Bushcraft pyrography plank and a new blog

I’m not very knowledgeable when it comes to art, but I do appreciate the creativity, thought and skill that goes into creating it. When my friend Alex showed me some of the pyrography, or woodburning, projects he’d been working on, I asked him if he would make me one with an outdoor or bushcraft theme in exchange for some outdoor items he might be interested in. We haven’t made the exchange yet, as Alex is out of town, and I won’t ruin his surprise by showing what I’ll be giving him, but I will show you a picture of the plank he made me:

The phrase at the bottom is Finnish for “less is more”. The axe is a traditional Finnish design, as is the puukko knife. Between them you can see a firesteel/ferro rod. I really like this plank and am looking forward to getting it and displaying it in my office. Thanks Alex!

To see more of Alex’s artwork, as well as posts about bushcraft and crafting in general, check out his brand-new blog 62nd parallel north.

Building a permanent bushcraft camp – Part 1

Something that I’ve wanted to do for the past few years is to build a permanent bushcraft camp. For one reason or another, be it due to other plans or a lack of time, I never got around to it. The general idea was to create a long-lasting permanent camp, including a shelter, fire pit area, cooking facilities, storage/firewood area, crafting area and more using a minimum of tools and modern materials and getting most of what I need from the forest around me. Last weekend, I headed out to the country property I’ve been visiting so I could finally get started with the project. As it progresses, I hope not only to create a “woods home away from home”, but also to improve my skills and knowledge in the process!

First off, a picture of the site I picked for the camp. Nothing special, just a little opening surrounded mostly by spruces.

The most labor- and material-intensive structure at my new camp would be the shelter. I did a lot of thinking about just what kind of structure I wanted to build and ultimately decided on something that combines elements of several shelter types I’ve seen. Over the course of this series of posts, you’ll see what I came up with, but I won’t be divulging all my plans now. ;) For my shelter, I was going to need a good number of strong straight poles, so I was in luck that the forest nearby was in desperate need of thinning. It was so clogged with young spruce trees (some of which had already died due to a lack of sunlight) that it was difficult to walk through.

Now, as most of you know, I purchased a Swedish military surplus axe recently for work just like this, among other things. It was in such great condition that I didn’t have to do much more than scrub off the surface rust and marks from the handle. I spent about 1 minute with a sharpening stone getting it into shape and also impregnated the leather sheath with wax. Some before and after pics:

I was very eager to try this axe out in the woods. Of course, I brought my regular axe with me as well, because you never know how well a tool is going to perform (or fail) until you use it. As you can see, it was wet that day.

I decided to look for three solid poles on the thicker side to serve as a base tripod for my shelter, so I searched the area and felled them with my axe. I made sure to pick out trees which were being crowded out by or competing with other trees for sunlight. After just a few chops, I could detect a tiny bit of movement in the head. I decided to continue using the axe cautiously to see how things went. After being sunken in wet snow repeatedly, the handle absorbed some water and the head tightened right up. It didn’t budge in the slightest after that. I’ll be sure to soak it in linseed oil to rectify this situation properly. Here are the tripod poles I cut:

I don’t know what this particular type of lashing is called, but I have used it several times. First, you wrap the cord tightly around your poles four or five times and tie it off. Then, you tightly wrap the cord around itself between the poles several times and tie it off each time here as well. This gives you a solid tripod.

Following this, I spent several hours using the axe to fell and limb more spruce saplings and cut them to size. I was happy to find that the axe was not fatiguing to use one-handed for long periods of time, despite its overall weight of 1.6 kg (3.5 lbs). It bit deeply into the wood, was accurate and retained a sharp edge. It took very little for me to become accustomed to using the axe, as I’ve been using a 3/4 axe regularly for several years now. The main difference is the greater weight of the new axe, which I didn’t notice most of the time.

