Veteran’s Day Shenanigans – Aluminum Foundry and Blacksmithing

I’ve wanted to do some metal work for a while now but have had issues getting the coals hot enough to heat the metal for blacksmithing or a foundry.

My first foundry attempt last December didn't get hot enough to melt the aluminum

My first foundry attempt last December didn’t get hot enough to melt the aluminum

My first attempt at a foundry failed miserably. The air flow was not properly directed at the coals, so the heat did not circulate effectively and wouldn’t melt the metal in the crucible.

Don’t know what I’m talking about?
A foundry is used to melt metal to liquid for pouring into molds.
A crucible is a container (typically made of graphite) that holds the molten metal.

Metal working has been around for thousands of years and it’s not like they had modern day equipment. Instead they built bellows to supply air to their coals, getting them hot enough to work the metal.

I didn’t have a bellows, but it was one of the windiest days we’d had in years. Theoretically if I dug a fire pit and filled it nearly to the brim with coals, the 60mph winds would superheat those coals to the necessary temperature for metal work.

Safety Note: I live in the Pacific Northwest where it has been raining quite frequently. All the surrounding area was damp and there was little to no risk of a fire spreading via the wind.

craig and mike basket weaving and foundry

Mike (left) melting cans in the crucible while I weave a basket fish trap out of grape vines

In Veteran’s Day fashion, my Army buddy Mike came out to work on survival/self-reliance skills with me.

We dug two coal pits as we would be conducting several projects simultaneously;
– Melting aluminum cans (soda/beer cans, ok mostly beer) in a crucible
– Blacksmithing a railroad spike into a knife
– And firing some pottery I’d made from river clay
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Foundry
We inserted the crucible as deep as we could into the coals with about an inch of clearance at the top to prevent coals from getting in with the molten metal. It took about 2 hours for it to really get going. Once molten aluminum forms at the bottom of the crucible melting cans only takes a matter of seconds.
mike with foundry melting cans
Our first mold was made of bamboo and the molten aluminum burned a hole through it. Our failed attempt was thrown back into the crucible to re-melt.
mike pouring molten aluminum into spearhead mold
The second mold was crafted out of river clay and was much more successful. We made an aluminum spear tip that we could later attach to bamboo shaft.
spearhead mold mike with foundry spearhead

Tools needed for Foundry
Crucible
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Crucible Tongs // Amazon.com Widgets

Blacksmithing
While on my adventure in California I had found some railroad spikes. While this is not the highest quality of steel, the idea was, “Could I blacksmith a cutting tool from something I scavenged with limited tools and resources?”
Railroad spike
I inserted just the tip of the metal into the hottest portion of the coals and with some help from the wind it turned to a bright cherry red. Using channel locks I pulled my heated piece from the fire and was able to flatten it out using a large hammer.
craig blacksmithing
I didn’t have time to finish this piece, however I will try to post pictures at a later date when I have a chance to finish it.
craig blacksmithing 2
The great thing about this experience was the cost. The hammer and anvil were only $55 on sale at Harbor Freight and I used a pair of channel locks from my tool box. Typically a forge costs at least several hundred dollars so this was a great way to do it for cheaper.

Tools for Blacksmithing
Anvil – http://www.harborfreight.com/55-lb-rugged-cast-iron-anvil-69161.html
Hammer – http://www.harborfreight.com/3-lb-Cross-Pein-Hammer-69049.html
Vise Grip or Channel Lock

Firing Clay Pots
This was somewhat of a success. You can read more about this project here.

