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EXPERT KNAPPER RICK ADAMS TEACHES THE FINER POINTS OF MAKING KNIVES AND ARROWHEADS

I was conducting a class on how to make arrows the Native American way. Rick Adams, wearing a hand-beaded Billy Jack-style hat, quickly stepped up and helped the other students in some of the fundamentals of how to perform the complex task of straightening the wood shafts, cutting the nocks at both ends, securing the feathers and securing the stone arrowhead.

As I watched Adams, it was clear that he knew his way around primitive technologies. I could tell he was one of the rare ones who know by experience, not by having read about the old skills on the Internet.

After most of the students had made a few arrows, Adams shared with me some of his background and how he learned these skills.

He picked up some of the old skills through contact with members of his wife’s tribe, the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians in California. Adams says he had only gotten interested in the day-to-day crafts all people once took for granted in the last 14 years.

“I used to watch what some of the elders did,” Adams explained, “but I had to do a lot on my own to try to make some of the weapons and tools.”

He can create a functional hunting bow from the branch of a tree and has learned how to make suitable arrows from mulefat shrub shafts or the shafts of any straight wood.

AFTER COMPLETING THE FULL-DAY SEMINAR ON FLINTKNAPPING WITH EARTH SKILLS, ADAMS PRACTICED CONSTANTLY IN HIS BACKYARD USING GLASS BOTTLE BOTTOMS.

Two simple knives made by Adams. Left, a simple flake wrapped with leather for a handle. Right, a small hand knife, also wrapped in leather for a handle.

A selection of flintknapping tools. From left: an Ishi stick, elk-antler flaker, copper-tipped flaker, nail-tipped flakers, two copper boppers, a homemade flaker, nails used for flaking, antlers used for bopping and rocks used for rough flaking.

MAKING ARROWHEADS

I got really interested when Adams started talking about arrowheads and how he learned to make them, as well as stone knives.

He has also gone to some formal wilderness and skills schools such as Earth Skills and Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker School in Santa Cruz, California. Adams points out that taking a class is only the beginning.

“You need to spend as much time as you can, doing all the skills if you want them to become part of you,” he advised. After completing the full-day seminar on flint-knapping with Earth Skills, Adams practiced constantly in his backyard using glass bottle bottoms. Eventually, he sent away for flint, which tended to work a little better. Flint-knapping is all reduction, reduction, reduction, and sometimes, a bucketful of rocks is turned into nothing but “debitage” (that is, the random and mostly useless flakes from knapping).

Adams soon learned about abundant roadside obsidian at a northern California site, so he collected a few bucketsful for practice. He learned to turn out a functional arrow point in a few minutes. However, he has also used flint, chert, glass and other materials. “Always work with what you can collect,” Adams suggested.

YOU NEED TO SPEND AS MUCH TIME AS YOU CAN DOING ALL THE SKILLS IF YOU WANT THEM TO BECOME PART OF YOU …

Student Aiden shows a flint-knapped stone knife.

Protection equipment should include gloves, goggles and leather for protecting the palm of the hand.

THE KNAPPER’S TOOLKIT

On a recent afternoon, I visited Adams in his workshop to get a lesson about flint knapping. He had laid out a large tarp on the ground to capture all the sharp flakes that would be produced. He then set up his chair, laid out his tools and other items that should be included in a knapper’s toolkit:

  • A bucket of obsidian, which is volcanic glass. This is the raw material for making an arrowhead or a small hand knife.
  • A large, round rock for hitting the obsidian so large, flat flakes are created.
  • A “bopper stick,” which can be a heavy copper pipe, a hollow copper pipe filled with lead or something similar. In the old days, this would have been a heavy piece of antler.
  • A flaker that originally would have been an antler tine or a bit of copper put onto a handle. Modern flakers often consist of a nail inserted into an approximately 1-inch-diameter dowel.
  • An “Ishi stick” is a type of flaker, typically a wood dowel of at least a foot in length. This stick is named after Ishi, the so-called “last wild Indian in California,” who used such a device for making his arrowheads. Ishi was fond of using an old nail for his flaker.
  • A roughener, which can be a sanding block or smaller, rough-surfaced rock.
  • Safety equipment: Adams uses goggles and gloves. He also wears a palm protector, which is simply a piece of leather with a hole cut into it for the thumb to go through. He also uses various leather pads to protect his thigh when working.

Rick Adams shows a copper bopper (left) and an antler used for rough flaking.

Percussion flakers. From left: a copper flaker, antler tine, nail-tipped flaker and an Ishi stick.

Adams hits a block of obsidian with a round stone.

Note the pattern of flakes that break off from the main stone.

Adams attempts further reduction with a stone. Unfortunately, this chunk of obsidian eventually broke in two.

A flat flake is produced.

This flake is flat and not wavy in the cross section. It is a good blank from which to make an arrow point.

THE PROCESS

A lot of knappers love obsidian, which is a volcanic glass. When it fractures, the edge is sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel. But it’s also very brittle, and if you cut food items with an obsidian knife, there’s a danger that tiny flakes could break off into the food. For this reason, knappers also use other materials—flint, petrified wood, agate and chert, to name a few.

