The Cordwood Challenge, What to Expect and Related Thoughts

A video I shot this morning talking about what to expect when doing the cordwood challenge.  Further thoughts below.

When I did my axe cordwood challenge last year, it wasn’t quite what I expected in every way.  Here are some thoughts on that.  Doing the axe cordwood challenge will affect how the process itself is experienced.  First off, a lot of the experience of anything we do is made up of things like expectation, attitude, pre-conception, social prejudice and just in general what we bring with us that colors our experience.  As a person progresses and improves their skills with an axe, some of those things will change quite a bit.  I tend to think that in most cases, views of the work itself, it’s worth and enjoyability and how much it is percieved as "work" in the negative modern sense, will improve.  On the other hand, maybe that will not be the case if someone has a very romantic and inaccurate view of what it entails to start with.  Who knows.  That is part of this experiment.

Much has to do with efficiency and ability. It is usually a lot more fun and motivating to do something that you are good at and using an axe can be very frustrating if things are not going too well.  Picking up an axe with little or no experience can feel awkward and ineffectual.  In order to be efficient at the work, we have to be able to hit where we are aiming, understand how the axe cuts or doesn’t, have at least a rudimentary understanding of effective strategy, and be able to deliver energy where we want it with a relatively low amount of energy expended; or put otherwise, as little as possible of energy expended is wasted unnecessarily along the way.  It may look easy, but it’s easier said than done and simply takes time with axe in hand to start building physical memory.  Thus, of course, the cordwood challenge in the first place.

The amount of energy expended will go down as coordination is built and excess movement and tension start to fall away.  At least that is how it should happen eventually.  It is possible to waste a lot of energy with excess movement and tension, but the ability to relax into the work will only come with familiarity and comfort with the tool.  I’ll try to offer some tips, but the best recommendation I can probably make is to watch people who are good at chopping and learn that visually.  Watch them a lot and you’ll start to imitate them without even thinking about it.  Look at my recommended axe video play list.  Especially watch competition choppers and the video The Axeman.  Jon Ugalde’s video of 79 year old Basque Axeman Enrique Bildarraz is a great example of high efficiency.  Skills or not, a nearly 80 year old man doesn’t have energy to waste.  Energy efficiency is not synonymous with time or force.

In any case, it takes a lot of time to chop wood with an axe relative to using a chain saw.  That is a given.  Although both speed and force could help you finish work more quickly, It is very important not to force either one too fast.  The forcing of either or both is a great danger, making accidents both more likely and worse when they do happen.  Not only that, but forcing either too much is likely to decrease your efficiency, because errors will be magnified and increased.  Be patient and concentrate on technique, aim and strategy.  The power and speed will happen naturally to a point if they are in your nature.  If they are not, that’s okay too.  You will just proceed somewhat slower.  You don’t actually need a lot of either.  We’ll talk more about the generation of power later.  Beginning choppers should err toward gentle chopping and concentrate on accuracy and system.  Make no mistake.  Power and speed are a waste of energy without accuracy and system.

https://youtu.be/rb9fWu7JES8

Expect to have near accidents as you learn your way around the process and build your catalogue of what can happen.  We go through a higher risk phase when first learning to do something dangerous.  With time (except for the common “cocky phase” somewhere in the middle), dangerous pursuits should become safer as we learn what can go wrong and to foresee potential accidents happening.  We all have a little safety officer in our heads watching out for us throughout every day doing even commonplace things.  Some accidents will be foreseen as a matter of common sense and everyday physics that we are already dealing with regularly our whole lives.  Some accidents are not as easy to see coming.  Hopefully we can shorten that high risk period with some demonstration and discussion, but much has to be learned by experience and real life experience.

I think for men especially, it’s important that we have some kind of at least symbolic destructive activity.  Fighting, hunting and violence in general are in our DNA.  That may be inconvenient at times, but it’s there whether anyone likes it or not.  I find dismembering trees with an axe rather therapeutic and relaxing while being a good outlet for my destructive nature.  The work requires an odd combination of aggression against a living or once living organism, relaxation/effort, and focus while letting go of the chattery overthinking mind.  If you do it a lot, and begin to relax into the work, it will eventually pull you into a good place to be, quite, focused, present, engaged, relaxed and active all at the same time.  I don’t know anything quite like it.

Official Launch of the Cordwood Challenge 2017!, Cut Your Firewood with Axes Only

Warning, some graphic images of axe injuries in this post may be hard to unsee.

Welcome to the cordwood challenge!  The concept of this project is to offer a format in which participants can explore using axes in a way that puts us in a great position to improve our practical axe skills.  If we love the axe, we must love what it has the potential to do, and if we strive to realize some of that potential between ourselves, an axe and pile of wood, is that not the ultimate homage to the axe?

There are more details below, but briefly the challenge is as follows.  Cut 1/4, 1/2, or a full cord, or more using axes only, without cutting yourself or being smashed or crushed by trees and limbs.  Then send a picture or video of you with your firewood and any experiences or insight you’d like to share.  I’m making a leather merit badge and axe strops as incentives, but clearly the real reward is less tangible.

If you plan to take on the cordwood challenge, please read this entire post and watch the video, just to make sure all bases are covered.

First the disclaimer.  I’m providing this challenge as a framework in which axe users can explore improving their axe skills and learn practical application by doing, while having an opportunity to be recognized for your achievement.  What you do with any information I offer, or any information that you gather anywhere else, is your responsibility.  I claim no special knowledge of axes and their use, and don’t claim the information that I offer is accurate or guaranteed to keep you safe in your endeavors.  I accept no responsibility for what you do with any information offered related to this challenge, or on using axes safely and effectively.  If you wind up with an injury doing whatever it is that you choose to do, there will be no one to blame but yourself.  Projecting that responsibility on someone else not only shows a weakness and immaturity of character, but betrays an inherently unsafe attitude toward work and safety.  Using an axe, and felling and working with trees, is inherently unsafe work.  Do not doubt that truth for a minute, and consider this challenge very carefully, and whether it is worth the risk involved to gain these skills.

As I'm preparing this, youtuber Weiderfan, just posted a video about cutting his leg badly with a hatchet.

For your consideration.

