, but on occasion I’ll find a project that works with the longer blades.  Regardless, I just love Mora knives and am always looking for an excuse to buy a new model.

Speaking of new models, the knife pictured above is especially designed for woodcarving.  The blade is not laminated and is particularly thin thus it should be a great carving tool.  This knife just arrived from Brother Ragnar the other day so I’ve yet to use it.

These are the first hook knives I ever owned.  Purchased years ago I made dozens of spoons with them until I started to make my own hook knives and since then these Mora’s have been relegated to the tool box.  Note the farrier’s hook knife in the bunch.  I’ve owned quite a few of those farrier’s knives and have given many away to local woodcarvers.  My handmade hook knives are beveled on the inside; the Mora hook knives are beveled on the outside.  I find my knives easier to sharpen and my attention to heat treatment gives me, in my opinion, a sharper blade.  Still, these early Mora knives helped me master the art of carving wooden spoons.

The knife above is not a Mora knife but instead a Scandinavian knife made by Marttiini.  This knife was discontinued a few years back and I don't understand why.  It has one of the most comfortable handles you can imagine.  The rearward sloping section of the handle fits my hand almost perfectly.  The Scandi grind is executed with precision.  One more of my favorite knives.

Down the road I plan to discuss dedicated hunting knives but let it suffice for now that the Mora knife is best used for woodcarving and does not provide the ideal bevel shape for a hunting knife.  In a pinch just about any sort of knife can be used to butcher game.  When I was a kid we’d butcher deer with broken pieces of glass.  We didn’t want to get our pocket folders bloody and dirty.  Besides, glass shards can be razor sharp.  I’ll get back to you in about a week.

Thursday, August 6, 2015


You might ask why anyone would ever need to personalize his machete.  After all, most machetes arrive from the factory shaped in accordance to how generations of users, be they farmers or ranchers or jungle dwellers or explorers, developed the designs over the centuries.  I assume it was the Spanish conquistadors who initiated the machete’s evolution.  They had swords of various lengths and contours and they used them to whack through jungles and brushlands and across deserts in their quest to find gold and silver and to subdue the natives (more often by the blade than by the Word) into accepting Christianity.  Over time, the machete became that long, thin, flexible knife ideally suited to regions where the underbrush is thick and vines grow long and cactus sprawls along the trail like endless punji stakes awaiting a taste of blood.  But that still doesn’t answer the question does it?  Why would anyone feel inclined to take his or her machete and alter its design ever so slightly?  What’s the purpose?  But then why do people get tattoos or wear rings in the noses or even in their ears?  I’ve never been enamored with any of that; in fact, I don’t even wear a watch.  Of course, living way out here in the woods doesn’t require a watch since only four times are important: Sunrise, Daytime, Sunset and Night.

Before and After Photos of an Imacasa 12 inch machete formerly marketed by Brigade Quartermasters.

When it comes to personalizing my machetes I am as guilty as the next guy.  I can’t seem to buy a machete without immediately thinking how I can modify it for one reason or another.  One of my favorite past times is to locate old machetes and rejuvenate them into something else, be it a camp knife or trail knife or even a fishing knife.  I am only interested in carbon steel machetes and have no interests in stainless steel.  I’ll take it one step further: The only real machetes are made in Latin America (though I’ll allow the Ontario Knife & Tool machete) and those Central American and South American machetes are unsurpassed.  I have a friend named J.R. who recently went to Harbor Freight and bought a couple of cheap Chinese stainless steel machetes.  He took them to his ranch and within minutes of whacking away at some underbrush they both snapped.  So I suggested a store that sells good quality South American machetes and he emailed me saying he’d gone there and found a couple of nice ones.

Before and After Photo of an Ontario Knife & Tool 12-inch machete.

But the need to personalize a machete gets worse as one ages and as one becomes more and more familiar with the terrain one travels.  I am forever imagining scenarios where I’ll need one type of knife or another and even as I drift off to sleep at night I’m often thinking of some new knife design or knife-making project or how I intend to modify my latest machete acquisition. 

Granted, a machete is a specialized instrument.  It won’t chop through heavy logs nor does it do well for fine woodcarving.  But where there are brambles and vines and cacti and where the mogotes are so thick you can only see in about four feet then the machete comes alive.  The thin blade plays with the vines and shrubs and makes short order of cactus pads.  In the jungles I’ve watched the native people make everything from bows and arrows to blowguns to huts to rafts and traps with only a machete.  I think the machete is the real bushcraft knife!  In fact, I read an interview with Jeff Randall who owns Esee knives and Jeff said the same thing.  If given his druthers for the ultimate bushcraft (woods craft) blade he prefers a machete—and this comes from a man who makes what I consider the best woods knives in the world.

