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Flintknapping: Even A Caveman Can Do It

From stone to weapon: a primer



Flintknapping is not for the faint of heart. I realized that while looking down at the blood pooling in my dad's hand. The razor-sharp glass shard had sliced the tip of his finger, right through the thick leather glove he was wearing for protection. When he saw the blood, he winced and dropped the coming--to-shape arrowhead to the ground. I went looking for the first aid case.

"That'll happen," said Gabe McDaniel, my arrowhead knapping instructor. In fact, McDaniel prefaced the trip with an e-mail invite that read: "Make sure to bring leather gloves, safety glasses and the willingness to chum with the inevitable bloodletting that knapping entails."

At least he was honest about how the day would pan out.

Flintknapping is the ancient craft of creating tools from stone. The tools used for knapping are basic: A length of copper wire is inserted through the middle of a wooden handle (antler works well, too). Holding the wooden handle in one hand, the stone in the other, the copper wire acts as a pressure-point applicator that, with each stroke, chips or flakes off pieces of rock from the main body of what will become the arrowhead or stone tool.

The size of the copper wire determines the size of the chip: the bigger the wire point, the bigger the chip. It is a reductive process that removes flakes, kind of like chipping away at ice with a pick. The rock is initially shaped with large-gauged wire, then smaller-gauged wire is used for final detail work.

I found out McDaniel, who is a mechanical engineer by trade, is a knapper by accident. I was showing him an arrowhead near my truck in the Owyhees when he suddenly darted to his truck and fetched a wooden box full of knapping equipment. He started explaining the process and showing off some of his beautifully barbaric tools. I was impressed when he cut cleanly through a piece of rawhide with little effort. It was on: I needed to know how to knap. We scheduled a knapping/camping adventure at CJ Strike Reservoir.

Any amorphous rock lacking in a specific crystalline structure will work for knapping--agate, jasper, flint, chert, obsidian or small-grained quartzite--can all be worked into a weapon capable of killing.

The primary principle underlying all knapping is the Hertzian cone, or how the stone breaks when pressure is applied. Imagine a BB going through a plate of glass. On one side is a small hole and on the other is a 100 degree slope creating a much larger hole. Knapping works on the same principle. Apply pressure at a certain angle and the pressure will cause chipping. The trick is finding the angles, imagining them in 3D and then carefully removing stone.

When sections flake off the rock blank they make a popping noise. That noise is actually the breaking of the sound barrier as the fracture travels through the inner core of the material.

"You can almost tell how much experience a person has with knapping by the sound of their flaking," Gabe said. The more consistent, the sound the more likely the person knows what they are doing. "You can tell if they are doing it right without even looking, just by the noise."

My flaking noise was never consistent. McDaniel said if I had to push too hard then I was doing it wrong. The angle of pressure, not the amount of pressure is the critical factor. To knap correctly, the strike point needs to be 130 degrees from where you want the flake to be removed.

Looking down at my ugly oblong hunk of semi-worked stone I was amazed at the precision and grace that must have been used to make stone tools. Knapping is one of the world's oldest traditions. In Idaho, coming across ancient stone work is not uncommon. I have come across Native American artifacts in many areas of the state, the most common being broken obsidian arrowheads, which are what I hope to learn how to replicate.

Apart from historical use in Idaho, the study of stone work also has an excellent Idaho connection. Although he died in 1980, Don Crabtree, a Twin Falls native, is still known as the dean of American flintknappers. His seminal work, An Introduction to Flintworking, is the source for most of today's terminology.

Watching my dad bleed through yet another Band-Aid I thumbed the pages of Crabtree's book familiarizing myself with the basic tools and methods.

"It's so easy a caveman could do it," McDaniel said while tossing a flake of obsidian in my direction.

But I found it exceptionally difficult work that made my hands cramp. I likened it to trying to pinch a quarter with thick gloves in the middle of a snowstorm and nail file the edges smooth.

"What are the keys to learning to knap?" I asked McDaniel, looking down at my broken arrowhead attempt.

Without hesitation McDaniel spouted, "Patience, super glue and Band-Aids."

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