Axe wound photos courtesy of http://www.boernebushmasters.org/wilderness-wounds-axe-wounds/

This challenge should not be taken lightly.  Regardless of anything else, it is a considerable time investment in an activity that is somewhat physically demanding (though not as much as you might think) and intrinsically dangerous.  I’ll tell you why I do it, but your motives are your own.  Some people will think you’re cool, but If you think the people around you will be amazed, most of them won't if they even understand what you are doing at all.  So, get ready for quizzical expressions, deer-in-the-headlights looks, head shaking and the need to communicate exactly what it is you are actually doing in graphic detail.  It might be just as well to finish the job after which you can brandish your axe, point at your ricks of drying firewood, and grunt "me make wood!"  That should pretty well do it :)

While there are many possible ways to approach learning to be better axeists, chopping firewood is an activity that keeps it real.  Firewood is a necessity for many of us and puts us in direct relation to our own needs.  What is the difference between making a pile of chips just for practice and making chips that result in a stack of firewood that keeps us warm through the winter?  I don’t know exactly, but there sure is a difference.

Real work = Real Results:  Aside from having practical value firewood processing has some advantages when it comes to learning your way around an axe.  It is real world work.  You will find yourself in all sorts of positions and situations that occur in the field only.  Chopping overhead or chopping the underside of a raised log are challenging and force us out of our comfort zone if we are not used to using an axe in the forest a lot.

More is Better:  There is also the sheer quantity of the work.   You can cut down a tree, limb it and maybe buck it into something you can handle for sawing, but how many trees will you cut down and limb in one year, and how much cutting time is that really going to give you?  The answer is not much.  It was without any doubt, the bucking which most accelerated my skills with an axe last season and forced my attention to accuracy.  Not only does bucking require a lot of chopping, but it is a specific skill all it’s own which requires practice and familiarity to become comfortable with.  Without bucking, you can only get so much practice and only of a certain kind.

Repetition:  And then there is the repetition and timing.  It is very different to go out into the woods at spaced intervals through the year and do just a little chopping, v.s. doing a lot of chopping in a shorter space of time.  If we cut a full cord in a few months, we will reap a reward in skill level from executing that work in closely spaced sessions.

Exercise: I can hardly imagine that the exercise afforded by such clean and engaging physical labor is not a positive thing in the vast majority of cases.  Viewing the effort required as a valuable product of the process rather than a negative factor is not only reasonable in most cases, but I think more accurate.

Who should accept or consider the cordwood challenge?  First some generalities:

Physical Effort:  If you can work efficiently at a moderate pace, chopping firewood may be less work than you might think.  It is just mildly aerobic and doesn’t really requiring a lot strength.  It’s much more about technique and accuracy than force.  I thought I’d be ripped after cutting a cord last spring, but I didn’t notice any particular gains in muscle mass, though I think you could certainly see some if you did enough work in a short enough period of time.  What I did gain though is the ability to process wood with much less effort because I’m more likely to hit where I’m aiming and my strategy has improved considerably.

Access:  Then there is access to wood.  I’m in a good position to process firewood, having acres of overgrown woods in need of management.  For others, the trees may not be there, or there may not be many trees you want to cut down.  Or, maybe you have access to wood, but in an inconvenient location.  Or maybe you have only dead dried up tangly wood that is a nightmare to process.

Conservation: One important thing that might get in the way of taking the challenge is knowledge about trees and forestry.  A certain level of understanding of forest ecology and succession is required to enable us to make intelligent forestry decisions in order to fulfill conservation goals.  If you walk into the woods and can’t tell the difference between one species and another, or generally don’t understand what is going on out there, you probably have no business taking an axe to live trees.  You could stick to dead and dying or diseased trees, or seek guidance, but I hope that no one will just randomly go out and start chopping on whatever tree is handy.  I don’t choose trees just because they will make good firewood.  In some contexts I think that is okay, but most forests have trees that are sick, crowded or can be cut to achieve certain management and conservation goals.  The forest is generally somewhat resilient, but the trees we cut do have a significant effect, sometimes good, sometimes not so much and sometimes simply depending on what our goals are.

Danger Danger:  There is much to consider when taking on this challenge.  It is not to be taken lightly.  The danger alone should be carefully considered.  Perfectly capable axemen can end up with serious injuries.  The perspective that the whole idea is just dumb for that reason alone has some merit.  But, there are always different ways to look at anything.  If you want to be good at using an axe, then this is a great way to get there.  It may be the best way, aside from operating in a similar context with a skilled teacher.  And doing dangerous things is not without it’s rewards.  Danger should sharpen our focus and foster a clarity and contrast that cruising through safe tasks all day dulls.  There is, or should be, an immediacy and presence of mind that comes with activities, requiring focused engagement to safeguard our well being.  I think for men especially swinging a dangerous tool/weapon around to dismantle trees satisfies something that we are supposed to experience.  Someone did a study on the effects of various activities on testosterone levels, and cutting wood with an axe raised testosterone levels the most out of all activities!  Hitting trees with sticks would surely not yield the same result.

for simplicity’s sake, I’m dividing us into categories in reference to who should take the challenge

Beginners:  I’m inclined to discourage beginners from taking on this project, even at the lowest level of 1/4 cord.  I don’t think it’s impossible depending on the person, but learning to use an axe takes time.  It is always dangerous, but in the beginning it is extra dangerous.  Having a goal or deadline isn’t probably the best attitude to take when learning a new dangerous skill.  If you start testing the waters this year and end up with a stack of wood, you’re in, but don’t commit to something that you don’t understand enough to know what you are getting into.

Mid level, some experience:  I think this is the group that can benefit the most immediately and jump right into the project.  I consider myself in this category, though higher up in it than I was last spring after cutting only a cord of wood.  Anyone that writes or makes video content about axes and using axes I would especially like to encourage, to do the cordwood challenge.  It will build your credibility and legitimacy in both your eyes and others and can only benefit your audience and content quality.

Veteran choppers:  I’d also like to see some veteran choppers get involved.  If you cut your firewood with an axe already, that’s fine, do the challenge anyway and show the rest of us how it’s done.