Ontario Knife & Tool 12-inch machetes

Choosing an ideal camping knife is one of those subjects where everyone has an opinion, and why not?  People who go camping develop their own criteria as to what works for them.  That’s the critical part.  It really depends on where you go camping.  If it’s in a state park or regulated camping area then the need for anything other than a pocket knife is questionable.  In fact, some of America’s best known hiking trails are so regulated and bureaucratized that they really amount to not much more than a long sinuous walk through the park.  In places like that it’s hard to fathom the need for anything other than a paring knife.  But in places outside the US or in some of our wilderness areas then something a bit more substantial is perhaps needed.  In the northern climes a small hatchet reigns supreme.  The hatchet is better than a large knife or a Mora knife or a hunting knife or a Swiss Army Knife or anything else for that matter.  A man who knows how to use a hatchet will agree without hesitation.  But it’s always a good idea to carry a sturdy pocket knife for small chores like opening a package of food or maybe making a skewer for the fire.

Tramontina 12-inch

To the South the machete replaces the hatchet.  Carry a pocket knife and bring along a machete and hopefully you’ve got a few skills and you should be okay…assuming you also brought water, a tin cup, and a water purifier.  And a ferro rod!  And a wide-brimmed hat….

In my view the best walking, hiking, camping, woods-craft machete has a blade of no more than about 15 inches.  My personal preference is to have a blade about 10 inches long.  A modified machete with a 10-inch blade is feather light and yet has enough mass in the blade to successfully cut camp stakes or make feather sticks or clean away underbrush around your hammock or tent.  A small modified machete makes an excellent tool to make a bow-drill or a spoon or even a bow if needed.  I’ve made dozens of bows with nothing more than a small machete.  The spine acts as a perfect scraper if you define the angle and retain a burr as you would on any cabinet scraper.

A small, personalized machete also makes a good weapon if the need arises.  In some parts of the country it is no less the Wild West than it was 150 years ago and in some respects it’s now even worse.

Woods Roamer Full-Tang Camp Knife 5160 Spring Steel

This is not to say that a thick bladed knife is not needed.  A thick bladed knife comes in handy for lots of survival tasks from making a shelter to building a trap.  But the small machete will do the same job for a lot less money—though the lighter weight will require a little more work.  Allow me to say something in reference to the costs of machetes.  Along the border and on into Mexico you can purchase Latin American machetes for about five bucks or thereabouts.  I cringe when I see what some of these online companies are charging their customers for the machetes they sell.  Prices are exorbitant and sometimes downright ridiculous.  The last 20-inch Tramontina machete I purchased at a nearby ranch store cost me $4.37.  The last Bellotto machete I bought from a vendor at a flea market cost $9.00.  Both purchases were within the last two years.  When I see prices of $25 or more for some of these same machetes in the online stores I get a bit upset.  Okay, forgive the rant.

Pig Sticker: 5160 Spring Steel

About the only bit of knife making advise I can give you regarding any modifications you might care to make to one of your machetes is be very careful not to burn the steel.  If you use an angle grinder or Dremel tool then you’d best keep the blade cool by constantly dipping it in water.  Otherwise, you’ll burn the steel and essentially ruin the project.  If the steel turns blue where you are cutting the blade then you’ve goofed and now you have two choices: Make the blade even shorter or turn what’s left of your machete into a gardening trowel.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


We have entered those dog-days of summer.  In South Texas the people of the land call it La Canicula.  Old timers used to say it was the time when the land was poisoned.  Nothing would grow.  The grass withers and turns brown.  During the day the heat reaches temperatures that are almost impossible to endure.  Like the deer and javelina, the coyotes and jaguarundi, the people stay in the shade during the day and venture out only near sunset often working into the night—always careful, of course, to watch for rattlesnakes.  We’ve not had too many encounters with rattlers this summer.  I walked up on a four foot rattlesnake the other evening as I was entering my work shed.  We get careless sometimes.  I had my mind on other things and had the snake not buzzed and raised its head to strike I would’ve probably stepped on it.  We were feeding the dogs the other day and they were acting skittish and then we heard the distinctive buzzing a few feet away.  This time it was a big six-footer coiled under a bush at the edge of the back porch.  But having lived my life in the Brushlands I am as used to rattlesnakes as any city dweller is to fire hydrants and honking horns.

