Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Gerald and Joseph’s Fighting Knife

You’ll recall that I mentioned two fellows who were making a knife to be sold in a raffle for a friend of theirs.  Gerald is a knife-maker and Joseph is a woodworker.  Anyway, the knife is finished.  Both fellows like fighting knives and so that’s what they built.  I hope you’ll agree with me that this is one fine knife.  By the way, in case you want to contact them here is their email address: jal3098@aol.com





NATIVE TEXANS AND THEIR COMANCHE ROOTS

In the early 1700s Catholic missionaries living in what is now Central Texas noticed that the small bands of nomadic people they called Apache, a name borrowed from a French word meaning ruffian, had suddenly disappeared.  The Apache were fierce warriors, independent and not prone towards taking orders from any foreign power which was precisely what the Europeans represented.  When the Catholics asked other “peaceful Indians” (meaning: They were not warriors.) the passive types said that a new group had moved in and displaced the Apache.  Compared to the new group, the Apache were mild in spirit.

The story of colonization in Deep South Texas goes back to the 1500s when the King of Spain divided sections of land called porciones to be settled by Spanish colonizers.  Mind you that the Spanish king had never been to South Texas but being a fervent “Christian” took it upon himself (as had his English and French cousins) to claim the land for himself and his subjects and in the name of God.  So Europeans occupied the porciones and then began encountering some of the most tenacious Native Americans they had yet to face.  By 1725 the Lipan Apaches had been driven into the mountains and deserts of Coahuila and Chihuahua south of the Big Bend Region, and the Comanche bands occupied most of the lands of Central Texas and the Panhandle.

Throughout the 1800s parts of Texas dealt with attacks and abductions linked to Comanche raids.  There are thousands of people of English, French and Spanish decent who are likewise of Indian blood.  When I lived in the Texas Hill Country I interviewed many longtime residents who were the progeny of Comanche captives.  In fact, I visited with a man a few weeks ago who said he is the great-great grandson of Quanah Parker the half-European, half-Native American who was chief of the Quahadi (antelope) band.  Parker was the son of a Comanche abductee named Cynthia Ann Parker.  Perhaps you’ve heard of her.


My father’s father was born after the end of the Civil War.  He had cousins who fought for the Confederacy and cousins who fought for the Union.  My grandfather was an adventurer of sorts, if not a bit reckless I think.  When the 1910 revolution broke out in Mexico he left his ranch (and a young wife and two little children) in South Texas and went off to fight.  In my way of thinking there was no rhyme or reason in any of this other than what scenarios you might imagine.  After the Mexican Revolution he returned to Texas and in 1921 my father was born.  I have vague recollections of my grandfather, other than his sky-blue eyes, but my dad used to tell me the stories my grandfather told him.  My grandfather said that Comanche raiders would ride into Deep South Texas to plunder and capture people.  South Texas ranchers would hide their families and oftentimes were killed fighting the Comanche.  My mother’s mother told a story about a relative who was kidnapped by the Comanche when he was a boy.  Years later he was able to escape though some time afterward the Comanche came looking for him.  His siblings hid their brother and it’s a heartwarming story indeed.  In my book, The Sand Sheet I tell that story as well as stories of a few other families who lived on isolated ranches along the US/Mexico border.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

TWO LARGE POST ANVILS

Lest anyone try to convince you otherwise, an anvil is any object onto which hot iron or steel can be hammered in order to forge those metals into different shapes.  There is no such thing as “an anvil shaped object” (ASO) as some have claimed since anvils have no particular shape other than a flat surface.  The accouterments added to anvils in the way of bicks, hardie holes, pritchel holes etc. are additions or orifices intended for either specialized forging processes or for accommodating tools, punches and the like.  Anvils come in all sorts of sizes and shapes and are made of many materials.  The earliest anvils were made of stone, and around the world many smiths still ply their trade using boulders of one shape or another as their anvil.  Anvils have been made of wrought iron, cast iron or steel or a combination.  Anvils were also made using soft alloys like bronze.  Therefore, any sort of condescension regarding anvils arrives from tunneled vision and not fact.  The physics behind anvils, however, is another matter entirely.  Let it suffice to say that the greater the mass beneath the flat surface onto which hot steel will be placed and then pounded the greater the opposing force that will drive back into the steel—recall Newton’s 3rd and 2nd Laws of Motion.  In a properly mounted anvil the opposing force becomes the earth itself which is a breathtaking thought to ponder.  Regardless, once smelting ore was discovered and the concept of an anvil was established humans set upon an endless quest to advance the technology.

We have no idea how many anvils were made of nothing more than wrought iron.  Later humans learned to manufacture steel and small steel plates were forge welded to the anvil surface to add strength and resistance.  Rowan Taylor has an excellent video of this process on his YouTube channel.  After watching Rowan’s video I wondered whether or not these small European anvils might’ve been part of the original bug-out bag contents.  With a suitable small hammer a craftsman could forge arrow points in the field or perhaps other small items as needed.  Refer to Rowan Taylor’s video on forging the hammer that compliments the little anvil.

I’ve stated that worldwide more anvils are made from salvaged materials than anything else.  The quintessential “anvil” that so many people equate with “an anvil” is conceptually modern but is not the one-and-only anvil shape.  I hope you’ve concluded that you don’t need to spend five hundred or a thousand or more dollars on an “anvil” when the local salvage yard or metal warehouse can provide you with all you’ll ever need in the way of anvils.  For years my two anvils were the underside of a railroad track (nice and flat) and the head of an old sledgehammer.  Even though I purchased a store-bought anvil a year ago I occasionally use my sledgehammer head and upside down railroad track rail to forge steel.

It was also about a year ago that two friends of mine decided to upgrade their anvils to something with a bit more mass.  Only one of my friends is a knifemaker; the other is a woodworker.  Both fellows are very talented and I cherish their friendship.  Gerald makes beautiful knives and Joseph makes just about anything related to wood you can think of.  Both of them are perfectionists.  Joseph had been using a railroad track anvil for tinkering with small bits of steel, and Gerald was using a four-inch diameter round bar sunk into a tub of concrete.

