Flintknapping is a great hobby to get into, but despite being the oldest human technology… well, it’s not quite like any other form of material working. There are a lot of little things you can do to vastly improve the quality of your knapping in a short time, but if you aren’t aware of them then you’ll end up missing them altogether.
So let’s dive in with 7 flintknapping tips, so you might be able to figure out some things you’ve overlooked.
1. Hands-On Experience is Required
You can read about knapping all day, and watch dozens of videos, but nothing will actually teach you better than getting started. Remember that lithic reduction relies on you learning how to control the conchoidal fracture of the stone you’re working with.
However, unlike a lot of crafts, there’s a certain level of things that can’t really be taught. Instead, you can take some gentle suggestions to start learning how to control things.
Unfortunately, this is going to mean breaking some rock or glass. There’s no way around ruining a few nodules on your way to making great points and blades. If you have an expert sitting over your shoulder you can speed the process up a bit, but there are a number of factors that you’ll simply have to learn from experience.
- Correct angle to strike platforms.
- How to get precise control of the rounded edge of your billet
- The amount of force required
- When you can risk an overstrike
- Support to keep flakes from ending in a step or hinge
These things all come with time and practice. Knapping isn’t the hardest to master art out there, but it’s counterintuitive to people who’ve spent their lives working with other materials or even doing standard lapidary work.
So, break out the bottom of a couple of beer bottles, find some chert, then grab a pad and a billet, and give it a shot. You’ll learn quickly, but watching YouTube videos without spending some time actually reducing stone just leads to less time spent actually learning to knap.
2. In, Not Down
From casual inspection, strikes with a percussive instrument or the force from a pressure flaker often appear to be directed downwards. While this is used on occasion, in most cases your strike will be directed inwards on the stone rather than straight down.
This is doubly the case with pressure flaking. Pressure flaking is actually a two-part motion, you press inwards on the platform, then either move the piece outwards, or press outwards with the tool while maintaining pressure.
The actual difference can seem quite small in practice. A slight change in angle can be the difference between removing a flake that covers the whole surface of the workpiece or just having the platform crumble in your hands and turn into a step or hinge fracture. These are difficult to remove, although there are some ways to work around them.
Just be aware that you’ll rarely actually be striking straight downward, but instead, you’re trying to control the percussion across the surface of the piece.
3. Billet Brushing
There’s nothing more confusing than starting with a square-ish nodule and trying to figure out how to break into it. Even when you tilt it correctly and begin removing flakes you’ll end up with dramatic angles on the faces.
You can use your billet to “brush” and try to reshape the edges. Do this a few times and you’ll be able to work the square into a lens shape without any risk of overstrike, which will break the piece in a straight line.
Brushing is fairly easy, you’ll see some knappers do it as an afterthought. Without using much force, just drag the copper or antler head of your bopper into the overhanging edges. This will remove small flakes at odd angles.
You can also do this to help reshape hinge and step fractures. In particular, turning a deep hinge into a step fracture can help you come up with a strategy to remove it by isolating a platform on the other side of the biface.
4. Mind Your Pressure Flaker’s Tip
Pressure flaker tips wear down relatively quickly. One reason I’m a big advocate of using copper nails is that they’re quite long and they can be reshaped quickly. I strongly advise picking up a nice hand file for knapping, they’re an invaluable tool for reshaping.
When a pressure flaker becomes dull, it becomes harder to control and leads to a wider pressure flake. When you’re doing the final runs of pressure flaking this becomes problematic, as you need the flakes to be longer for the final thinning. Otherwise, you end up with a square edge that becomes harder to break into.
Simply rolling the nail on a file a few times is often enough to sharpen it.
If you’re using a piece of scrap rod or thick wire instead of a hardened nail, you may want to consider creating a four-edged point. These are faster to sharpen and lead to a stronger point due to the pyramidal structure.
In a pinch, concrete or a hard stone can be used to reshape the copper.
Some knappers will use different shaped heads for different specific tasks. Learning to control the tip of your pressure flaker is key to getting a good flake pattern across the surface of your point. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a thicker piece (less practical for real-world use) and a more irregular pattern.
5. It’s All About Support
Support is a key element, and not just for stabilizing the piece for an accurate strike. Support is fairly intuitive, and you’ll notice the difference.
The easiest way to illustrate this is to take a nodule and free-strike it, meaning you hold the nodule in one hand and then strike it without any support underneath. Repeat the strike on a similar platform while you hold the nodule tight against your thigh on a pad and you’ll see much better results.
For pressure flaking and even the final few rounds of percussion., you can often simply use your hand for support.
The entire piece should be supported in most cases. With harder pad materials, like rubber, you may need to press fairly hard with your offhand. A few tries will show you the spacing you can get away with and still get nice flakes but if you’re not focusing on this factor you’re going to end up with a lot of bad flakes and step fractures.
This is especially important when spalling, or breaking down larger nodules. It’s the difference between ending up with a large amount of usable flakes and ending up with a pile of debris.
6. Abrade Platforms for Better Flakes
Abrade, abrade, abrade.
I’m bad about this one, personally, and I’ve paid for it more than once. A key factor in removing clean, usable flakes or getting good reduction is a strong platform. Platforms that are too thin or have too sharp of corners can act oddly, but the general result is that the stone will crumble and splinter leaving you with a ton of dust, a bunch of razor-sharp needles, and a step or hinge fracture.
Most knappers I know use a bit of grinding stone to do this, but sandstone would be more traditional. If you don’t have anything around to abrade with, concrete is an excellent choice.
The general idea is to remove the razor-sharp edges, which tend to crumble rapidly when you exert percussion or pressure. This prevents premature termination of the flake or the crumbly hits that can occur.
The general idea is just to swipe it a couple of times on a hard surface. This is generally good enough, but sometimes you may need to further alter the platform’s profile. Don’t be afraid to try and move the edge by a millimeter or two, but any more drastic alteration should probably be done with power tools like a grinder.
7. Always Be Deliberate
Expert knappers often look like they’re just bashing away and making shapes when they work. In particular, percussion knapping can look very easy as the knapper repeatedly strikes with a very short amount of time in between strikes. Sometimes it can even get borderline rhythmic.
They’re still working deliberately. It’s just the ability to see and assess platforms quickly, and the
only way to get there is to spend a lot of time making smaller rocks. I’ll often get the borderline rhythmic percussion going but you have to keep from being lulled into a false sense of security.
That way lies overstrike and hinge fractures. Overstrike is when you strike above the centerline on a platform, this generally results in the piece simply breaking. Hinge fractures are… they’re not fun and they’re one of the hardest self-created problems to deal with when you’re flintknapping.
I’ll often find myself deliberating for a couple of minutes at a time on how to reduce a piece in between short bursts of rapid activity and I’d bet most knappers do as well.
Each strike should be deliberate and have an intended effect. When you’re just beginning spend some time making sure that you actually got that effect, rather than just continuing to work down the biface’s side and hoping for the best.