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