Sunday, 9 December 2012

What to do with a Sunday

So you know how you just sit on the sofa on a Sunday thinking “I’ve got nothing to do today, I think I’ll just sit here and watch TV”. No? me neither. As an aspiring bushcrafter I find that there are 101 things that I want to do, make and learn. But the list never seems to get any shorter and other things in life always seem to get in the way. I’ve got so many part started projects my poor shed is bursting at the seams.

But a few months ago there was a break through. SWMBO was out for the day sheep dog trialing, the weather was too bad to do anything on the farm, the house was beyond tidying and only a day wouldn’t even make a dent in it and work had been very stressful. So it was decided that it was going to be a Man day!

Full of gusto, I marched down to the shed, head held high and flung open the doors. As I was hit by the tidal wave of junk and debris, my head sunk, what exactly was I going to do with little to no work space that could be achieved in a day. As I waded through everything, and trying to tidy as I went, I found the bow saw blades I had bought in preparation of a project I had wanted to do for some time. That was it, today I was going to build my own version of a buck saw.

Fighting through the array of tools and bits of metal I finally found my wood off cuts bin. Delving deep to find 3 suitable lengths of wood, I was set to go. But wait, how was I going to make this, was it going to be a quick and dirty, more function than form, or was it going to be something that I would look at and say, yes, that’s both useful and pleasing to the eye.

So back into the house I march and grab the computer. I’m sure there is someone on BCUK who has made one of these much better that I ever would. So now with a stolen design, back down the shed.

Pulling out the table saw, I set to work, cutting and measuring (yes, I did do it the wrong way round). Then a sudden flash or inspiration, what if I could make it so I could carry the blade within it and a spare. In fact my intension had always been to carry a green wood blade and a dry wood blade, so that I had options. And so, on the fly, my design was born.

I decided to put a slit running the length of the cross bar to house the blades when not in use, I also opted for scrolled tops to act as the tie-off point for more of an aesthetic touch than anything. The handle I crafted smaller and rounded for the comfort of my southern softy hands. It all locks together with a mortise and tenon joint and the blade fits in the slot and held in place with a couple of bolts and wing nuts. With the basic construction done, it was time for the finish, or in this case the Danish (oil that is).

It has been a fun little project to work on and a very practical one too. It’s been out with me on the last couple of Sussex BCUK meets and really proven its metal by getting through some big bits of wood. All in all a job well done and this is now a part of my regular bushcraft kit and packs down quite nicely.

all done, and well used.
Packs down nicely.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Successful Bow Drill Ember

One of the key principles of Bushcraft, in my opinion, is the ability to light a fire. The truth is there are hundreds of ways to light a fire, some are really ingenious and simple, like a lighter or matches. Some are scientific like using potassium permanganate and glycerin or a ferro rod. Then there are primitive techniques like the hand drill or bamboo thong. But for me the benchmark is the ability to light a fire using the bow drill method.

Now I’ve been able to light fires using other methods for years now, my personal favourite is vaseline in cotton wool and sparks from a ferro rod, a very quick method to get a flame. Others have included the use of cramp ball fungus and a ferro rod and a feather stick. But one method has eluded me since I really became serious about Bushcraft, and that’s the bow drill. Now I’ve read up on this and there seems to be a variety of techniques and woods that you should use. Which in its self can be quite confusing and daunting. Not being a big fan of reading to learn, I’d rather learn through experience, I was lucky enough to do a course with Paul Kirtley a month or so ago where he produced a bow drill set whilst we were on a walk in what only can be described as biblical weather. Well as you would expect he made it look devilishly simple, so simple in fact that he even managed to get me to make an ember and light some tinder, with a little help. In fact I’d never considered that it could be a 2 person job, so much easier!

But since then it’s been bugging me that I couldn’t quite manage it on my own. No reflection on Paul by the way, in fact if it wasn’t for what he taught me, I still wouldn’t have got to where I am today. So now armed with some practical techniques, a better understanding of what I’m doing and some of the factors that held me back, I set off to achieve a solo ember.

Now one thing I’ve learnt in not just Bushcraft, but many facets of life, is that you have to have the common sense to adapt to your environment and physical (dis)abilites. It’s no secret that I’m a little on the heavy side but add in asthmatic and generally broken from over 30 years of pushing my body beyond normal limits and breaking points, I have a few physical restrictions. So taking what I’ve learnt from Paul, the advice from other great Bushcrafters like Kepis from BCUK, the long Jubilee Bank Holiday was going to be the weekend I’d master the bow drill.