After the first round of trees had been processed, the shelter started to take shape:

I realized that the entire shelter project was going to take longer than I thought, and knowing it would get dark soon, I called it quits in order to look for firewood for cooking and heating that evening. I found a dead standing pine on a rocky hill nearby and felled it with the axe in no time. It had a base diameter of about 11 cm (4.25 inches), so nothing huge. I bucked it into three logs and carried them all back to my camp, where I cut them to length and split a few of them to get a fire going.

For kindling, I split some some of the smaller pieces of wood and made some feather sticks with the Marttiini Kaamosjätkä knife I modified years ago and showed here recently. I found that I enjoyed using a smaller knife like this for a change. :)

By the end of the first day, I had made good headway on the shelter, procured myself some firewood and made myself a spruce-bough bed from all the limbs I had cut off the poles. The camp was starting to take shape.

Before I called it a day, I threw my new tarp on the pole frame, tied it down in a few places, and then put my sleeping bag and bivy on top of the bough bed. I didn’t even bother to get out my self-inflating sleeping pad, which I ended up not needing, as the spruce boughs provided plenty of insulation.

As the sun began to set and bathe the trees around me in a beautiful golden glow, I felt I had received some kind of reward for the day’s work, but it was only the first one. After nightfall, the clear sky provided a beautiful view of a bright moon and countless twinkling stars. The moon lit up the snowy forest so brightly that I didn’t need a headlamp or flashlight to see. I arose bright and early in the morning, looking forward to breakfast. First, though, I’d have to put together a rig to hang my pot from. I cut three suitable spruce poles to length and tied them together in a similar fashion to the shelter tripod, except that I only wrapped the cord around all three one time.

From the hinge, I hung a length of cord to hold a notched stick, which would in turn hold my cooking pot. Doing it this way keeps the cord from getting too close to the fire.

Although I had not done as much as I had hoped that weekend, I was pleased with what I had accomplished. The shelter was coming along nicely, and the cooking area was shaping up, too. Here’s the current status of my permanent bushcraft camp:

Before I went home, I stopped by the old farm house to take another look at the old knives I had found there, as I wanted to see if any of them were worth restoring. I was in luck! The vintage KJ Eriksson Mora knife, although a bit worn and rusty, was still very solid.

The following day, I spent my lunch break getting the knife into usable shape. Rather than completely refurbishing the knife and making it look like new, I decided to go a different route and let the vintage-ness of the knife come through. I scrubbed the blade and bolster with a plastic scouring pad and lemon juice to get the rust off and create a nice patina. Next, I scrubbed and then scraped the handle to remove as much of the red paint as possible. Finally, I slowly ran the handle over a candle flame several times to darken the wood and then soaked some wax into it to waterproof it. I’m pretty happy with the results and am planning on making a simple belt sheath for it after I procure some leather. By the way,  I think this is the only Mora knife I’ve personally seen that has a leather washer between the handle and bolster. It’s a nice touch!

Hope you enjoyed this first look at my permanent camp!

Cleaning up the Marttiini Kaamosjätkä puukko knife

Back in 2009, a local outdoor store was having a sale on the Kaamosjätkä puukko knife from the Marttiini company of Finland. They were selling a whole mess of them for 15 Euros each (about $20 USD). The normal price was about 25 Euros, so I picked up two of them just for the heck of it. This particular model is the cheapest and least-refined of the wood-handled knives made by Marttiini, but the blades are good quality. If nothing else, I thought it’d make for an interesting “lipstick on a pig”/”turd polishing” project. :)

Here’s the knife as it comes:

From the factory, the knife has a roughly finished, lightly stained wood handle. The wood isn’t flush with the bolster (which itself needed work). Not being a fan of the fish-tail thing on Scandi sheathes, I knew it would have to go. Also, I didn’t like the silver-colored labeling on the sheath. These critiques aren’t intended as criticism of the knife as it comes, because it is a very low-budget, mass-produced knife, after all. These are just some of the things I wanted to modify to make it more attractive and to my liking.

