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Campsite Crafting 02: Primitive Tools

Posted by on 2011/04/07

Requirements:  Fire, Knife, Rope
Materials: Wood, Stone

“Instead of trying to cover the whole world with leather, put on some sandals.” Shantideva

Now that you know how to light a fire and make rope, you’re almost a technological wizard. Pretty soon you’ll be building laser guns and electric ninja openers. These early steps on the road to asserting our technological advantage over the limitations of our environment are the most important steps you’ll take.

We’re going to have to scramble through the technological ages of man in order to develop the kinds of tools that are going to benefit us the most, so these simple, stoneage tools aren’t meant to works of masterful craftsmanship, but rungs on a ladder that’s going to get us out from under our own uselessness.

Collectively, as humans, we have all this knowledge and technology, complex science and chemistry, engineering and fabrication, all these marvels and achievements… but if one of us was shipwrecked on a desert island, or lost in the woods, or launched back in time a couple thousand years, how much of that collective intelligence would we actually be able to employ?   Yeah, we’d know to boil water, to be as sanitary as possible to ward off disease, but it’s not like the average modern transplant can whip up an automobile, or build a handgun from scratch, or make penicillin.   All that development that we’ve undergone as members of the human race is lost the second we’re separated from the group.

We’re going to learn to make three primitive tools that are going to allow us to climb to the next rung of the technological ladder:  Axe, Shovel, and  pick.  But first: Found stone tools –

Found Tools: You’re going to get a lot of use out of wedge shaped stones.  So start collecting wedges of any size to store at your campsite.  You won’t need to keep them long, just until we get to metalwork, when they can be replaced. While there’s a whole web community that loves making tools out flint, knives and axes and such… While that’s great, our goal is to get to metal working, so let’s not waste too much time making stone age shit.

The Axe: Yeah, you may have a knife, but when the time comes to harvest any significant quantity of wood, you’ll need an axe.   The stone axe was employed by our ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago, and they survived long enough to turn into us.   Making a stone axe will save your knife a lot of unnecessary wear, as it will be used for the very demanding activity of hacking wood apart.  A stone axe wont last very long, but we’ll eventually be making steel, so don’t worry.

First, you’ll need to find a hammerstone. A hammerstone is exactly what you think it is, a heavy, strong rock that you’re going to use to chip away your axe head.   You can tell if a stone is strong by the size of the grain, the finer the grain, typically, the sturdier the tool.  Your hammerstone should be rounded and oblong, egg shaped works fairly well.  You should be able to grip it in one hand, and it should be strong enough to survive some pretty hard smacks.

Now you need your axe head.  I’ll name some stones types but it probably won’t mean anything to you: Basalt, Granite, Quartzite; these are the ideal materials.  Granite is a composite fine grained rock you’re probably familiar with, it appears in a wide range of colors and contains some quartz which may manifest as lustrous speckles or not. Basalt is a rough looking grey/black fine-grained stone that may be speckled with lighter grains or it may be porous, the name comes from a latin word that literally means ‘very hard stone’. Quartzite is a very hard sandstone cemented by time and pressure, containing high amounts of quartz crystals.

Ideally, you’ll find a stone that already has an axe-head shape to it. It’s got to be tough enough to chop would, so smack it a few times with the hammer stone, if it doesn’t fracture, you’re off to a good start.

Before we get into technique, I want to mention flint quickly –  Flint is awesome for stone tools.  Flint will fracture in small chips, but is a strong rock that can be ‘knapped’ to a sharp edge. For stonework, flint is good for chipping stone, and stone is good for chipping flint.  Flint is easy to work with, and will ‘flake’ predictably when pressured, making it an amazing material for making blades and tools.

Pecking: Shaping your axehead is a long and tedious process called pecking. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Use your hammerstone to peck away at the axe head; every impact will dislodge a tiny bit of grain.  It may help to wet the stone first.  This process takes a long fucking time.

Grinding: If you’ve got access to sandstone, you can speed the process along by using the sandstone as a grind-stone.  Again, water helps a little, and the process is still long and tedious.

When your edge is a convex taper, you’re good.  Its going to be difficult to actually get a sharp edge, but keep at it, and it will happen.