Below are photos of the two anvils each man recently fashioned.  We’re not sure what type of steel is used in these anvils.  I had mentioned to Joseph to buy six-inch diameter 1045 about 12 inches in length.  According to my calculations that chunk of steel would weigh 96 pounds which is more than enough to accomplish what either fellow might be looking to achieve.  The other advantage is that a round bar of that weight can be heat treated by small-shop blade-makers and hobbyists.  Anything bigger (and heavier) becomes difficult.  But Joseph, never much concerned with the details of science or physics, remembered my sermon about mass below the heated steel but little else, and when he was at the metal store he said, “I’m looking for a six-inch diameter round bar.”
          “What length?” asked one of the employees.
          “I need mass,” Joseph said.
          “How about two feet,” the employee said.
          “Great!  Arthur [that’s me] will be pleased.”
          Is it 1045 I wondered when he called me up and said, “I bought four-feet.  Two feet for me and two-feet for Gerald.”
          So Gerald picked up his two-feet of six-inch round bar and Joseph took home his two-feet of steel.  Note that a two-foot section of six-inch round bar weighs 192 pounds.  We’re talking some serious mass beneath the hot steel that probably equates to something like a 500 pound store-bought anvil.
          “Yeah,” you ask.  “But how are they going to heat treat those suckers?”
          To which I’ll nod and shrug my shoulders.
          Anyway, we’re not even sure if its 1045 steel or 1018 steel.  And please don’t say things like “spark test” or something similar.  Besides I wasn’t around when either fellow created his anvil and both of them seem content now with what they’ve got.  Lots of people are making anvils using mild steel these days and no one seems all that upset.  As one English fellow on YouTube says, “If you ding your anvil then just clean it up with an angle grinder.”


 Joseph's Anvil

Gerald's Anvil

So which of the two anvils do I prefer?  I’m not so much a post anvil aficionado as I am a stump anvil fan.  And like I said, I would not have gone with a 24-inch long round bar for the reasons noted above.  Yes, I purchased a beautiful anvil from Centaur Forge and I am extremely pleased with it.  In fact, it’s kind of become my baby.  My little shop is a lean-to bordering a barn on one side and within a few steps of a smaller barn at one corner.  But it is open on three sides so I prefer wrapping my more expensive tools with synthetic tarps when I’m not using them.  So the Kanca is cleaned and covered after an afternoon or evening of working.  Let me make it clear that if you want to buy a modern-type anvil and you’ve got the coins to do so then by all means go for it.  Some people find old anvils and restore them.  Restoring old anvils is something I applaud.


Okay, of the two large post anvils I think I prefer Gerald’s design because it seems more stable.  If Joseph were to anchor his anvil to the ground I would consider it a tie.  To my knowledge, Joseph’s anvil has not been used and probably won’t ever see much use.  Gerald’s anvil, on the other hand, has seen quite a bit of use.  They are presently working on a collaborative project that will be raffled off for a charity event.  I’ll post pics when the project is finished.  You will be amazed by their talents.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Season Changes...

And so the days go by.  For those of us who seek quiet and who revel in nature and who are lucky enough to live in the woods there is something deeply meaningful in the coming of each new day.  I’m looking out the back window with Lunz’s interpretation of Murmuring Mermaids playing in my ear.  I never tire of that song.  There are many others like it and when I write I prefer having this type of soft music in the background.  I speak of the transcendent quality of nature with an emphasis on the unknown and unknowable.  Here in the woods there is the comfort and warmth of trees and the everyday experiences of animals visiting.  Even during the warmest days I feel a great peace here.  At night I’ll walk the little road leading away from the cabin listening to night sounds, be they screech owls or elf owls, or coyotes in the distance or pauraques nearby or crickets in the brush surrounding me.  The word harmony comes to mind.

I can go for weeks never riding in a vehicle or wanting to travel into a city.  In fact, I’ll go seven or ten days without venturing more than a couple of miles from the cabin.  Here there is a lifetime of exploration for those with enough imagination to realize that nature is infinite even in its most localized milieu.  Nothing ever stays the same and yet it never changes.  Of course, only humans seek to destroy nature.  Sadly, modern mankind does not see nature as special other than a resource to be exploited.  Knock it down, drill into it; bulldoze it into oblivion.  And then poison it and think of it as nothing more than a privy into which to dump and foul.

On the weekends people arrive and make noise and talk loudly and for some reason their ambitions always revolve around manicuring the woods into something resembling the city from which they came.  One woman insists on mowing every square inch of her property so that it resembles a golf course.  Another fellow turns on his obnoxious, un-muffled tractor and goes around destroying the quiet as if he were at a major intersection or maybe a construction job site.

Does anyone believe in whispering anymore?  Even the “environmentalists” who infrequently come to visit make too much noise.  Nature seems like an idea to them instead of a reality.  More’s the pity.  They are hardwired to think city and thus the manicures and noise.  Now that deer season is approaching they’ll drive through the hamlet to the south pulling their ATVs and Jeeps and pickup trucks onto which they’ve mounted deer blinds, perhaps never realizing they are not hunters but simply shooters.  On the other hand, a man or woman with a selfbow is another creature altogether.  After all, if they’re not true hunters then they’ll not be able to acquire food.

The fall is upon us if not autumn weather.  But it has been raining the last few days.  This is the monsoon season, after all.

If it weren’t for the Internet I would not know who is president—not that I care given the present administration.  And I would not know of the giant storms in Florida or Puerto Rico or the earthquake in Mexico City or the mass killings in Las Vegas.  You see, the woods do not know about those things; it has its own contemplations to ponder.  Every day we set out food for the deer and quail.  We make sure the watering stations are okay and that the pond is not leaking.  We tend to our garden.  I often work in my little shop.  I’ve been asked to make a number of selfbows and I’m pleased to hear that people are becoming more interested in traditional archery.  I’ll also make several sets of carrizo arrows.  “It takes practice,” I tell these newbies.  They seem excited.


