A Review of Tanning, Leatherworking and Skin Related Books in My Collection

Below are Tanning and skin working related books collected by myself and Tamara Wilder over the years.  The video version talks about these books and a little history and such.  Some of them are broadly recommended, and some are only for people with certain specific interests.

Many, many books on Tanning, Glue Making and Leather working that are not listed here are available as free downloads from the Downloads page, SkillCult.com/freestuff

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Buckskin, The Ancient Art of braintanning, Steven Edholm and Tamara Wilder, 1997: 

The book I wrote with Tamara Wilder in 1997.  From what I've seen, it is probably the longest and most detailed book on home tanning to date, especially considering it's focus.  As of writing this, it is currently out of print with plans to revise and re-print in digital and print forms.  Covers wetscrape braintanning, with some satellite subjects like sharpening and dyeing buckskin with natural materials.  If you've read it, please consider leaving a review on Amazon.


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Deerskins Into Buckskins, Matt Richards, 1997: 

Published the same year as our book, this one also covers the wetscrape method, but focused on bucking, which is using alkali to soak the hide instead of water.  It is the best, if not only, book reference for that technique.  There is also a companion DVD.


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Traditional Tanning Leather and Furskin, Lotta Rahme, 2014:

This would probably be my number one recommendation of a book on general tanning covering a lot of ground and many methods.  It has lots of anecdotes and tidbits on traditional tanning from various parts of the world, and good basic information on tanning chemistry and theory.  If a person were interested in braintanning primarily, they should get a book on that subject.  This may be currently the best single book reference for vegetable (bark) tanning.  Lotta is an experienced, small production tanner, with her own micro-tannery, so she has real insight, skill and knowledge to offer.


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Fish Leather Tanning and Sewing, Lotta Rahme, 2006: 

Lotta's cool book on tanning fish skins.  This is a popular subject.  I keep hearing about and seeing more and more fish leather. Much of the information is also contained in her general leather tanning book, but there is also a lot of information specific to fish skin and various species of fish, though they seem largely to be species from her part of the world, Sweden.


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Blue Mountain Buckskin, Jim Riggs: 

My teacher and teacher of my teacher Jim Riggs.  Jim was largely responsible for disseminating braintanning knowledge, having learned from his teacher Buckskin Slim Scheafer, who's book is below.  This is the best all around reference on dry scrape braintanning.  Fun, thorough and insightful.  #1 recommendation for a book on dry scrape braintanning.

Jim died last year.  He was friend and mentor many and had a profound and enduring effect on the primitive skills movement.  Many people's live took radically different directions because of either contact with Jim, or with others infected with his knowledge and philosophy.  My buckskin book contains much of Jim and would not exist without him.  Blue Mountain Buckskin is an enduring slice of Jim in the best way.

Tribute page for Jim Riggs: https://www.facebook.com/pg/jimriggsmemories/community/


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The Tanning Spirit video, Melvin Beatty, click here to watch:

Mel is one of the best tanners I know to this day and has always produced the best quality wetscrape buckskin.  His tips helped me get to producing better wetscrape buckskin.  You can watch his video on the subject on youtube now.

Also visit mel at the following.  He posts tips and experience on braintanning at his facebook page.

www.Braintanbuckskin.com

And Facebook as BraintanBuckskin


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The Indian Art of Tanning Buckskin
"Buckskin Slim" Schaefer, 1973

Jim Rigg's teacher Slim wrote this book at Jim's urging.  It was published the same year as Larry Belitz' book, Brain Tanning the Sioux Way, those being the first two books specific to braintanning that I know of.  This book is out of print, but they show up on ebay and elsewhere now and again at not unreasonable prices.


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Brain Tanning the Sioux Way, Larry Belitz:

This is a small book and lacking somewhat in detail. There is enough information to learn the process, but it will be more trial and error than when using a more in depth book.  I think a lot of braintanners in the 70's and early 80's probably learned at least partly from this book.


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Making the Attikamek Snowshoe, Henri Vaillancourt:

Available on the Author's website, this book is fantastic.  It is exactly what it should be, a detailed documentation of a traditional art, with as much important detail as possible, recorded in quality images and insightful text.  Henri is part anthropologist and part craftsman, which is how it should be, but almost never is.  The section on hide working outlines interesting traditional methods common to moose country for tanning skins and producing rawhide, both very important skills in that part of the world.

 


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Home Tanning and Leather Making Guide, A.B. Farnham:

This guide has some useful information, but leaves something to be desired as a stand alone guide to tanning.  It is still one of the better references for vegetable tanning and well worth taking advantage of, all the more so, because it is out of copyright and can be download from tanning book collection


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Home manufacture of Furs and Skins, A.B. Farnham, no date: 

A useful book when it comes to handling and dressing furs.  Available as a free download from tanning book collection


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Home Tanning of Leather and Small Fur Skins, USDA, 1923:

Of limited use due to lack of detail, but worth reading.  Download from tanning book collection.

 


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Primitive Wilderness Living and Survival Skills, John and Gerry McPherson, 1993:

This book contains John McPherson's small book on braintanning by the dry scrape method.  It is a competent and useful guide to that subject, and also contains lots of other great stuff on primitive living skills of all kinds.  A good and useful book worth the price of admission from some old friends back in the day.

