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.