This week I’ll post photos of a couple of large post anvils.  Then I’ll post a photo of a dog's-head hammer I recently completed.  And then I’ll post something on a mini-railroad spike axe I forged.  Then I think that will be it on steel for a while.  I’d like to talk a bit more on bows.  And it’s amazing how dry it has been and so few wild edibles appeared these past few months.  All except for one desert plant that gave us berries in abundance.

Monday, August 28, 2017

DISCOVERING YOU CAN’T LIVE IN TWO WORLDS AT ONCE

Several million people from Corpus Christi, Texas to southwestern Louisiana are currently without power.  The flooding in the Houston area has reached “storm of the century” proportions.  People have lost their homes; and the remnants of Hurricane Harvey are still dumping up to five-inches of rain an hour along the northeastern Texas Gulf Coast.  Some people are complaining that Houston authorities didn’t issue a mandatory evacuation order prior to the storm.  The extreme levels of naiveté that generate those complaints are immeasurable.  The Houston area numbers about 6.5 million people.  Even if residents had been told to evacuate a week before the storm struck Rockport, Texas, the city of Houston could not have been entirely vacated in time.  I’ll take it a step farther and say that an evacuation would’ve been a flop.  It’s plausible to suggest that more people might have been injured in an evacuation.  Given the general anarchy surrounding human behavior these days, the overall chaos would’ve been horrific.  Even so, the meteoric increase in population has created a country crisscrossed with roads and highways and doted by cities and towns.  Yes I know there are still pockets of so-called “wilderness” but look at a satellite photo taken at night and you’ll see that most of the US is lit up like the glowing embers of a campfire.  The population is approaching 340 million people and it’s still sprouting like a weedy backyard.  Our prevailing American religion (even preachers, priests and rabbis worship at its alter) is the acquisition of money; and behind that religion is a doctrine that says we must have unbridled growth and development—something akin to a metastasizing malignant tumor.  So the night skies continue to flame while once silent and quiet places become the true endangered species in this country.

Along comes a few who don’t hanker to live in the crowded milieu and who have grown tired of a dysfunctional government and of Capitalism’s endless quest to cheapen quality from all corners.  They seek to maintain a low profile hoping not to be noticed.  Some go completely “off grid” while others connect to a nearby power line as a temporary convenience.  All the while, The System fights to thwart the independently minded.  Identity politics pervades all sides of the political spectrum and individualism is frowned upon.  Independence is viewed as odd and eccentric.  Singularity has become a pariah.  Look up synonyms for singularity: aberration, abnormality, anomaly, caprice, capriciousness, foible, freakishness.  Conformity rules now more than ever; and the majority (like lemmings scurrying off a cliff) blindly follow the mono-dimensional choices presented to us by The Establishment—the Corporatist Oligarchy.

A close friend told me the other night that he feared America is approaching some sort of point of no return (my words, not his) and that widespread violence and disorder are not far away.  I told him it’s been an insidious process and that Americans have, for the most part, become desensitized to what’s going on all around them.  Think of it as the prodromal stage of a dangerous infectious disease.  One feels poorly—tired, malaise, headachy, nauseous.  And then seemingly overnight the infection breaks out, overwhelms the immune system and the body collapses in illness.

I suggest that the schism in the country today is not so much between differing political factions as it is between the vast majority of urbanites and those few rural folks who prefer being left alone.  By the way, AM Talk Radio, infamous for creating hate-filled dissentions, is entirely manned by people who reflect urban lifestyles.


Lest you think I’m attempting to denigrate urban and suburban ideologies let me make it clear that I think people should be allowed to live as they want as long as they don’t destroy property, pollute water resources, foul the air or don’t attempt to tell one group of people how to live as a means of controlling them.  People are prone to over-interpret a statement like that so let me add that we don’t have the right to annihilate The People’s Land, and we don’t have the right to poison ground water or surface water.  We also don’t have the right to pump toxins into the air.  One more thing: No one has the right to decide that they’re going to build a road or fence across someone else’s property while claiming eminent domain.  I think many people have concluded that when private corporations or the government or an autocratic President decide to mess up people’s lives then the people have a right to retaliate.  In my opinion that’s a dangerous place to push people, but I hear that opinion from too many areas these days.  Just last night as I sat by a campfire in a thickly wooded area with a neighbor I was told that a group of urban politicians want to make a paved road right through private land.  My neighbor was livid.  “Who do these damn city *&%#*@%’s think they are?” my neighbor asked.  I could provide no clear answer….Which in a roundabout way brings me back to Houston, Texas.  Complete chaos at the moment.  Fortunately, there are other places willing to lend a helping hand.  But what if what we’re seeing in Houston was countrywide?  What if there was nobody to help?  No medicines, no rescuers, no FEMA, no aid of any kind.  Is that an outrageous and impossible thought?  Perhaps not.

Friday, July 28, 2017

KNIFE MAKING: WORKING WITH UNKNOWN STEELS



Let me make it clear that whatever expertise I have regarding knives and knife steel arrives from years of hobby bladesmithing and a lot of self-study.  I rarely, however, sell any of my knives because I’m leery of letting my blades fall into the hands of strangers.  My reclusive lifestyle in the woods fits my personality but it comes after years of, what I believe, was fighting the good fight to preserve nature and the land.  I’ve published hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and have now written three non-fiction books and one novella.  Nothing has ever come easy and I’ve had my share of bad luck along the way.  In other words, I’ve paid my dues and at this point in my life I’d rather not complicate things.  I’ve written that passions are the rudders that steer men’s lives and in my case my love of nature, simplicity, minimalism and my family have plotted the course of my day to day life.  In my way of thinking a knife plays a role in all of that.  As I’ve mentioned in this blog there are strong parallels between human evolution and the construction of tools.  The knife, whether a rock flake or the product of a CNC machine, lies deeply wedded to our collective unconscious; it bonds our present to our past; it unites us as humans.  In the late afternoon I’ll walk to my little shed attached to one of our small barns and I’ll instantly feel serene.  Surrounded by hammers and files, an anvil, a home-built forge, a small vise, shop-made tongs, an ancient belt sander and drill press, and a new angle grinder purchased after the one I’d owned for years decided it wanted to retire.  Nothing fancy, nothing expensive (unless you count the Kanca anvil I bought last year), and nothing all that modern.  In the shed I’ve got a decent pile of leaf-springs that have been turned into everything from large camp choppers to small puukko styled blades.  The steel is 5160, or so I’ve been told.  I’ve not encountered any problems with my leaf-spring steel so I’m content.  I’ve made hook and crooked knives out of old files (W1 or W2?) and I’ve also made knives from store-bought steel ordered from a Texas distributor and an Oklahoma distributor.