 


Aboriginal Skin Dressing in Western North America, Arden Ross King, 1938: 

This book is unobtanium, and likely only available in a few large university libraries.

 


The art of leather manufacture, Alexander Watt, 1885:

One of the better old books on tanning, although the only digital version I could find is the later 1906 version.  Available to download from the tanning book collection.  Much of the better part may be derived from the De LA LANDE translation below, which is more recommended.


The Art of Tanning and of Currying Leather... Collected From the French of monsieure De La Lande and others, 1773:

or download in my tanning book collection here

Maybe the best all around old resource I've found, introduced to me by friend and tanning colleague Jason Leininger.  Unusually well written and exhaustive for that time period.  Anyone who reads french should go to the original text, as no doubt things are changed, left out, or lost in translation.


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Dictionary of Leather-Working Tools, Circa 1700-1950 R.A. Salaman,1986:

Another book primarily for the enthusiast, tool maker and researcher.  A jillion variations on leather working tools as well as some tools of the tanner and currier.  Helpful in identifying old leather working and tanning tools.


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Secrets of Eskimo Skin Sewing, Edna Wilder, 1976:

Traditional patterns and techniques from the source.


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Glue, Gelatin, Isinglass, Cements and Pastes, Dawidowsky & Brannt, 1905: 

This is the book I learned most of what I know about glue making from.  It is a technical manual for manufacturers from the intersection of tradition and science at a time when hide glue was still king.  Dowload free from Glue Books Collection


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The American Indian Parfleche a Tradition of Abstract Painting, Gaylord Torrence, 1994:

An art book, packed full of art-speak.  There is some interesting history, and the small amount of functional detail it does contain helped me figure the process out eventually.  The photos are excellent.  This is a beautiful and unique practical art form that originally combined a functionality tailor fit to a singular lifestyle with expressive art.  Very neat book.

 

Axe Buying Checklist Series, #1 Damage and Wear

This is a series on common problems found with axes from craftsmanship to use and abuse.  There are many points, like a checklist of things to look at when picking up an axe or axe head which few people are savvy enough to know to look for all of.  After this series, you'll have that mental checklist. 

The four video segments are on:

Wear and Damage,

Symmetry,

Handles

Options and Axe Hunting

Most used axes are either worn or abused in some way.  Fortunately, they are often perfectly serviceable anyway, usually after a little work.  New axes can have various issues and seemingly perfect axes seem to be the exception. 

This links to the video playlist.  One video will come out every day for the next few days.

Photographs from 2017

I started putting together a blog post on some of my favorite pictures from 2017, but it was looking more like 4 blog posts, so I'm just going to send you to my Flickr page, where I put all the photos I really like already anyway.  https://www.flickr.com/photos/52106235@N07/

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Posted on January 25, 2018 .

Tasting 9 Late Winter Apples, The Good, The Great and The Mushy

Anyone that has followed my apple content for a while knows I'm obsessed with late hanging apples.  In this video I'm tasting 9 late winter apples, mostly off the tree and a few out of storage.  Results below.

Some favorites, roughly in order.

1. Katherine.  Named for early 20th century apple breeder Albert Etter's wife, this is an exceptional apple.  It hangs very late and seems to be at it's best sometime in December.  This late specimen has a rich multi-dimensional flavor.  It was popular at new year dinner last night, one person described it as like wine.  The flavor is not very describable, but it's deep and sophisticated.  Earlier, it is often less complex and just pleasantly flavored.  It has an unbeatable texture when it's at it's best, with a very light crisp flesh and plenty of juice.  This would be in my top 10 apples as grown here.  I have never stored it to speak of.

2. Whitwick Pippin:  This beats out Katherine for intensity and any one person might easily prefer it to that apple.  It is more intensely flavored, complex, quite sweet but also acidic.  The texture at this time of year is better and I suspect it will prove to be a later hanger in the long run.  I only scored Katherine higher because I am more compelled to eat it for whatever reasons and I would never argue with that.

3. Gold Rush:  Even out of storage, this scores 3rd, although Lady Williams would likely go in this spot if it were ripe.  These have held good texture and although they have picked up or developed some off flavors in the fridge, they are quite good, with a forward acidity, plenty of sugar and plenty going on in the flavor department.  Thumbs up for a storage apple.

4:  Pomo Sanel:  Some specimens at this apple at this time will beat some specimens of Gold Rush, but today, gold rush won by a small margin.  This is a very rare apple discovered locally.  It bears some resemblance and eating characteristics to gold rush and it seems quite possible that it is from the same grimes' golden/golden delicious line that Gold rush is part of.  Pomo Sanel is more rubbery in texture and will hold it's shape very well when cooked.  I threw a slice in my coconut milk shrimp soup base the other day and let it boil for a while and it held up very well.  I think you could probably get away with canning it for apple pie filling.

5. Hauer Pippin:  I've not been able to get super excited about this apple, but it has some good characteristics.  It is a rare apple outside of Northern and Central California.  It was originally discovered in Central California and is rare outside of this state, though I hear it was grown commercially at one time.  It is a very beautiful apple and hangs well to the tree through the first half of winter.  The flavor is somewhat odd to me, but this specimen makes me think I should keep a branch of it.

