If there ever was a poster child for the idea of making something from nothing, it’s epitomized in the traditional woodworking practices of the North American Woodland Nations. While it’s only natural that through time fabrication methodology in the craft overlaps with other woodland societies across the globe, there’s one factor that differs. North American Woodland nations went longer without the availability of steel for tools, so the wood working practices had to evolve to do without. While European nations had earlier access to steel tools, their practices evolved around making tools to compensate for the materials fabrication needs, on the other hand the lack of steel required that compensation in understanding of material.
Indigenous Woodland woodcraft stands alone, it requires and intimate and often time spiritual understanding of your available materials. This type of woodcraft is still the purest form of the craft, it’s a natural approach of utilizing the path of least resistance, in order to complete your task. It’s the same path everything in nature follows, from where animals travel to how rivers flow.
The idea behind this is finding the material’s natural weaknesses or working it in a way that it self exploits those weaknesses and allows you to utilize its strengths just as that material had while it was living.
The entire concept behind North American woodcraft is based on this understanding.
This advanced knowledge of how nature works has allowed the survival of the woodland nations since their stories began. It’s also allowed for the creation of many superior crafts with the use of very minimal and basic tools.
The usage of burl wood in the carving of dishware is an example of that understanding. Burl wood was chosen because half the job was already done by nature, all that’s left is the hollowing. regardless of the tool’s material the wood was worked while green, taking advantage of tbe easily cut soft fibers. Boiling was used to prevent cracking of the wood from the uneven evaporation of the oils and water. This boiling was also used while carving soften up the drying xylem fibers. Even the use of coal hollowing was done so with not only the understanding of fire but also with the understanding of water and how wood absorbs water. If coal hollowing was used, the wood was soaked prior to the application of the coals. This was done because wood only absorbs water to a certian point before an equilibrium is reached within the outer xylem fibers. This meant very even and uniform wall thickness throughout the bowl or vessel or canoe.
This superior understanding was seen in the usage of ring-porous,semi-porous, and non-porous tree species, to get strong splints for weaving, battens, and sheathing. These species were worked by exploiting that porous or semi porous layer which allowed for the easy separation of the strong material. Through similar fabrication processes a wide variety of species can be worked with very minimal prolonged physical effort. These processes include pounding to use impact force to vibrate apart the spongy weak layers. Slip riving was used, by bending a stave around a radius causing equal pressure but uneven spacing in the stave allowing it to slip apart along that weak layer. Hand riving and riving brakes in the form of forked trees were used in splitting process as well. These allowed a split to be controlled throughout the length of the stave by adjusting pressure from one side or the other. Allowing the craftsman to make very clean and very even splits, requiring minimal to no clean up before proceeding.
The use and understanding of natural elements and how the work extended past the use of fire for removing material, this was applied through the process of natural retting to alter materials, readying the fibers for use. Natural retting was used on certain barks and herbaceous plants in order to make the phloem fibers within the material useable. This process takes advantage of bacteria and micro organisms in the water to weaken the connective hemicellulose and free fibers needed. This process does lead to the understanding of making a natural chemical process by using wood ash and water to create lye and replicate the same retting effects found in the use standing or flowing water, but in a shorter period of time.
It’s extremely difficult to convey this type of understanding outside of hands on learning, and simply put words just don’t do it justice. They have a tendency to down play the amount of study and work required to do so. None of this method of following the path of least resistance could be possible without first deeply understanding your materials.
Seasonal availability of materials was rarely an issue, because when one material starts going dormant another which shares the same natural working characteristics is just becoming ready for use. As well if you understand the natural seasonal causes that ready a material for use, those to can be replicated in order to process a needed material, what are they? Heat and water. When the seasons warm they provide the needed conditions to utilize the material, the warming of the moisture contained in fibers is what makes them soft, workable, or flexible. While the use of steam is still relied upon in the bending or loosening of xylem fibers, most of the world used stationary steam boxes. While effective, stationary tools did very little for nomadic craftsman which is why the mokotagen is still as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. So simple solutions were found from the understanding of how things work, “mobile steaming” was made available through the use of hides or wool blankets, the follicles or fibers would trap the steam and heat in a certain area of the material to be bent or softened. No need to steam an entire piece for just one bend.
The longer I present and show these practices the more I realize that we’ve allowed ourselves to become so “advanced” in the way we use tools to inflict culture on nature, that these simple and “primitive” methods come off as magic.
The very different evolutionary circumstances of tool and fabrication methodology created very different perceptions of the work.
While there’s merit in both practices and the satisfaction of purposeful work can be found in both, the fact remains they are two very separate species. While European practices were allowed to evolve tools to compensate for material requirements, it has effectively degraded the perpetuation of that specific understanding. Simply put, you’re no longer required to know how to select the right material or identify its’ natural weakness when you can make or by a tool designed to disregard that.
Right now there is a very large emergence of greenwoood woodcrafters, learning and practicing a more traditional and minimal approach. Yet with anything popularity dictates which zeitgeist is followed, and yet again European practices are over shadowing Indigenous Woodland practices. Alas, even in the context of traditional European methodology, the ease of Indigenous knowledge and complexity of understanding is still regarded as magical practices…