If you want to know something about knife steel then I suggest you go to technical websites or visit a library and read all you can on metallurgy.  These resources should be of professional quality; in other words, they should be filled with empirically obtained data based on bona fide research and sound engineering information.  There will be some mathematics involved with loads of graphs and a fair amount of chemistry as well.  If this sort of stuff isn’t your bag then I suggest you learn to work with one specific type of steel (1080, 1075 for example) and be done with it.  I know people out there who hate science and would rather be tortured by a terrorist than have to delve into anything mathematical or relating to chemistry or physics.  And yet, they want to make knives.  They might be good craftsmen or women but they will never completely understand what they are doing nor will they be well-versed in the technical sides of steel.  I even know someone who bought two forges (gas and charcoal) then bought a 200 pound anvil and only then did he try to forge a knife.  Mind you, he’d never forged anything in his life.  He tried to make one knife from a railroad spike and realized it was not a simple thing to accomplish and to my knowledge has never used his anvil or either of his forges since then.  This of course makes no sense because the prudent thing to do would be to ease into the hobby slowly.  My first knives made years ago were crude by all standards.  It was before the World Wide Web and as such my research into the field was limited to what I could find at the library assuming I could find anything at all.  True, I grew up next to a blacksmith shop but never received any instruction from the busy blacksmith working there.  My buddy and I used to watch the man using the forge and pounding red-hot steel on his anvil.  We used to cover our ears when he’d turn the damn power hammer on—my mom hated that noise and so did I and my sister.  Our house, by the way, was only about 40 feet from the shop.  Anyway, despite too many years in academia all I really learned in the following decades was brought to me via my own curiosity and insatiable desire to learn.  I’m a self-learner never having cared much for pontificating and oftentimes pedantic teachers and professors.  Besides, long hours of sitting in rows are bad for your back and after a while the teacher/professor turns into something akin to a noisy cicada.

So it was that the chemistry and physics of steel came from a lot of reading, and the experience of making knives came from a lot of doing.  Mind you, one place I seldom visit is a knife forum.  There are tons of knife forums but they tend to give me hives or at least raise my blood pressure.  While you might get some good information on a forum you are just as likely to receive crapola.  Seriously, knife forums are jammed packed with misinformation.  A common thread on knife forums is the use of “unknown steels.”  That’s a very touchy subject that is neither black nor white.  Let it suffice to say that whatever you are told on a knife forum should be checked and then double-checked.  Don’t ever take anybody’s word for anything until you’ve verified the information through detailed research.  Here’s one example that centers on using used lawnmower blades for knives.  Now for whatever reason there are people in the world who will automatically conclude that any chunk of steel can be used to make a knife.  Perhaps that’s why you’ll see “knife looking objects” made out of rebar and railroad spikes.  And perhaps that’s why you’ve got people out there—on forums and even on YouTube—saying they’ve made great knives out of lawnmower blades.  Now I don’t know these folks and doubt I’ll ever get a chance to meet them.  But my advice to you is don’t believe everything you see, hear or read on a forum or on YouTube until you try it for yourself to verify its validity.  Test the material first.  Make sure there isn’t any quicksand along the way.

Over the last few months a couple of friends have given me dozens of riding lawnmower blades.  Some of these mower blades are brand new having been used on one particular  riding mower that decided it didn’t want that career anymore and so the owner had to get rid of it and buy a new one.  The new mower uses a different blade size.

It wasn’t until a few nights ago that I finally got a chance to check out the mower blades.  The steel looks interesting and there’s always the expectation that I’ll have obtained a free source of knife steel.  Keep in mind that knife forums and YouTube are maggoty with people saying they made fantastic knives with lawnmower blades.  But how can I really know one way or another?  Forums are notorious for people repeating old wives tales.  One such tale says that lawnmower blades are made of 1080 steel.  The way these forum chismes (gossip) form is that one guy will pull that information out of who knows where and then another guy will say, “Well I heard that…” and then another guy will repeat it and then another guy and before you know it one of the legions of self-anointed forum gurus will say, “I’ve got it on good authority that lawnmower blades are made of 1080 steel.”  Every now and then an actual thinker will come along and say, “Wait, that doesn’t make much sense.  If lawnmower blades are made of 1080 then won’t they be too brittle to be used in such a manner?”  Of course, that makes sense.  A mower blade made of 1080 will likely snap into pieces of shrapnel if it hits a stump or large rock.  I can smell law suit.  So it behooves manufactures to make mower blades out of soft, malleable steel that will simply bend and not shatter.  It would be a waste of money to use something like 1080 and then temper it down to nothing so it won’t break apart when it’s a lot less expensive to simply use cheaper, softer steel.  Besides, soft steel wears out faster and forces folks to buy more blades.  Oh my, don’t people understand how modern Capitalism works?  Use cheap labor and cheap materials but keep prices high.  The object of the game is profit.

This discussion applies to all unknown steels from lawnmower blades to mill files to steels you might find at the scrap yard.  Some people will declare that the use of unknown steels is tantamount to heresy; its mindless and when one does a comparative analysis of costs, using unknown steels is in fact more expensive than using store bought known-steels.  To which I say, Bull Scat!  But I’ll shy away from such an argument and simultaneously remind myself why I came to the woods.

But for many knife-making or bladesmithing hobbyists there is a primal desire to experiment with unknown steels, and that’s exactly how our ancient ancestors felt when they wandered onto new territory and found a type or rock heretofore never seen before.
“Hey, look at this rock.  I’ve never seen rocks like this before.”
“Well aren’t you carrying your knapping kit?”
“I sure am, cousin.”
“Well, give that rock a try.  See what kind of spear point it makes….”
And in likeminded spirit the hobbyist just has to experiment.  A cost analysis is measured not how a myopic economist might do it obsessed with “the market” but instead how the inquisitive scientist proceeds.  The economist lives in a little box but the scientist lives in a cloud of wonder and imagination.  So the hobbyist must experiment and to hell with what others might preach.

