Primitive Bushcraft: Pitch Glue and Shell Spoon

Conifers are, without a doubt, among the most useful trees to the Bushcrafter as they were to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The needles of pine, spruce, hemlock, and fir can be brewed into a delightful tea packed in Vitamin C, the roots (particularly those of spruce and tamarack) provide excellent cordage, the browse of fir and hemlock can be made into fragrant mat-beds in times of need (Balsam Fir was once known as “Mountain Goose” because of its comfortable browse “feathers”), and the nutritious seeds collected from the cones can be consumed. Even dead spruce and pine can be of use, with knots and resin saturated wood (known as pitchwood, sometimes called “fatwood” or “Maya-sticks”) for fire-lighting. For this post, I will be discussing conifer resin and its application in the making of glue. It should be noted, before we start, that this glue isn’t meant to be a super-strong adhesive so much as it is meant to be a sealant. Don’t expect it to be as tenacious as commercial super glue, but for tasks that require waterproofing or plastering, it will excel.

Resin, or pitch, is sap that forms in sticky globs at the site of a wound…it is the tree’s way of healing itself while also keeping insects at bay that would otherwise cause disease and decay. On old wounds the pitch will be hard and brittle and usually a light brown colour, while newer injuries will have softer, bluish-grey-white sap that is a bit easier to remove. I find the best trees for sourcing pitch are pines and spruce, and these can be found virtually throughout the eastern US, mixed in deciduous forests or in pure stands. It may take some time to find injured spots on these trees, so look carefully. If you find a mass of pitch out of reach, you might be able to retrieve some with the aid of a sharpened stick. Whatever you do, don’t use your bare hands to harvest the stuff because it can be difficult to get off your skin, but if you find yourself in a bit of a sticky situation, rub on some regular cooking oil or baking grease followed by a rinse in soap and water, and it should wash off ;) . Large stone flakes are excellent for removing pitch within reach, especially the older and tougher globs. Whether you use old or new pitch doesn’t matter, but be mindful to not re-open a wound that has been sealed on live trees. Make sure that the cambium and sapwood are not exposed, else insects may get in and cause an infection.

IMGP5025

Here I have located a felled Blue Spruce with a good-sized clump of pitch. There were a few others fallen in the area as well, oozing masses of sap and giving that part of the woodland a distinctive fragrance. I collected roughly ½ cup of pitch (enough to fill a standard Altoids tin), storing it in a small plastic bag.

IMGP5030

Next we will need an open fire so we can heat the resin **make sure you have permission to light a fire if on public or private land**. I am using a mussel shell-half as a container, which I found on the shore of the woodland’s lake. Freshwater mussels here can grow to quite large size, with shells up to 10 inches (25cm) long for some species. Alternatively, you could use a flat rock (ideally one with a depression in the middle) or an empty tuna can. Heat the resin slowly over coals/embers, not flames. Once it has melted into a liquid, you will probably find a few needles or bits of bark – remove these with a stick. You want the pitch to be as “pure” as possible.

The other component we will need for the glue is charcoal, which will give durability to the mixture. Some people like to include plant fibres for extra-strength, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll keep this glue to just two ingredients, which will be strong enough as is. We can collect bits of charcoal from the fire and set them aside to cool for a few minutes. Once cooled, the pieces should be ground into a fine powder. I used a flat rock as a mortar and a smooth, round stone for a pestle. The key here is in the proportions – if too much charcoal is put in, the glue won’t stick to anything…but if there isn’t enough charcoal in the compound, the glue will be fragile and not last as long. I find the best ratio is 3 parts pitch to 1 part charcoal.

IMGP5033

Set your pitch container off the embers, and stir in the ground charcoal using a stick 6 to 9 inches (15-23cm) long. Mix well until the compound becomes black. Keep stirring, and as the mixture cools, it will begin to adhere to the stick. When it becomes semi-solid and doesn’t drip off, carefully tap it into shape with moistened fingers so you won’t get burned. Once the glue cools to a solid, you can scrape more from the container and continue the process – you want as much of it as you can get on the stick. You may need to re-heat the container a few times if the remaining glue cools down and solidifies.