Our watermelons are looking good as are the cantaloupe.  We keep them watered and growing in partial shade otherwise they’ll die on the vine in short order.  But the real joy for me is watching my bottle gourds grow because this year I plan to make not only bird houses but cups and bowls and a coffee maker too.  I’ve written about my gourds before.  Growing conditions in Deep South Texas are not like what you’ll read about on other Internet sources.  Most people advise you to grow gourds in full sun and for the most part to just leave them alone.  I tried that years ago and found that what may serve folks well in other areas spells disaster where mid-day summer heat can reach as high as 110 degrees Fahrenheit.  In fact last week we were under a heat advisory and when I checked the thermometer on the front porch it read 108°.

So I grow my gourds in the shade and make sure they’re watered at least three times a week.  I placed an old step ladder in one area to allow the vines to climb and a discarded bed spring in another area for the same purpose.  The vines climbed the ladder and old springs and then crawled into the mesquite trees where in a few weeks they enveloped the trees adding even more shade to the ground.  The large, ultra-green leaves provide a deep shade to our “front yard” and that brings in scores of birds where we have watering stations and grain feeders.  Surrounding the trees is a dense belt of granjeno/brasil woods called “motts” in these parts.  So the birds have a protective zone that predators do not enter.  Our bobwhite quail have been abundant this year, at least around the house.  We don’t shoot anything because the birds are part of our family.  City folks drop by now and then and the first thing they want to do is kill something.  “Can I come over here next quail season and shoot?” they’ll ask.  I’m tempted to reach into my wallet and give them twenty bucks and then say, “Go buy a few chickens at the grocery store.  These quail aren’t for sale.”  A fellow was telling me that on a nearby ranch the owners raise quail in long pens where they are fed and cared for.  The pens are only a few feet high so when the quail flush they can’t go very high but instead must fly away at a height of about ten feet and straight away.  So then when quail season arrives they release these pen-raised quail and the dudes from town show up with their scatterguns and then go “quail hunting.”  When they flush a covey the quail (trained to fly no more than ten feet high and always in a straight line) do as they have been taught and the “hunters” shoot (hopefully it won’t be some moron who shoots his hunting partner in the face; but we won’t go into that here)…and then the quail fall and a dog retrieves them and everybody is happy.  But enough of that lest I get too carried away with how hunting has lost its honor in too many places and has become nothing more than business.

When my gourds are ready and the stems start to turn brown I’ll pick them and wash them in a mild bleach solution and then allow them to dry in a cool and well ventilated area.  Then in a few months I’m going to make bowls and cups and a coffee maker and some bird houses.  I’ll show those of you who are into woods craft (bushcraft) how to make a coffee maker from a bottle gourd.  We’ll share a cup of java.

Saturday, July 18, 2015


Knife scales made from Micarta have become popular over the last couple of decades.  Other synthetics are also making inroads and replacing traditional wood or antler knife handles.  Micarta is a process by which layers of organic fabrics (paper, linen, canvas etc.) are impregnated with epoxy resin and then sandwiched together under great pressure to form a stable and rock-hard slab.  Micarta slabs can be one color or a collage of colors giving them an array of appearances and textures.  It’s not all that difficult to make your own Micarta but having made dozens of Micarta slabs allow me to offer some tips that will make the process easier and less wasteful.

1) Making Micarta is a smelly and gooey process and the epoxy fumes are toxic.  Always make Micarta in an open, well-ventilated space.  I wear a respirator and make my Micarta outside under the open shed where I make my knives and bows.  Even though I’m wearing a respirator I still have a large fan blowing behind me to push the fumes away.  I have known people who became quite ill when they attempted to make Micarta in an enclosed space and did not use a respirator.
2) Before you start making your Micarta slab get everything you’ll need and place it near or on your work table.  Since you are working with epoxy you’ll need to work quickly.  However, I’m going to explain a method that I use that will greatly extend the time needed to make your Micarta and at the same time will not sacrifice the hardening qualities of the epoxy resin.

3) These are the materials I use:
          a) 2 ½” X 12” strips of construction paper, 50-80 pound cardstock, linen or canvas sheets.  Burlap can be used as well.
          b) Nitrile gloves.  I use three pair for each Micarta making session.
          c) Mixing tool.  I use a disposable plastic knife.
          d) Wax paper
          e) Respirator
          f) Paper cup.  I use two or three cups per session.
          g) Two 1”x 4” x 15” pine boards
          h) Bench mounted vise
          i) Four C-clamps
          j) Electronic kitchen scale
          k) Epoxy resin and hardener. I purchase epoxy by the gallon at Home Depot.
I place a large piece of cardboard on my workbench to keep the epoxy from spilling onto the bench while I’m working.