Lady Williams would be higher on this list if it were ripe now, but it is a couple weeks too early.  It may even deserve to be before Hauer Pippin, even now.

More apples could be on this list, those are just the ones I had to taste on this new years day.  Here is a previous video on some of the same apples and others.

Axe Cordwood Challenge 2018 is On, Rules and Stuff

The Axe Cordwood Challenge for 2018 Kicks off today, Jan 1st 2018, through Sept. 1st 2018.  Here is the official video.  Also, below is the "must watch" playlist of videos for the cordwood challenge, which I hope to add to in the coming months.  Stay safe and have fun.

Axe CordWood Challenge 2017 Final Results, 12 Cords, 13 Choppers, 1,536 cu ft.

The Axe CordWood Challenge for 2017 Ended in the first week of june.  It was a considerable success.  Altogether we had 13 people finish 1/4 cord or more.  8 of us finished 1 cord or more and one person cut over 2 cords.  The total quantity of wood was probably around 12 cords, which is a closely stacked block of wood 8 feet wide, 4 feet high and 48 feet long, or 1,536 cubic feet!  The web page is here, with participant links and photos.  ACWC 2018 is on the way...

Bulgarian Giant Leek Seed Germination Testing and Origami Seed Pockets

The leeks seeds are finally dry and ready to package, but first germination tests have to be done to insure good viability.  Also in this video, folding origami seed packets.  An editable template for printing the seed pockets can be found on this page.  Once I get my apple seeds collected and sorted, I can list everything and start sending seeds out.

 

And here is the full video playlist for this project spanning almost 2 years now.

Posted on December 26, 2017 .

A Locally Discovered Rare, Late Hanging Apple, Pomo Sanel

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The fable I heard is that someone discovered a late ripening apple on a local homestead, took cuttings, named it Pomo Sanel and it shows up occasionally at scion exchanges.  Like any such apple, it may be an older named variety, but I don't know that anyone has identified it as such.  Although I'm not crazy about the Banana overtones, it's late hanging and richness of flavor have impressed me, and I think it would be found worthy of propagation by some.  If nothing else, the genes that allow it to hang late into the winter are worth preserving.

Very late hanging apples are one of my great apple interests.  Walking out to my trees crunching through the frost to munch on a sugary, juicy, flavorful apple is something I've become attached to.  I recall in previous years that Pomo Sanel is usually my second latest apple, ripening in January, between a group of Christmas apples like pink parfait and Katherine and Lady Williams ripening February 1st.  This year it is earlier.  Apples from storage can be quite good at times, but they can also be less than optimal and may pick up off flavors.  Besides, letting apples hang does not preclude storing them as well, even the same variety.  I think this apple may be better if picked at some point and then stored.  By that I mean that it may be more reliable and I might have fewer losses to rot in the stem wells or the occasional cracked apple, and that ultimately the apples would last later.  Even for a durable apple, hanging through rain and freezing weather an take it's toll.  But I would still let a few hang, because I like having them off the tree.  Another thing to consider is storage space.  I have no root cellar.  I have unheated rooms and a small fridge.  Storage of apples is not convenient for me.  And I was just last night trying to stuff things in the fridge because the crisper drawers are mostly full of apples.  In the end, I think a combination of both hanging late apples and storage, will prove the best strategy to carry fresh eating apples through.  Some varieties will keep long, but will not hang late.  I suspect that most long hangers will store well if picked at the right time.

Pomo Sanel is well above average for winter durability. It will show cracking on some fruits though.  It also frequently shows separation of the skin from the stem down in the stem well.  It also seems to dehydrate naturally on the tree a little bit.

As long storing apples go, I suspect that many others may do better than this one.  Dehydration and resultant shriveling are commonly considered a fault of storage apples and Pomo Sanel is already showing signs of shriveling on the tree.  It is not always a deal killer though.  Sometimes they will retain an acceptable texture as they lose water.  A good example is that some Russet apples will wrinkle up and become rubbery in storage.  Given the tough flesh and somewhat rubbery tooth of some of the specimens on the tree now, I suspect it will have a partial tendency toward that effect.  Other apples will soften in their own ways.  Some become what might be called tender, but without being at all mushy or mealy.  I personally enjoy coarse grained tender apples.  This one also seems to have a tendency in that direction.  Although they were clearly picked too late for best storage life and quality, I do have some put away in the fridge now, and am interested to see how they do.  I must have stored a few in the past, but I don't recall.

My general impression of Pomo Sanel is that it's a gem in the rough.  It is not a highly bred apple, like modern specimens of perfection being created now.  It has some character with it's freckles and somewhat uneven matte colored skin.  The dense flesh requires a little jaw work, something modern people don't get enough of anyway, so that could be a plus. 

The flavor is pretty complex, with maybe something like a fruit smoothie effect.  The most prominent flavor is banana. It's not a sickly sweet banana flavor, but it's definitely there on top, like it or not.  The sugar is  not overly high, but very adequate and compliments the level of acidity well.  Intensity of flavor is definitely above average.  It's no Suntan, but it asserts itself for sure. 

