Primitive Skills “Super” Glue

Run out of glue in the wilderness?

So many things are taken for granted in our consumer society. If you need something, simply buy a product (or app) for that.

So what about glue?

I was making a prop for my book’s cover and found myself needing an adhesive. The prop? A obsidian studded war club (see the first chapter of my forthcoming novel).

The club is a scrap 4×4. The obsidian I had laying around (from my knapping days). But how to attach the obsidian to/into the wood? I could go to the hardware store. Or I could do it the (real) old-fashion way.

I looked up my Primitive Skills notes from an Earthwalk Northwest class I took (a long time ago in a world far, far away). Here’s the recipe/process:

  1. Take tree sap…some nice sticky sap from an evergreen.
  2. Powder up so charcoal…found in our fireplace.
  3. Mix together…maybe 4 parts sap to 3 parts powdered charcoal.
  4. Heat (here I cheated…heated in a old cat food can on a backpacking stove…my wife wouldn’t let me do so on our kitchen stove).
  5. Once heated, a coated the two pieces you want to join and press together.
  6. Note: it’s heat sensitive…to “disassemble,” just heat.

Here’s some images:

Making the club (I cheated…used a viking type ax):

Carving a club

Carving a club

Chiseling the slot (cheated again):

Carving slots

Carving slots for the obsidian flakes

Preparing the sap and charcoal:

Preparing sap and charcoal

Preparing the sap and the charcoal

Gluing the obsidian edge into the club:

Gluing the Obsidian into the club

Gluing the obsidian chips into the slots

Finished product:

obsidian studded club

Obsidian studded club

So are you ready to make a batch of glue while lost in the wilderness?

Celestial Navigation Part Two: Longitude (how far east or west)

To determine position on the open seas, one need to measure the Latitude (north and south) and Longitude (degrees east and west). But longitude is a more difficult task.

Quick review:

  • Latitude: how far north or south, referenced to the equator (halfway between the north and south poles).
  • Longitude: how far east or west from some agreed upon position (now-a-days pinned to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England).
Latitude and Longitude from Wikipedia

Latitude and Longitude from Wikipedia

From Wikipedia (

While it is possible to determine the longitude by observing the stars (or even the moons of Jupiter), these measurement require a degree of accuracy impossible on the rolling deck of a ship at sea.

A solution to this problem is the use of accurate timepieces.

  • …Two observers note the time when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky
  • …The difference in time is directly related to the angle between the two observers on the surface of the earth
  • …24 hours = 360 degrees
  • …Each hour of difference = 15 degrees
  • …The angle between the position of the two observers can be use to determine distance
  • …Each degree = (circumference of the earth)/(360 degrees) = 69.2 miles where the circumference = 24900 miles.
  • …Using Nautical miles, each degree = (21639 nautical miles)/(360 degrees) = 60 nautical miles
  • …So that each minute of angle (60 minutes to a degree) = 1 nautical mile
  • …So for each hour of difference between the two observers, they are 60 nautical miles apart (or 69.2 land miles).
  • Easy. Right? Well, it’s only easy if the two observers are using clocks that have been synchronized and keep accurate time.

Today, any pair of inexpensive wristwatches would suffice. However, not until the eighteenth century, could such accurate clocks be constructed.


John Harrison’s first chronometer

Prior to the 18th Century, navigators could determine latitude (distance north or south) but could only guess their east-west position by dead reckoning (estimating the speed of their ship, estimate of the direction of travel, and estimating their time duration). Hence the name “dead” reckoning.

In my time-travel, alternative history novels, common wristwatches become a highly valued navigational aid. (In your story, make sure they run on internal springs and not batteries!).

The tale of John Harrison’s construction of an accurate chronometer in the 18th Century is well told in “Longitude” by Dava Sobel.

Celestial Navigation Part One: Latitude

To determine position on the open seas, one need to measure the Latitude (north and south) and Longitude (degrees east and west).

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 7.48.47 PM

From Wikipedia (

To determine distances position north and south, one needs three things: a tool to measure the angle between the horizon and the max altitude of the sun, the date, and charts with the latitude as a function of the sun’s maximum altitude.

