Charcoal production and agave roasting

Some paleotechnics followers will probably  be interested in this turkeysong post about making charcoal for biochar in a simple pit, and then using the residual heat for roasting agave leaves to extract the fibers.

wood in pit burning before and afterroasted agave leavesagave fibers

How long does it take?

manson bill

By Steven Edholm

Yay, winter solstice it here!  That means we can all work more as days get longer!  huh?  “That must be a lot of work”.  “How long does that take?”  These are questions we commonly encounter here at Paleotechnics.  They aren’t always irrelevant questions, but they generally hint at something pervasive, and often destructive, in our society.  The answer is never simple.  The truth is that we usually don’t know, and we usually don’t pay much attention.  The society we live in, and the way we do work, are all about quantifying.  If we work longer, we get paid more.  We walk around constantly judging activity and categorizing it.  There is work, and then there is life, and activity is either leisure, or profit motivated.  Working for acquisition of the symbol called money is particularly conducive to fracturing our lives into parts and assigning different types and amounts of value to them.*

But there are other ways to think about the things we do.  My friend and artist/craftsman/doer/maker Scott McGrath had a bumper sticker made once that said “I’D RATHER BE WORKING”.  Almost anyone who has tackled a big project requiring intense concentration, whether it’s a hobby or for money work, knows the feeling of losing perception of time for a while.  I experience that feeling quite a bit.  Whether I’m cracking walnuts, tying sage bundles, or paring artichokes to make canned artichoke hearts, I look up after a while and realize I was in a mode in which time didn’t matter.  As long as you don’t need that time for something else, why keep track at all?  And who cares how long it takes?  But we are conditioned to constantly judge activities and value some over others.  We have come to have a strange relationship with what we call “work” and are also constantly encouraged to relish and enjoy our leisure.  But, if you live passionately and work to get things which are important in your larger scheme done, those lines begin to blur.

There are plenty of jobs I don’t totally relish, but I find that if the things I do are generally in line with my overarching passions, interests and goals, and I’m feeling relatively healthy, then labor is a pleasure.  And that labor of some kind, big or small, is what I want to be doing with most of my time, and what makes me feel good.  Meaningful work is one of the cornerstones of a satisfying existence.

The social and media forces that influence us are very powerful.  I don’t want to minimize them, and I don’t want to ignore the fact that we do what we do largely because of who we are and how and where we find ourselves.  But in a very real way, no one forces you to take a job you don’t like, or live life in a certain way.  You don’t have to live the way other people do, hold their values, or possess the things they possess.  You don’t have to spend your leisure time like other people do.  You don’t have to “relax”, or “party”, or do “nothing” when you are not working.  And you don’t have to divide your life strictly into work and leisure activities.  “Work” is life, just like everything else.  Some of it is enjoyable and some of it isn’t.  But we don’t always necessarily have to judge it and categorize it ahead of our actual experience of it. Read the full post »

Tetrahedron, Tetrashmeedron: Quest for the ultimate fire model

tetrahedron my butt header, fireBy Steven Edholm

“Ultimately, I think that where all of this analysis leads to is that…”

When I began writing the post,  There’s More to Fire Than Heat, Fuel and Oxygen (or, Fire Exists Within a Sphere of Changing and Interdependent Circumstances),  I wanted a basic model to represent fire.  There is actually already a model commonly used to represent fire known as the tetrahedron of fire.  It consists of a tetrahedron of course, which is a pyramid with 3 sides and a bottom.  The three sides represent one each of HEAT, FUEL and OXYGEN.  The bottom of the pyramid represents the circumstances under which those three elements interact and is commonly referred to as a chain reaction.  The common explanation of the tetrahedron is that if you remove any one of the factors represented by the four sides, the fire ceases, which is true.  I have never felt comfortable with this common model, and indeed part of the impetus for writing that first article was to emphasize the importance, to my way of thinking, of the circumstances which allow, inhibit, and shape the character of, a fire; In other words, to draw what I feel is rightful attention to the bottom of the pyramid.  What I ended up writing instead, or before I got to my point, was the epic analysis that follows!  I decided that I better just cut it out and use it somewhere else.  Lucky you.

thanks Catawba Community College

thanks Catawba Community College

Read the full post »

Roasting Bay Nuts in a Popcorn Popper

roast bay nuts header

By Steven Edholm

NOTE:  Bay nuts must be properly roasted to be edible to humans.  In spite of our best efforts to the contrary, we still commonly encounter people who are not roasting their bay nuts properly.  Most commonly, the nuts are not dried before roasting.  The second most common problem is roasting too cool.  The toxicity of unroasted bay nuts is unknown, but they are probably not good for you.  A tickling irritation in the back of the throat, almost like a burning sensation, is indicative of inadequate roasting.  Please read and follow directions.)

Bay nut season is early this year.  I usually find myself harvesting them around thanksgiving, but they’re dropping all over the place and have been for a while.  Roasting bay nuts in an oven is tricky.  They require very frequent stirring and because it is only practical to stir the nuts every 2 to 3 minutes, they often roast unevenly.  It has always been my feeling that the nuts should be kept in more or less continuous motion in order to roast more evenly, just as when roasting coffee.  I’ve even thought about approaching a coffee roasting company to see if I could try using their equipment, or maybe  building some type of makeshift roaster that would keep the beans moving constantly.