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Pomo Sanel's very late hanging characteristics got my attention.  I've been meaning to make some crosses with it, but this is the first year I did.  I crossed it with the queen of late hanging apples (in my orchard), the sleek, durable, beautiful, highly flavored, well behaved Lady Williams.  She impressed someone, because she is one of the parents of Pink Lady, an excellent late hanging apple in it's own right that I've eaten off the tree here at the new year.  Another potential cross would be Gold Rush and Pomo Sanel.  Gold Rush is by all accounts an outstanding storage apple and has disease resistance genes.  The ones I'm eating out of storage now are quite good around Christmas.  They both have Banana as a prominent flavor when ripe, but other flavors differ a little.  Gold Rush has more spice in it.  Gold rush is not durable on the tree though, where it cracks and declines in quality.  Both seem productive.  Gold rush has Golden Delicious and given the characteristics and appearance of this apple, it wouldn't surprise me if it comes from the Grime's Golden/Golden Delicious line.  Other late hanging apples that come to mind as possible candidates for crossing are Whitwick Pippin, Allen's Everlasting, Pink Parfait, Grenadine, Granny Smith, Katherine (of Etter) and Pink Lady.  Since I've made crosses using some of those late apples already I also hope to have seedlings that could potentially provide breeding material.  Who knows what the limits of quality, hanging and storage apples might be if we keep crossing these late lines.

I'm saving some seeds from this interesting apple to distribute this winter, but I can't send out scions of Pomo Sanel, or anything else, due to disease issues in the orchard.  I may at some point try to sleuth out a new source of scions to distribute to people that might grow it and share it out.  I have no idea what level and duration of cold it can stand.  Even if picking it for storage, it has to ripen into at least late November here.  It's okay to pick apples early for storage, but they should be fully sized up.  The picture below shows Pomo Sanel in mid November still looking a little lean and green.  Your mileage may vary of course.

Pomo Sanel looking a little bit green on November 14th here in Northern California

Pomo Sanel looking a little bit green on November 14th here in Northern California

One thing I feel sure of is that this variety is worth saving, and it is certainly not remotely safe at this point.  Maybe the longest standing, most knowledgeable and well connected local fruit collector/experimenter I know asked me for some mosaic virus infected scions a couple of years ago.  I'm sure there are more copies out there among the local fruit collectors somewhere, but if it's not distributed much by any of us, it will fizzle out like so many others have.  That is assuming that it is a unique variety and just an unidentified more common named variety.

Penetration, Saturation and Coating, 3 Main Factors in Oiling Wooden Axe and Tool Handles

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Over the years I keep evolving and refining my methods and understanding of the process of oiling tool handles.  Although it is painfully simple, the obvious is not always so obvious.  I've been soaking my handles pretty deeply with oil for a long time, but still have had something of a fixation on coating them with a protective coat.  Until, I realized that a well saturated handle is it's own finish, and more.

a Coating ona a handle is a barrier between the wood and the environment.  But does it achieve that goal well, and what is the goal anyway?  The goal is to protect the handle from environmental changes in moisture basically.  Moisture swells the wood, and when it leaves, the wood shrinks.  When wood shrinks, it is stressed and those stressed can lead to cracks.   For some reason cracks seem more likely to form if the wood swells and shrinks repeatedly.  If the wood swells within the eye of a tool, the wood compresses against the hard metal of the eye walls, becoming crushed.  When it shrinks on drying again, it many shrink smaller, than it was before it expanded.  That is why soaking the eye of a tool in water when it is loose will eventually make it even looser.  A good thick coating of cured linseed oil can help prevent the entry of moisture, and anytime oil is used on a handle, some of it soaks into the wood to some depth, bringing in the factor of penetration, which must help some.  A coating is basically still very thin though and will wear off over time.  These are handles remember,  They are essentially rubbed over and over again.  And although some penetration is always occurring, the questions to ask is how much good is penetration when it is shallow and of a low saturation.

Enter Saturation.  Saturation if you look it up, basically means full or at maximum capacity.  But it is commonly used with a quantifier or clarification like partially, mostly, completely.  If I soak a handle numerous times with linseed oil, it will penetrate to a certain depth, but unless it is applied regularly and in quantity, it will have a very low saturation as the oil spreads itself out deep into the wood structure.  Eventually, it either reaches the middle or some unknown depth and starts to increase it's saturation eventually filling the wood to the point that no more will soak in.  This 2 minute video shows the process I pretty much use now.  If you get tired of adding expensive oil to a handle, try stopping for a month to let the oil in the handle cure and penetration should slow down.  Some handles will take a lot of oil.  Fortunately, oil is light.

Now if we think about a handle that is fully saturated with oil, for even 1/8 of an inch deep, let alone more, we now have something like the equivalent of a 1/8 inch coating.  But even more cool, it is actually protecting the wood itself by filling the pores and structures that water would fill.  If you leave such a handle out in the weather, water droplets just bead up on it and sit there.  Not recommended, they aren't necessarily immune to moisture, but it's telling.

droplets on a well saturated knife handle.  Two hours later they were still there, though smaller, but I have little doubt that at least the majority of missing water left be way of evaporation and not penetration.  That is a test better done in high humidity, not on a warm breezy morning.  This handle has probably not been oiled since it was originally treated 2 or 3 years ago.  After all, the treatment cannot wear off.

droplets on a well saturated knife handle.  Two hours later they were still there, though smaller, but I have little doubt that at least the majority of missing water left be way of evaporation and not penetration.  That is a test better done in high humidity, not on a warm breezy morning.  This handle has probably not been oiled since it was originally treated 2 or 3 years ago.  After all, the treatment cannot wear off.