The measurement tool can be as simple as an outstretched hand or as complicated as a sextant. From Wikipedia ( Accurate angle measurement evolved over the years. One simple method is to hold the hand above the horizon with your arm stretched out. The width of the little finger is an angle just over 1.5 degrees elevation at extended arms length and can be used to estimate the elevation of the sun from the horizon plane and therefore estimate the time till sunset.

The need for more accurate measurements led to the development of a number of increasingly accurate instruments, including the kamal, astrolabe, octant and sextant. The sextant and octant are most accurate because they measure angles from the horizon, eliminating errors caused by the placement of an instrument’s pointers, and because their dual mirror system cancels relative motions of the instrument, showing a steady view of the object and horizon.

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 7.42.58 PMFrom

The date can just be an accepted calendar.

The charts (using the same calendar) must be generated by hand using pre-determined latitude positions. For example, using Reykjavik (Iceland) which is located at 64 degrees North, one can generate the following data (by taking measurements throughout the year):

Latitude (degrees)dateMax Sun Altitude
64January 1st3.2
64February 1st9.92
64March 1st18.8
64April 1st30.9
64May 1st41.3
64June 1st48.2
64July 1st49.1
64August 1st43.8
64September 1st34.0
64October 1st22.6
64November 1st11.4
64December 1st4.3

To complete the chart, one needs more dates (which I have avoided here for simplicity) and the angles at different Latitudes (here I just added three, again for simplicity) to obtain:

DateMax Sun Altitude at
Latitude = 44 degrees
Max Sun Altitude at
Latitude = 54 degrees
Max Sun Altitude at
Latitude = 64 degrees
January 1st23.9 13.1 3.2
February 1st28.918.98.9
March 1st38.828.818.8
April 1st50.940.930.9
May 1st61.351.341.3
June 1st68.258.248.2
July 1st69.059.149.1
August 1st63.853.843.8
September 1st54.044.034.0
October 1st42.513.13.2
November 1st31.321.411.4
December 1st24.114.14.3

Obviously, more intermediate dates and latitudes are necessary. These would fill a very large atlas (think of the number of data points for 365 days and 180 degrees!).

The above date collected from this Navy site:

So, if you are sailing in a Viking ship (as my characters do in my second book which will be published in late 2016), you need to monitor the altitude of the sun above the horizon. Take several readings during the noon hours, chose the largest value and check that value in your atlas. If the maximum value is 49 degrees and the date is August 15th, the latitude is approximately 58.8 degrees from the above table. If you are sailing to Reykjavik, you better turn North a bit as the latitude of Reykjavik is 64 degrees.

How far east and west are you? I’ll cover longitude in my next post.

Kings and Medieval Social Structure

Whether writing historic or alternative history fiction (or even when world-building in a fantasy or Sci-Fi genre), it is often necessary to describe society’s political and social structure. This is so in my second novel, which takes place in 11th century Ireland.

Medieval Dublin Castle

Prior to the 19th (or so) century, Kings seem to be the prevalent governing structure. Being totally immersed in our established democracy and firmly accepting that all are created equal, I wondered by people put up with any type of aristocracy.

The book “Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800 to 1200” by David Wyatt shed quite a bit of light on the formation of medieval societies and let to my eventual acceptance and, perhaps, support of the historic necessity of Kings.

I read Dr. Wyatt’s book while researching the “institution” of slavery. Note: I used the inter-library loan system at my local library as the book is out of print and used copies run approximately $200 on Amazon.

The book does a great job of describing emerging societies. My take-away is as follows:

  1. Early societies were violent. Anyone without a personal connection is a target for theft, slavery or rape. People banded together for protection. One leader would emerge and trade his protection for the loyalty of followers. There was no sense of Nation.
  2. Anyone outside this leader-follower structure is a target. Only within the leader-controlled areas do neighbors (typically) not kill each other.
  3. As the “leader” extended his/her influence, this area of protection increases.
  4. When a leader controls enough territory, he calls himself a King and the territory becomes a Nation, resulting in an even larger pool of inhabitants that become non-targets to each other.

Unfortunately, with more than one King in the world, King/Nation to King/Nation violence started and spread, a notable example being the centuries long spat between the English and the French Monarchs. At least until Kings were supplemented by democracies.