After reshaping the handle with another knife, including making the wood flush with the bolster, I sanded it down and then applied some walnut stain. This was followed by a coat or two of teak oil. While I was working on the wood part of the handle, I also sanded down the bolster with a fine-grit sandpaper to refine it a bit. As for the sheath, I cut off the flap at the bottom and then carefully rubbed off the somewhat sloppy silver lettering. The last step was to apply wax to the edges of the leather belt loop and the back of the sheath (and then heat it so the wax soaked in) to darken and smooth out the leather there. As I mentioned, this was a project I did some years ago. I think I would do it slightly differently now, but I’m still happy with the results.

My version of the knife:

Over the past few years, I’ve restored or modified several knives, but to be honest they don’t see much use. I think I’ll rectify this situation on my next trip and bring out my prettied-up Marttiini Kaamosjätkä to see what it can do!

Kampin’ in a kota

Hey dudes and dudettes! It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here at The Weekend Woodsman, but it’s not because of a lack of interest. First we had the holidays, then I got swamped with work and then soon after that the Woodsboy got the chicken pox and our whole family came down with a nasty drawn-out flu (possibly swine flu) right after that. The unseasonably warm winter we’ve been experiencing is another reason why I haven’t been getting out much. While some of you were (and are again) experiencing a polar vortex, we’ve had more of a “tropical vortex” up here in Finland. So far this winter, we’ve only had about 3 weeks of real winter temperatures (and of course it had to be during the time when I was busy/sick). As I write this in mid-February, the temperature is about 1°C/34°F. During a normal winter, it would not be unusual at all to be seeing temperatures around -40°C/-40°F right now. Anyhoo, the warm temperatures, coupled with being busy, sick and occupied with a few other things had not been very conducive to doing anything outdoors-related.

For most of the winter, though, mi amigo Alejandro from Spain and I had been looking forward to a winter campout, but because of the reasons mentioned above, it just wasn’t happening. When the second weekend of February rolled around, everything fell into place and we were able to get out for a “winter” (and I use that term loosely) overnighter.  After a little planning the week prior, I picked Alex up on Saturday morning and then drove out to my mother-in-law’s country property. We took the car as far as we could without getting stuck in the snow and then hiked to our destination. Here’s a back road along the way:

Because of the melt/thaw/melt/thaw cycles we’ve experienced this winter, there was a lot more standing water/ice than years past.

Moose tracks along the way:

Once we reached the site, we started getting our shelter materials together. I had slept in a kota (tipi-like shelter) a few years ago and figured it would be a good experience for Alex. This kind of shelter is a lot different from a typical camping tent, as it allows you to have a full campfire inside. The poles and tarp for the shelter were located nearby where I had left them. We first set up a tripod upon which we’d lean the remaining shelter poles.

Remaining poles in place:

Then the real battle started. In order to put the 6 m x 8 m tarp on the frame, we had to get it unstuck from the ground, and itself. After smashing lots of ice and carefully peeling the tarp from the forest floor, we managed to get it set up on the frame. It may not qualify as a dictionary-definition kota, but precise historical accuracy is not what we were aiming for. ;)

Now that our house was up, we could make it a home. Alex cut a bunch of spruce branches to use as bedding material and laid them out on the left side of the kota (and yes, that is a small spruce tree inside our shelter).

I set up my stuff on the right-hand side. For this trip, I used the Swedish SK-70 rucksack because its large capacity makes carrying extra winter gear easier.

Next on the agenda was making a fire for heating and cooking, as we were both getting hungry. We spent time gathering up and preparing materials for our fire and tried to get it started, but to no avail. Try as we might, we just couldn’t get a self-sustaining fire going, and ended up burning up all our fire prep. The reason? I had forgotten an important lesson from several years earlier. In order to have a fire burn properly in a shelter like this, there has to be sufficient intake of air from around the bottom and outlet of air and smoke at the top. There simply wasn’t enough open space at the bottom, and the hole at the top was too small as well. I kicked myself for letting this happen, because it was something that I had already experienced (and solved) before. Anyway, here’s hoping I remember for the next time around. ;) We took the tarp off the poles and then hiked away from the campsite to get some dry birch wood and bark which had been laid up in a different location. After returning to the campsite and refitting the shelter cover for better air flow, we got a nice hot fire started. It was pretty much smooth sailing for the rest of the evening.