Adams began with a large chunk of obsidian, making sharp hits on one side with a rock in order to create flakes off the bottom. When obsidian cools after it flows out of a volcano, it actually has a texture or grain. A whack with a rock sometimes produces excellent flat flakes, but not always. It took several whacks before Adams had a flake that was big and flat enough to work further into a knife and an arrow point.

Remember, the art of flint-knapping is reduction, reduction, reduction; and how you do that reduction is everything. So, depending on the way the chunk of obsidian broke, Adams would sometimes switch to his bopper, made from a short piece of thick dowel wood topped with a copper cap that had been filled with lead. He also had boppers made from antlers and some that were hollow copper tubes filled with lead.

Adams turned the piece over and over, studying the direction of the grain. He looked at the blank in his hand and told me where the tip and base would be. He then rubbed the edge with his sanding block and examined the piece again.

Next, he picked up one of his pressure flakers—a thick dowel into which he’d inserted a nail-sized piece of copper. He held the blank in his hand and then pressed onto the edge with the pressure flaker. If he did this just right, a flake would come off the bottom of the blank.

Adams then went all around the edges, reducing more and more, a little here, a little there, always pressing from the top side to remove a flake from the bottom.

One of his pressure flakers was an Ishi stick. Adams used this to remove tiny pieces along the edge of the stone. He continued with this process as the point began to take shape, occasionally abrading the edge with his sanding stone. Holding the little arrowhead in the palm of his gloved left hand, Adams carefully applied pressure to the edge of the stone with the Ishi stick while also carefully pressing the stone upward with his left hand. It is a meticulous, artful act, one that can result in a deep cut to an unprotected hand if either hand slips.

A beginner should understand these principles but will only actually learn by doing, by making mistakes and by continuing until the mistakes are minimized. Obviously, you will use up a lot of raw material, and you might have to endure some cuts and scrapes during the learning process.

In addition, sometimes the flaking works out just fine; other times, it doesn’t. The piece Adams had begun working cracked in two, and although a bit frustrated, he picked up another blank and again began the process of pressure flaking to reduce the blank to a point or knife.

As a by-product of knapping, you produce a lot of very sharp flakes on the ground. Many of these flakes (“debitage”) are incredibly sharp and are functional knives in their own right. In the old days, these simple flakes were sometimes used as-is for certain jobs. We picked up several that were sharp enough to skin a rabbit.

AS I WATCHED ADAMS, IT WAS CLEAR THAT HE KNEW HIS WAY AROUND PRIMITIVE TECHNOLOGIES.

After a bit of work, Adams shows an arrow point in the making.

Fine-shaping with a copper percussion flaker

Roughing the edge with a small sanding block

Fine flaking with a copper percussion flaker

Adams shows a functional point.

The point, with a bit more refinement

Further reduction with a pressure flaker

A STONE KNIFE

Arrowheads are generally about 1 or 1½ inches long, with two sharp edges that come to a point. The bottom corners are often flaked out where the point is attached with sinew to the arrow shaft. They are not designed to be held in the hand.

A knife is just a variation of an arrowhead. A flint knife is typically longer—maybe 3 or 4 inches. It could be knapped so that it can be wrapped onto a handle, similar to the so-called Hoko knife. But for practical, everyday use, the stone knives that were made in the old days were relatively small. They could be worn in a pouch around the neck or wrapped with a turn of leather for its handle.

Adams flaked out a knife to show that the basic principle is the same, except that he focused on one edge, not two, and tried to keep a slightly fatter base to which a handle or leather strap might be attached.

A view of a large obsidian flake breaking off

Percussion flaking using a protector in the glove

Adams breaks off a flake from a chunk of flint.

Note the pattern of flint flaking.

A flat flake with a sharp edge, suitable for a simple knife

Flaking out a simple hand knife

Working a simple hand knife with an Ishi stick

STEP-BY-STEP POINT MAKING

Remember to always wear eye and hand protection, including a leather pad for your hand.

  1. Find suitable material: flint, obsidian, quartz, agate, petrified wood, toilet tanks, etc.
  2. Create a “cliff”—a 90-degree angle in the rock where you can knock off blanks.
  3. Blanks should be flat in the cross section, not curving either way and not too thick.
  4. Reduce the blanks little by little with a pressure flaker until you’ve achieved the desired results.

I greatly appreciated the tutoring Adams gave me in knapping, and I think he’s taken a liking to me: Over the years, he has begun to learn Pomo words from his wife. So far, he has greeted me by calling me “paluchi” (white man) and said goodbye by calling me “bah’tea” (old man). But it is OK; we are friends.

A finished hand knife

The finished hand knife up close

A view of the debitage on the ground after knapping. This underscores the importance of laying down a tarp before beginning work.

A simple hand knife, wrapped with a piece of leather for a handle

REFERENCES

There are many fine resources out there to teach a beginner the fine art of flint knapping. Perhaps the best book on the subject is The Basics of Biface Knapping in the Eastern Fluted Point Tradition: A Manual for Flintknappers and Lithic Analysts, by Errett Callahan (Piltdown Productions). It is fully illustrated and uses specific terminology to define each step of the knapping process. Another excellent book on the subject is Flintknapping: Making & Understanding Stone Tools, by John C. Whittaker. Old Tools, New Eyes, by Bob Patten, is also worth considering.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2017 print issue of
American Survival Guide.