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Swimming With the Fishes – The Death of My Aquaponics System

Craig with new fish tank - insulated IBC
Here in the Pacific Northwest our climate is not conducive to growing Tilapia, but I wanted to try it anyway. Unfortunately keeping the water temperature warm enough for the fish was not practical in our outdoor system and with the imminent move to the farm in the near future I don’t want to add to my existing system. In hindsight I would have buried our IBC tank to use the thermal mass of the Earth to help regulate the temperature, but these are the things you learn when you do projects like this.
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The fish had outgrown their aquariums and needed a new place to live, so my father and I rigged up an IBC tote as their new home. This tank holds 300+ gallons of water and stays about 74 degrees F inside of the garage with a 300watt aquarium heater. It is hooked to the filter of an old swimming pool along with a filter from my aquarium.
Craig's new fish tank
The tank is insulated with 2 rolls of r29 insulation which is held on by cellophane pallet wrap from Home Depot. Thus far the fish seem to be enjoying their new home.

The water is pumped into the blue 55 gallon drum which acts as a sump for the fish waste to settle. The water then travels through the pool filter and back into the tank.

We are currently in the process of modifying the pool filter to allow for better water flow.

Stay tuned for future updates and more projects like this by subscribing to email updates.

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Primitive Basketry

Craig with basket
I’ve been working on my primitive skills and finally had a chance to make my own basket. Using only a knife, I harvested branches from a small red bush growing near the river, and wove it into this little gem. It came out pretty cool!
craig's basket
Feeling a bit more confident in my skills I made this one as well.
Craig big primitive basket

These will mainly be used for decoration but during the summer could be used for harvesting berries and other wild edibles.


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Craig with baskets
A similar technique can be used to make a fishing trap.

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Flint Knapping Arrowheads – 10,000 Views

In continuation of my primitive skills training, here are some arrowheads I’ve knapped out of glass bottle bottoms and obsidian I picked up from my mining adventure in California.
craigs arrowheads


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I also wanted to say thanks to all of my readers and subscribers. This month my blog hit 10,000 views! Thanks for all the continued support! I’ll be sure to keep the adventures and stories coming.
Craig Glass bottle arrowhead Craig Obsidian Arrowhead

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YouTube Channel Intro

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Tier 1 Selection @ The Human Path Survival School

Sam and Suchil Coffman of the Human Path (www.thehumanpath.com) are putting together one of the most badass teams I’ve ever heard of, and I want to be part of it. Basically you need to competent in primitive survival skills, self-defense, land navigation, radio procedures, first aid, primitive engineering, and several other tasks. Then you can qualify to be on their aid work team that goes to remote locations in Nicaragua to set up herbal medicine clinics, water purification systems, and other items useful to the village. (http://herbalmedics.org/portfolio/san-juan-del-rio/) Eventually they want the team to get their skydiving licenses so that they can jump into remote areas to do aid work. When I heard Sam discuss this on the survival podcast about a year ago, I knew I had to go to Texas and meet him.

Sam put out a pretty extensive list of what to expect so that those of us who are interested can prepare. These are some of the practical exercises I’ve been doing to get ready for selection in December 2015.

Cordage
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One of the tasks is to make cordage. Cordage is basically any kind of rope, typically it is made of some plant with long, strong, and flexible fibers. My big disadvantage is that the plants native to my area are not native to the testing site so in order to counter this I practice with different types of material just about everywhere I go. The best ones I’ve used thus far were made of cattail, yucca, (shown respectively below) and some thick round grass near the river where I was hiking in California.


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After a day cordage starts to dry out so I like to soak mine in water before I tie it to something to make it more pliable.

Yucca fibers and cordage

Yucca fibers and cordage

Shelter Building
Debris Hut Shelter

In the Pacific Northwest our biggest survival obstacle is the rain. In this area we need a survival shelter that can keep us out of the rain, and well-insulated. The popular method is a debris hut. The basic concept is to create a low wood frame, then add a layer of ferns, pine boughs, or other materials that will act as a mesh cage over the frame. Then layers of debris are added to the top out of leaves, bark, pine needles, etc. to cover the entire structure. The thickness of the layers should be a few feet thick but will vary depending on the temperature outside. The debris hut shown above I completed down in California. Unfortunately it was illegal for me to sleep there overnight or have a fire due to regulations set forth by the “department of making you sad.” (Quote from Paul Wheaton of permies.com)

Stone Tools
Hand Axe
Obsidian and flint are hard stones to source in my area of the woods. Luckily I was able to find some good flake pieces while on my adventure down to California. This is a “hand axe” made of obsidian for chopping things as they would thousands of years ago. I’m looking forward to honing my flintknapping skills further.