IMGP5035

What you will end up with is an aboriginal glue stick…to use, all you need to do is heat a portion of it over a flame until it begins to melt, and spread on whatever you want to seal. There are a couple of pitch glue variations out there, such as using bear fat or tallow in place of charcoal, but the above recipe is probably the simplest and easiest for most folks to make. Historically, pitch glue was used extensively by Native Americans all over New England and eastern Canada… it is probably best known for waterproofing the seams of birch bark canoes paddled by the Abenaki, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Cree, Mi’kmaq, and many other tribes.

Many of us are probably familiar with carved spoons – there is a growing interest of woodcarving in the Bushcraft community, especially because it allows us to make “traditional” or rustic kit, such as kuksas, bowls, staves, etc. It is also a relaxing hobby and a nice way to pass time. But until 4000-5000 years ago in Europe, our ancestors wouldn’t have had the luxury of metal tools (except copper) to carve with. Those who lived by the sea or near lakes and rivers were fortunate in that they had access to bivalve shells, and these, combined with a few other materials, could be made into spoons.

And so I resolved I would make such a utensil without the aid of ANY metal cutting tools whatsoever, just for the fun of it :) . I started by selecting a wind-fallen Sweet Birch branch that wasn’t completely dried out…from this I would fashion the handle. I broke it into smaller bits about 6 inches (15cm) in length and chose a piece that had fractured in such a way as to “split-off”, leaving the end with a flat surface. Another section had fractured in the same manner, so I broke off the split end. These will hold the shell in place.

IMGP5039

Because of the possibility of there being bacteria in the bark, I used a large, rough stone to scrape them down to the wood. The bark came off easily.

IMGP5045

I must confess that this particular shell came from a restaurant meal of steamed clams, but I just couldn’t find any small mussel shells by the lake. **If you are using shells collected from a local water source, make sure you sterilise them first by immersing in boiling water for a minute or so**. I’m using the dried fibres of a Stinging Nettle (fresh nettle strands or jute twine will work just as well) to wrap tightly around the two pieces of wood, starting with a clove hitch, and ending with a few half-hitches.

IMGP5054

To finish, I heated up my glue stick over what was left of the fire, patted some of it on to cover the nettle wrap, and shaped it smooth using moistened fingers. This will protect the wrap from coming undone and keep the shell from slipping out of the friction hold.

IMGP5059

Well, here it is completed :) . I am not sure if the technique I used would’ve been known thousands of years ago, but it is a functional if unique design, and I am quite happy with it. While probably not as durable as their all-wooden counterparts, shell spoons take less time to make…and if the shell is large enough, it could be used as a spoon just the way it is.
Clean using warm water and gentle scrubbing. As with wooden spoons, don’t leave them in boiling liquids.

 

 

 

 

Primitive Bushcraft: Simple Stone Tools

In a previous post, I touched on the importance of knowing how to improvise cutting tools in the event of a survival situation when you have no knife, axe, scissors, etc., or lost them. Here is a link to the post. For this discussion I will focus on making stone cutting tools – not finely knapped blades and arrowheads, which requires a good deal of skill, but flakes, and almost anyone can make these. All it takes is a little know-how with the Hertzian Cone, conchoidal fractures, and where to find suitable stones.

Here in the northeast, your best bet will be quartz, quartzite, and chert…I have had great success with white quartz in particular. These can be found in stream beds and on rocky paths. White quartzite is fairly easy to identify amongst other rocks because of its opaque, milky colour. The larger the nodule, the more flakes you can strike off. Once you have found a decent stone, you will need a dense, smooth rock as large or larger than the nodule – this will be your hammerstone.

IMGP4989

For this demo I will be using white quartz (right) with a red quartzite (left) hammerstone.

The concept of the Hertzian Cone (or “Cone of Force”) is a simple one – when you apply force in a vertical motion (or perpendicular angle) to a flat surface, the impact of the force will distribute equally, forming a cone shape. You can see this principle in action when you throw a pebble into calm pond or puddle – the force spreads evenly in all directions in the form of ripples.
Minerals and stones break in two different ways: cleavage and fracture. Cleavage is the tendency of either to break along flat surfaces (or ‘cleavage planes’) caused by the alignment of weak bonds within the crystal structure…some examples are mica and slate. And while mica is too soft to be of much use, slate was the stone of choice for the Inuit ulu knife before the introduction of iron and steel. For this post, however, we will stick with understanding fractures, specifically the conchoidal type. A conchoidal fracture results when you strike a stone and a sharp piece is sheared off with a smooth, curved surface much like the inside half of a bivalve seashell. Besides quartzite and the other two stones I mentioned above, glass will also fracture in this manner, as will flint, agate, basalt, and jasper…pretty much anything rich in silica. These two fundamentals, combined with a little practice, allow us to have a better idea as to how we go about consistently striking off decent, sharp flakes.

