For starters, I spend a lot of time on each knife. I don't cut corners. I do use some modern lapidary equipment on both the blade and the handle, as I explain below, but it's not a quick process. I figure I have roughly ten hours invested in each knife, although I really don't keep track. I do what the situation calls for, and quality takes time. When I started to make stone knives in the late 1990's, knapped knives were a novelty. Now, an online search will lead you to countless examples, and many touristy shops in the western US offer obsidian blade knives. Most have antler or cholla cactus handles, and the craftsmanship runs the gamut from crude to exquisite. These handle materials are a natural fit for a knapped knife, they evoke our traditional-primitive past. It generally takes far less time to make such a knife because nature has done most of the work on the handle. These materials are favored by those cranking out a lot of knapped knives, and the knives are often much less expensive than mine. If you see such a knife that calls to you, and the price is right, go for it. I generally do not make knives with antler handles. The exception is when I team up with a friend who is a master bone carver, but that isn't my normal mode. Most of my knives are entirely my own creations that aren't intended to be traditional per say. I purposely combine ancient and more modern techniques to create something new and unique.
I started flintknapping on New Year's Day, 1993. No, I didn't think it would cure a hangover. At that time, my sister was an archaeology major in college. A fellow at my work was a flintknapper, who could sometimes be seen chipping away during lunch. I told Sis about him, and she expressed an interest in a lesson. He was amenable, but suggested she read D.C. Waldorf's book "The Art of Flintknapping" first. I bought her the book for Christmas, read it myself while she was distracted, and got the feeling that this knapping thing was something I had to try! Paul got me started with an introductory lesson a week later. I caught the bug and started trashing rock at every opportunity. Flintknapping is a challenging pursuit, and there was no such thing as an easy road to proficiency. It's somewhat easier today, with Google, Youtube and other Internet resources, but it is still a challenge to learn. Most of the flintknappers that I know have a strong interest in collecting ancient arrowheads and other artifacts, or they are academically linked to archaeology-anthropology. Not me. While I do have an interest in history, I was attracted to the challenge of flintknapping. I only realized it many years later, but I caught the knapping bug during a lull in my "real" career. After getting through college and a few years of doing what it takes to become established in a competitive career environment, said career was not providing me with the challenges and fulfilment I craved. A few years later the career came good, but flintknapping got me through that stagnant stretch with sanity intact (if somebody who gets their jollies breaking rock can be considered sane!).
Flintknappers in upstate New York (yes, there is more to NY than the city, I live about 200 miles from there) face an additional challenge: a lack of knap-able stone. What we do have is tough stuff. Knappers from other parts call it concrete, generally preceded by a choice four-letter word or three. So knappers from around here are forced to buy stone or drive long distances to get it. While I did make some memorable rock-runs with friends, a LOT of my learning was on glass. Yes, glass. Glass is really just manmade obsidian. Both are at the very top of flake-able material rankings (which doesn't mean they are every knapper's favorite-far from it). Both have no or very slight crystalline structure, other knap-able materials do. This results in flakes running further through the material per the amount of force applied. Unfortunately, common stained glass is too thin to be of use for chipping. I stumbled into a supply of colorful studio light lenses made by Corning Glass in 1938 for the budding color movie industry which were a good thickness. I trashed a lot of colorful history as I learned how to chip blades and arrowheads from these lenses. At the same time, I was buying rough and "spalled" obsidian, but soon realized I could acquire sawn slabs of obsidian around the same thickness as those glass lenses. The shipping costs on the rough and spalls was oppressive, not so the lighter slabs. I got pretty good at turning those slabs in to decent finished pieces and managed to sell enough to largely pay for my hobby. I started to make hafted knives. I was proud of some of those early attempts but was aware they weren't stellar. This was about five or six years after I started flintknapping, and felt it was time to step things up- enter a method known as flake-over-grinding.
Nine months after that first knapping lesson in 1993, I attended my first knap-in (gathering of flintknappers) in western New York (and have attended the Stone Tool Craftsman Show as it is now called every year since and currently serve on its Board of Directors). There were a couple of knives on display there made by Mike Stafford that just blew me away- long, exquisitely flaked agate blades with water buffalo horn handles. These knives seemed light years beyond my abilities at the time. Sometime later I realized Mike and others were using flake-over-grinding to achieve spectacular flake scar patterns. Mike (now Dr. Michael Stafford, PhD and renowned Danish Dagger maker) and a fellow from Texas named Virgil Tonn guided me via phone and mail. Somehow, I scraped together enough cash to buy the minimum amount of equipment needed to take my knapping/knifemaking to the next level.
Flake-over-grinding (FOG) isn't new. Ancient Egyptians, people in what is now Denmark and others employed the technique to help them produce spectacular flaking patterns. The old timers would knap a blade to near completion and then grind the flake scars away by abrading the piece on a stone, likely with some sort of crushed stone as grit- a tedious and time-consuming practice. Modern knappers have the luxury of modern lapidary equipment. We can start with a slab cut with a diamond blade, trim it to shape, and grind in the desired lenticular cross section and flaking platforms on diamond wheels. We then revert to the same flaking techniques employed by the ancient foggers. Some more traditional knappers call FOG "FAKE-over-grinding". For most advanced stone knifemaking applications no other method makes sense. PERIOD. Why? First, by using a sawn slab I can get the precise dimensions and outline of the blade I want, using the color and markings of the stone to best effect, by trimming with a diamond blade and grinding on a diamond wheel. I then grind both faces of the blade to be to a smooth lenticular cross section- kind of like a double-sided cabochon. I'm skipping some detail here, but I also grind in a continuous platform from end to end on both sides of the blade, which allows me to consistently parallel pressure flake a series of long flakes on the face of the blade. I repeat from the other edge (four sides total), and if successful the entire blade will be nicely flaked. I'll have roughly 160-180 such flakes removed per blade, and it only takes one poorly executed flake removal to ruin the piece. Unfortunately that happens, and by focusing on long blades like I do, the risk of failure is higher than it would be for shorter blades, simply because the longer blades require many more flake removals.
A skilled knapper can achieve attractive parallel flaking without FOG, but FOG allows for a cleaner pattern regardless. All flake-able stone has some liquid properties- the flakes are analogous to waves on water. With traditional knapping, multiple series of flakes are removed per edge. With FOG only one series per edge is required (and desired). Picture a glass-calm lake. Send a motorboat on a straight course across the lake surface, and the boat's wake will be smooth and orderly. If the same boat zooms about every which way, the lake surface gets choppy and rough. FOG is like the first example of a straight and orderly wake, more traditional knapping is like the later situation. Some knappers will flake a slab without grinding in the lenticular cross section. They'll run a series of flakes across the flat surface, and then chip in a beveled edge with short flakes. To an experienced eye pieces made this way are easy to spot. The flaking can be skillfully executed but flakes run on a flat surface wander in a noticeable way, and the center of the piece will be, you guessed it; flat. Flakes run over a lenticular surface will be more crisp and precise, if executed properly. It's just physics. Some pieces flaked from a slab but not ground will have the lenticular cross section. This results from the knapper performing multiple series of flake removals. There is nothing wrong with that approach, but the final result won't be as crisp and clean as what can be achieved by FOG. If you can follow that, you can understand why I added the necessary expensive lapidary equipment to my arsenal. Furthermore, I use the same equipment to make my stone handles. Each one of those is designed for a particular blade. Those handles take me a long time to make (there's a LOT more to them than a jewelry cabochon!), but I strive to make a handle that compliments the blade. I want my knives to appeal to the eye, and invest a lot of time and effort to make them that way.
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