Try it on a handle and see what you think.  It is a long process and the oil is not always cheap.  many tools are also not subjected to much in the way of atmospheric changes, so it's not something we have to use everywhere.  I'm pretty sold on it though and any axe that I plan to keep and use gets the full treatment now.  Dudley cook recommends the same basically, but he maintains with an occasional coat, which I think is unnecessary if the wood on the outside of the handle is well saturated.  The wood essentially becomes it's own finish.  If the wood will ever take oil on and soak it up, do it, but it it doesn't, there is no need to keep coating it. 

I use food grade linseed oil (usually labeled as flax oil, which is the same thing) anymore and have found ways to pick it up cheap enough.  Boiled linseed oil is toxic and I think it probably dries too fast.  Prices change on amazon constantly, but this brand is usually about the cheapest, but do your own research.  I've also found flax oil at the local cheap food outlet where they send overstock and expiring stuff.  Other oils can be used as well, walnut, hemp, poppyseed and tung oil should be adequate, but I really haven't used any of them enough to say for sure.

For handles that you don't need to saturate, I recommend a thin coat of oil once or twice a year, or better, just whenever you have an oily linseed rag.  Raw linseed oil will cure, it just takes longer.  So called "boiled linseed oil" contains metallic driers and solvents that speed curing time.

I have more ideas and experiments brewing around this problem, and no doubt you'll hear more about it in the future.

Bark Tannned Leather Clinic With Zack, Vegetable Tanning

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Zack Hribar came over to show me his first batch of bark tanned leather.  We shot an informal video talking about them and vegetable tanning options, troubleshooting the hides, stories and that sort of thing.  It was fun.  Zack is an enthusiastic new bark tanner, check him out on instagram as z._hriack_bar

Winnowing Seeds for the Bulgarian Giant Leek Seed Saving Project

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Seed saving requires seed cleaning.  In this video I use simple methods to clean the leek seeds from the Bulgarian Giant Leek seed saving project.  Without the use of fans, and without any breeze, seeds can be winnowed and "sifted" on flat tightly woven baskets.  The seeds will be ready in 2 or 3 weeks after final drying, germination testing and packaging.

Etter's Blood Apples, Unique, Beautiful and Tasty, Red Flesh, Red Flavor

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This year I have three of apple breeder Albert Etter's red fleshed apples fruiting.  They are very unique and interesting apples, though they still represent unfinished work.  Red fleshed apples will be coming more and more into the public eye over the coming years.  They could have arrived much sooner had anyone taken up Etter's work, which was already well started.  With all their faults, these apples are still worth growing.  Also a short video on Gold Rush, which might be the apple I've seen most universally endorsed by home growers for flavor, keeping ability and disease resistance.

Axe Grinding Dummy Rule, the Fan or Crescent Grind, What's Up With that?

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It is very rare for axes to come out of the factory in good chopping condition.  If an axe does not cut, more of the energy of every swing will be dissipated as useless percussive energy- pounding away on a log.  Failure to cut well causes more handle shock and is just less fun.  An axe that doesn't cut well may also be more likely to glance.  A guideline stated in some books and not infrequently repeated, is that the area that you grind to make a new axe cut well should be in a sort of fan shape.  Some sources also recommend that it is a certain depth, three inches.  While that can be fine, there are various circumstances where application of that as a rule simply won't work.  This is the classic dummy rule scenario, where a guideline that is already rough, even in a context where it is at least applicable, is broadly stated without any qualification.  I made this video for two reasons.  One is that the recommendation causes confusion and someone asked me about it recently.  The other is that I think people should not use it as a recommendation, but more like a point of interest in context.

The rule is not applicable to any but one approach to axe design, which I've seen people refer to as high center-line.  These axes are exceedingly common in America, comprising the great majority.  They have a hollow between the eye and the cheek of the axe, and a convex shape from side to side.  When one of these is thinned out until it chops well, the result is often this sort of fan shape.  It does not apply to other styles of axe shape, like flat wedges, some flat, slab-like European axes, or axes with a fairly narrow sharpened bevel, with little to no convexity from toe to heel, and with a hollow right behind it.  It simply does not apply at all to those three types of axes.

Another thing that is silly about this rule is offering any specific measure of how far back the axe should be ground from the edge assumes too much.  To say that it should be ground 3 inches back, or any other number is to misguide.  While the style of axes that the rule does apply to will typically have a lot in common, variability in design and manufacture render any specific recommendation arbitrary.

Axes as they come from the manufacturer are rarely in chopping condition.  They require not just sharpening, but significant filing or grinding to remove a bulk of metal in order to thin the cheeks of the axe so that it will cut well.  If you have this classic pattern of american axe, convex from side to side and with a mid blade hollow as Dudley Cook calls it, it will probably file into some semblance of a half circle or fan shape.  That shape can vary a great deal though in it's shape and dimensions from variability in the manufacture of axe heads.