A note to women.  Women can definitely use axes effectively.  You don’t have to be a lumberjack dude to use an axe.  A large stronger man of the same skill level is going to outchop you, but your typically lighter structure and stature does not preclude your participation or ability to chop effectively.  Not only are accuracy, efficiency and technique much more important than strength and aggression, I can attest personally that the instinct to try to force an axe through a log by strength is very ineffective and often the very thing that will wreck my accuracy and good form.  I still battle with that problem frequently.  This is a total boys club for sure, but we’d love to have you on board, possibly more than you’d like actually ;)  I’ll try to make you feel as comfortable as possible here and delete or check any disrespectful comments.

Kids and Young Adults: If you are under 18 I need to talk to your parents if you’re going to submit to the challenge.  18 is the legal age of adulthood in my country and I don’t want anyone’s parents thinking I’m responsible for encouraging their offspring to undertake a dangerous activity.  Before you leave comments, submit pictures, etc., have them contact me through the contact tab on this website.

No Pressure:  In conclusion, consider taking on such a challenge thoughtfully.  I don’t want to discourage people in general, obviously I think it’s overall a good idea for a certain type of person at a certain level of skill, and believe there are many potential rewards.  For people at any level that are on the fence, planning to spend a year warming up and getting gear together in a feeling out process is probably a great way to go.  After all, you may not know if you like the work or not.  Fixing up an old axe or tuning up a new one, learning to sharpen, and w chopping are a lot to take on for a first season.  If you end up with a quarter cord or more this year, you are welcome to submit your entry.  I just don’t want anyone making commitments they can’t keep.  You can simply let me know that you are thinking about doing the challenge, or just tell me when you are part way through, or even when you’re finished.  I’m good with whatever as long as you aren’t getting yourself into something that you will regret, or that will put you under an unsafe degree pressure.  Whatever the case, you can leave comments to that effect on this page.

 

Rules

Saws:  I’m making one single exception for saws, which is making the back cut when needed for safety reasons.  You can’t really wedge a back cut made with an axe, so making a back cut with a saw opens new possibilities for wedging trees in the direction you want them to go, which may be needed for safety or to prevent hang ups or damage to other trees.  Most of the time you won’t need to and you’ll get little enough experience making felling cuts as it is, so don’t use this out if you don’t need it.  I have never used it.  On the other hand, certainly DO use it if it seems necessary for your safety or might prevent the damage or death of important adjoining trees!  Otherwise, NO SAWS, that’s the whole point. 

Mauls and Splitting:  You may use splitting mauls for splitting the wood, but I would very strongly encourage you to use whatever axe you fell and buck with as much as possible.  You might be surprised what you can pull off with good aim, technique and strategy.  I do all of my splitting with whatever axe I’m using for the other processes involved.  If I can’t split it but it fits in the stove, I leave it as an “overnighter” log, which I actually have a shortage of this year.  If it needs to be split and the axe is not enough, I chop out a couple of rough wooden wedges on the spot and use those.  Tim of Oxbow Farms was skeptical that he could split the wood with an axe, but encouraged him to keep at it and after trying the golf swing method for a while, he’s a convert.  You can do whatever you want, but you will learn a lot if you really stick with your axe and concentrate on your aim and technique.

Achievement levels:  The levels are 1/4 cord, 1/2 cord, or 1 full cord, or more.  1/4 cord gets recognition and your picture or video featured in a video and web page.  1/2 cord and up gets a merit badge that I make from leather which I tan here on the homestead.  It’s sort of like the boyscout merit badge for accomplishing something, but way cooler!  I’m still working out the details on that, but the prototype looks pretty cool.  1 cord gets the badge plus a pocket axe strop.  You can watch the making of the strops in my video series following that entire process.  They are made entirely from scratch from materials gathered here.  Clearly for anyone surpassing a cord that is a reward in itself,

Deadline is June 1st 2017:  If you live in the southern hemisphere, contact me and will figure something out.  I honestly haven't given much thought to how to deal with that problem.  Suggestions welcomed. 

Send me pictures of you with your finished stacks of wood or post a video and write as much as you want about the experience or not.  I’d love to hear about your experience and I’m sure others considering the challenge in the future would as well.  Be sure to include the axe or axes you used.  If you make a video and don’t have a way to post it, we can work out a way to get the footage to me so I can edit it into another video or post it on my channel.

Tim @ oxbow farms youtube channel has already finished a full cord and is thinking about doing a second cord because he’s having so much fun and learning so much.  Watch his cordwood challenge playlist.

 hub I have an official page that is the Hub for the project.  Please leave all relevant declarations related to the cordwood challenge there rather than on any of my youtube videos.

Resources: I can only offer so much support on technical advice like felling and gear, due to limitations of time and energy as well as qualification in many cases.  Please avail yourself of whatever information is out there on axes, chopping, felling trees, forestry, etc., but be critical.  A list of resources appears below.  Even though I feel I’m not the best person to do it, I’ll be making some videos on axe use and safety in support of the project.  Hopefully some of those will be out sooner than later.  I can’t completely endorse anything as entirely accurate, “correct” and relevant, these seem to be some good sources of information.  I would recommend consuming all of them.

Books:

Mors Kochanski,  Bushcraft  Excellent book all around and great axe use and safety stuff.  A must read.  

Dudley Cook, The Axe Book  And outstanding work focused on using axes for firewood processing.  Another must read.

Peter McClaren’s Axe Manual Read free online.  Somehow I just discovered this book, so I haven’t even read it yet, but it looks potentially amazing.

Bernard S. Mason Woodsmanship  A great old book with considerable detailed axe information.  Download it here for free

Woodcraft and Camping, E. H. Kreps   Download free:

An Axe to Grind  Government manual on axe use, maintenance and safety download free

Video: 

Best Axe Use and Safety Videos Playlist  Some great stuff in here all around and a few exemplary examples of axemanship! 

Cordwood Challenge Playlist.  Any supportive videos I make on axe use and safety will go in here.

Websites, Forums Etc:  There are no forums of discussion type groups I know of that are solely or primarily focused on working axes.  If you know of one, please let me know.

AxeConnected  The Vido's axe website.  Infrequently updated, but deep insightful content from long time axe users.

Facebook's Axe Junkies  Over 20,000 members strong.  Axe Junkiest seems to be the hub of internet axe culture Lots of advice available on restoring, handles, sharpening and such,  and there are a lot of knowledgeable members that will sometimes comment on practical questions.