IMGP4998

First, lay the stone you wish to fracture on your thigh and visualise the desired flake to strike off – **for safety, please wear pants or a leather apron so you don’t drive a piece into your leg**. Imagine this shard as a cone section, and you should be able to recognise the correct striking angle. On this nodule, I want a large piece as a starting flake to thin-down the side of the stone.

IMGP5003

One swift blow with the hammerstone, and the flake breaks off just as I wished…now I can continue around the stone using the same method. When I finish the upper part, I’ll flip it over to knap the bottom. Be warned, many of the flakes will be quite sharp, so handle with care…I got a bit too hasty and sliced up my index finger. Leather gloves are recommended, and if you plan on knapping many nodules at one time, wear some sort of eye protection. Larger flakes can be fractured into smaller shards if you so desire.

IMGP5018

The above photo just goes to show how thin and precise you can strike off these blades. The bottom two would be ideal points to attach to an arrow shaft.

IMGP5010

And after completing both sides of the stone, I noticed that my knapping had incidentally created a hand-axe with a decent edge out of the rest of the nodule.

Here’s the whole tool set, made in about half and hour…

IMGP5023

The far left is the hand-axe, progressing to thinner flakes towards the right.

I was quite happy with my results, and almost every strike produced useable blades. There is a certain pleasure in making these primitive tools – it allows us to walk in the footsteps of our far ancestors using skills and techniques they would’ve known and practiced on a daily basis. This kind of knowledge was very important to them – with these blades, they could fashion the equipment they needed to hunt game for food, and as stone knapping technology advanced, their weapons became more effective. Atlatls and bows replaced the standard throwing spear, and game could be killed at a relative safe distance.
Sure, these stone tools are outclassed by the metal knives, axes, and saws of today – so why, you might be wondering, should we bother making them? Well, I leave that up to you to answer. Personally, I don’t think that every outdoorsman/woman needs to go out and start fiddling around with rocks, but it is a skill worth learning, especially if you are interested in primitive technology. Most importantly, it teaches one to improvise.

In conclusion, I would like to thank Tim Rast of Elfshot Gallery for his continuous inspiration. If you want to learn more about knapping, please check out his blog. Also, I should mention that one should take care not to leave shards behind, especially where people or animals might pass by. Bury them in the soil or take some sort of cloth with you so can easily collect the fragments and dispose of them safely.

IMGP4992

Here’s the view from the summit of Black Oak Ridge where I spent the afternoon with my stones.

Bushcraft Tea, New Cook Kit, and May-apple

Rainy days mean peaceful days – the trails are desolate and quiet, an unusual though welcome break from the chatter of throngs of summer outers. So it was that I only came across a handful of people during this short day trip.
I set out to one of my favourite spots in the forest, the eastern side Black Oak Ridge (named after the predominant tree). Along the way I could smell a sweet fragrance from the hedges, the aroma of blackberry and wild roses in bloom.

IMGP4949

When I reached half-way up the gentle slope of the ridge, the rain was starting to come down a little hard, so I put up my poncho and had a tea break. The trick to getting a fire going in wet conditions is to split the wood you collect, make a few feathersticks from some of the splints, and of course, have dry tinder available – here I am using the bark of a juniper, Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). This may take some time, but remember, the key to a successful fire is preparation…don’t rush the process.
A few strikes from my firesteel, and away we go!

