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 na├»ve, 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.