Now some would say seasoning your hearth beforehand is cheating, but I like to call it preparation. Having cut up a well seasoned poplar for charcoal burning, I kept a piece to one side and planked it to use for future bow drilling. Next piece of the puzzle was the string. String is something that I am not short of, so a bit of cord was stashed in my pocket. As for the bow, I’ve been playing with the bow drill for years and have had the same bow from day one. I know it’s easy enough to find a bit of wood to suit, but why cut more wood than you need to. With that ethos in mind, I scavenged a length of hazel from the spoils of some bad pollarding by the electric company under some power lines that run through a local wood to me. My set was complete and a day in the woods began.

my first set in the woods
 I shaped my drill, carved a depression into my hearth and away I went. I made the drill longer to suit my physical impairment (a big fat belly) and things were going great. Then the string started to slip on my drill and cut through itself. Quickly swapped it for a new piece of paracord. Well it was obviously good as it started slipping too and cut the drill in half.

A minor set back, I thought, and grabbed another stick, trimmed and shaped it and off we went again. Sadly the new bit of string didn't last either, so home I came.

Discussing it with fellow Bushcrafters, Kepis made a couple of good observations. He usually cuts his drill to about the thickness of his thumb and also the wood looks a bit ‘punky’. Agreeing with him, I set out to cut myself a piece of hazel suitable for the job. As I didn’t have his thumb to hand, I went for something a little thicker than my own and matched the drill Paul had given me from our course.

Now tooled up and resorting to backyard bushcraft, as the weather wasn’t playing ball, I had another go. Still no success, so now to fall back onto common sense.

  1. Stop, look at what is actually happening
  2. Think, why is it happening
  3. Reflect, look back at what you were taught
  4. Change what you’re doing

I realised that my drill was polishing up and not making good contact with the hearth, so replaced the cord with a bit of 550 paracord, reshaped the drill, started a new hearth hole and made a new bearing block (had worn through the other). So pretty much started from scratch and not being able to spend too much time at it, I gave it one final blast and what do you know, it worked.

My first solo ember

So what have I learnt from this? Well, a good cord makes a difference, also getting the tension right makes life a lot easier, it didn't need to be as taut as I thought. For me, the drill needed to be longer than usual and a bit fatter than my thumb, also finding a rhythm that allows me to breathe made sure I could keep going at the vital time. Being out of breath also meant that was there was enough of a pause once the ember was smoking on its own to build up. So now I feel I can pop a tick against this one, next, well let's see if I can get the time of creating it down to less than three days.

My successful bow drill set

Special mentions to Paul Kirtley for showing me how
Kepis for reminding me

Monday, 5 March 2012

Netting Needle Challenge

So there I was, just flicking through the Bushcraft UK forum, when I spot this Challenge thread. Having a read it would seem that the idea was you pop your name on a list and the next person to join would set you a challenge. This could be anything Bushcrafty, anything at all, which did worry me as my skill level is that of a toddler. But on the list I went and set a challenge for the guy above me, that was to carve a leaf from the wood of that tree. So an oak leaf from oak for example.

Quaking I waited for the PM to come through, what would it be. Forge my own knife, carve a wood spirit, light a fire with flint and steel. Then it came through, my personal challenge from a faceless person somewhere out there in cyber space. Someone who has never met me, seen my total lack of technical ability or tool handling skills. there it was, carve a netting needle.

A netting needle, What on earth is that? I thought. Well off to the internet I went and found what I was looking for. Now with some idea of what is required, off to the woods I went to find a suitable piece of wood. And so began quite a challenge, for me.

Attempt 1
Split a small log and penned out a rough outline. Started whittling and then disaster, wood twisted and unusable.

Attempt 2
Much the same as 1

Attempt 3
Actually got somewhere with this one, but made it far to thin and snapped.

Attempt 4
Looking good, but carving out the eye of the needle managed to split it in two

Attempt 5
Made it, didn't like it, burnt it

Attempt 6
This one almost finished me off and nearly took my finger. Managed to slice it to the bone, even today I still don't have all the feeling back in it. But carried on and finished and ended up with something that I thought would do the job. It was at this point, by a strange quirk of fate, my tormentor turned out to be quite local to me and a member of my local meet up. He kindly offered to show me how to use it.

Having had a fantastic tutorial on how to use it, it quickly became apparent that it wasn't quite the right proportions.

Attempt 7
Success is a word banned around these day with little meaning, but for me, this one was a winner. I've even started to make a net with it. But that will be another blog.

Honourable mentions

Kepis for the great lesson and the hellish challenge

Monkey Boy for setting up the whole thing