Reddit's AxeCraft  Not a lot on practical application, but again some experienced knowledgeable members.  I've had some good conversations there.

Have fun and try to stay safe!

First Entry for the Cordwood Challenge, Tim Springston of Oxbow Farms

Even though I haven't really officially kicked off the cordwood challenge (working on it now) Tim Springston (on youtube as oxbow farm) has already finished a cord of wood!  Way to go Tim!  He says it was so much fun and he has learned so much that he's thinking of chopping another cord this year.    Tim has been making some videos talking about the project.  I'm embedding his cordwood challenge playlist here.  Congratulations for finishing the challenge in style, being the first ever to finish it, and finishing it safely.  When I get the strops and cordwood challenge merit badges together they're in the mail to Tims neck of the woods.

Simple Remote Biochar Production Experiment Part 1

I have a situation that is faced by many in my part of the world.   After many decades of wreckless logging, the whole area is pretty much a mess.  Overgrown forests with massive quantities of Dead, Diseased, Decrepit, Dying, Deformed, Decadent (I'm running out of D's, whats a D word for crowded? Dense maybe...) trees and brush.  Just the amount of already dead and down wood is sometimes enough to make a bunch of charcoal at any given site.  The forests are generally unhealthy and not very productive of food for wildlife.  The trees are crowded and instead of having a reasonable number of healthy trees we tend to have a lot of competing trees that are just hanging in there, with very healthy large productive trees of any kind being the exception.  The forest is seeking an equilibrium as always, but that is a process that takes time and we can intervene to speed up the process or steer the ecology in a certain direction such as managing for diversity, wildlife, timber, or all three at once.

 

Given the general success of biochar growing experiments and the remarkable prehistoric and historic examples of charcoal amended soils, it just makes sense to pursue conversion of a portion of that biomass into charcoal.  While sophisticated methods utilizing the energy released in charring will no doubt be developed (and should as soon as possible), there is no good reason for citizens with woodlots not to engage in small scale production of charcoal and at this point I think it's pretty much nuts to burn brush piles into ash.  With the pit and trench methods, we have completely eliminated the need for chopping up or chipping wood 3 inches diameter and down.  That is a huge step and makes burning charcoal extremely accessible to anyone that can get away with having open fires.  But, I find myself faced with a problem that many others will also have.  That is extinguishing the charcoal once it is formed.  Most of my brush is in areas with no water.  This simple idea might take care of that problem and make burning charcoal in remote areas very easy.

Anywhere I walk in the woods here there is clearing to be done.  I think most areas that are unmanaged I could probably dig a trench and produce at least a couple hundred gallons of charcoal without having to drag the wood very far.  Otherwise, I have to clear a way to drive in so I can either drive the brush out or bring water in (sometimes feasible and sometimes not).  While my idea is very simple, solving that problem opens up huge possibilities for me and anyone else in a similar situation.  

My friend Erica and her daughter Jessica live on 200 acres with the same problems.  Like me, Erica does forestry practice, just because it is the right thing to do and needs doing.  The result is huge amounts of biomass that could be converted to charcoal.  When they have a window of good weather to come over, we're going to test out this idea and possibly be looking toward further experiments to assess the feasibility of char production as a cottage industry for land holders in this situation.   I think there is great possibility there.  I'm always interested in ways that people here can make a living doing something useful using the local resources of which none is more abundant than excessive biomass.  That is more relevant than ever since the economy has been artificially buoyed by black market marijuana production for some time, and that won't last much longer as more people in more states are going into Marijuana production which is causing prices to plummet.  Good riddance I say, but don't get me started on that!  Eventually, we will no doubt return to the kind of hardscrabble existence that characterized the area previously.  Personally, I see that as mostly a good thing as it forces people to be creative and do a diversity of things to get by.  I have lived in areas like that before and there are negatives for sure, but I generally like the "necessity is the mother of invention" kind of effect which makes for interesting and less entitled people.  It certainly weeds out the weak.  I think that most people have become too lazy to pick up a shovel, walk off into the woods, produce some charcoal, haul it out, set up some processing apparatus and then prepare, bag and sell biochar; but I'm hoping that it may actually be feasible at this particular point in time to do so, and actually make enough doing it to make is profitable enough to pursue for people that like that kind of work.  Personally, there is hardly anything I like more than being out in the woods with some hand tools and cutting, trimming and burning stuff.  Most people would benefit from that kind of exercise and meaningful, direct work.  That's my idea of a good time!

My Simple Deep Penetrating Axe Handle Oiling System

It took my many years to finally arrive at a very simple but effective system for oiling axe handles.  I'm pleased to say that Author Dudley Cook came to the same conclusion and recommends pretty much the same as I do in The Axe Book.  This is the first of a series I hope to continue of super accessible bullet point videos called 2:00 Minute Technique.  The idea is to deliver very useful information in two minutes or less.  Of course being rather thorough most of the time, most subjects will be covered in more depth as well, but these will be quick start guides with enough information to get to work.  I'm also linking the long version of oiling tool handles where I talk about drying v.s. non drying oils and geeky stuff like that.

This system penetrates the handle deeply.  How deeply I don't know as I haven't sliced open a handle to find out yet, but it has to be pretty deep considering all the oil some handles are capable of sopping up.  It probably builds up especially a lot in the outer rind of the handle wood.  I think of it as replacing water that was once in the living tree.  As long as you use a good drying oil, like linseed, it will cure to a tough plastic like substance, the same stuff oil paints are made of.  I use raw oil because it has a slower curing time allowing for deeper penetration before the oil on the surface seals off the pores.  The other reason I use raw is because the product known as boiled linseed oil is not boiled linseed oil at all, but rather a compound containing solvents and toxic metals to the end of decreasing curing time.  I've actually gone now to using food grade flax oil only (same as linseed oil,  but food grade is usually called flax oil).  The last can of "pure raw linseed oil" I got smells of solvents, so I just found the cheapest flax oil I could on amazon and ordered that.

There is concern among some that raw linseed will never cure enough and will remain sticky.  I've been using it on my handles for a long time and it cures out plenty well.  Whether it will cure as hard and tough by comparison to boiled I'm not sure, but it's definitely more than adequate.  I can assure you of that.

