Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Monday, May 30, 2011

How Not to Build Your First Flintlock Rifle or a Lesson Learned My Way

" Creek warriors, hear me "
Classic Fun

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Productions
     Growing up in 1950's and early 60's, I was your typical all-American kid with heroes like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. They were larger than life characters to me and through the magic of TV, their adventures were my adventures. Even though history was only the theme in those early shows and many times it was filtered or even sacrificed for the "story", I still to this day, love it all, corny or not. That "coon-skin" capped kid also noticed that Davy and Daniel were never very far from their flintlock rifles. I can remember thinking , "wouldn't it be bitchin' to have one of those some day."

     A few decades later, I thought I would start to put that dream to work. One style of longrifle that had always appealed to me was the unadorned and iron-mounted Southern Mountain Rifle. Maybe it was my family's Southern roots or the fact that mountain folks were some of the last to give up their flintlocks. What ever it was, I was determined to build a Southern inspired gun. I had no idea what I was getting into but that never mattered to me. I knew I didn't want a kit gun and decided to research the available options for building a more custom rifle.

Research and Inspiration and a Very Young
Hershel House
Photos Lindy Miller 2011
    Years before, I had discovered a basic rifle building tutorial in Foxfire #5, one of the series of books by Eliot Wigginton and his students, published in the 1970's. This particular volume has tons of information on gunmaking with an emphasis on flintlocks but what I had feasted on was the step-by-step instructional by Hershel House. The Foxfire crew had stayed with Hershel for a week, while he built a rifle from scratch. Lots of drawings and close-up photos helped melt away the many mysterys of early rifle building. Thanks to that tutorial, I understood  "cast-off", "drop" and "pull" and could even see myself inletting a lock with candle soot. Heck, I even felt I could make my own hardware some day. Continuing on this road, I discovered "Guns and Gunmaking Tools of Southern Appalachia" by John Rice Irwin, 1983.  John's book is full of photos of early rifles in the Museum of Appalachia's collection.  I only wished the book had close-ups but it was helpful as I continued to study this regional style.
An Original Rifle WIth Classic Southern Mountain Lines
Image Courtesy
North Carolina Museum of History
       When I purchased a set of full-size drawings of Southern Rifles from Dixie Gun Works, it was suddenly within reach to understand and transfer the scale and lines of an original rifle to my planned replica. I fell in love with the rifle by William McBee because it was just one great looking gun. I especially admired the "deep" crescent buttplate and the graceful lines but I had unknowingly set myself up for the next wave of challenges.

My Replica Southern Mountain Rifle
        Even though some Southern style hardware was available from muzzleloader suppliers in the late 1980's and early 1990's, I couldn't find everthing I wanted, so I ended up purchasing only the major components. From Golden Age Arms (no longer in business) I bought a W.L.Cochran Lock Kit in flint (no longer available) and from Dixie came a 42" Green Mountain barrel in .45. Also from Dixie I bought a roughly profiled and semi-shaped walnut stock with a partial inletted barrel channel and a breechplug with an extra long tang that I could reshape. The last thing from Dixie was a double-set trigger with a low profile. I was determined to build everything else. What was I thinking?

Back-side View
      I knew I couldn't cold-bend steel to any desired degree so I had to improvise some kind of forge. It now strikes me as hilarious when I think back, but it actually did work. I used a Japanese Hibachi to hold my charcoal briquettes ( yes...charcoal briquettes) while a hair dryer with an aluminum foil extension, acted as my blower. It ate-up the charcoal pretty fast but allowed me to heat the steel to a plastic state. I scratch-built the barrel lugs, sights, ramrod tubes, toeplate, buttplate, patchbox and triggerguard, pounding them out over a piece of railroad rail I used for an anvil. I'd never heard the old saying that "time well spent at the forge saves time at the vise and file". I spent a "lot" of time at the vise and file.

Top View Showing Lollipop Tang
Underside View Showing the Triggerguard
     The stock work ended up being a chore as I was never 100% pleased with the existing profile. There was little I could do to change it and finally ended up adding a small piece of walnut to extend the comb. The lesson here was, on any future rifle, I would want more control on the shape I started with.