Fire
While I feel comfortable making a fire with my bow drill set, I still need to experiment with many different types of wood besides cedar.

Fishing
Finished net from paracord
I recently created a small fishing net out of the inner strands of paracord. It was too small to be very practical, I mainly just wanted to test out the concept. I ended up converting it into a hammock for my girlfriends daughter’s stuffed animals. They seem to be enjoying their new home.
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In the future I will make a bigger net from cordage that I find/make. It is not a difficult concept, it is just very time consuming.
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Conclusion
Once I’m well-practiced enough, the end goal is to supplement my income by hosting some survival courses  out at the farm. I’ve read several survival manuals now but really want more practical experience. I have compiled a master list of skills to try in the upcoming months. It is my belief that you don’t truly know a skill until you try it yourself and have had repeated success.

Competence creates confidence.

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My Latest Adventure – Surveying Mining Claims in the Desert

craig on romy
For the past month I’ve been on the adventure of a lifetime. My job was to ride horseback through the California desert to visually verify the corner stakes for mining claims. You might be saying, “I didn’t know Craig rode horses,” and you’d be right. Up until last month I’d never ridden a horse in my life. The family of cowboys I’d be working for assured me of some on-the-job riding lessons. They called it the “immersion” program. Now when I say cowboys, I don’t mean people that just ride horses and wear the hats. These folks were the real deal. They live on a cattle ranch and literally drive cattle old west style.
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I was pumped. Of all the people to learn horse-riding from I lucked out with these guys, AND I was getting paid to do it! They told me we’d have to ride, hike, and climb through some rough terrain where we may encounter deadly animals, hidden meth labs, or illegal border-crossers from Mexico… Who could turn that down?
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Our three person team towed a horse trailer deep into California to set up base camp. We pitched tents in an area centrally located among the grid of mining claims and setup a hot line as a pen for the horses near a small spring.
survey1
After a short orientation I was off on my own, riding a horse through the desert… or attempting to anyway. My horse was a stubborn old bastard and knew I was new to this whole horse-riding thing. I’d want to head straight, he’d want to head left. I’d want him to hold still, he’d turn in circles. It was loads of fun. At one point I was seriously considering what horse meat would taste like when I finally lost it and shot him. By day 2 I was over the whole horse thing. Moving on horseback was supposed to be faster, but instead it was slowing me down and making me look bad, so I just used him like a pack horse and navigated on foot. This seemed like the lesser of two evils but proved to be far more dangerous, and for the first time ever put me in my very own survival scenario.
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Hiking all day had taken its toll on my body. It was around 4pm and I had run out of water. My body was feeling sluggish and I started stumbling more frequently. At some point during this time my map fell out of the saddle bag… (All my army buddies just cringed) I know, I know. Amateur hour. I radioed for assistance from my co-workers to get a new map and was given a rendezvous point for my GPS. There was somewhat of a miscommunication on where this rendezvous point was which I will chalk up to being dehydrated, exhausted, and having my head lodged somewhere up my sphincter but to make a long story short, I ended up in the wrong area. This is also when my GPS ran out of battery life. (The battery was like a cell phone battery where it needed to be charged from an outlet or inverter neither of which I had out in the middle of nowhere).
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As a survival situation I felt very confident. I had several methods I could use to start a fire, and there was a creek further down the valley I was in so I knew I could start a fire and boil water if I got desperate. I also carried my rain poncho to use for making a quick shelter. If I was starving… there was always horse meat, and if I was freezing, I could be like Han Solo and make a Tauntaun sleeping bag like in Empire Strikes back…

The sun was setting and it was now down to me and my trusty military lensatic compass. I knew we’d been working to the northeast of camp, so I shot an azimuth for southwest and started walking, using the sun and the moon as my reference points.
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Now before people get too judgmental about terrain association, a spare map, extra batteries, etc. remember it is easy to be critical from the couch. You had to be there and see the terrain. This is mining country at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains where there are deep canyons and huge ridge lines. While I had made mental notes of where major features were located, my survey points had put me into a valley where I could no longer see any of those landmarks. The terrain also limited the amount of gear we could carry so I did the best I could. Eventually I crested a ridge and saw my boss Dave waiting for me. He didn’t look too pleased and we spent majority of the ride back to camp in silence. When we finally got back to camp I said, “I’m never gonna live this down am I?”