I see "oil finish" recommended a lot, like Watco or Danish Oil Finish.  As far as I know, they are all cut with solvents and dry quickly.  If part of the liquid that soaks into your handle is solvent, then when that solvent evaporates it would seem that using these preparations would leave less total oil in your handle with each coat, penetrating or not.  Personally I avoid working with solvents because they give me heartburn every damn time.  Using food grade oil is great for me since I'm applying it over and over again all day, I can keep it in the house near the woodstove for faster curing and don't have to put on gloves or even wash my hands if I don't want to.  I usually just wipe off the excess oil and get on with my business.

Once the handle is thoroughly penetrated the oil will not soak in anymore.  If you get tired of putting oil on, or don't want to use so much oil, I think you could stop for a while and let the oil cure a bit before continuing.  Eventually, you can start to build up coats as a surface finish one thin layer at a time. Just apply the layers very thinnly and allow to cure to the touch before adding another.  Building up a surface finish is not a necessary step, but it looks nice and insures the handle is completely sealed.  I tend to just add a thin coat once or twice a year when I have an oily rag.  Polish comes with use.  There is probably a way to fake it by buffing etc.  I wouldn't know.  I'd feel like a dumbass sitting around trying to make my tools look like I use them when I could just be using a tool instead.

This system takes a lot of oil and a lot of time and may be overkill for some of your handles, but give it a try on something and I think you'll like it.  The knife handle below is deeply saturated and turned out awesome.  Repeated oilings took that porous, soft birch handle and made it into something altogether different.

And here is the long version.

Posted on December 20, 2016 and filed under axes.

Homescale Apple Breeding: Labeling the Seedlings and Amazing Red Fall Colors

Below is todays video, the latest installment in the now year and a half long homescale apple breeding project.  We started at pollinating some blossoms in Spring of 2015, and now the trees are waiting another couple of months to be grafted out.  Labeling is important because it is what allows me to keep track of each tree and to take notes on the apples as they begin to grow and fruit.  The identifier code also tells me what the parents are and what year the pollination was made.

The fall colors on some of these seedlings is remarkable.  All of the extremely red leaved seedlings have maypole as one parent.  It is the most red fleshed apple I've used, but it also has very red leaves, flowers, bark and even some red in the wood.  The downside is that, it is a very primitive apple with a lot of puckery tannins.  The flavor is excellent, but it is pretty rough around the edges, and low in sugar on top of it.

imagine these all grafted onto one tree for fall color effect.

One neat thing about Maypole is that it is a columnar style tree.  That means it grows very upright and narrow.  Not a single stem, but it has a very small footprint.  It is also dwarfed, so it will never grow very tall.  If I recall correctly, I think the columnar trait is dominant.  So that will be interesting to watch for as these guys grow out.

:0 :0 :0

One of the apples I crossed Maypole with is Wickson, which can get up to 25% sugar, the most I've ever heard of for an apple, so hopefully one of those 14 crosses might yield something sweeter.  If nothing really eminently edible comes of those, they might still make good puckery cider apples if the sugar is raised, or something to use in further breeding.  Because, remember, each new seedling is a product of both of it's parents, and carries a large compliment of Genes hiding within.  If the high sugar trait does not express in the first generation, it may in a second generation, especially if it is back crossed to Wickson, or another Wickson seedling.  Stay tuned for 5 or 6 years to find out!

and here is the entire series on this project...

Axe Strops #6 Tanning the Deer Skin in Oak Bark

In this segment we finally begin tanning the skin.  Vegetable tanning is one of the neatest things I've ever learned.  This is the most exciting part where the hide fiber is transformed into leather.  Leather is not skin or tannic acid, it's a unique material made of the marriage of those two.  It can be left in the weather for years, and though it may become moldy and damaged it will not rot away for a very long time.  There are pieces in my compost piles that I pull out and throw back in every year just to see how long they will last.  The first piece of leather I tanned was a rotten piece of skin that I should have buried, but I had some oak bark sitting around so I made a solution and tossed it in.  The tan almost seemed to heal up rotten parts of the skin and knit them together.  I still have that piece of leather.  I left it hanging in a tree outside for a year or two once, but it appears pretty much unfazed.

Bucking Without Sucking, Toward Efficient Notching With an Axe

I have a great video coming out on tanning the deer skin for the axe strops I'm making for the cordwood challenge.  But the file is huge and my internet was acting up so I made this short video out of something I had sitting around from another project so I could keep my every Saturday posting schedule.

In the video clip, I'm just messing about and demonstrating on this log.  I wasn't actually processing this fallen Black Oak tree, it was just a good size and condition for the project which will be a more in depth video and blog post on common mistakes in bucking, as well as the psychology that leads us into those mistakes and keeps us there.  Bucking well is a hard won skill and can be very clumsy, especially under varied field conditions when working at ground level.  There are several important take home messages in this video that can help people get passed common pitfalls. 

If you see something like the video I'm adding below by Ben at Ben's backwoods on throwing big chips, it looks exceptional in the backdrop of the average axe bucking video (excluding competition choppers), but it shouldn't seem so exceptional.  This is the kind of accuracy, strategy and adherence to a proven system that can make chopping, fun and much more efficient than most people imagine it could be.  I'm also linkng a Basque axe race that viewer Jon Ugalde posted in the comments on todays video that is truly epic!  Those are beech logs they're cutting.  Seriously awesome.

Axe Strops #5, Rinsing, Drenching and Bark Preparation

In this segment we repeatedly rinse and scrape the skin to remove lime and unwanted gunk, then soak the skin in an acid drench made from fermented bran and water.  Oak bark is prepared by chopping and cooked to make the tanning solution.

Permanent Soil Improvement Experiments w/ Biochar Continue, Catch Pit for Artichokes

This is the fourth such experiment in long term deep soil modification using a simple system of trenches or pits.  For now I'm using the term catch pit.  The basic concept is a hole where you toss in stuff that builds soil and feeds plants, backfilling with charcoal and dirt as you go.  It's cool.  Everyone should do it so we can find out how well it works.  I think default thinking these days is to let someone else prove things first, but I think that is backwards and everyone's context is different anyway.  I'm not just interested in how the finished soil performs, but how it ends up fitting into people's lives.  To me that part is just as interesting.  A society that feels an obligation not to waste soil nutrients and to build soil for the future is the one I'd like to live in, so that's what I'm doing.  I don't really know about the state of the rest of the world, but I think America would benefit from picking up a shovel more often and investing in an uncertain future.