So I picked up a mower blade and cut it into the shape of two knife blanks.  The first thing I noted was that the steel felt soft to the angle grinder’s touch.  Even so, there were some good Fourth of July sparks shooting out so I remained hopeful.  I fired up the forge and warmed my canola oil-filled ammo can and then set the two knife blanks into the fire.  The steel was about 3/16 inches thick or thereabouts and it didn’t take long to go to critical.  I plunged each red-hot blank into the canola and then onto the table where I allowed the steel to cool.  So far so good so I prepared for the file test.  I chose three files and took one of the blanks and cradled it in my gloved hand and drew the file across the steel (the anticipation mounting) and like a leopard’s claw ripping into soft flesh the file raked a path across the steel.  Quickly, I took the other blank and tried one more time.  The leopard’s claws dug even deeper.  If steel could bleed, then this knife-looking-object was in the midst of committing suicide.  I turned and looked at that luscious pile of lawn mower blades stacked against a wall.  A thought occurred: Maybe I’ll discover a mower blade of better steel?  Then another thought: In a couple of days I’ll quench in water.  I then grabbed a piece of one of my leafsprings and tossed it into the forge along with a piece of 1095.  Waited to critical temp then immersed in the canola then grabbed one of my leopard’s claws and it began skating.  No marks, no scratches, good steel.


So what’s the lesson here?  First, you can hope for the best but you should be prepared to test things first.  Knife making with  unknown steels is not a place for true believers.  You need to be a skeptical scientist instead.  Run the spark test, heat-treat the steel, run a mill file across the result.  Then do it again.  Make a blade and run it through an obstacle course.  So do lawnmower blades work for knife steel?  Some folks claim they do.  Forgive me, however, if I roll my eyes.

Shucks!

UPDATE:
I water quenched several samples of the lawnmower blades I have in my shop and none of them heat treated properly.  As I see it, lawnmower blades are not suitable for knives of any sort. If you were planning to make a knife from a lawnmower blade then may I suggest you verify its potential by first heating a part of the blade to non-magnetic and then quenching it in water. A high carbon steel sample will invariably snap but a sample with inadequate carbon content will remain pliable and most likely bend.  The mantra should be to check first before you proceed. Good luck with your projects.   

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

WOODS ROAMING, EXERCISE, GEAR and WEIGHT DISTRIBUTION


My experience tells me that most people would rather drive through the woods than walk through the woods.  We all know folks who will do anything to keep from walking.  Around these parts it falls into two basic categories: Those who enjoy walking and those who abhor walking.  The latter group dislikes walking to the extent they won’t even hike a hundred yards but instead get into their vehicles and drive the distance.  I even know a man who won’t walk fifty yards.  There’s nothing wrong with him; he just hates walking.  It gets ticklish when people even refuse to close ranch gates because that would mean they’d have to get out of their vehicles and open the gate, drive through, and then get out again and close the gate.  Regardless, as we age the need to walk becomes more important than ever.  And yet, that’s precisely when individuals seem to walk less.  You’ve heard the saying, “use it or lose it,” and that holds especially true to those who stop walking.  It’s amazing how quickly leg muscles fade to sinew or how joints wear out—not from too much use but from lack of use.  Now I’m not an exercise guru and the way I see it if a person doesn’t want to walk then that’s up to him or her.  They can sit inside all day watching TV for all I care.  After all, it’s their body and their health.

I’ve been an avid walker all my life; in fact, I look forward to my daily walks, or as I like to call them, my chances to go woods roaming.  For me it’s as much therapy as it is physical exercise.  Wandering down cow trails, listening to the sounds of nature, looking up at the sky, examining native plants, watching for tracks, enjoying the silence, reveling in the surrounding tranquility; it’s all a part of woods roaming.  After my recent surgery my doctor told me to walk.  Walk a lot, he said.  So I’ve been increasing my woods roaming every day.  Yesterday I hiked almost three miles.  That’s nowhere near what I usually walk but it’s a start.  Even in the late afternoon, however, the temps are warm so I take plenty of cold water and a few other things I might need.  All of which brings me to the point of this post.

Focusing on the aging issue and speaking from experience, I know that growing old is essentially a process of decay.  That decay is enhanced by our habits and behaviors.  We all know people who smoke too much, drink too much, indulge in too much red meat, seldom (if ever) exercise, eat far too much sugar.  Those people definitely seem to break down faster than most.  So the first secret (it’s really not a secret) to mobility, strength and health is to stop smoking, drinking, eating red meat, stuffing down the sugar and to get plenty of exercise.  In one’s sixties, seventies or even into one’s eighties there is no reason why we can’t remain mobile.  Aside from eating healthy the object is to stay active.  But this is where I’d like to impart some old man’s wisdom if I may.  First, don’t overdo it.  Some older folks have this idea that they need to push themselves.  Like the old man who insisted on walking the Appalachian Trail and was dogged about accomplishing the feat.  Problem was that he blew out his knees.  He let his brain think poorly and even when he was in pain he kept going.  Well, as the story goes he finally made the journey but at the expense of two destroyed knee joints.  As I see it there’s something wrong with that sort of reasoning.  So lesson number one is to listen to your body.  Lesson number two is to pay attention to your posture.  Check out YouTube videos on proper hiking posture or visit a physical therapist to get pointers on how to stand properly.  Being stooped over seems to run in my family (dad’s side) so I’ve got to continuously be checking my posture.  I’ve found that if we make a mental effort to stand erect then after a while it becomes more natural.  Lesson number three is to be extremely careful how you carry woods roaming gear.  Hint: Most of us carry far more than we really need.  Have you seen those YouTube videos where some dude (or lady) shows everybody what they carry when they hike?  A lot of those videos are plum nuts.  You’ve got people walking around jingling and jangling with all sorts of junk attached to their bodies.  Not one knife but two or maybe three.  Then there’s the ferro rod attached to the knife scabbard and another one in a pouch.  Cups and whistles and “emergency” tarps and…jeez the list can get so long it’s ludicrous.  “Yeah, but I might need these things in an emergency situation!...That’s why I carry this one pound survival knife so I can make an emergency shelter and live off the land…And that’s why I carry these ferro rods so I can gather kindling and make an emergency fire…And I carry this bow-making kit so I can whittle out a bow to hunt game.”  To which I say, Settle down, take a deep breath, think things through and realize that you’ll be okay as long as you don’t do anything utterly stupid.  WARNING: If you are a person from the city then perhaps you should seriously consider staying on the trails.  In my life I’ve been involved in two recovery episodes.  In both cases people stepped off established trails thinking they could cut across a piece of woods.  Mind you, these were not huge expanses of woods.  But in both cases the two individuals became hopelessly lost.  I found one of the bodies about four days after the man disappeared.  The other body was nudged up against a tree where the man sat and gave up the ghost.  So please stay on the trails if you are not a seasoned woods expert.  We’ve all heard horror stories of city folks who needed to go to the bathroom and so they stepped off the trail to pee or poop and then they got turned around and spent the next week wandering deeper into the woods.  Many of them carried survival items but they still didn’t make it.  Strangely, a lot of Americans think of themselves as Daniel Boone reincarnated.  That’s a fallacy that gets people killed.