Suggestions on how to grind axes vary quite a bit and are typically vague.  The most thorough treatment is in Dudley Cook's, The Axe Book.  Both An Axe to Grind, put out by the USDA, and the book that it draws heavily from Woodsmanship, by Bernard S. Mason, (both free to read online) provide a traceable template for measuring the bevels and curvature from the edge back, which is a much more useful tool and idea and in these cases is meant to be used in conjunction with the concept of filing to a fan shape.  To look at the fan shape alone, give it any actual dimensions and suggest it be applied broadly to axes is, I think, a bad idea in any case.  Dummy rules are often not useful and sometimes harmful.  In my opinion, they make dummies more than they serve them.

As to how best to grind your axe for chopping, the mason book is probably a good place to start, if you have that high center line type of axe.  It provides a template for the edge and a little way back of it.  Just ignore the recommendation on the depth of the fan being 3 inches deep, which it may very well not.  Also, remember that the fan shape it not the goal.  An axe with thinned cheeks that cuts well is the goal and the fact that it will end up a fan or crescent shape of some description is closer to a point of interest than a rule.  In some cases, the original shape of the axe may be very uneven, or not a "classic" representation of it's type.  You can file the sides to relieve the cheeks to achieve something more along the lines of that fan shape, in which case the idea becomes more useful.  Anyone interested enough in axes to read this should also own The Axe Book, and Dudley Cook is more specific in there about geometry than any thing else I've seen in paper print, digital print or on video.  Approaches vary however, so each of these is just the Authors belief or preference and we would do well not to take such as gospel from anyone.  I don't have enough of an opinion on three dimensional geometry of axes to make any kind of recommendation, but the bottom line is that your axe needs to cut.  Of course grind may vary with intended use, skill level and species cut.

Cherry Cox Apple Variety and a Few Others, Tasting and Review

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When I moved here 12 years ago, one of the first things I did was start to plan my fruit orchards.  I well knew then that the time to plant a fruit tree is ten years ago, now I might extend that to 15.  I began doing research on apple varieties, which I was very unfamiliar with.  I figured there must be hundreds of them, but the best resource I had available was a thick book called Cornucopia, a source book of edible plants which only listed a few of what I later found out were probably tens of thousands of named varieties.  I also talked to friend and fruit explorer Freddy Menge, who made his best recommendations at the time.  I had helped Mark Dupont of Sandy Bar nursery graft his first batch of fruit trees many years before, and had an outstanding favor owed for fruit trees whenever I finally got my own place.  I called in that favor.  Looking through their catalogue, they said they had a variety called cherry cox that had become a homestead favorite.  I was intrigued.   They had no trees to sell that year, but Mark sent me a scion, one of the first scions I grafted onto frankentree.  I've since sent out lots of scions to other people all over the country.

Cherry Cox has not disappointed.  It really does taste like cherries, among other flavors.  Few descriptions mention that it has a cherry flavor, suggesting even that the name is for the redder color it has.  There is no doubt though that the name is from the flavor, though I don't doubt that it does not always develop and some say they can't detect it at all.  It was also precocious, being one of the first apples to ever fruit on frankentree and one of the most consistent since.  If anything, it sets too much fruit, though it has taken years off as almost any apple will do when poorly managed.  It seems healthy enough so far, but I can't say too much about that as apple diseases are just getting a real foothold here.  It does get scab, and I think it could be called moderately susceptible.  Don't quote me on that, it's just a vague impression.

Cherry Cox is a sport of the very famous Cox's Orange Pippin.  A sport is a bud mutation.  One bud on a tree mutates into something new and thus begins a new variety, no tree sex required.  While many sports are very minor variations on the parent tree, Cherry Cox seems to be considerably different than it's parent.  It tastes different, performs different, allegedly keeps longer, and I'd just about bet that if you planted rows of each side by side there would be some obvious differences.  I was at my friend Tim Bray's orchard and his Cox's Orange Pippins were notably small and the trunks and branches completely covered in lichens, unlike the other trees.  They are known for their poor growability and have no doubt only survived by the virtue of exceptional flavor.  Cox's Orange Pippin is widely used in apple breeding because of it's eating quality, and is probably the apple most commonly said to be the best out of hand eating apple in the world.  Cox's Orange Pippin is indeed one of the few apples I've ever eaten worthy of the classification "best".  Even at it's best, Cherry cox is still not in that category.  It's a good lesson though that Cox's Orange Pippin seems to do poorly under my conditions and cherry cox is consistently good to very good.

Flavor wise, Cherry Cox has a lot going on, like it's parent Cox's Orange Pippin it is complex.  Obvious flavors are cherry, something almost like cherry cough drops, but in a good way, Anise is also present and I've detected some flavor of spice.  There is certainly more going on, other fruit flavors, but I'm not good at picking them out.  If I were to change things about Cherry Cox, I would.  It could use more sugar, which would bring the flavors out more.  Have you ever noticed how much better fruit tastes when you sprinkle sugar on it?  It's not just that it's sweeter, sugar is to fruit what salt is to meat and savory foods.  Cook a fantastic soup with no salt and you will barely taste the potential of it's flavor.  Add salt to it and boom, flavor city.  The cherry flavor develops early in cherry cox, but the sugar develops late.  It is a fairly acidic apple, and maybe even tart before it gets really ripe.  I would not reduce the acidity, I would just balance it with more sugar.  More sugar would also make it a richer flavored apple.  It can be a little thin tasting at times.  More scab resistance wouldn't hurt.  In the Beauty department it lacks nothing. It's is a beautiful apple.  it can grow plenty large under good cultural conditions, though it is not generally a very large apple.  Cherry Cox is a little known and little grown apple.  I doubt it has great potential as a broader market apple, but it has huge potential as a small scale specialty orchard and farmer's market apple.  And then there is the breeding potential.