Last year we acquired a popcorn popper here at Turkeysong for roasting coffee beans.  This is the type with a crank handle on top and a wire inside that stirs the popcorn.  They work really great for popcorn and roasting coffee beans.  I’ve used it a number of times now to roast bay nuts, and it seems to work really well.  At this point I’m fairly well convinced that it works better than the oven.  A reader also contacted us recently saying that he has been using one too and liked the results, so I think we’re all on to something. Read the full post »

Antler v.s. Bone: A contest of context.

By Steven Edholm

We like to see things as black and white, good or bad, better and worse.  It helps us function in daily life where we need to make fast judgements or live on cruise control without having to over analyze everything.  But it is also a trap that can limit us and cause us to do really dumb stuff.  It helps to look at things in context.  We can pit antler against bone to see which one is better for tools and such, but the victor will be dependent on circumstance and what it is that we are trying to accomplish, rather than on more arbitrary grounds.  Both Tamara and I have largely gravitated toward espousing and detailing the qualities of materials as a way to view paleotechnics.  While our feeble minds may gravitate toward one or the other as superior, redwood is not oak, soapstone is not jade, antler is not bone, and none is superior to the other except in the context of specific uses.  Bury an oak fencepost and it will probably fall over in 5 to 10 years, where redwood may last for 50 or much more.  Make a bow out of redwood heartwood, but in spite of your best design efforts, it’s just going to be kind of lame.

Some bone and anlter objects.  The hoop in the center is elk antler thinned by scraping with stone flakes.  Bottom is a bone handle for a dry hide scraper of chert stone.  top right is a handle for a stone scraper with relief carving.  top left, is an antler pressure flaker bound to a wooden handle.  All of these items are made with primitive processes.

Some bone and antler objects. The hoop in the center is a choker made of an elk antler section thinned by scraping with stone flakes.  It would not stay round because one end was from near the base where the antler is much more dense.  After thinning and boiling repeatedly, it finally lost it’s flexibility and broke, probably from loss of collagen.  Too bad, it was a really cool and a lot of work.  But then, you get to learn from my mistakes, which makes me happy.  Lessons learned, cut an item like this from antler of uniform character and don’t boil antler too much.  Bottom is a bone handle for a dry hide scraper of chert would be better differently shaped of elk antler.  Top right is a handle for a stone scraper with relief carving. top left, is an antler pressure stone flaking tool bound to a wooden handle.  middle right, an ulna bone awl and a bone arrowhead hafted to a wooden shaft.   All of these items are made with primitive processes.

Bone and antler are similar materials.  The qualities of both can vary quite a bit, but they are still very different.  bone can be more or less flexible depending on many factors, like what part of the animal, what species, age etc.. but antler is, by it’s nature, generally tougher and more flexible than bone.  Some uses of these two materials will overlap, while for others, one is clearly superior to the other.  Keep these thoughts in mind as I’m speaking in generalities here. Read the full post »

Fire Chess: A fire learning game

firechess header One night at Glass Buttes Oregon (or day, or something in between), I was sitting by a fire with Tamara, Margaret Mathewson and Jim Riggs.  I’m sure there were other people there too, but I remember those guys for sure.  The fire, and how it was or wasn’t being managed, was a common topic in those days.  All of us were inclined to be geeky about fire, and we all used it enough to have a strong working knowledge.  We were observant and critical when someone added wood or adjusted the fire.  As fire enthusiasts, that kind of geekery was our idea of fun, but it was also serious to us.  Like if you put a bunch of chefs together and they’d be eyeing each other cooking and saying like “dude, that’s too much anchovy” and stuff like that.  It was all good humored, but this wasn’t just “lets geek out and be funny and nerdy”, it’s what we did.  And if you do something a lot and are good at it, you care, you notice details and you develop opinions.  None of us wanted to sit around in the smoke, or be cold, so the fire should be done right.  It was the focus of camp life and not to be accepted in just any old state that it happened to be found in.  Fire does not tend itself all that well, and tending is a matter in which attention to detail yields great returns in results.  Inattention, on the other hand, generally leads to discomfort, annoyance, cold food, burnt food, tearing eyes, cold butts or moving of chairs closer and farther from the fire.

