Taking a knap

I attended the JOMO knap-in yesterday and had an amazing time. The flintknapping skill of the people there (as well as their friendliness and willingness to help a newcomer) really impressed me.

When I got there I met Diana Benson, who runs the Missouri Trading Company. She set me up with some tools and materials to use: a billet, a pressure flaker, some leather, and a chunk of stone. Then she introduced me to Gary who took time from working on a beautiful point he had in his hands to help me figure out how to chip the stone.

I have read before about flintknapping and felt completely lost in trying to understand the process. Some of the terms do make a little sense if you have never actually handled stone, but some of them I could only fully grasp with someone showing them to me with the stone and billet in my hand.

“There’s an arrowhead in this stone, and you’ve got to get rid of everything that ain’t the arrowhead.”

By the end of the day, I had two pretty little points to take home from the piece of Keokuk Burlington chert that I had worked on. I did as much reduction on the stone as I could figure out how to do. As Gary explained to me: “There’s an arrowhead in this stone, and you’ve got to get rid of everything that ain’t the arrowhead.” Learning where to hit, examining the “ridges” and “platforms” that you create along the stone as you go, striking the platform with (hopefully) the right amount of force at the right angle to chip off the kind of flake you want–it involves an immense amount of constant analysis and familiarity with the stone, the tools, and your own body. As I went, I began to understand how things should work — even if they didn’t turn out that way every time I swung the billet.

After Gary left, another fellow named James Howell took me under his wing. I had taken a lot of mass off the piece of stone, but I didn’t know how to manage the finer chipping necessary once the stone got smaller and closer to the size and shape of the finished arrowhead. James demonstrated his amazing ability to analyze the ridges and create platforms to chip from. He used the billet with such an amazing degree of dexterity — something I hope my hands will know how to do someday.

Then the stone got to the size where we needed to use “pressure flaking” to continue to shape it. I watched James wield his tool — explaining every move to me as he made it — and marveled at his relationship with the stone and tools. It didn’t take very long for him to take my unwieldy chunk of stone that I had hammered into an ugly shape and turn it into a beautiful little arrowhead. He also found one of the flakes we had knocked off the stone in its larger stage and turned that little flake into another point.

The pressure flaking amazed me because I could see how someone could use that technique to shape blades from a smaller piece of material — like common glass. I have often heard of people making arrowheads from the bottoms of beer bottles or fiber optic glass, and now I had seen the techniques one would use to do such a thing.

I can’t wait to try out the skills I witnessed for myself. I highly expect to suck at it for quite a while, but even in the short time that I worked on a stone yesterday, I could feel the understanding develop in my mind. A certain dynamic exists concerning the nature of the stone and its ability to fracture. You just have to learn how to make the fractures happen where you want them to. Easier said than done, by far. But watching such skilled hands work has given me hope for the potential skill of my own hands.

I plan attending more of the JOMO gatherings and learning from the masters across the border in Missouri. I discovered that many of them also have amazing skills at crafting bows and arrows, atlatls and darts, natural cordage bowstrings, herbology, butchery, tracking, and more. Rest assured, my new friends north of the border, I look forward to many discussions on all these subjects.


  • James Howell, the knapper that crafted the points in the picture above will have a booth set up at the Prairie Grove Clothesline Fair on Labor Day weekend (September 1 – 3).
  • Jim Spears, another one of the fellows I met there has some work on display at the Shiloh Museum in Springdale.

10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Andrew Jensen on 08/28/2007 at 8:04 am

    I would absolutely love to go to this. Isn’t it frustrating that in order to find other rewilders and learn the skills, one usually needs a car?


  2. Posted by Rix on 08/28/2007 at 8:09 am

    I feel your frustration. I have a car, but have a limited range and limited time. I would love to meet you for some parkour, but… you know: time and distance.

    I’ll ask around with these guys next time I see them and see if they know of anybody up near you. You live in the St. Louis area, right?


  3. Posted by Andrew Jensen on 08/28/2007 at 2:55 pm

    Yup. University City, specifically.


  4. I’m headed to the Flint Ridge Knap-In in Ohio this weekend. I believe it is supposed to be one of the biggest gatherings in the country. I plan to buy a bunch of rock to last me for awhile. Hopefully I’ll make some decent pieces too. I’m still a beginner but get better every time I work on it.


  5. Posted by Rix on 08/30/2007 at 3:10 pm

    I’m still a beginner but get better every time I work on it.

    It definitely seems like the only cure for sub-par knapping is more knapping. I need both tools and materials, and I just don’t have the dough for either right now.

    I think I could get set up with a medium copper bopper and pressure flaker for under $30, but then I would need stone, too. I may just try to make a pressure flaker with some copper grounding wire for now and try to knap some bottle bottoms. If I can get ahold of something to work as a billet, then I may try to find some busted up toilets to practice percussion flaking.

    Resources on how to knap porcelain and glass:
    Porcelain – I found this post over at the PaleoPlanet forums that shows how to knap using toilet porcelain (aka Johnstone). It also does a really good job of walking you through how to zig-zag your way around a blank using the platforms you create as you go. Plus you can see the poster’s thought process on how he intends to get flakes that work with the ridges.
    Glass – I also found this article (mentioned in my post above) about how to pressure flake a point out of glass from a bottle bottom.

    Resources on making your own tools:
    • Make your own pressure flaker.
    • Make your own copper bopper billet.
    • See some tools that folks on the PaleoPlanet forums use.


  6. Hi Rix I received your comment on my blog. No, I’m not from Missouri but I like to camp out at Truman Lake State Park for a few weeks any time I get a chance. The chert around the lake is Burlington and there are tons of it laying around the lake shore. I usually take a canoe and cruise the shores. I’ve found some nice chunks in the 40 to 50 pound range. I work it raw (tough job to do!) but it is heat treatable. The few pieces I heat treated came out a real nice pink and worked easily. Thanks for the invite to JOMO. I will attend if I’m in the area at the right time. Ron


  7. Posted by Rix on 09/05/2007 at 2:52 pm

    Thanks for the info, Ron! Sounds like I need to make a trip up to Truman Lake some time.


  8. […] Labor Day.  I found James Howell and another one of the fellows (named John) that I met at JOMO.  They had a tarp stretched out under the shade of a hickory tree next to a booth that sold […]


  9. Posted by Rix on 09/11/2007 at 4:19 pm

    Here’s another post at PaleoPlanet that deals with making your own copper boppers: MAKING COPPER BOPPER


  10. Posted by Dark-Star on 10/29/2009 at 8:41 pm

    FYI, the link for the beer-bottle work is dead, Yahoo shut down Geocities for good this week.


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