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Looking toward improvement, I think cherry cox is very promising breeding material.  If nothing else for the cherry flavor, but it also must carry most of the exceptional flavor gene pool of Cox's Orange Pippin.  My own breeding efforts include Cherry Cox crossed with various other apples.  If my efforts don't breed anything exceptional, maybe they will produce something that is worth using in further breeding.  I've crossed it with several red fleshed apples in the hopes that I might be lucky enough to co-mingle the berry flavors of blood apples with C.C.'s complexity and cherry flavor.  I've also crossed it with Sweet Sixteen, which has sometimes a cherry candy component, while also being a good grower and carrying some disease resistance.  I've crossed it with Wickson for higher sugar content and unique flavor and probably others I'm forgetting about.  I think Golden Russet might be a good candidate since it is one of the best apples I've ever tasted, and it also has an extremely high sugar content.  I'd like to see more crosses made along these lines.  I would like to see Cherry Cox crossed with sweet 16 and Sweet 16 also crossed with the generally scab susceptible red fleshed apples, and the offspring of both back crossed in an attempt to keep Sweet Sixteen's scab resistance, while reinforcing the cherry component and hoping for a red fleshed offspring.... or something along those lines.  I don't know anything about breeding for scab resistance, but the information on dominance of traits is available out there somewhere if one cared to look for it.  I've got all of those genetic crosses made, and then some, so fingers crossed.

Cherry Cox crossed with Rubaiyat in 2013 and with Pink Parfait this past spring, both red fleshed apples.

Cherry Cox crossed with Rubaiyat in 2013 and with Pink Parfait this past spring, both red fleshed apples.

For various reasons, I'll have few Cherry Cox scions to offer for grafting, if any.  Being uncommon, it may be hard to find scions, but I think with a little effort they can be found.  The more that people grow it, the more scions will be available.  If you have a scion exchange in your area, that is a good place to look.  Online scion trading and fruit discussions can be found at GrowingFruit.org and The North American Scion Exchange.  Information on grafting can now by found on my Youtube channel and on this website.

Cherry Cox trees are listed for sale at Raintree Nursery and Maple Valley lists scions and benchgrafts.


Other apples in my cherry cox tasting video that are worth mentioning are:

Egremont Russet:  A nice russet.  Not up to the best russets as it is grown here, but a good performer and very good at it's best.  Stephen Hayes in the UK is a big fan.  Here is his video review.

 Sam Young is an Irish apple that is rare in the US.  My small branch is just starting to fruit, but seems promising. It's somewhat russeted and is also known as Irish Russet.  I'll be keeping an eye on this one.  It is hard and very sweet.  Below are some old descriptions.

Old Sam Young

Old Sam Young

Sam Young:  Fruit small, flattish, about an inch and half from the eye to the stalk, and two inches in its transverse diameter; eye remarkably large, having some of the calyx attached to it; colour yellowish clouded with russet, reddish to the sun; very apt to crack; flesh yellowish, firm, crisp, sweet and well flavoured. In use from the beginning of November to January. Tree flat headed, shoots declining, of a light brown colour ; leaves sub-rotund, acuminate, coarsely serrated, upper surface shining, under slightly pubescent. An abundant bearer, and healthy on all soils.

Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, 1820
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Sam Young, aka Irish Russet:

Fruit of a smallish size, somewhat globular, flattened, about one inch and three quarters deep, and two inches and a half in diameter. Eye remarkably wide and open, in a broad depression. Stalk short. Skin bright yellow, with minute brown spots, and a considerable quantity of russet, especially round the stalk; in some specimens red on the sunny side, usually cracking. Flesh inclining to yellow, mixed with green; tender, and melting. Juice plentiful, sweet, with a delicious flavour, scarcely inferior to that of the Golden Pippin.
An Irish dessert apple, of high reputation, ripe in November, and will keep good for two months.
The merits of this very valuable apple were made known in 1818 by Mr. Robertson, of Kilkenny. It is certainly one of the best of our modern apples, and cannot have too general a cultivation.

A Guide to the Orchard and Fruit Garden: Or, An Account of the Most Valuable Fruits Cultivated in Great Britain, 1833


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Giant Leek Seeds Ripe After About a Year and a Half

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Over a year and a half ago, I planted Giant Bulgarian leek seeds from a line saved over a handful of plant generations.  Now the seeds from that latest generation of plants are ripe and we are in the final stretch to get them out to whomever wishes to plant them.  The project was to save seed, while also continuing to select for leeks with certain characteristics, as I always do.  A combination of length and girth, general uprightness and tidiness, and tightly clasping leaves are my basic criteria.  I selected about 12 leeks in the end. 