Yucca plant fibers I harvested for making cordage

Yucca plant fibers I harvested for making cordage

“Nope.” He replied, “Even when you become some famous survival instructor down the road we are still gonna remember this.”

Yucca plant and my horse Romy

Yucca plant and my horse Rony

The days were hot and the nights were freezing. You had to bundle up during the night to stay warm and cover up during the day to keep from getting fried by the sun. Prior to this I didn’t have much desert experience. I’d been in hot climates with the army before but not like this. I fashioned a turban out of an old t-shirt and found it kept me much cooler. I figured people in the Middle East have been living in the dessert for thousands of years and maybe I should take a page from their book.
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One late afternoon I needed to cross a barbed wire fence to access my survey point. I was tying up my horse when suddenly he screamed out and got a wild look in his eye. I spun around but didn’t see anything. I scanned the area for movement. In the distance was a dark forest and the perfect critter den. Something was spooking my horse. I just had that eerie feeling that we were being watched. I pulled my .45 from my backpack, racked one into the chamber and strapped it to my belt. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. We continued on and my horse continued to freak out. While I never did see anything I’m 90% sure I was getting stalked by some large predator. Luckily I didn’t have to find out.

Once we finished one set of claims we’d head to another. Both my surveying skills and my horse-riding skills improved with each site. Our next stop was the old Calico Ghost Town. This had been a gold mining town long ago which had now been converted to a tourist attraction conveniently located on the way to Las Vegas. Busloads of Asian tourists would drive past our camp during the day gawking at the American Cowboys and this Arab looking guy with a t-shirt turban… Here we were joined by another 3-man crew who would check claims on foot in areas where it didn’t make sense to bring the horses.
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Our next gig landed us smack middle of the Mojave Dessert. I was so excited. I had always wanted to go to the Mojave and explore. After cresting a ridgeline I could see an abandoned mining tunnel near my next point. It looked like I was rolling up on Smog’s cavern.
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I encountered several other mining tunnels that trip. One had a small brick cabin built on the front. I tied my horse out front and went inside. There were bees everywhere. Considering the temperature I found this very interesting. Why would they choose here? I crept further along, trying not to disturb them and then I saw it. The tunnel contained a large pool of water about 4 feet wide, 10 feet long and 10 inches deep. Outside it was over 100 degrees but here I was in a cavern filled with water.
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As I traveled outside I came across the shell of a large tortoise. It was bleached white from the sun. I tried to imagine ways I could use it in a survival situation or as a primitive tool.
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We continued along our route and came across a small area of what looked like melons. I broke one open to reveal it was full of moisture. It looked and smelled like the inside of a cucumber. I put one in my bag to check out further back at camp. I ended up waiting to experiment with my find until I got home. It smelled like a regular vegetable, so I put a small piece on my tongue. I spit it out immediately! It was awful and I instantly washed my mouth out with Listerine. This would not be a good water source.
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I have many more small tales to add but I’ll save them for another time. A special thanks to the Stoddart family for giving me this once in a lifetime opportunity and for being such amazing hosts.
survey10
As for how this relates to sustainability… I think it is important to mix book learning with practical application. This job provided me a way to try out my survival skills in some of the toughest terrain that the U.S. has to offer. I was always looking for water sources, identifying plants, and being aware of my surroundings. I also got a glimpse into the history of mining operations and an inside look at how they do business. Overall it was a great learning experience and as always I am looking forward to the next adventure.

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