IMGP4916

This is my version of Bushcrafter’s/Woodsman’s tea, using the browse of Canada Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) for a delicious and delicate pine-flavoured brew. Heat the water with the needles and twigs, but do not bring to a full, rolling boil – when it starts to simmer (a “light” boil), take off the pot and let it steep for a few minutes.
The above cook kit consists of an Olicamp stainless steel kettle (1 quart) with a frying pan/cover, and a stainless Emberlit stove. I acquired these as an alternative to my DIY cook set (small coffee can pot and nesting hobo stove), which, while being very lightweight, limits the meals I prepare to “boil-’n-bag” freeze-dried foods. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I want to be able to do more than just boil water, and the Olicamp and Emberlit fit the bill. I paid about $15 for the Olicamp kettle, and I think the Emberlit was $40…roughly $55 total. So far, I am very pleased with both items. I’m not willing to do a review yet, but I can definitely say they are well-made and well-designed. The only disadvantages I notice are that the Emberlit isn’t really compatible with an alcohol pop-can stove, and the whole kit is a bit heavier than my DIY cook set.

IMGP4927

While I was enjoying my brew, fog had started to form like a translucent curtain down from the summit. The trees had become lightly veiled, giving the woodland a hallowed, mystical appearance…I felt privileged to see such a sight.

After lounging around for some time, I packed up, and started my descent back down the slope, making my way towards the southern part of the forest. On previous trips, I had seen a group of May-apples (aka ‘American Mandrake’, Podophyllum peltatum) in the area and made note of their location. When I reached the place, I found that the group had grown into a colony.

IMGP4935

May-apple has an unmistakeable umbrella-shaped, smooth leafy top, inhabiting moist soils along rivers, lakes, and in wetland hollows. The whole plant is poisonous save for the fully ripe fruit, which is soft to the touch. May-apple is considered rare in upper New England.
Unfortunately, none of the fruits I found were ripe.

IMGP4938

Oh well…I’ll come back in a week or two, and by then they might be edible. I decided to head back, this time by a different route, and on either side of the path the dense brush of Mountain Laurel was spotted with beautiful, white flowers.

IMGP4940

These thickets are just the place wild turkeys and deer love to roam, safe from human interlopers. And while the blossoms are dazzling, it should be known that honey made from Mountain Laurel pollen is considered poisonous.

I had quite a wonderful time out – a leisurely 5 mile day hike, and the wet weather mattered not…if anything, it made the trip more enjoyable. I really cannot understand why most people are disgusted on every occasion it rains, choosing to sulk at home or run back to the car. For me, it’s a time for cooling-off, taking a step back, and relaxation.

 

Wild Ginger

Some weeks back I found several Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) plants on sale at a local Agway – I was quite thrilled since I have not found any growing in my area, even though their native range extends down to Georgia and as far west as the Mississippi. My first encounter with Wild Ginger was about a year ago while on a forage-walk with plant guides Nova Kim and Les Hook up in New Hampshire.

IMGP4409

It was found growing on a steep, moist and shady hillside, just where you’d expect to come across it.

I bought one of the plants and took it home with me, deciding that I would introduce it into my local woodland. Hopefully it will flourish over time and start little colonies in the rich soil. There were plenty of suitable places to plant it, but I chose a spot that would conceal it from passers-by while still providing enough moisture for it to thrive.

IMGP4868

And here it lies, beneath a barberry bush, sheltered in a grove of Sweet Birch and Sugar Maple.

You can make Wild Ginger candy by boiling the rhizomes until they are tender and simmering them in a sugar syrup. Alternatively, you can dry the rhizomes and pound them into a ginger powder for seasoning and baking.

My New Kuksa

I am now the very happy owner of a Finnish-made kuksa that I won a few weeks back in a contest hosted by NaturalBushcraft, of which I am a forum member…and what a beauty it is!

IMGP4823

I’m not exactly sure what type of wood it was carved from, but I believe it’s some type of birch. For those who are not familiar, kuksa (also called “guksi” and “kåsan”) is a Finnish traditional wooden cup which has origins with the Saami people. They are quite popular all around Scandinavia, and are now becoming a growing trend amongst outdoor enthusiasts in other parts of Europe as well as Canada and the US.

IMGP4843

I have another kuksa made by Kupilka which has been a faithful companion for nearly a year now, made from recycled pine fibre and plastic. It has a more traditional shape (the finger-hole design was added to kuksa production in order to appeal to tourists, and historical kuksas had a slight lip at the rim in order to keep liquid from spilling out) and is a bit lighter, but I love the feel of this new kuksa…especially since it is all wood. ;)

I know most folks tend to use their kuksas for coffee or tea, but I decided to do things a little differently, cooking up some red quinoa for its first ‘cuppa…yum yum

IMGP4849