Axe Strops Project #4, Unhairing the Deer Skin, (Cordwood Challenge)

Moving along with Part 4 of making axe strops from scratch for the cordwood challenge.  As some will remember, two of the hides for the project were stolen by a bear or bears.  The remaining hide is now ready to flesh and begin the deliming process.  In this video I finish scraping over the skin to remove as much hair as possible and then re-flesh it.  Next it is rinsed and scraped alternately to remove all of the lime and return the skin to it's normal flaccid state before tanning.  Also below is my original video on unhairing skins for tanning.

Saffron, Growing the Most Expensive Spice at Home

Todays video is on saffron.  Saffron is expensive!  a quick look on Amazon shows the lowest price around $5.25 a gram, which is approaching $2400.00 a pound.  Um, yeah, right?  Fortunately it packs quite a punch flavor wise and not only does a thread of saffron contain a lot of flavor, but it is essential that you don't use too much of it or it's rather odd and dusty flavor can unbalance a dish.  So we can be thankful for that serendipity.  Anyway, $2400.00 a pound and up, what's up with that?  I'll tell you what's up with that from personal experience.  Saffron is expensive for two reasons.  Not a lot is produced per acre and more importantly, there are no saffron processing machines.  Each flower produces only three threads of saffron, which are the red female flower parts that receive pollen (or at least they used to, now the plant is sterile).  Every flower has to be plucked out of the ground, which is slower than you might think because they are buried in a brush of tough leaves,  Then someone has to pick that flower up and nimbly extract the three delicate red threads without pulling out too much of it's lower white part which has no flavor, and without any other unwanted stuff like bits of petal or the male pollen bearing parts.  If the worker is to neither starve nor be fired post haste, this must be done rapidly and preferably by plucking all three threads at once, not breaking them off short or pulling off one or two at a time.

Every year thousands of mostly young and lazy people flood the region I call home to engage in the harvest of cannabis.  One of the more time consuming jobs employing thousands is trimming the buds to remove the larger leafy parts. Of course there are no statistics for a black market industry, but thousands flock here for this relatively high paying job.  It is tedious work, just like saffron plucking, but the pay is vastly better.  If saffron were illegal, people would flock to saffron growing regions to pluck saffron and leave with enough to live on for 6 months or more.  Alas, saffron production is an entirely legitimate business and if you go to follow the saffron harvest, I think you'd better save up for a while first and bring extra money with you for your saffron processing vacation!  I had some illusions of possibly growing the stuff for side income.  Well, let me tell you, those notions came to a screeching halt when I weighed an hours yield of saffron plucking not even including growing and harvest.  I'm going to try again someday when I'm better at it, but at this point is looks like it's the kind of work that the first world always shuffles off onto some place where people have fewer choices for employment.  I can tell you, if you pay 2400.00 a pound for saffron, someone is getting royally screwed in that transaction and it ain't you!  You're certainly getting a bargain.

But hey, money isn't everything and I'm about the biggest fan around of divorcing ourselves from the everything-has-a-price-tag, time-is-money, market value mindset.  I've spent a lifetime unlearning that way of thinking in order to pursue the kind of knowledge that I'm after.  If I stopped to value the stuff I do all the time, I would do very little of it.  That means I am poorly adapted to the modern paradigm and really have low survivability in the current default society, but that's okay with me.  There are things more important than money or survival.  Look buddy, when the local economy collapses because of the legalization of marijuana I'll at least have saffron aplenty for my mixed rodents with gourmet mushrooms and acorn sauce as I slowly starve to death up here in the hills defending the last of my carrot crop from wandering bands of starving out of work pot growers.  Nope, the saffron industry will never replace the pot industry in the emerald triangle but, thanks to it's inherent potency, growing enough saffron for your own yearly supply is very easy and not even that time consuming!  I enjoy plucking those precious little red threads out, at least to a point, and processing the flowers from a bed 4x6 even at the peak of the season is basically the amount of time it takes to watch a tv show or part of a movie.  I would present for your consideration the idea that kind of busy work is good for the soul.

Saffron is easy to grow here.  I just plant the bulbs and maybe weed them and that's it.  I did get two different batches of bulbs and so far one batch is far out performing the other, so that is something to think about.  There are different strains, no doubt due to epigenetics or to random mutations over time since the plants do not produce seed but are grown solely by dividing the underground parts and planting them.  While the bulbs are rather pricey, it might be worthwhile to pay extra for a proven producing strain if you can find a seller you have that kind of confidence in, like a producer that sells bulbs on the side to subsidize saffron thread production.

The worst problem I've had is that rodents seem to love them.  I had to plant them in a wire lined bed to keep gophers out, which has worked well for a few years now.  I've also made a lot of naturalized plantings, but they have done poorly so far.  I had hoped I could just scatter the bulbs all over the hills and wander around plucking them with the theme song to The Sound of Music playing through my head, but it is looking like they are not well enough adapted to this climate or soil.  I haven't given up yet, but it's not looking good.  I'm not sure where all you can get away with growing the stuff, but you can look into that on your own.  It seems to grow well in my mild Mediterranean climate.

The flowers bloom in the fall and are harvested daily or up to every other day as they emerge and processed immediately.  Dry the threads quickly, but out of the sun and store in a dark jar.  It is an oddly flavored but delicious spice and I'm finding more and more uses for it.  Yesterday morning I made browned chanterelle mushrooms in a butter and caramelized maple syrup sauce with saffron, vanilla and candy cap mushrooms.  Was it good?  Do you have to ask?  Omg, it was so good.