Continuing on the gear thread we need to learn (1) not to carry more gear than we really need and (2) how to distribute the gear so we don’t place too much of a strain on any particular part of the body.  Allow me to give you a few examples: First there are those who carry everything in backpacks.  The latest craze has been the backpack that contains a water bladder.  A tube attached to the water bladder like a straw allows the hiker to drink without stopping.  To which I say, Why?  We’ve all seen the hiker marching down the trail, a one-man platoon, moving manically, sucking on the long plastic straw without stopping, compulsive, obsessed, determined, a catatonic look on the face.  “I walked ten miles in seventy minutes!”  To which I say, Woopy Do.  You might as well just circle the track field for an hour.

Woods roaming is a form of exercise but it’s not a compulsive act.  You are not out in the woods to complete a marathon.  You are instead out in the woods to fill your entire body with nourishment—physical, mental, spiritual.  I’ve seen hikers acting as if nature has to be conquered.  But that’s not the point; in fact, that is the absolute wrong approach.  But then take note of the outdoor and hiking magazines and the absurd advertisements they run.  In practically every ad there are people seemingly waging war against nature: The guy running like a screaming hyena across a trail or the woman churning her bicycle pedals in a frantic effort to go nowhere.  They see nothing; they hear nothing; they know nothing.  And they conquered not one thing.

Always take enough water.  If your hiking route takes you farther than your water supply then drive to a spot where you can clandestinely cache a gallon of water so when you reach that point you’ll be able to refresh your canteen.  Make sure you mark the cache on your GPS or take a picture of the spot so you can identify it when you reach it.

I used to carry a small shoulder bag but then I noticed that the uneven distribution of weight over my shoulder was causing lower back pain.  By the way, a backpack (even a small daypack) can wreak havoc on your lower back so beware.  Nowadays, I distribute weight over my body.  For example, I carry my cell phone in my pants front pocket along with a bandana.  I carry an ultralight S&W J-frame in my right back pocket.  Remember, I live in the Wild West.  This ain’t no park, folks.  I carry a small leather pouch dangling from a carabineer attached to one of my pant loops.  In the pouch I have a small flashlight and a modified Mora knife.  The Mora knife weighs less than three ounces.  I carry another tiny leather pouch with extra batteries and butane lighter.

A word about flashlights.  I saw a YouTube video where a guy said he didn’t think flashlights were important.  Folks, run from those types of dudes for they know not what they are talking about.  Carry a flashlight and extra batteries and never under any circumstances go on a hike without one.  Aside from helping you see at night it also serves as a signal device and provides a tremendous amount of peace of mind if you have to sit and wait for someone to come along.  Where I live only the most naïve, unskilled, neophyte would ever go woods roaming without a flashlight.  Unfortunately there are tons of those types.  Aside from helping you to spot rattlesnakes, the flashlight will spot scorpions, centipedes, pamorana ants, coral snakes, black widows, brown recluses as well as things like stands of prickly pear cactus, horse cripplers, pin cushions…the list is long.  So carry a flashlight!

I carry one of two types of canteens.  One canteen is large and insulated.  I’ll plop some ice cubes into the canteen to help cool my core temperature in warm weather.  The other canteen is also stainless steel but uninsulated and somewhat smaller.  I do not carry my canteen strapped across my back or on a pouch attached to my belt.  Instead, I simply carry the canteen in my hand allowing it to dangle in my fingers.  As I walk I change the canteen from one hand to the other.  When I’m thirsty I stop and drink.  I’m in no hurry.  Like I said, this is not a marathon.

Walking sticks are important in my view.  I make my own sticks preferring retama wood because it’s strong and light weight.  Be careful, however, not to make your walking stick too short.  That will force you to stoop over as you walk thus placing stress on your lower back.  My walking sticks are now close to five feet long.  I can adjust my hold and keep my posture erect with the longer stick.


Note on my knife: I am just as well served carrying a pocket knife as my Mora knife.  Sometimes I’ll just opt for a pocket knife, my favorite being a Case CV trapper.  As I hope you’ve gathered, the object is to keep things as lightweight as possible.  The Mora knife is in my opinion the perfect woods roaming knife.  I prefer the older model 510 with the red handle or the older model 511 modified to look like a 510.  I don’t care for the newer model 511.