The temperature overnight probably didn’t even drop below freezing, and I distinctly remember rain or freezing rain pitter-pattering on the shelter during the night. In the morning, we got to work preparing a fire for our breakfast. Alex used my Skrama knife to split some birch wood into kindling, and I used my BushProwler. Then we both made a mess of shavings.

We shuffled around the remnants from the previous night’s fire in the fire pit and then set up our fire lay.

Breakfast for both of us would be oatmeal/porridge. I brought instant stuff, while Alex went traditional. He started by melting some snow in his pot.

By the time his snow was melted, I was almost ready to eat. :)

Having used up all my water during breakfast, I went to collect some more. The method I used was to squeeze snow into long pellets and then slip them into my metal water bottle. After I fit in as many as I could, I’d put it near the fire until the snow melted.

A few shots of our temporary abode:

A while later we made ourselves some lunch, let our fire die down and then started to pack up. We took the tarp off the shelter and placed it nearby after folding it up. We left the poles standing for next time. Come spring, I’ll cut that tarp to size so it fits perfectly on the frame, which will also prevent the ventilation issues we experienced. Speaking of spring, the way things are going, it’ll be here before we know it. I’m really hoping that we somehow get a nice cold spell for a while before the usual start of spring so I can get out there and do some more winter bushcrafting! We’ll see what happens. I’ll leave you with a picture of the dim winter sun as Alex and I hiked back to the car.

¿Qué te gusta el bushcraft?

With temperatures dipping down to -10*C (14*F), but occasionally still rising a little above freezing, and with several centimeters/inches of snow already on the ground here in eastern Finland, we are on the cusp of real winter beginning. Soon the temperature will no longer peek above the freezing point until sometime in March, and the snow will have accumulated to well over a meter (over 3 feet) by that time. Before I switch to full-on winter mode, though, I wanted to write one more blog post about some doings of this past fall.

Almost a month ago, I headed out to the country property I’ve been visiting for the last pre-winter overnighter of the year. This time, I had the pleasure of being accompanied by a new friend who I met this past summer. Alex is originally from Spain, but lives not too far away from us and moved here about the same time we did. He’s very interested in learning about bushcraft and woodsmanship, and I am happy to share the little I know with him. He dropped by the weekend before Halloween to show me some bushcraft and camping gear he had been accumulating over the past few months, and we started planning an autumn overnight trip which would take place 2 weeks later.

The weather that weekend ended up being very wet and cool. It rained on and off, and our camp looked like a mud pit by the end of the trip. I was seriously wondering if the crappy conditions would turn Alex off to the idea of camping and bushcraft outside of summertime, but this wasn’t the case at all. Anyway, we drove out to the property and went straight to the campsite I’d been visiting somewhat regularly lately. Alex got to work right away collecting poles for his lean-to using an old Finnish hatchet he rehafted and restored last summer.

Then he made a few pegs with his puukko knife.

We secured the back of the lean-to to the ground with some pegs and then set up the front of the shelter by guying out the poles to pegs using a bowline knot and trucker’s hitch. A good basic shelter for a man and his gear.

Next up was fire prep. I felled a dead pine sapling, and Alex chopped it up into firewood.

I showed him a good place nearby for collecting birch bark. It was really wet, but I knew the oils it contains would still burn.

We also collected some dead lower spruce branches and brought them back to the camp site, where we used my Fiskars saw to break down some more of the pine and got to work splitting some of it up as well. I was using my BushProwler to baton some of the wood (you can see how soft and muddy the ground was by how the bolt stayed upright after just a few hits).

Here’s a shot I took of our camp before it got dark. Once again, I’m using the Holden tent.