Another serious downside is that intermediate social levels such as lords, knights, clerics and other privileged classes are formed. While they helped enforce peace at the local level, violence between classes (top down) still existed.

So, while Kings are not in favor in the modern world (except ceremonially), they served a vital function in the past to reduce overall violence and to generate a sense of Nation as societies evolved.

Note: I accept that this post is a bit simplistic. Problems did persist; one being when, for political reasons, specific minorities were persecuted by the King. Another is the heavy burden of taxation on the lower classes (to support the upper classes).

Amazon affiliate link to referenced book: Slaves And Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800 – 1200

Making (Soft) Soap


I’m guessing that the three most important health improvements in a modern (or emerging) society are water, sewers, and soap:

  1. Clean water: without it we die.
  2. Sewers: if we live in a city, sewers are necessary to get rid of human (and animal) waste and pathogens as well as helping eliminate food sources for disease-carrying rodents.
  3. Soap: the chemistry is a bit difficult but the actual process to make a basic soap product is straightforward.

Clean water and good sewers are fairly straightforward, although expensive in a community larger than a few people. But soap can easily be made, the most difficult part being a cooking vessel (think iron, ceramic or even hot rocks in a hollowed out log).

There are three steps in making soap:

  1. Collect wood ash and use to make lye.
  2. Collect fat and render it into tallow (cows or deer) or lard (pig).
  3. Combining the tallow/lard and lye over heat to make a soft soap.


Wood ash is the powdery reside left in the fireplace. The best ash ashes are from hard woods.

The ashes are soaked in chemical-free water (rainwater). The water flushes out the potassium (one of the elements found in the wood ash). The resulting liquid is caustic, specifically potassium hydroxide.

The soaking is considered done (strong enough) when the liquid is dense enough to float an egg. Note: dispose of the egg.

If not strong enough, the liquid will need to be boiled down to increase the density.

Rendering Fat

Add fat chunks from butchering to a heavy pot with water. The water is just to prevent burning and to help float the tallow/lard. Boil a low temperature (barely bubbling) for an hour or so. The tallow/lard will float on the water (any lighter than water impurities may need to be skimmed off).

Allow to cool. Then remove the white silky tallow/lard from the surface. You may need to scrape off any residue on the bottom surface of the tallow/lard.

Making Soap

Place the lye in a non-reactive pot (lye will dissolve an aluminum pot). Heat until it simmers.

Slowly add melted tallow/lard to the lye pot.

Heat at a simmer for several hours. Stir. Remove heat briefly if the pot starts to foam over.

At first, you’ll get an oily foam on top. After an hour or so, the liquid will thicken. Keep stirring.

Once homogeneous, remove from heat and allow to cool.

Now wash up! You now have a soft soap. (Hard soaps require Sodium Hydroxide, soft are made from Potassium Hydroxide which is in the wood ashes).


Some chemical notes (from Wikipedia)

Soap is a salt of a fatty acid.

In chemistry, salts are ionic compounds that result from the neutralization reaction of an acid and a base. They are composed of related numbers of cations (positively charged ions) and anions (negative ions) so that the product is electrically neutral (without a net charge). These component ions can be inorganic, such as chloride (Cl−), or organic, such as acetate (C2H3O2−); and can be monatomic, such as fluoride (F−), or polyatomic, such as sulfate (SO42−).

There are several varieties of salts. Salts that hydrolyze to produce hydroxide ions when dissolved in water are basic salts, whilst those that hydrolyze to produce hydronium ions in water are acidic salts. Neutral salts are those that are neither acid nor basic salts. Zwitterions contain an anionic centre and a cationic centre in the same molecule, but are not considered to be salts. Examples include amino acids, many metabolites, peptides, and proteins.

A fatty acid is a carboxylic acid with a long aliphatic tail (chain), which is either saturated or unsaturated.

carboxylic acit

carboxylic Acid molecule

Hydrocarbon molecules

Aliphatic molecules

Potash is any of various mined and manufactured salts that contain potassium in water-soluble form. The name derives from “pot ash”, which refers to plant ashes soaked in water in a pot, the primary means of manufacturing the product before the industrial era. The word “potassium” is derived from potash.

Other References

Mother Earth News…making soap from ashes

Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World

Any clarifications or corrections from you, the readers, are appreciated!