The epoxy calls for ten drops of hardener for each ounce of resin.  A typical paper Micarta slab will use about four ounces of epoxy while linen or canvas Micarta will use as much as six or even seven ounces.

IMPORTANT: When mixed according to directions the epoxy begins to harden in eight to eleven minutes depending on the ambient temperature.  That does not give you much time to work.  Now most hobbyists put less than the directed amount of hardener because they want to extend the time limit.  But this is not good technique and the tactic is unnecessary since one can still follow the manufacturer’s directions and obtain top quality Micarta but at the same time not be so rushed.  So here is what I do:
          a) Always measure out the amount of resin you intend to use. DON’T GUESS.  That is bad technique.
          b) For paper Micarta I’ll use two paper cups each pre-filled with two fluid ounces of resin.  I will not add the hardener until I’m ready to start.  When I’m making linen or canvas Micarta I will pre-fill three paper cups with 2-ounces each of resin.
          c) I will put two pairs of Nitrile gloves on since one pair is going to get all slimed with epoxy and I need a clean pair underneath when I fold the wax paper over the slab in order to form a neat rectangular package.
          d) When I am ready and all the materials are in place I will put twenty drops of hardener in the first cup and then mix the solution with my plastic knife.  I have already placed a sheet of wax paper on the cardboard and I have the sheets of fabric ready for use.
          e) Since I am only working with two ounces from each cup I have more than enough time to use the allocated epoxy to start the job.  Let’s assume I’m making Micarta from construction paper—but the same process works for all fabrics.
          f) I place the first paper sheet on the wax paper and then saturate it with epoxy.  I’ll then flip the sheet over and saturate the other side with epoxy.  Then I place another sheet on the first sheet and saturate it with epoxy.  The process continues until I finish the first 2-ounces of epoxy in the paper cup.
          g) When the first 2-ounces are gone I’ll put a clean sheet of construction paper (or linen or canvas or cardstock) on the last saturated sheet and then quickly mix in twenty drops of hardener into the next cup that is already filled with resin.  Then I continue the process.  Mixing in twenty drops in the second cup takes about ten seconds.

As mentioned, 4-ounces of epoxy usually suffice for a ½-inch slab of construction paper or cardstock.  After you’ve completed saturating the sheets then remove the top pair of Nitrile gloves and then carefully wrap the wax paper around the entire package.  I always keep an extra pair of Nitrile gloves next to me in case I need to remove one pair and quickly place another clean pair over the pair that is next to my skin.  It’s a safeguard that I suggest you get in the habit of employing.  Now some people build forms in which to place the package.  I find that step unnecessary because I then place the completed package between my two pieces of wood and then, holding the wood/package firmly, I slip it into my bench vise.  This serves the same purpose of a form because I can then quickly tighten the vise to hold the wood/epoxy package in place.  It always works.  I then begin placing my C-clamps on the wood/package carefully tightening the clamps (and further tightening the vise) until everything is absolutely secure.  Some people claim that one should not tighten the wood/package too much but I find their reasons unconvincing.  If you have followed the product directions and added the proper amount of hardener drops AND you have followed my directions and worked with only 2-ounces of epoxy at a time then by the time you place the wood/package into the vise it will already be very hot!  In other words, it is already hardening.  There will be essentially no spilling or leaking of the epoxy out and you will have an extremely hard slab in about 24-hours time.

I leave the wood/package in the vise (with the C-clamps attached) for at least one full day.  After which I’ll remove the wood/package from the vise and then remove the C-clamps.  I’ll remove as much of the wax paper as possible and, using a coping saw I’ll trim the edge of the slab to get a peek of the finished product.  I always keep about ten or twelve Micarta slabs ready to use and when a blade is ready I’ll select a slab.  REMEMBER that working with a completed Micarta package is also dangerous if you don’t wear a respirator.  Like before I shape the Micarta scales outside with my large fan next to my small belt sander blowing all the epoxy particulate away.  NEVER take chances around Micarta either when making the package or when sanding the scales.  Micarta made properly will probably last longer than the knife blade itself.  It will not shrink or expand and is essentially waterproof.  I often “paint” the completed and attached scales with a layer of 5-minute epoxy.  This makes the handles quite smooth and some people like a rougher feel to their knife handles.  But I’ve never liked knife scales with knurls or grooves or deep checkering or finger channels because in a working situation you will require a handle that is designed to allow you to adjust your grip in order to lessen fatigue and injury to the skin.  So I’m just fine with smooth grips.  Years of experience has shown me what works and what amounts to fad.