It was a challenge getting the birch bark to light, but we managed to get it going and slowly built up our fire. We burned some of the pine and always kept our supply near the fire to help it dry out. Rather than getting all our wood from the forest, we cheated a little and took some from the barn. I guess this really makes it “backyard bushcraft”. ;)

Anyway, as you can see it was getting dark, and we were both hankering for some grub, so Alex made some hearty soup in a pot next to the fire and I made bannock in my pot suspended over the fire on a stick. A good way to prevent the bannock from sticking is to put a little dry flour on the bottom of the pot before putting in the dough.

A nice bonus of having a camping partner in the autumn and winter is the conversation. It gets dark pretty early in the north, and unless you have some kind of work you can do in low light, you’re going to have a lot of time on your hands after the sun goes down!

Before we hit the hay, I threw the rest of the wood on the fire, which burned for quite a while. Some of our firewood came from logs which used to be part of an old building, and you can see the notching on one piece in the picture below. We both noticed that it looked like a number 1.

The following morning, we arose and once again got to work splitting firewood. We were lucky for most of the morning, in that it rained only a little here and there (wouldn’t you know that the real rain would come 20 minutes before we had to break camp, soaking everything we had with us).

To make fire starting a little easier that morning, we used a piece of waxed-impregnated twine Alex had brought with him. It burned long and hot and helped to get the birch bark going.

Alex decided to try his hand at bannock for breakfast, so he mixed his dough in a plastic bag and put it into his pot. I cut up a package of bacon and started frying it in my pot over the fire.

Having gone through his water supply, Alex fetched some from the creek not far away.

When my bacon was ready, I threw in four eggs and put the pot back over the fire for a little while. Alex’s bannock wasn’t baking the way he had hoped, so he took it out of the pot and put the dough on a stick near the fire to rectify the situation.

After we ate, it started drizzling and then raining, so we quickly packed up our wet, muddy gear and hit the road. I was very happy to have Alex along on this trip and am looking forward to his first winter trip, which will probably be in a few weeks!

The Holden tent

Over the past few years, I’ve experimented with a bunch of different camping shelters, from tipi-like kota tents to modern dome tents to a DIY convertible A-frame poncho tent to various tarp shelter configurations. My current favorite open shelter is the “Holden tent”, a very simple but ingenious tarp tent which uses a basic rectangular or square tarp (or rain poncho etc.).

Holden tent made with a cheap 2 m x 3 m (6.5′ x 9.75′) tarp

Small Holden tent made from a rain poncho

Setup is very easy. Here’s how I like to do it:

  • Place the tarp on the ground and then stake down one of the long sides* from end to end. This will be the back of the tent.
  • Find the center point of the opposite long side and raise it to the desired height using a tent pole or stick (or tie it to a tree branch above).
  • Stake down the front corners of the tent, making sure all three walls are taught. If necessary, run a guy line from the pole/stick to a stake in front of the tent (as seen in the poncho picture above).

*Alternate setup: If you want the shelter to be deeper, rather than wider, use the short sides as the front and back instead of the long sides. This will lower the height of the tent, but it provides sleeping room for more people.

I really like this shelter configuration for a lot of reasons:

  • Very quick and easy to set up and take down.
  • At a maximum, uses only five tent stakes, one guy line and one pole (pole not required if suspended from tree branch; guy line not required if you can attach pole/stick directly to tarp).
  • Even a small tarp provides enough room for sleeping and gear storage.
  • Good protection from sun, rain and snow (multi-season shelter).
  • Ideal for use with a heating fire outside.
  • Allows for good ventilation.

If you’re interested in open tarp shelters, I highly recommend this simple setup. It’s not perfect, but it has a lot going for it. For more tarp shelter configurations, check this out.

First hiking and bushcraft trip to the cabin woods

On Sunday afternoon, I drove out to the property with the old cabin we’ve been working on restoring. Instead of doing work on the building, though, I wanted to explore the area around it. Fortunately (for me), we got our first snow of the season the day before, so I was able to enjoy a little early taste of winter. Also fortunately for me, the weather played along nicely!

