GETTING STARTED IN FLINTKNAPPING

INTRODUCTION

Welcome! You have just become interested in a most fascinating and interesting hobby, and certainly the oldest craft known to man. The German word “knapp” can mean to crack, pinch off, or to nibble which perfectly describes the action of one who works stone by flaking. Another German word is “knappen” which among other things can mean workman or craftsman. The English derivatives of these words were used in their gunflint industry and therefore we now have knap, flintknapper, and flintknapping! Whether you make gun flints or arrow heads, or work rocks other than flint, “flintknapping” is now the name used to describe the craft in general. No matter where your ancestors came from we have all made and used stone implements in the past. Because flintworking is such a part of our heritage this is the reason why some of us still feel the need to practice it. Today, flintknapping is undergoing a revival with many more practitioners than there were 30 years ago and it continues to grow with the greatest number being in the US where it is most strongly associated with American Indians because they were some of the last people to use stone tools. However, interest in the craft has also been growing steadily worldwide. That being said, the following was prepared with the beginner-hobbyist in mind. Herein you will find a brief overview of the craft along with information on the primary sources of literature, videos, tools, raw materials, and other paraphernalia associated with the work, much of which is available on this site.

THE THREE BASIC WAYS FLINT IS WORKED

First of all, forget heating the stone and dropping water on it this theory has long since been debunked by modern experimenters. When viewed closely, the surface of a flaked stone tool, or projectile point, will exhibit a wavy appearance. These “scars” are a frozen record of shock waves generated by a series of blows, or “force applications,” dealt to the material. Flint, flint-like rocks, and obsidian have what is called a “conchiodal fracture” which is best illustrated when a BB strikes a plate glass window and a “cone” is removed opposite the point of impact. In knapping, when applying controlled force to the edge of a piece of flint only a portion of that cone is in the initiation of the “fracture front” which fans out across the surface undercutting natural convexities or ridges formed by previous flake removals. The three basic ways in which controlled force is applied is as follows:

1. Direct percussion is striking flakes from the edges of a piece of flint, flint like rock, or obsidian with some sort of hammer. Most commonly used are hammer stones, antler billets, or modern copper billets. This is the first technique invented by early hominids for the removal of sharp-edged flakes to be used as-is, and for the making of primitive pebble tools and hand axes. In the later periods of the Stone Age it was used to reduce “cores” for “spalls” flakes and blades, and for roughing out blanks or “preforms” for later reduction into finished tools and projectile points. In the case of refined percussion flaked “bifaces,” such as Solutrean laurel leaf blades and large Hopewell points, this technique may be used for the removal of over 90 percent of the major flakes. To perform at this level percussion flaking can be the most difficult technique to master.

2. Pressure flaking is prying flakes off by pressing against the edge of the preform with a pointed tool like an antler tine, or one with a copper tip. Pressure flaking can be used in varying degrees for the final finish of percussion flaked preforms, notching, or “edge preparations” to facilitate the more accurate removal of percussion flakes. Also, small arrow points may be made from thin flakes using this technique only. In general, pressure flaking takes less time to learn, and wastes much less material in the process. Some very beautiful and precise work has been done by those that have mastered this technique. For examples: Parallel and oblique flaked lanceolate points from the American West, and the finish flaking on Egyptian Gerzean knives and Type I-C Danish daggers.  

3. Indirect percussion uses an antler, or copper punch struck by a hammer made of antler or wood to detach flakes. This technique concentrates a lot of force in a small spot with great precision. At first it was used to drive off long “prismatic blades” from special “prepared cores” during the Late Paleolithic and Mesolithic in the Old World. Refined indirect percussion was used in the mid to final stages of the manufacture of Danish Neolithic square-sectioned axe preforms. Also, it may have been used in North America for blade making in the Cumberland and Clovis Cultures as well as for fluting their points, and there is good evidence that some Folsom points were fluted using this technique. Some fancy Early Archaic Period points may have been notched with a small punch while modern knappers have also used it for this purpose. And, they have been known to use a sharp copper or steel punch to remove large, stubborn step factures. In the US this is the least used, and least understood of the three methods of flake removal. In Europe its practice is much more prevalent due to their long tradition of driving blades from cores. A high level of mastery of indirect percussion techniques along with the other two methods is required if one wishes to reproduce square-sectioned axes and “stitched handled” Danish daggers. At this time less than a dozen knappers in the US and world-wide are known to have achieved this level of skill. 

HOW LONG DOSE IT TAKE TO LEARN?

One of the prevailing questions from prospective knappers is “How long will it take to be able to make a decent point?” In the past people who were working by themselves spent many years learning the very basics of knapping. They didn’t have the readily available how-to books, videos, classes and large gatherings of craftsmen from whom information, tools and raw stone could be quickly obtained. By taking full advantage of the above the learning curve can be substantially shortened. Depending upon your aptitude for manual skills, how much time you spend on a daily basis, and how far you want to go with your craft, six months to a year is the average for a person who really applies himself. Also, the type, or style of knapping you choose to major in has some bearing on how long. For example, percussion flaking large bifaces from irregular blocks of flint will take much longer to master than pressure flaking a small arrow point from a waste flake that came off that biface. In the next section the different types of knapping will be discussed. 

STYLES OF KNAPPING

The application of the three basic methods in varying degrees along with the use of the different tools, and in some cases modern lapidary equipment, determines the styles of knapping we see practiced today.

Traditional knapping. Traditional knappers use only tools and techniques that were familiar to their Stone Age predecessors. Hard and soft hammerstones and antler billets for percussion, along with antler tines, and in some cases copper tipped tools for pressure flakers, and punches, are used in an attempt to make as close a copy of an original artifact as possible. 

