Flint Knapping- A long rocky road I love to walk.

The first time I saw and heard a big glassy flake of obsidian driven from a core I knew I was doomed. Over the last ten years that ‘doom’ has been the search for making that sound, that clean hard pop, as the millions of tiny bonds holding the rock together let go in a clean shockwave and release the flake I need. Each strike over this time has been and experiment, each experiment has brought me closer to understanding the variables that decide if you get that clean flake, or if you get a chattered and step fractured mess.  There is magic in that sound, that clean flake and the clean edges of dangerous sharpness is leaves on both the detached flake and the core.  That magic has given human beings their oldest tools, and is at the heart of millions of years of human and pre-human life.

Knapping is about taking good flakes, and good flakes are not mysterious, although sometimes they may seem to be so. Good flakes are what makes a good arrow head, spear point, or knife. Good flakes are everything. Simple, yet elusive, the variable that can take you there can be controlled, you can set yourself up for success, but you have to know how to do it, and you have to know where you are trying to go. Thanks to piles of hours in various knapping pits, basements, barns, and out the back of my truck or even in the front seat on one desperate occasion while traveling, I have really started to see it and feel it. I am proficient...not a master, but proficient none the less, and after all these years really starting to own the skill.

A lot of good and some truly exceptional knappers have passed on knowledge and experience to me and I have not forgotten my first days in the pit in New Jersey, my first teachers in knapping being Eddie Startnater and Billy McConnell, along with a cast of other volunteers and hang arounds at the TrackerSchool. I am still thankful for the friendly chiding of Bill Kazcor who got me to leave behind copper billets. And finally this year I found myself at Errett Callahan's in Lynchburg, VA, and saw first hand how meticulous and fine knapping could really be.  My progression has been slow, but steady. And each time I really push it. Each time I really drive forward with this skill, I find a new level to reach for.

After working systematically through 30 bifaces applying new techniques and dropping the ones that don't work for me, I put together a new system for myself. Now, I am producing work that, at least to me, is dramatically different. Edges are straighter, thinner, sharper, overall point thickness is reduced, flake scar patterns cleaner, surfaces smoother....

Knapping has been a long road for me so far. From my start at the Tracker School years ago, to mad dashes to the Glass Buttes in cars not meant to handle 500 lbs of obsidian, to years of personal trial and error learning, to moments with amazing knappers like Tim Dillard that opened my mind to new ways of looking at the skill, and finally, lately to hang with someone whose 50 years knapping and insane level of workmanship cannot be disputed. It has been long and fun, and there has been a lot of cursing mixed with important lessons.

 

Knapping has also opened my eyes to prehistoric timelines, geologic times lines, and a deeper understanding of what it means to live and work with stone tools. As my knapping has improved, and with the addition of pecking and grinding, stone tools have become a much more common part of the variety of other skills we work on at Roots. Being able to quickly produce fifteen hide scrapers for the children’s program students to use to scrape their rabbit hides with allowed us to test five different models of scrapers and settle on which ones we liked most.  For those planning to use stone tools to tan a rabbit pelt: (It turned out to be a semi scooped flake about the size of a big potato chip, with unifacially sharpened edges, tight flaking with small teeth left on, and one wide round side and one thinner, finger sized edge.)

            These understandings help me to connect my work in knapping into a more day to day understanding of the skill and its applications. The more I use stone tools, the more I understand how to make them so they will work well, and the more I understand the reality of being able to use them with just about any skills project. Steel tools can be faster in some cases, but the more I use stone tools the more I see how proper application can be just as efficient as, or even more efficient than their modern counter parts. Obviously this is not always the case, but the fact that it is the case even some of the time, was a revelation to me. Since then I have applied stone tools to a great many projects and found out a little secret. It is not that hard. Given good materials, and well made stone tools, it really is not that much different. Much of the primitive skills world is laboring under a different understanding and I think it hold us back. I love my steel tools, and ease and speed they allow, but often, that is not what it is about.

 

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