I parked the car near the cabin, took some pictures of the fields and woods on the property and then explored the woods adjacent to the property.

There’s a small cliff at the back edge of the property and a stream at the bottom.

I spotted these (probably fox) tracks nearby.

Frozen moose dumplings:

Bunny tracks:

Being that it’s moose-hunting season, I wore my blaze orange vest for safety’s sake. At this time of year, I usually wear either an orange hat or vest like this in potential hunting areas (though I make a conscious effort to NOT disturb hunters’ hunts with my doings).

After hiking around with my pack for about 2 hours, I returned to the property and picked out a nice level and open spot to set up a tarp shelter (more on this shelter type in an upcoming post). For a ground cloth, I used a heavy-duty garbage bag, and on top of that I put my pack and a small foam pad. The woods nearby provided a dead standing pine sapling, which I chopped up into firewood.

As a side note on the shelter, I added a loop at the middle of the long side of the tarp because there were no grommets there. As you can see, I reinforced the tarp in that area with black repair tape and stitching.

The temperature at the site was about -1ºC (30ºF) at the time, and by the evening had dropped to -3ºC (26.5ºF).

Not having my grill with me, but needing some way to keep my pot over the fire, I found a small sapling and made a stick with a fork on one end and a point on the other.

Then I cut down a larger and heavier sapling, stripped off its branches, carved a notch near the end (for the pot bail) and laid it on the forked stick stuck in the ground. The weight of the far end of the sapling meant that I didn’t need to do anything else to keep the “pot end” up.

Now that my cooking rig was ready, I needed to gather some tinder and split some of the pine for the fire. I found a birch tree nearby with some great bark peeling off it. It was like paper and had a nice feel to it.

Dinner for the evening was pasta in cheese sauce, which is a nice way to say “mac n’ cheese” ;)…

…and bannock, aka stickbread. After I added water to the dry mix, I put the dough ball down for a minute or two to do something and then found that it had already started to harden because of the below-freezing temperature outside!

It took longer than normal, but I managed to squeeze the dough into a strip and wrap it around a stick to bake near the fire.

As it started to get dark, I ate the bannock and drank some water and then packed up most of my gear. Here’s one last shot of the tarp tent at dusk. Normally, I put the fire a little closer to the shelter if I’m going to use it for warmth on an overnight stay.

Finally, I’d like to talk a little bit about “bushcraft gear”, specifically the price of said gear. Almost every item you see in this post was either a discount store item, military surplus item, consignment shop fixer-upper or recycled. The only exception is my BushProwler knife, which was hand made to my specifications (though cheaper Mora-type knives etc. would certainly also suffice). Here’s a little rundown:

  • Shelter: 2 Euro ($2.60 USD) tarp from hardware store, pole and pegs from old tent
  • Pack: 25 Euro ($32.50 USD, cheaper in the US) Swedish LK-35 military surplus
  • Axe: 10 Euro ($13 USD) from consignment shop, rehafted and fixed up by me
  • Pot: 5 Euro ($6.50 USD) from discount store
  • Spoon: Taken from a cutlery set from my cub scout days
  • Kuksa cup: 4 Euro ($5.20 USD) from consignment shop (boiled before use)
  • 1 liter aluminum water bottle: 1 Euro ($1.30 USD) from consignment shop
  • Sitting pad: 1 Euro ($1.30 USD) from discount store
  • Garbage bag ground cloth: A few cents
  • Matches: A few cents a box, housed in a birch bark container I made
  • Knife: Let’s say I used a Mora instead: 10 Euros ($13 USD)
  • TOTAL: 58 Euro ($75 USD)

My suggestion when looking for gear is to shop around, see what you can make using things you have at home, trade with other people, recycle things other people are planning on throwing away etc. Outdoor gear does NOT necessarily have to be expensive!