Modern knapping. The main thing that separates “modern” knappers from “traditionalists” is that they prefer to make their billets from solid copper, or copper cap billets with wood handles affectionately referred to as “copper boppers.” The tips of their pressure flakers are also made from heavy gage copper wire. Copper tip pressure flakers were used in Prehistoric North America to a limited extent, and in the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age of Europe.

Lap-knapping. A form of knapping which utilizes modern lapidary equipment instead of old fashioned percussion flaking for the production of the early stage preforms. Since you can purchase ready-sawed material no lapidary equipment is necessary to start with. However, those who make points from slabs on a regular basis own their own rock saws and frequently work expensive gemstones. By sawing them up, then flaking over the sawed surfaces they can save on material costs and make beautiful points at the same time. Usually slabs for pressure flaking are from one quarter to 3/8 inch thick and cut to widths that are easily covered with pressure scars. Thicker, wider slabs can be cut for percussion flaking.

Flake-over-grinding. Another form of lap-knapping is “flake-over-grinding” or “FOG” knapping. This method uses the addition of a lapidary grinding wheel as well as sawn slabs. The sawed blank is carefully ground into a preform shape, including a lenticular cross-section, and tapered tip and base. “Platforms” for seating of the tool tip on the edges are ground in as well. Then, pressure flaking is done over the smoothed surfaces to produce near perfect parallel or oblique “flake scar patterns.” They say “everything old is new again” and that is probably true here. This same method was employed in prehistoric Denmark and in ancient Egypt to produce spectacular daggers and knives. Of course they had to percussion flake their blanks and then grind the surfaces by hand, but the idea and results are the same none the less. 

MORE INFORMATION: BOOKS, DVDs and MAGAZINES

The above has been a very brief overview of what can be a very complex craft or hobby. Even though it my be enough to satisfy the curious, for those who are seriously interested in getting started we recommend reading a book and watching a video or two before you get too far involved. This will give you a better idea as to whether you really wish to continue; and if so, you will be better informed as to what style of knapping, what tools, and materials will be necessary. In the short run, getting this information first can save you a lot of time and money.

Books. There are several expensive and expansive books on the market, and nowadays a lot of free stuff of dubious nature going out over the internet, but there is only one book recommend here for the beginner. That is D.C. Waldorf’s The Art of Flint Knapping. In print since 1975, and now in its fifth edition, this is the book that started it all with several generations of modern hobby and commercial knappers first learning the basics of the craft from its pages, and many more who haven’t read it learned it from somebody that did! It is a compact, well written and beautifully illustrated volume that covers the terminology and basics of the craft along with advanced theory and practice. Again, it is recommended that you read this book first! Not only will it answer most of the questions you may have, but it will also serve as a foundation for further study and inquiry.

DVDs. Perhaps the most powerful teaching tool to be invented since the printed word on paper is videography. The Waldorf’s took advantage of this technology early on and produced the first available instructional video in 1993. This was The Art of Flint Knapping Video Companion. It has been digitally re-mastered for DVD from the original footage with titles linking the scenes to the chapters and figures in the book. Even though both, the book and video, have become classics they still remain the most powerful stand-alone teaching tools for the beginner, and they are available together in the Specials and Combos page on this site! Also, another highly recommended DVD is D.C. Waldorf - Beyond Thrashing & Bashing - Flint Knapping: Next Steps. In October of 2007 videographer and interviewer Charles Eaton visited D.C. armed with a list of questions that had bothered him and many other beginning to intermediate knappers. To answer these questions D.C. opened his bag of tools and tricks with the camera rolling and a two disc set was the result featuring up-dates on tools and techniques D.C. now uses to get the most out of his rock supply. This production picks up where the classic Art of Flint Knapping Video Companion leaves off.

Other publications. CHIPS Magazine was founded by the Waldorfs in 1989 and was the most successful and longest running quarterly publication that dealt exclusively with flintknapping. Since the last issue was released in October of 2011 no other magazines have come forward to replace it. However, not all is lost! The most useful and informative articles are still in print and are to be found in the four volumes of The Best of CHIPS series. Nowhere else in one place can so much be found on the subject. If The Art of Flint Knapping is the “primer,” then The Best of CHIPS is the “encyclopedia” and an absolute must for all serious practitioners of the craft. Beyond what has been recommended above for the beginner there are a number of other books and DVDs for the intermediate and advanced knapper. All of which are available on this site.

KNAP-INS

After reading a book, watching a DVD, and fooling around by yourself, you may begin to wonder if there are groups or gatherings of like-minded people. The answer is Knap-ins! Knap-ins are a phenomena that really got rolling in the early 1980’s and today it is not unusual for one of these events to attract 100 or more active knappers, plus many more onlookers and or buyers. Here you will find every kind of tool for the craft, a huge variety of raw materials, as well as displays of individual’s work for show and for sale. Best of all, most of these craftsmen are very willing to give “newbies” free instruction and advice that will speed the learning process. How do you find out about these events? Since CHIPS Magazine is no longer around and this site does not list all the knap-ins, go on line and start with these big ones that have been held for at least ten years or longer: Water Creek - Arkansas, Devil’s Hole - Illinois, Stone Tool Craftsman Show - New York, Flint Ridge - Ohio, Osage Knap-in – Missouri, and Boise ‘d Arc Primitive Skills – Missouri.

CONCLUSION

We hope you have enjoyed reading this short introduction to flint knapping finding it both informative and useful while keeping in mind, with the exception of bulk rock and rough preforms, most of what you need to get started is right here. If you have chosen not to participate in the hobby please recommend this site to some one else who may be interested. 



This product was added to our catalog on Sunday 19 November, 2017.

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