Thursday, July 6, 2017

MAKE A SIMPLE WILDLIFE POND


The temperature in the shade reads 98 degrees Fahrenheit.  The heat index reads 108 degrees.  The heat index is what will kill you along with scores of birds and even some of the larger animals.  On days when the index hovers around 110 degrees and there’s not a hint of breeze you’ll start feeling woozy then sleepy then outright sick.  Your vision will blur; your reflexes will slow; and as your core body temperature climbs beyond reasonable limits you’ll fall to the ground and drift into that long, dark sleep.  A couple of weeks ago a woman’s body was found at a state park about 65 miles south of us.  The park is frequented by human smugglers.  I’ve seen groups numbering over twenty dashing out of the woods and into vans and SUVs just after sunset at the park’s entrance.  I’ve also chanced upon lookouts hidden in the brush near the Rio Grande.  The lookouts relay messages back into Mexico where the smugglers are waiting for an all clear.  Park authorities determined the woman had been abandoned by smugglers and had died of heat stroke.

Here in the woods we do everything we can to ensure that the animals around our place have water to drink.  The front has several watering stations for songbirds, quail and doves.  For the past six or more years we’ve run a line from the well into a secluded spot where a trickle of water flows into a depression.  As long as the hose is left on there’s water on the ground.  If, however, we turn off the water the little pond disappears in less than five minutes.  In my newest book, The Sand Sheet, I go into more detail about these wildlife ponds and the water (or lack thereof) facing those who live in this region.  In one instance I showed a geologist that the South Texas Sand Sheet has no surface water.  Along the coast about 100 miles to the east there are spots where small ponds have formed but they exist only because the sub-surface water does not allow the transient surface water to easily drain.  But in most of the Sand Sheet the ground water is too deep to make any sort of difference.


A year or so ago we decided to set up a quick and more permanent pond at the same spot where we’ve been running water for the last six or seven years.  Some have suggested to us that we simply pour bentonite on the ground and allow that to impede draining.  The problem with bentonite, however, is that it attracts wild hogs that look at it as a place to lather up and make a huge mess.  Others have said it would be a good idea to pour a concrete pond.  Concrete ponds become filled with green slime and then they start smelling and I’m not all that enamored with any of that.  Our idea was much simpler.  It was also easy to maintain, and alter and replace when need be.  We acquired a small plastic wading pool and nudged it into place where the water trickled from the hose.  By the way, as the water falls from the hose it creates a sound reminiscent of a stream.  The wading pool fills and the water then runs off onto the sand.  Large animals like deer and javelina drink directly from the wading pool while smaller critters like tortoises and birds (both large and small) drink from the clear water collecting beside the pool.

In this hot weather we see deer ambling up to the pond throughout the day.  In fact, the deer don’t go far but remain in the thick woods nearby.  Raccoons, bobcats, coyotes, coatimundi, rabbits, skunks…the list is long and we are happy to serve.

Perhaps later we’ll run a half-inch PVC pipe from the well to the pond.  For now, however, we’ve got a lot of cheap hose that’s been placed into commission and as long as that lasts all will be well.


 You can create an inexpensive pond around your homestead by doing something along the same lines as we’ve done here.  A trickle from your well helps keep your water clean and does not harm your pump.  Besides, if you are a nature person you’ll think of this as a way to give back what’s been so kindly given to you.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

PHOTO GALLERY of HISTORICAL BUTCHER, SLICING AND BONING KNIVES

Readers have shown an interest in the subject of historic butcher, slicing and boning knives.  These are the knives that have been in families for a generation or two, perhaps even more.  Every homestead, farm and ranch has a collection of these knives.  When a goat, hog, deer or even white-winged dove, Eurasian collared dove, turkey, quail or duck are collected for the pot these thin-bladed knives are invariably pulled from the drawer and called on to do most of the work.  Make a barbecue and these very same knives see all the action.  Savvy campers and woodsmen rely on these types of knives for work around the spit or grill.  So it was a century ago when pioneers, woodsmen, mountain men and hunters lived isolated lives far from established cities.  Woods roamers in generations past sought practical and serviceable knives.  Even today in remote parts of the world the needs remain the same.  People usually can’t afford the luxury of scores of knives nor do they want to burden themselves with needless stuff.  A knife is a tool and almost certainly has one primary purpose: Food preparation.  Vegetables for caldo, thin slices of bacon for the griddle, cuts of cabrito; the list is extensive.  But the knife selection is basic.  The most used knife seems to be the long slicer followed by the boning knife with the classic butcher knife at the ready.

If folks send me photos of their family's old historic butcher, slicing and boning knives I'll post them in this gallery section. It helps if photo submissions are accompanied by a brief (very brief) history of the knife, the make and blade length.

Jordon Marston wrote me the following letter and sent this photo: 
 "I have been a longtime reader of your blog and very much enjoy your content. We share many similar interests.  I live in northern Canada at about 60 degrees N. My wife and I have a small homestead with a garden, pigs and chickens. While we spend most of our time outdoors, we currently reside in a 12'x18' cabin. Heated by a wood stove, a small solar panel gives enough power to run a few lights and powers a laptop computer. We draw our water from a nearby stream for both ourselves and our livestock. We live about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the closest town of around 400 residents. Moose hunting, fishing, wild herbs and berries are very much part of the culture here. My community is primarily made up of indigenous peoples who still trap, dry fish and moose meat and participate in other traditional pursuits. I have learned much from them. [I've included] four of my knives that fit your description. They were used the other day in the butchering of meat hens in preparation for winter. From left to right, the knives are a 6" Lamson Forge, 7" unknown, 8" Old Hickory and an 8" Chicago Cutlery butcher knife. While I purchased the Old Hickory fairly recently, the other three served many years on my grandfather's dairy farm doing who knows what. They serve me well butchering moose, hogs and chicks now while also being excellent camp knives.  As a long time knife lover, part time knife maker and homesteader, I loved your piece on these old working knives. They cut well and sharpen easily. Thank you for your writings! I look forward to more!"
Jordan from the Yukon

Below are two views of JR Guerra's grandmother's butcher knife.  JR says his mother recalls his grandma using the knife on their ranch in the late 40s and 1950s to butcher goats, hogs and even large cattle.  For the record, the knife is a Blackjack 14 with a 7.5" blade and overall length of about 10 inches.  In the photos below the old butcher knife sits alongside one of JR's hunting knives and a Tramontina 12" machete.

Here's a photo of an ancient boning knife that belonged to JR's grandmother. I remember my granddad owned several knives that looked exactly like the one in the photo below.

