Category Archives: Primitive Skills

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?

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!


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:

Not-so-primitive Primitive Skills

In this day of hectic life and massive technology overload, many people find relief looking back to their cultural heritage, ancient coins or even archaeology. Old is interesting.

One area of growing interest is Primitive Skills, learning how one can live off the land as did our far distant ancestors. My own interest in archaeology and ancient Native American life lead me to spend several weeks in various Skills classes, schools and gatherings. One thing I discovered was that there is not very much “primitive” in Primitive Skills.

Most early societies were hunter/gatherers, heavy on the gathering. These First Peoples would need to not only know which plants were eatable or poisonous, but also their seasonal availability. One example is Camus root (1). This plant was harvested in the autumn by early northwest Native Americans, but has a toxic look-alike, unsurprisingly called Death Camas (2). Differentiating these two plants would test the knowledge of any modern day Biologist. Although I know that, side by side, the Camas leaves have a more prominent leaf ridge and the Death Camas leaf is smoother, I’m not about to dig up its bulb without a guide book with lots of pictures. Being wrong is being dead wrong.

Various plant products could also be medicinal, from pain relief to antibacterial properties. One well-known example is the bark of the Willow tree, used for the reduction of pain and fever. Aspirin was one of the first modern days pharmaceuticals made from a common plant source. Nowadays, large drug companies routinely send PhD researchers into “wild” places to try to re-discover ancient sources of medicine. My skill in pharmaceuticals is limited to using crushed Curly Dock (3) for skin rashes resulting from accidentally walking through a patch of Stinging Nettles.

Weapons would be needed for hunting animals as well as to defend reliable foraging territories. One such early weapon was the atl-atl (4), or spear thrower. This tool is a forearm long shaft grasped at one end and hooked at the other, and is used to “throw” a long flexible dart, or lightweight spear.
drawing of man holding an atl-alt and dart
The extra leverage during the throw increases the velocity of the dart. The physics of the energy loading of this flexible spear has only recently been studied (5). As for my skills at hunting with the Atl-atl and dart, it’s good that my family is not depending on me to bring home a Wooly Mammoth for dinner.

Providing a projectile tip for the atl-atl dart, or even for a simple knife-edge, is a rightly refined technology in itself. Not any rock can be broken into sharp edges, and very few of those are suitable to be thinned and sharpened by knapping (6), or pressure flaking. Years of practice are required to proficiently produce projectile points, knifes or scrappers. I can usually produce a tip or knife with a few hours work, but the results are erratic and lots of good rock wasted.

Hands hold a hammer stone and chunk of obsidian
Rock before (left hand holding obsidian, right hand holding a hammer stone)

Hand position for pressure flaking obsidian
Rock after (left hand holding obsidian point, right hand holding antler pressure tool)

Once one had mastered the rather refined skill of acquiring animal protein and edible plants, the next step is starting a fire. Cooked food, likely an accidental byproduct of a lightning strike, made survival easier by increasing the digestibility of complex carbohydrates and proteins (7). But lightning strikes are not reliable and certainly not safe. A separate accidental observation provided the clue to a safer method. Perhaps wanting a hole in his/her favorite walking stick or ornament, an enterprising ancestor used a rapidly rotating wood “drill”. Someone noticed that the resultant hot wood dust produced a glowing ember. This was then refined into a reliable method of fire production (8).
Drawing of proper position of hands using a bow drill in order to form a burning ember
Work equals heat, as taught in college Physics classes. And our pre-historic ancestors put this in daily practice.

As with any subject of learning, the more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t know. The only thing “primitive” about ancient primitive skills is the level of a typical modern man’s understanding of those skills used by our ancestors in their daily life.

1. Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon, Plants Of The Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska, (Lone Pine Publishing, Revised Edition, 2004), page 108
2. Pojar, Plants Of The Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska, page 109
6. John C. Whittaker, Flintknapping, Making & Understanding Stone Tools (University of Texas Press, 1994)

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