Well, that's it.  Watch my short and very pretty video, because it's cool and I worked hard on it.  And share it with someone you love so I can get more views and buy axes!  I don't actually really want any more axes, (though I probably want different axes).  I just want to test them all.  I'm only interested in having a pile of axes to the extent that it serves the purpose of learning me all about them.  Once I determine an axe or other tool is dead weight, just like an apple variety or saffron strain that doesn't perform, It's getting the axe so to speak.  Skills and knowledge over gear.  I have too many possessions already due to my not-so-simple living.  I also don't need more saffron than I can process, or tons of saffron that I have to care for, but can only process for 3.00 an hour.  Okay, maybe with the right marketing, selling local organic saffron to fancy by area restaurants maybe I could hit the point where saffron production is at least equivalent to very low paying job like working at walmart.  Or, maybe I'm wrong and I'll get super fast and crack the saffron code to make it a potentially viable business.  I think saffron will remain a labor of love though.   Anyway, I was saying that I don't need tons of saffron plants, so I can sell the extra corms to other would be saffron growers, which is honestly probably much more lucrative than saffron production.  Once I dispose of the poor producing strain and expand the good producing strain, I'll probably have bulbs for sale in my little SkillCult e-store or on ebay.  Until then, I think you'll see saffron cropping up in a recipe here and there.

Note that there is no advertising on this site, nor am I constantly pushing you to buy products, but only occasionally link products that I can pretty much get behind with little or no qualification.  That is no accident.  I feel that having advertising everywhere is contrary to my goal of convincing people to learn and do more for themselves and consume less.  The medium is the message as they say.  However, when you do need to buy stuff, you can help me succeed at my endeavors by bookmarking this link ( http://amzn.to/1Ne861e )in your browser bar and using it whenever you shop on Amazon.com.  It costs you nothing, but it has the potential to help me a lot if enough people do it.  If you don't know how it works yet, that link contains an ID that credits me a small commission around 4% to 6% on anything you buy through it.  That's why most sites are covered in links and ads pushing you toward Amazon or other affiliate programs.  I really don't want to do that, and I don't think you want me to either.  And a huge thanks to those of you who already use that link, it does make a difference!

Tasting a Couple of New Seedling Apples with Mark Albert

While at Mark's Albert's house shooting the pineapple guava video, we sat down and tasted a couple of my new seedling apples, one of which has red flesh.  I'm a little more positive about the red fleshed apple now than I was at the time.  It developed a bit more sugar after spending a little more time in the fridge.  It's not going to be an outstanding desert apple, but I would think now there's a chance it will outperform Grenadine.  It looks better I think.  It's a very attractive apple.  The flavor is quite nice.  After that we tasted some varietal grapes and Glenora grape juice and chatted about grapes a bit.

Pineapple Guava Tour with Collector, Breeder Mark Albert

I visited with my good friend Mark Albert a long time collector and unintentional breeder of Feijoa, also known as Pineapple Guava.  Mark is a dyed in the wool fruit explorer and has dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge in the realms of home gardening and orcharding. More importantly he's driven to share that information (as well as genetic material) forward through the local group, Mendocino Permaculture which puts on the local scion exchange , writing, teaching and personal correspondence all of which no doubt cost him a great deal let alone not resulting in any personal gain.  We had a discussion while I was there about that drive to share information which we both share.  The idea that someone would earn that kind of hard won knowledge and not share it would probably leave us slack jawed and shaking our heads in bewilderment.  If that kind of thing isn't used to help us all progress then what's the point?   I hope to do some more video visits with him in the future and get some of his wisdom and opinions out to you guys.

After about 40 years of growing and testing Feijoa, he has some new seedling varieties which have risen to the top.  I've confirmed that at his tasting where I unknowingly picked the same favorite he did.  They are smaller fruits, but quality over quantity if it comes down to that.  Down the page you'll find his recommendations for a early, mid and late feijoa.  After this visit I'm planning to put in three to cover the season.  I have a smattering of them already placed here and there, but I think it's time to put in a row of better placed, and better cared for, bushes.  The plant is very tough and drought resistant once established and it looks good.  All around a good one for establishing on the homestead or home landscape if you have the climate for it.

VARIETY RECOMMENDATIONS FROM MARK ALBERT

At the 40 year mark of testing, the list has gotten pretty simple for the north. 

The north means our Mendoterranean climate zone, or anywhere north of the bay, where the cooler climate zone will likely not allow the latest-season southern cultivars to ripen to perfection before our cold temperatures stop the ripening or freeze the hanging fruit. This list has a definite bias toward the home grower, with no commercial goal in mind, and quality of fruit comes before size. 

The proven cultivars at this point are: 

Early season (October): Albert’s Pride or Albert’s Joy
Middle season (November) : Moore
Late Season (December): Albert’s Supreme

Because these cultivars have been selected in the north, they will also work in the southern California when they are not ruined by the Santa Ana winds, the hot, dry wind from the east that can cook the ripening fruit in the fall. It does not work the other way: good southern cultivars may not ripen in the north. 


This is an ongoing experiment, and we are now testing the latest New Zealand cultivars which have recently made their way to the U.S. These are likely to be very good, because they newest cultivars were selected by New Zealand feijoa lovers with a more educated pallet, not by paid academicians, as in the past. 

Also the biological time factor is that feijoa is a very new fruit, only selected out of the wild in the last 130 years or so from South America. When we look back at the old cultivar names, that’s only 5-6 generations of development. So it makes sense that each generation is higher quality because they are crosses of the best of the previous generation of cultivars. This is how all fruit is improved. The previous 2 waves of New Zealand cultivars were commercial selections and were a bust in California. 

So these recommendations may change in the next 5-10 years. 

In Abundance, 

Mark

Foraging for Gourmet Wild Mushrooms, coccora, porcini, oysters, puffballs

I've been putting up large quantities of dried and frozen wild mushrooms for a few days.  These are some of the mushrooms I grow and a few other things I ran into running around in the woods having a good ol' time.  Right now the good stuff that's out are lions mane, coccora, porcini and a few oysters.  Also some puffballs, which I'm very fond of, especially browned in a skillet.  Be careful out there if you decide to take up mushrooming.  I highly recommend it, but it takes a while to get comfortable with identifying and eating stuff when there are always the possibility of eating something that will make you sick or kill you.  What I do is mostly eat what I already know.  This is a staple subsistence activity for me.  I ignore lots of mushrooms I don't know and get on with finding what I do know and have already proven safe.  If you live on the west coast I can pretty much recommend David Arora's books without hesitation.  I use his small book All The Rain Promises a lot, but also own the large one, Mushrooms Demystified and use it quite a bit.  I don't think I even own any others anymore.  Once I got those two, I got rid of the rest.   http://amzn.to/2fTRxzP

Tasting 17 Apples in November and Looking at New Seedling Apples

I went out and picked what apples were available to taste this past week.  There were a few good'ns in there.  More exciting is a couple of my seedlings that are looking rather nice.  You can tell some things about an apple by just feeling it and looking at it.  A couple just look like they are going to be hard dry fleshed and bitter.  The one I taste in this video obviously looks more like something you'd expect to be eating.  The most exciting though is a very red and beautiful apple which colored up amazingly even in nearly complete shade covered with stocking material to protect it from birds.  Typically fruit colors up better with light.  It is a cross between Grenadine and Lady Williams.  Both are late apples and this may be a very late apple, though I'm inclined to think it is approaching ripeness fairly soon.  