Clothing in the Middle Ages

Writing a novel set in the 11th century will necessarily involve describing the clothing of my various characters. I started out just describing a linen tunic covered by wool outerwear. And avoiding any description of pants, cloth weave or shoes.

Luckily, I found a great article titled “Clothes in the Viking Age” by William R. Short at

My minimal linen and wool description was adequate. But this article will enable me to expand my description.

The following (including images) are from William R. Short’s article:

Usually made of wool. Looks like a long pullover with excess material at the armpits for movement.









Usually made of linen (for comfort). General shape of the Tunic.

Could be baggy or tight with no pockets or fly. So the men had to hike up their tunic and drop their drawers to relieve themselves.
Note: in “The Tudor Monastery Farm” (, trousers may have had an opening (or flap) in the front that was laced up (thus making it easier to relieve oneself).

Trousers had no pockets. Hence one carried their odds and ends in pouches or just hanging from belts.

Make of wool and probably only worn by the more wealthy.

Made from leather using the turnshoe technique (made inside out to facilitate sewing the thinner uppers to the thicker sole. This puts the stitching on the inside of the shoe. Laces or toggles were used to secure the shoe.

Rectangular in shape and worn so that the sword arm was free.

What does a well dressed northern European look like?


Medieval Man’s Clothing









A lot more information is available in the article, including women’s clothing and some weaving techniques. Well worth a look. See

Update:February, 2015. For images of 16th Century dress, see

Irish, Clothing

Medieval Irish Dress from

Home Saw

Wood Saws

A recent image of a reconstructed medieval dwelling had posts with square cut ends. The wood craft looked rustic and basic but I wondered about those cut ends. They would be easily done now-a-days with a chainsaw but would (no pun intended) there be any saws from the middle ages that could produce a log with square cut ends?

Found a great reference by P. d’ A. Jones and E. N. Simons:

The first saws were likely knapped serrated edges of a long narrow piece of flint or obsidian. An improvement could have been made by mounting (with hoof glue) the obsidian into a wooden frame. From there, individual pieces of flint/obsidian may have been glued in a line along the wood frame.

Copper and bronze knifes existed several millennia BC. Dings in the cutting edge may have been found to be useful for digging into wood or stone. This eventually evolved into a whole series of dings, forming the first sawblade.

Bronze saws gave way to iron. And development languished for centuries until the carbon could be controlled. Probably the introduction of crucible steel (see previous post) allowed the cutting teeth to be formed from high carbon (hard) steel.

At this point, the “raking” of the teeth developed.

Teeth raked to cut on pull stoke

Teeth raked to cut on pull stroke






The saws were probably raked to only cut in only one direction (ie. a common pruning saw) as opposed to both directions (a crosscut logger’s saw), since the iron/steel was too soft for cut in a “push” direction.

Saw teeth raked to cut on both pull and push strokes

Saw teeth raked to cut on both pull and push strokes





Another development during the Iron Age (500 BC to 50 AD) was the frame saw, which kept the cutting blade under tension so it can be used in both directions (assuming it’s raked in both directions).

Modern frame saw

Modern frame saw






According to Jones and Simons, it wasn’t until the 13th century that tapered blades and set teeth were widely used (although set teeth were used by the Romans). The “set” teeth were bent to the side, in an alternative manner, to increase the width of the cut and allowing the removal of cut debris/powder.

Each tooth is bend in a different direction

Edge view of set teeth





In modern times, the quality of steel has given us hand saws of every conceivable size and shape.

So, did medieval dwellings have posts with squared off ends? Probably not, the quality of steel required probably too expensive for most medieval peoples.

Thatched Roof

So I’m writing away (or trying to) in my alternative version of 11th century Ireland., when my characters had to thatch a shelter. Yikes, so how does one thatch a roof?

Screen shot 2013-12-24 at 5.06.01 PM

Note the straw/reeds are cut side down. Ahh…the aluminum ladder may be a bit difficult to find in 11th century Ireland…

A common reed (phragmites communes) is one typical plant used for thatching. Also wheat straw is used but care must be taken not to damage the straw during threshing (removing the grain from the stalk).

Modern construction:
Was surprised to find that the bottom (thicker) end of the reed is placed “downhill”.