Axe Handle: There are a couple different ways to connect your axe to the handle, they all suck.

Bore –  In order for this, best, method to work, your axe head should be tapered in shape, wide at and flat at the blade, round and narrow at the back.  You’ll need to find a handle-length piece of wood that is twice the thickness at it’s fat end as your axe head.  Using your knife, or sharpened stone, you’ll want to bore a hole in a piece of wood large enough to force the back end of your axe head through.  Be careful not to split the wood.  Lash your axehead to the handle with some cordage to help secure it.   You’ll break handles before you break your axe head.

Fork- Less stable, but much faster; by finding a thick, strong piece of wood with a fork which complements the shape of your axehead, or a crook into which your axehead can be lodged.  Again, we’re going to lash it in place with cordage.  This construction is far less stable, and risky to use, as a missed strike could dislodge the axehead and send it flying.   You could also carve a fork into a sufficiently thick ended log, its easier than boring a hole, but not as sturdy.


The shovel.  A combination of a wedge and a lever, the shovel is useful for making shelters, gathering raw materials, basic firecraft, and trapping large prey.  Now, we’re all familiar with the standard wood and steel shovels that you can buy for $12 at a garden supply store, and those are pinnacle of shovel technology; but unfortunately, we didn’t bring one with us, so we’re going to have to make a substitute.

There are two functional tools that we can make here, a wooden shovel, or a flint/stone hoe-
In a pinch, you can use your axe blade as a hoe, but that’s also a good way to ruin it.   You can chip a hoe blade out of flint pretty easily, as you’re not going for the same level of uniformity as an axe blade, lashing it to a long stick works for a handle as well, because it’s not going to face the level of impact that your axe will.

The wooden shovel, however is pretty tricky.   For digging loose earth, you can make a paddle style shovel, using a wide flat blade lashed to a staff; but for actually digging holes, you’ll need some craftsmanship and some luck.  First, you’ll need to find a wide log; then you’ll want to take one of your wedge stones and use your hammerstone to split it down the grain.  Hopefully it will split well and you’ll have two semi-circular halves.  Use some wedge stones, your knife, or your axe, to flatten it out so you have a perfect semi circle.  Ideally we’re going to make the shovel and some of the handle (if not all of it) out of one piece.

Until we get some more sophisticated tools, we’re going to be stuck with chipping and hacking.   A shovel consists of a bowl, a neck, and a handle.  Your bowl and neck should be like your cankles, a seamless taper leading to your foot.  The neck needs to be linebacker thick, because we haven’t got the tools to reinforce it.     Anyway, mark out your bowl and your neck with some char from your firepit, and using your wedges, axe, and knife, start working off all the wood that isn’t part of your shovel.  Don’t try to get fancy, a flat bowl will work fine, you don’t need to carve a scoop shape… but if you’re feeling brassy, go ahead and do it.  Work from the outside in.

The neck, where the bowl meets the handle, is crucial.  You want a strong triangular taper, leave it thicker than you think you need, to be safe, if it snaps close to the bowl, you’re going to kill yourself trying to improvise a repair.  You can extend your handle by lashing it, but the longer your ‘one piece’ handle is, the stronger that lashing is going to be.

Don’t make your blade/bowl too thin either, for obvious reasons.  It’s not steel, it’s going to be thick or it’s going to break, maybe both. Use it carefully, feel it out for stress points, and keep an eye on them.  Work slowly when digging with your wooden shovel, you want it to make it to the end of your project, which consequently, will be to make you some better tools.


A pick is going to be used for breaking up stubborn earth so it can be dug with your shovel.  A pick is pretty easy, find a big wedge stone, a strong one, that won’t crack easily, and lash it tightly to a strong handle.  Flint works, so does basalt or granite. You’ll need this tool so you don’t wreck your shitty wooden shovel on rocks and hard clay.

Anyway; this is stuff you would have probably figured out on your own; so no need to dwell on it.

Next, we’ll find a use for these tools.



2 Responses to Campsite Crafting 02: Primitive Tools

  1. TEX MAY

    Can I get this via an RSS feed?

  2. chance

    I’ll look into that.

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