       All in all, I think the rifle turned out okay, considering it was my first attempt. Luckily, it ended up being a pretty good shooter too, thanks to that Green Mountain barrel. My only advice to any beginners contemplating doing this, is to build your expertise through pre-planned projects like the many fine kits available today. You will enjoy it more and probably get a better product. One thing I know for sure, it's a lot easier today with DVDs teaching you how to build and plenty of support on websites like American Longrifles or the Contemporary Longrifle Association.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

From the Age of Letters, My Recreated Traveling Porte Folio and Penner

Crowds Line-up During the Gold Rush, Eager for Their Mail
Image Courtesty The Museum of San Francisco

    In this day and age of emails and texting, it's hard to imagine a time when all letters were hand written with a pen and ink. During the19th-century, people loved to write letters. In California, in 1849, 18,000 to 45,000 letters arrived by steamer to San Francisco every month, not to mention the thousands that were sent back home. Today I feel like a dinosaur, since I can still remember composing letters in grade school in long-hand with a fountain pen !  Wow, was it really that long ago?

Miners "Feasting" on a Letter From Home
Image Courtesty The Oakland Museum

     The following projects involve recreating two mid 19th-century portable writing tools that were considered useful for keeping up your correspondence.

Traveling Porte Folio Illustration  From "The Workwoman's Guide"

My Replica Porte Folio in Closed Postion
Photos Lindy Miller 2011

    In an earlier post, I had mentioned "The Workwoman's Guide" as an incredible resource for recreating early 19th-century material culture. On page 208, Plate 24, there is an illustration (Fig 41) for a "Travelling Porte Folio". The accompaning text on pg. 215 states, "This is convenient for traveling, when there is not sufficient room for a desk; it is made of card or book board, and covered with black silk or paper. Under the part marked A, is a porte folio for paper, the two parts being connected together by means of a wide ribbon all around. The four flaps lay over and tie across with ribbon. On the part A. are places for sealing wax, pencil, pens, knife and paper knife, all in one, and at the corner a piece of ribbon sewed on in a circle, and made to draw up like a bag, to contain wafers."

My Replica in the Open Postion
Showing Tools, Wafers etc.

    I felt this was going to be a worthwhile project as long as I paid attention to the details of construction and used appropriate materials. Over the years I have observed many mid-century artifacts that used various printed or marbelized papers in their construction. For my porte folio, I opted for a nice period style overall geometric patterned paper for the outside covering. From the sample I had, my local print shop was kind enough to make up several sheets in red ink on yellow paper. I thought the inside should be less busy so I used my favorite unprinted robin's egg blue paper. For the cloth hinges connecting the cardboard panels, I chose a small check cotton. I think it gave the piece a nice honest home-made look. In order to secure the writting tools, I used a strip of cotton elastic, stitched to the board in loops.

     Finding all the right tools took some time. The hardest was the antique paper knife, which is intended to scape away mistakes written in ink. My only deviation from the original description was to add a small piece of gum-rubber eraser, tied to a length of cotton tape. I felt it was a nice compliment to the pencil that was mentioned in the original description. The goose quill pens, stripped of most of their feathering, were easy to acquire as was the plain cedar pencil. Figuring out what 'wafers' meant led to some interesting research. In the period I am working in, wafers were small, gummed discs of paper that were sometimes embossed with various designs. Basically, they served as an alternative to sealing wax. A man named Edward Law has done extensive study on what he calls "Adhesive Wafer Seals."and his research is available on the web.  I found some embossed paper that I painted red on top and then gum coated the underside. A good gumming medium is liquid hide glue, available at most hardware stores. After it dries, it is easily moistened back to a sticky state. With a 5/8" round punch centered on the embossed design,  I cut out a disc and voila, out popped my version of a wafer.

My Replica Penner in Opened Postion
and Some Mail I Created for Past Living History Events

     The next project was to recreate a portable inkwell. There were many styles during the timeperiod but I finally settled on what is commonly called a penner. The original version that I selected to copy is basically a protective slip-case for a small, corked, glass ink bottle. The ink bottle is usually accompanied by a small dip-pen. Many wonderful original examples from the collection of John C. Loring are available online for viewing. Just look for the category of "19th Century & Earlier Western Writing Instruments". For my re-creation, I used thin cardstock, layered and glued for the body. The ink bottle (a small vial), sits in a protective wood base with only the bottle's neck showing. The shoulder of the bottle helps keep it in place in the hollowed out wooden form. For the outside covering I used some " faux red morrocan" cloth that I had a large scrap of.