John Tawes sent several photos of his historic knife collection.  Mind you, these are using knives and the marks and patinas show proof of that fact.  I found one photo particularly intriguing. 


Note the bolster on the large butcher knife. John made no mention of what make of knife this is but it looks to be made of high carbon steel with a full tang. The sheath above this old knife appears to be rawhide. Also note the boning knives to the right. I've seen boning knives that have been sharpened thousands of times.  After years of  use they end up looking like fish filleting blades. The hook knife on top also caught my eye but that's for a different discussion.





Above is another look at John's butcher, slicing and boning knives. All of them filled with character and each telling a story of years of service preparing food for families across the land.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

TRADITIONAL SLICING, BONING and HUNTING KNIVES


Note: I’m recovering from surgery, doing much better and hope to get back to my projects and work shortly.

“A word as to knife, or knives.  These are of prime necessity, and should be of the best, both as to shape and temper.  The “bowies” and “hunting knives” usually kept on sale, are thick, clumsy affairs, with a sort of ridge along the middle of the blade, murderous looking but of little use; rather fitted to adorn a dime novel or the belt of Billy the Kid, than the outfit of a hunter.”—George Washington Sears, “Nessmuk”

They want Bowie and “tactical” knives with four or six millimeter spines.  They want flaring clip points.  They are enamored with ponderous blades that serve little purpose other than to look macho.  If they happen to have a sample on hand they’ll attempt to chop with it, even as the angle of blade to handle screams, “This is not a chopper.”  They tote these blades never realizing they are proclamations to inexperience and lack of skills.

But head to far-off homesteads or distant villages where people live off their knives and you’ll see something entirely different.  In those places folks don’t collect knives to sate their boredom; they own knives that function and serve specific purposes.  Used daily they are nearly always an object for butchering, boning and slicing food.  Be it a fat pig or young goat, or perhaps potatoes, carrots and onions, the knives have long blades that are immediately marked by their litheness and perfect temper.  The spines measure in the area of one-sixteenth inch and it’s not unusual to see a blade from eight to ten inches long.  These are not woodcarving blades (the folding knife serves that purpose) and their owners would never stoop to the foolishness of attempting to baton a piece of wood with their precious food knives.  Besides, every woodsman knows how to break up wood without resorting to harming their knives.  Even so, there will always be macho aberrations (what do you think the Bowie knife was/is) designed to represent fierceness in battle, bar-fights and gang disputes, but little use beyond the facade.  Travel to the African Sahara, the jungles of Peru, the ejidos of Mexico, European villages, or just about every corner of the United States and Canada and you’ll find knives similar in design and concept being used as butchering knives, food preparation knives, hunting knives and camp knives.


A few months ago I watched a relative slice up a wild hog roast he’d prepared in his smoker.  The knife he used was a twelve inch, carbon steel knife he inherited from his father who was a butcher from the mid-1930s until about 1968.  Next time I’m over at his place I plan to take a photo of his two 12-inch knives, both Green River meat cutters circa 1940.  I told my relative it was time to retire those two knives.  “Don’t you realize what you’ve got?”
“Not really.”
“Take my word for it; those are valuable pieces of Americana.”


Above is a recent interpretation of a boning knife.  The steel is 15n20 and the blade is six inches long.  I also made the denim micarta handles.


The slicing knife above has an eight-inch blade fashioned from the same stock as the boning knife.

Above is a variation on the same theme.  The blade measures 6.75"


The two knives below are lightweight, 5.25" blade lengths.  The stick tangs are inserted into mesquite handles.  One knife has a two-part handle, mesquite and ebony.





To paraphrase Nessmuk, in order to make a knife suitable for slicing and boning it must be thin.  The Old Hickory slicing knife is a good example at .055” thick.  That’s really all you need.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

SEASON OF DEATH



“Keep looking for buzzards.”
“I’ll do that.”
They tell us this is going to be a hot summer.  Hotter than last year and the year before that.  It’s hard to think that it could get worse.  And it’s even harder to imagine that there’re those who want to ignore the facts that temperatures worldwide continue to rise.  We’re told that any immediate actions would be bad for the economy.  Pray tell, who but the most naïve buys into that sort of rhetoric?  Don’t they understand that increasing temperatures, failing reservoirs, continued droughts, doomed crops will bring about an unimagined economic collapse?  It’s as if a nightmare has befallen us.  Everywhere we look the news is grim.  And yet, people seem to hold on to their delusions as if to do otherwise is worse than the reality they have entered.


Along the Borderlands separating the United States and Mexico people still journey north.  To the south in Mexico the crime and killings and chaos seems to increase monthly.  In fact, Mexico was recently named the second most dangerous country in the world following close behind Syria.  Mexican officials refuse to accept that status.  Regardless, in the United States there is little empathy for Mexico.  On the one hand, Mexico provides the slave labor that has been the heart of American growth for over two-hundred years.  On the other hand, Mexico delivers the riches that so many in the US have become wedded to as Mexico’s drug industry pumps billions into the US economy yearly.  As one US official told me not long ago: “No one on [the US side of the border] wants to stop the drugs because there’s too much money in it.”

And so it goes.  The process is insidious; and people seem to have become desensitized to the reality of dying lands.  If you could step back a hundred and fifty years and then be transported to the present you’d conclude that things have already collapsed.  And yet, like the frog placed into a pot of water that’s brought slowly to a boil, people today go about their business steeped in avarice and rapaciousness as if resources are endless and everything will be okay.  The latest incarnation of Joachim of Fiore comes from the tech world that preaches that old and worn out doctrine that technology will save us.



The Borderlands offer a unique analogy for this time.  In the weeks to come the heat will press into the ground and then radiate back into the air; and in secluded places where shade suffers its own grief and offers little solace some will believe they can survive.  Like others on a grander stage they will put their trust in people they do not know, people who lie to them and tell them things will be better.  And when they are abandoned they will wander around lost and scared.  Their limited resources will be gone within hours.  The heat and exhaustion will make them crazy.  Their panic will overcome them and they will eventually give up and fall to the ground.  They believed without questioning because they wanted to believe.  So we will keep our eyes on the skyline watching for buzzards.