You can't judge an apple by it's cover.  We certainly learned that from the red delicious era when strains of it were selected for better and better looking apples with worse and worse flavor and texture.  But I'm hopeful for something tasty out of this with red flesh.  The odds are against it of course.  Most of my apple seedlings will be between mediocre, such as the one I taste in this video, and just plain bad.  But even with the primitive, unrefined apples carrying undesirable characteristics that I'm using in many of my crosses, more will be edible than not and I'm expecting at least a smattering of apples worthy of further propagation by someone.  This apple bears so much resemblance to Grenadine, that I'm hoping it has inherited it's beautiful and flavorful red flesh.  Check it out.

There is more than a passing resemblance between this seedling and it's seed parent grenadine.

There is more than a passing resemblance between this seedling and it's seed parent grenadine.

The thing is that the red skin of grenadine is actually from the color of the flesh showing through the translucent skin.  My hope beyond hope is that this is the case with the seedling.  It seems unlikely though.  We'll find out soon enough.

In the video I taste wickson, amberoso, crabby lady, king wickson, muscat de venus, something that may be katherine, something that may be ashmead's kernel, bedford pippin,high cross pippin, claygate pearmain, one of my seedlings, pink parfait, gold rush and others.

Of Sharp Tools and Dummy Rules, A Safety Framework and 1/2 Hour Video Just Talking About an Axe Handle

Here is something I recorded regarding safety when using sharp tools.  I hope it conveys my basic approach and philosophy regarding the subject.  I'm much more about a general approach and philosophy adopted as a framework in which to approach work than I am about sets of rules.  Most rules that are stated as absolutes need all kinds of qualification that they don't always get.  Not only is that ineffective when engaging in real world work, it can be dangerous.  What I like to call dummy or boy scout rules are generally stated in absolutes like never and always.  That discourages intelligent engagement with the work at hand and defers your safety to an authoritative statement or entity.  The idea seems to be that if you just do this one thing, you will be safe.  If you're doing real work in the real world, you'll find that most of those rules will be broken, and some frequently, in order to carry out work at all or to do work more practically or more efficiently.  It would be more constructive to state these as guidelines and be realistic about the risks involved and strategies one can employ to ameliorate risk when doing things that are dangerous, or when using sharp tools in the grey area that exist between the very safest ways to do things and the most effective.  The usual black and white approach can lead, I believe, to unsafe work approaches when trying to bend your self and your work to static and overstated rules which experienced craftsmen and workers may not actually follow.  In the future I'll get more specific on knife and axe safety, but this is actually some of the more important part to me.  

Also, I forgot to post this video on the husqvarna axe handle.  It covers various points regarding the handle and planned modifications and as a matter of course addresses some stuff about axe handles in general.

Starting the Husqvarna Forest Axe Project, Intro and Testing the Stock Axe

This is the beginning of a look at the Husqvarna 26” Multipurpose Forest Axe.  After seeing my unflattering review of their hatchet you might expect me to be frothing at the mouth about this one, but I actually think it has potential or I wouldn't have bought it.  The video is a short intro with a lot of chopping.  I kept falling asleep while trying to edit it because the repetitive chopping is somehow very soothing.  This is a class of axe that is light enough to pack, but as the name implies is good for a lot of different stuff.  I like this class of axe for running around the woods here or doing a little limbing.  The Gransfors Bruks Forest Axe is the most famous example, which I own.  Having put that axe through a lot of firewood last year just to see what can really reasonably be done with it, I can say that these light short axes can do some real work!  They are probably not the best at anything.  It’s compromises all around.  I would not really recommend this as a firewood axe to most people.  it is too light and it would be better if it were longer..  However, if someone interested in a packable axe and improving their skill at using one, I think it would be an excellent exercise to get one of these and cut a quantity of firewood with it.  It is also probably an easy axe to learn to chop on.  Although a somewhat longer handle could be safer, the shorter handle should be more accurate.

I’ve had the gransfors for a very long time and thanks to the outstanding quality of the handle wood and my hard won skill at not breaking axe handles all the time, it has survived the years and seen a lot of use.  I like the design, but it’s a tad short at 25 inches, which is my short limit for a truly effective and comfortable axe at my height (5’ 10”).  The workmanship on the head is terrible though.  The bit is extremely crooked.  So if the Husqvarna works out, which I think it will, the Gransfors will go on the auction block.  I’m not interested in these things hanging about gathering dust.

Coming up in this project, we’ll talk about the axe, buying it and what I do and don’t like and then start modifying it.  Some stuff I know what I want and other stuff will be experimental.  during and after, we’ll test it at various uses to see how it performs.

 

Posted on October 22, 2016 and filed under axes, firewood, Forestry, tools.

One Year Shelf Stable Apple Butter Update, Still Going Strong

It's been nearly a year since I made my first batch of old fashioned shelf stable apple butter.  Today's video is an update on that project.  It spent the year in my trailer here with wildly fluctuating temperatures.  Many days were over 100 this summer and many more than that in the 90's.  There is no sign of spoilage and it still tastes delicious.  All the links to previous posts and videos concerning apple butter are listed below.  Unfortunately, I didn't have a lot of apples on my trees this year and have not been able to get any to make a larer batch.  It's an excellent product and not particularly difficult.  I hope you give it a try if you have access to apples.

Original blog post with recipe

All of the historical research I compiled