9: getting a handle

Using the measurements from The Man in the Ice, I cut some small pieces of birch to shape into the handles for the flint knife and the antler-tip flint retoucher tool. Time to bust out the slöjd knife and get crafty.

The knife handle has two indentations, one for an attachment dongle and one for wrapping the blade tight.

The book describes the knife handle as a "rounded rectangle", which was an easy shape to get. In hindsight it may have been easier to leave the branch whole while carving - it's tricky to get a good grip on a piece of wood so small.

Quick and easy! The handle is only just big enough to fit in my hand, but after looking at some videos on how to properly use a flint tool, the smallness of the handle makes sense. Flint doesn't cut like a steel knife because the blade is much wider and the teeth are much bigger, so it is used more like a bread knife, a rasp, or a saw. The tool is held not like a modern knife but with the butt of the handle in the palm of the hand. Using it this way, the size is just right.

I don't yet have a knife blade for it - tricky business, flintknapping, and I've only taken one class a few years ago here at North House. (Secret: at the time of writing, I'm in the promo photos for this class! Look for the guy with the bald spot who, against all common sense, is wearing sandals while spraying blade edges all over the floor).

I sawed a small opening for the blade. I believe Ötzi attached the blade with some sinew, which I don't think I'll have access to, but I can try to do an acceptable job with the artificial stuff and some natural fibers.

Above: first tries at flintknapping after a long hiatus. Results are amateurish but promising.

The shape of the retoucher is a bit more complex, but is still a dead-simple carving project. The retoucher is more of a pencil shape, rounded into a circle and tapered at the point.

After a short meeting with Mike Schelmeske - known by former interns as the Slöjd Fairy - I asked him if he had access to an antler tip I could use for my project. As is his way, he showed up the next day with a box of reindeer, whitetail, and moose antlers. Ancestors bless this man.

I chose a small whitetail deer antler tip to cut and sand down to the rounded shape needed for the retoucher. This turned out to be a mistake - I should have chosen a fatter tip, maybe from the moose. You'll see why.

The tip is rounded but the other end has a long taper in order to fit tight into the handle. Holding it up to the image, it matched almost exactly. Nice. I used a bandsaw to cut the tip and a circular sander to take it down to the right shape. The hot antler dust from the sander smelled like burning hair. Not nice.

I also cut and sanded a longer antler tip for a secret bonus project, based on the tools I saw in the video I linked above about using a flint blade to cut a handle. This tip was pointier and ended up a much better tool.

Like I said, the handle ended up being fairly simple, but an excellent excuse to use my slöjdy green woodworking skills of rounding a rectangle, also known as squaring the circle, a lovely small exercise in alchemical geometry.

The idea is to get the right dimensions while keeping the piece as a rectangular prism, then cutting down the 90 degree edges into an octagon, then cutting down those edges, until you end up with an evenly-circularized shape. If, instead, you simply start rounding out edges at random, a nice even circle will never appear.

What a lovely octagonal prism!

Rounded and notched, it looks quite nice. Like the knife handle, the notch will hold a small rope to attach the tool to the belt.

I chose to use a tapered drill bit to better match the antler shape - we won't be using any birch tar or other glue, so it's gotta fit in tight.

Tricky to hold and drill at the same time. I ended up putting the drill bit into a screwdriver handle so I had more control over the teeny piece as I drilled the hole.

Extremely snug! I had to push it into my desk to seat the tip in further. This is where I discovered my error: I had sanded it too much, and exposed the soft pith of the antler. That means it will wear very quickly and not be much good for flintknapping.

Unfortunately, it looks gorgeous, so I had to take a glamour shot.

Who knew a stone age pencil could look so good?

I'll have to muscle out the soft tip and replace it, but for now, I finished the handle with good old walnut oil and set it aside to dry.

The secret bonus project! This piece is sanded correctly and is very hard at the tip. The length gives it a lot of leverage and it can be used as a primary or secondary pressure flaker.

If my understanding is correct, a primary flaker is used to strike the piece of flint being worked, while a secondary flaker is set against the flint but struck by another tool - likely a big rock or a rounded moose antler. In this way, the precision of this small tip can be used in conjuction with the force of a larger tool.

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