And when you get done, you can trim the roof:

Brain Tanning

Ain’t got enough brains to tan his own hide.

Ever hear that saying? Well, it is becoming a little dated. Not too many people tan hides now-a-days.

But prior to the industrial age, clothing was not cheap. If one had access to fibers, plant or animal, one could spend days/weeks manually spinning enough yarn from which to weave a piece of cloth. Only then could one actually make clothing.

So for many, the only real options were animal skins (or running around naked).

Even so, turning animal skins into wearable leather (with or without the hair) was an arduous process, taking several days. (But still quicker than spinning and weaving).

The rough steps:

1. Kill something (hopefully with enough brains to tan its own hide…which, in the animal kingdom, is true…not sure about some humans).

2. Scrape the hide of fat and remaining meat on the inside. For the outer part of the hie, one has to make a decision: keep or remove the hair. For a sleeping hide or winter cloak, it would be best to keep the hair on. This does make the process more difficult.

Scraping can be done with sharp-edged stones, antlers, bone, or metal (if available). Two methods of supporting the hide: stake out on the ground. Or tying up on a frame (if wood was available).

Frame for tanning hides

Stretching frame for tanning hides

Removal of hair could be made easier if soaked in mildly acidic (urine) or alkaline (wood ash) solutions. In any case, it would be a lot of work and one had to be careful not to cut the hide.

3. Brain treatment. The brains are boiled and then mashed up and vigorously rubbed into the hide (both sides if hair removed, otherwise only the non-hair side).

4. Stretching. This softens the hide. This actually starts while the hide is stretched on the frame (less so is staked on the ground). The pressure while scraping starts this process.

Even while on the stretcher (after de-hairing and brain rubbing), one can use a thick blunt (and smooth!) stick to push against the hide. This does some stretching and for the hide with hair still attached, this may be sufficient.

For a soft hide, one can repeatedly pull the brain-soaked hide back and forth over a smooth, de-barked tree branch or log, turning the hide to stretch all parts.

5. Smoking. To keep the hike soft even when wet, one can smoke (not cook!) the hike. One common method is to tie the hide into a cone or tube and suspend over wood-chip covered embers. One would have to reverse the hide to smoke both sides. The smokey residue is the desired result. Obviously, one would need to monitor the smokey embers to avoid a flare up of flames and the loss of ones several days work.

The chemistry escapes me. For those with knowledge of what the brains (with their oils) does to the hide (made up of collagen, a fibrous protein), please comment with some chemistry!

Some references:

Basic brain-tanning:

Tanning chemistry:

Industrial tanning chemistry:

Historic Ironworking

One possible set of developmental steps in the the use of iron.

If one is writing (alternative/)historical fiction, it’s important to get the technology developed in a believable sequence. Iron is a highly technical product and deserves attention in any fiction.

Iron ore is a chemical compound of iron (Fe), oxygen (O) plus impurities.


In this earliest step, air is forced through a mixture of iron ore and charcoal (think of the poor apprentice working a bellows for hours on end). One of the byproducts of the burning charcoal is carbon dioxide which reduces the iron oxide to iron. Typical bloomeries do not reach a hot enough temperature (only 1000 degrees or so) to actually melt the elemental iron. Hence it ends up as a spongy mass called a bloom. The pores of this bloom is filled with ash and slag. Pretty useless until it is reheated and repeatedly beaten to join the iron particles and force out the slag and ash. The result is called *wrought iron*. It was a very labor intensive process. But the early ironworkers probably developed a nice set of muscles.


Wrought iron was fairly malleable (soft) metal. Heating in contact with carbon (charcoal again) allowed carbon to migrate into the outer layer of the metal. Quenching in water (or oil…think more carbon) froze the carbon in that outer layer. Now one can get a hard out layer (especially a cutting edge) with a softer inner core (producing a less brittle tool or weapon).

Crucible Steel

The wrought iron, even if carburized, is still soft. If a mixture of wrought iron, charcoal and glass is encased in a clay crucible and heated, the carbon migrates into the iron and the glass forms a protective slag.

Cast Iron

If the iron can be mixed with a lot of carbon and heated to 1140 degrees, the iron is liquid and can be poured into molds. The high carbon content however makes the iron brittle.