So anyway, we were all sitting around flicking each other crap about where the wood should be put and how, and what about that smoking end there, or Jim with his “upward focus” and me with my parallel fuels, and fire chess was born.  Someone was probably like Ok, that’s fine I guess, but If you do it this way that smoking end is dealt with.  And someone else was like hey, it’s my turn, and eventually it coalesced into a set of simple rules.  Each person gets a turn in rounds to either add a piece of fuel, or make one adjustment.  After each move everyone else analyzes the move and makes comments.  We thought that was fun for a while and used to play it occasionally when nothing else was going on and we were sitting around the fire, which was fairly often. Read the full post »

Hide Glue Part II: Glue making, the basic essentials

about hide glue headerBy Steven Edholm

Making hide glue, is well within the reach of anyone with access to the necessary materials, and is a great addition to your skill set.  In part one I discussed hide glue in general, what it is, and some of it’s strengths and weaknesses.  This article is a combination of personal experience and research into technical aspects of glue making.  Like most people,  I started my glue making career boiling down hide shavings and stray hock skins, without any further preparation.  Glue strong enough for many uses can be made with little care and marginal materials, but over time and with the input of  glue making professionals of the 19th and early 20th century, I found that a little care goes a long way toward making stronger, prettier and better smelling, glue   Here are the most important basic concepts and steps in making very high quality hide glue.

hide glue cube macro

Clarity is a good sign. opaque glue is not necessarily bad glue, but clear glue generally indicates that care was taken in processing.

Common materials for glue making are:  Skin (including fish skins), fish air bladders, sinew scraps, and antler.  (Bone can be used to make a glue, but it is harder to make and inferior to glue from the sources we’ll be talking about.) Read the full post »

Hide Glue part I : Meet Hide Glue

about hide glue headerThis is the first part in what will hopefully be a two or three, or even four, part series on Hide Glue.  Very few people are making really high quality glue these days.  The plan is to provide a solid introduction with practical steps to making high quality glue, and to cover the basics of using it.  Following posts will have to wait for time, energy and pictures.  You can subscribe on the right to receive notification of new posts via email so you don’t have to stay glued to your screen.

Collagen Glue, aka hide glue or animal glue, is made from the parts of animal bodies which contain large amounts of collagen.  Collagen is abundant in animal bodies, but certain parts are highly concentrated sources of relatively pure collagen of the type useful for making glue.  Commonly used glue materials are skin (including fish skins), sinews (the fibers which connect bones to muscles) and antler.  Fish air bladders have been used to make an especially strong glue.  The common practice of using skin scraps to make glue has given us the term Hide Glue, which is generally used for all collagen glues regardless of the raw material used to produce it.  The materials are cooked long and slow to dissolve the collagen, followed by drying the resulting gelatin which is then reconstituted in water as needed.

There is a misunderstanding that glue is made from hooves.  The horny outer covering of hooves does not contain useful collagen.  Hoof sheaths and horns are more physiologically related to hair and are primarily composed of keratin which does not go into solution when cooked in water.  The bones and ligaments inside the hoof do contain a lot of collagen and have commonly been used to by glue boilers to make glue and neatsfoot oil.  Making glue from the whole lower legs is not generally a good choice for home producers due to contamination from fats and other unwanted substances.  If you try to make glue from the hoof sheath itself, it won’t work.  I know, I’ve tried.  Instead, I recommend extracting some of the glue making parts from the lower legs and feet and then using just those, but that is for another post. Read the full post »

The Most Common Bark Tanning Mistakes: Pitfalls to avoid on your way to beautiful leather!

grain header

By Steven Edholm

Hey!, the Buckeye Gathering barktanning class is coming up and I have bark on the brain.  This article is going to be awesome.  A lot of people ask my advice on barktanning and I see the same mistakes made over and over again.  I can help, because I’ve made them all too (and still sometimes do), so I know whereof I speak!  So listen up fledgling barktanners, because we can save you a lot of frustration, heartbreak and WTF moments.

Procrastination:  This is a common mistake in tanning in general.  I still do it all the time, unfortunately, but I shouldn’t and you shouldn’t either.  Bark tanning is more forgiving than some other types of tanning because some of the solutions the hide is put into can be preservative to a degree, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to keep putting off what needs doing.  The solutions used in liming and tanning are not foolproof and will not preserve the skin indefinitely, so try not to use their limited preservative power as an excuse for procrastination.  good luck with that.

procrastination can lead to problems such as this damaged grain, which has lifted from the main body of the skin.

procrastination can lead to problems such as this damaged grain, which has lifted from the main body of the skin.

Read the full post »

Bending Wood: what you need to know

By Steven Edholm

Bending wood is a useful, and sometimes necessary skill.  In this post I am going to present a few pieces of information which are key to successful wood bending of any kind, paleo or otherwise.  The most common need for bending wood in paleotechnology is for straightening wildcrafted shafting such as arrow shafts, hand drills and atlatl darts.  There are, however, many other uses for a straight stick.  There are also plenty of uses for curved sticks, such as in the making of hoops and basket rims.  Wood bending can be dropped neatly into the skill set of anyone who can internalize the following ideas.

*Wet (or green) wood bends more easily than dry wood.
Living wood requires a degree of flexibility to adapt to it’s environment, so green or wet wood is naturally flexible.  Also, if the wood is heated to assist in bending, the heat will spread more rapidly into moist wood than it will in dry wood.  Some items can be bent while green, or after soaking, without any heating.

Green wood bends easily as demonstrated in these heart shaped apple tree grafts.

Green wood bends easily as demonstrated in these heart shaped apple tree grafts at Turkeysong.

Read the full post »