     I would recommend both of these fun projects to anybody who is interested as neither requires highly specialized skills and materials similar to what I used are readily available. After that, you might just have to write a letter or two. As my grade school teacher would say, keep practicing your penmanship !

Friday, May 6, 2011

An Evolutionary Tale of Two Knives, One I Liked and One I Love.

     In a previous posting on period labels I put forth my idea of Living History as an evolutionary pursuit. In light of that, I must confess that there was a time when my creative juices were stirred by the desire for artistic license. I had an epiphany when I first felt the need to replicate accurately just for the sake and challenge of it. Historically reminiscent or historically based fantasy objects should always have their place but I think they need to be identified as such. There's enough confusion out there already.  Please don't get me wrong, fantasy is fun and that's where this story begins.

    Back around 1995, I began to research Bowie knives and their place in the Gold Rush. What I really wanted was something cool to hang on my belt besides a butcher knife (which by the way, would have been a good choice). There were some replica bowies available but nothing grabbed me. I eventually decided to create my own "historically based" bowie with a coffin-shaped handle. I purchased a large bowie blade blank from Dixie Gun Works and discovered it was tempered and profiled but had no taper to the blade. The 1/4" slab needed to be flat-ground to a finished form. Yikes!! Grinding that hardened blank on a wheel turned out to be a chore as untempering and retempering the steel was out of the question.

My Fantasy Knife Circa 1995
Photo by Floyd Oydegaard
       I wanted the handle to make a statement and decided to design and carve an American Eagle motif for the pommel. I sent off the carved pattern to a brass foundry and had them sand cast two for me. I had previously decided to make all the fittings in brass but found out later that nickel would have been more common. What did I know?  Before I assembled the brass cross-guard, walnut scales and eagle pommel, I etched the blade with muriatic acid after painting a period appropriate motto of my own design on it. I discovered that enamel paint made a good resist to the acid. The motto read "Gold Seeker's Protector". Pretty cool eh?

Carved Pommel Pattern
Photos by Lindy Miller 2011
     After the knife was completed, I fashioned an appropriate sheath with brass fittings. The knife saw some service but was eventually sold to a friend. This entire project would only be a memory if not for the picture that Floyd Oydegaard took of it before it went away. Thanks Floyd ! Surprisingly, I still have the eagle pommel pattern which is shown here.

    So, that's the tale of the knife I liked, now on to the story of the knife I love. A long-time client from my antique restoration days, had the habit of dropping in on me for visits when I had the Carpenter's Shop in Columbia. His specialty is buying, selling and collecting original Gold Rush material. During one of those visits in 2001 he showed me an antique, guardless bowie knife that he had just purchased. What struck me about this rare bowie was its simplicity, balance and pure, no-nonsense look, but what really got me going was its history. The knife was the product of Joseph Bache and was marked with his cartouche, "J. Bache, Sonora". Bache was a French blacksmith who was active in Sonora in the 1850's. So far, a hammer and rifle have been discovered, marked with his name in the same manner as the knife. The man was obviously multi-talented and he had lived just down the road. This knife was screaming at me to be replicated and the owner was willing to let me document it. Woo hoo !!
My Replica of the Joseph Bache Bowie
with Collected Data and Probable Sheath

    I don't own a forge and even though the original knife was likely the product of one, I decided to use the reduction method for my close-copy.  I purchased a length of 1/4" X 2"  01 Toolsteel from Texas Knifemaker's Supply  in Houston. The original  knife is a hefty 15" long with a full thickness tang for balance. The untempered tool steel proved to be a delight to work with compared to my previous experience. This time I tapered the blade on a belt sander and found it much easier. I decided to copy the wear pattern of the orginal blade to give my replica a feeling of having been used. When the blade was finished, I sent it back to Texas to be heat treated. The simple "dog-bone shaped" oak scales replicate the original as do the custom steel rivets. The finished knife holds an edge beautifully and is a pleasure to use in the kitchen when it's not doing history work. I really do "love" this knife and what it represents to my personal journey as a historian / craftsman.