Flint knapping for beginners
*This article was submitted as a guest publication by an outside source.*
Making a knife from a flint stone is easier than you think, it only takes a few minutes to make a razor sharp edge. It’s called knapping, don’t worry it’s just a posh word for snapping flint! First you need the right stone, flint is ideal it is often a rounded almost black stone covered in chalk but can be various shades of grey or even brown.
I hate giving out health and safety advice to adults, but seriously, this stuff is razor sharp, use gloves and wear some eye protection. I had a tiny splinter fly off and it went into the skin of my wrist, and I was wearing gloves! Make sure you don’t leave any flint splinters where people walk around barefoot. Keep pets away until you’ve tidied! If you want to do try this indoors use a groundsheet sheet so you can collect the bits and shake into a bin or waste area. Use a good vacuum cleaner afterwards, flint splinters are like glass, so will easily go through sofa fabric and skin!
To try this for yourself at home you will essentially only need 3 easy to obtain tools:
Hammer. This does not need to be big or heavy, a standard household hammer will do, another large stone will also work, and the thicker part of natural antler will also work.(1 thing to note with hammers, I have broken a fiberglass hammer handle in half by repeatedly hitting stone, wooden handles are far safer for flint).
Retoucher. Retoucher is French for ‘to-touch up’ or ‘to alter’, basically it’s a tool with a point you can exert pressure with. In stone age times they used the tip of an antler which I’ve used, it really is strong enough! For my teaching I have made r etouchers , they are cut off tent pegs filed into about 1” shaped bullet shaped tip, embedded in a wooden handle the same width as your hand , very easy to make. If you like, the handle could have a point at both ends, one sharp and one blunt. Sharp for precise work blunt for larger bits. For more serious work you can buy copper headed tools that do the same thing, I’ve never bought one, as copper is very soft metal and I’m sure any point or hammer would wear out very fast, and steel tent pegs are very cheap!
Pad. You also need a small work area depending on how you are comfortable, you can work on your lap or on kneeling the floor. I use a sheet of thick leather over a flat piece of wood, this could be leather from an old jacket, bag, or boot. The point of the leather is to hold the flint shard more easily whilst you work on it, it’s soft and grippy. If you tried flint knapping on a hard surface the flint would slip around. For my clients that tend to mostly be children, they use small boards I’ve made, which are small rectangles of wood about the size of a shirt pocket, with leather attached. It’s just a board with a soft layer. A sheet of metal or plastic covered in a soft fabric like sleeping mat foam, Rubber car mat, or thick canvas would work just as well.
The flint you use needs to be good, you want flat wide pieces and break off coin sized or larger chunks. An easy way to tell if it’s a good stone is to tap one flint looking stone against another. To do this carefully hold the flint in your left hand and tap it with the hammer, if it’s flint it will split fairly easily. DON’T hit it as hard as you can, you’ll just end up covering the area in microscopic razor sharp flint blades! If it’s the right stuff, it will break into large flat sided lumps with thin razor sharp flat shards that have either fallen off or look loose. Flat and thin is what you’re after, if it leaves lumpy angles or blocky shapes (which is common) discard the stone, and try another. It’s quite possible from the first split you’ve found a shard that will serve it’s purpose. During a public demo I broke off a shard that was exactly the same shape and size as an arrowhead, and needed nothing doing to it, often if you just need a sharp edge one crack will give you loads of bits, you shouldn’t need to be there all day.
It’s a good point to mention that flint tends to break off in to small short(ish) pieces, it’s very difficult to make long straight knives, you can see examples of stone age knives or long, wide spearheads, but they would have been made by expert craftspeople. From my experience, I imagine it may have taken days of attempts to have a stone break in a long enough piece to make a full size knife. Unless you manage to be lucky enough to make a long flint shard, it’s best to aim for a Stanley knife or craft knife type design.
Have a picture in your mind of a basic size and shape you need for your project. Often this is determined but the bits you break off but most can be reshaped. for example a triangle for an arrow, a long rectangle for a knife, a square with blunt side for a bone saw. Once you have a shard, pick them up carefully as they really are sharp. You need to decide which side to work on, the thinner the better.
– Place the shard on the pad in front of you. Hold the flint firmly in place with the area to be altered towards your working hand. When you start knapping the flint may move or tilt, (you may want to wear a glove on your off-hand for this). To use the retoucher you need to make a sort of pinching action, with your whole wrist almost like the same action concentrated pressure you’d use to remove a tyre from a bike wheel, or to use a mini can opener, but on the first few millilitres of the flints edge.
– Pick up and hold the retoucher in your main hand with the point facing inward. Rest the wide wooden head of the retoucher (next to the point) on the pad with the point on the edge of the flint you want to alter. The retoucher should be sloping towards the pad as you hold it.
– Without moving your off-hand, hold the retoucher firmly and twist your right wrist anticlockwise towards the metal point, so your little finger is going upwards. As you twist, push down on the metal point. If it works you should hear a crack or crunching sound depending on how much you have knapped (snapped off).
– That’s pretty much it. If you make a scalloped design on the edge you’ll have a sharp blade, if you add tiny notches you’ll have a saw that will cut through bone. Once you’ve done that you can make just about any design you want, bigger or smaller and arrowheads are just the same process but on both sides
If you want to make an axe head, it’s pretty much the same idea but requires more careful shaping with the hammer to begin with, then gentle “pecking” which means carefully tapping off tiny specks of stone with the hammer to shape the part you attach to the handle.
You can Knapp glass exactly the same way, but I would urge extreme caution, always use gloves and glasses, as the bits you break off are see-through and can be nearly invisible.
You can contact Richard and learn more about his primitive skills and teachings via his website here.