There is much more at stake in seed saving that just our own practical needs.  Yes, it's cheaper and it assures you can get the variety you want since any variety can be dropped by any seed company at any time.  Sure, it's also a good way to adapt varieties to your growing conditions over time.  But all that practical stuff aside, seed saving embraces a different mindset than buying seeds, and has become by default a political act.  Seed laws have become increasingly favorable to those entities with power and influence who have a vested interest in controlling and owning genes.  Meanwhile, fewer and fewer efforts are made in the commercial realm to serve home growers by creating new varieties suited to the home garden.  Well, we can serve ourselves.  Seed saving is the next level of involvement in our own food supply.  Someday I'll type up a sermon on the subject, but many gardeners are now at that level when it's time to move into basic seed saving.  The step after that is creating new varieties, which it is actually a great time to do now.

Saving seed from some plants, like leeks, is quite easy.  Other than elephant garlic, leeks should not inter-breed with any other onion family plants.  So, all you have to do is pick the best leeks and let them run to seed.  It takes time, but you'll have a pile of big pile of seeds from 6 or 8 leeks.  You may get some genetic bottlenecking saving only a few plants like that, but you can always introduce another line, or even another variety and let them cross to reinvigorate and add new genes to the mix.  Then you might be on your way to selecting out a new variety...  If I were to continue this project, that is exactly what I would do.  I probably won't though, so maybe someone else will.

When this seed is dry and processed I will make it available in the Webstore on SkillCult.com. My patrons over on Patreon get first chance, but I think there are plenty to go around.  I will probably sell them in small quantities to make them go further.  To me the point is to get them to more people.  The more people I get them to, the more chance someone will continue saving and selecting this great variety.

Here is the full playlist for this project

Posted on October 15, 2017 .

Opinel No 8 Knife Modifications and Cheese Glue Experiment

The videos below are about modifying a popular knife.  This basic French Opinel No. 8 model is a lightweight, easy to sharpen pocket knife that whatever combination of reasons has stood the test of time.  I like a few things about it, and dislike a few, so I picked one up to play with and modify as necessary.  What I do like is the thin carbon steel blade, the light weight and the low cost.  It is similar to a sheath knife in size and function, but the folding design and the light weight make it an entirely different animal than most pocket knives.  It doesn't weigh down your pants or draw any attention in the pocket.  I dislike the small round handle and the shape of the tip of the knife.  I'm also not crazy about the sharp radius on the belly near the tip, but haven't yet modified that. As far as build goes, I'd say it's well put together for what it is, though there are obvious limitations and potential pitfalls, mostly in the joint "hinge" area.  The joint can only be so strong and the wood is obviously prone to swelling and shrinking.  That said, robustness is far from everything.

Many modern knives are overbuilt to my way of thinking.  I think the phenomenon is due to overthinking extreme scenarios where strength is paramount because survival of the knife is equated with survival of the person.  If functionality for everyday common tasks, or even important infrequent tasks is lost in favor of robustness, then the design has in turn lost me.  While this is far from a robust knife, and certainly may not be hurt by a dose of robustness, it does seem like it has potentially good functionality for a lot of everyday stuff and things that are important to me.  If it is damaged or worn out, it is inexpensive to replace and ditto if it is lost.  As a beginner knife, there are certain advantages to a cheap knife, but also to a not-too-robust knife.  With this knife a new user that puts it through the learning experience is not likely to be left with a false sense of security that might be imparted by an overbuilt knife.  The thin blade, weak attachment point and delicate tip are not going to withstand much abuse.  Honestly, bending and breaking tips, mangling edges, loosening joints or even outright breakage are almost an essential part of the learning curve that will serve well down the road.  Where else do we learn the limits of our knives, but by crossing them?

I've not used it enough to know if there are other things that I will really dislike about it, but will probably use it a lot and none too gently, although I'm not likely to flagrantly abuse it.  I've used enough knives and have enough opinions that I would already like to see a model that is optimized for more all around use, though modifying this one is not so difficult.  There is also a model with an unfinished handle that can be carved to suit the user and it's the same price roughly.  I haven't seen it in person, but it might solve the handle issue and even an inexperienced filer can probably take the tip down to make it more functional in 15 minutes or less with a sharp file.

The shape at the tip of the knife just has to go.  This is the most important, non-negotiable modification, requiring just a few minutes of filing.  This mod puts the tip more in line with the center-line of the knife and makes almost every task I would do with the tip easier from cleaning fingernails, to detail carving, to cutting leather and paper on a flat surface.  I can't really think of anyplace that the original tip design is going to be really advantageous for me, and it is nearly always disadvantageous rather than neutral.

The handle size and shape is not very functional.  It is round, so it turns in the hand too easily.  It is also small and doesn't fill the hand up, which can cause cramping and require excessive grip to keep it stable, especially since it is round and prone to turning.  And finally, it is hard to tell how the knife is oriented in the hand without looking at it.  The shape of the base gives some idea of the plane the blade is oriented in, but it's not like the simple automatic feel of an oval handle which drops the blade right into line where it should be.  I used some wood shavings with casein glue as an experiment toward a sort of natural glue laminate to build the back of the handle up.  Cheese glue is more or less waterproof or water resistant, otherwise I would have used hide glue.  I'm not sure I got the mix right or if this will really be water-proof/resistant.  I really need to do some formal testing and experimentation with casein glues and paints to better understand capabilities and limitations.  It's neat stuff though and was once a common glue and paint base when and where water resistance was required.