Bone Breaking Discoveries

In this short blog I will be sharing with you some of the accidental and often very useful discoveries I have made while working bone. I’m a great believer that you learn as much from your failures as you do from your successes and that’s exactly what this blog is about.

Now although I am undoubtedly making it look exciting and glamorous, bone work is actually nothing more or less simple than abrading things in the right places which although this is relatively simple and sometimes doesn’t require much skill or concentration, it does take a long time to do. Even to make small tools like needles and awls to can take several hours depending on the tools available. Which is why discovering and working with the predictable qualities and finding shortcuts is very useful to us. Why waste your time abrading for 3 hours when you can abrade for 10 minutes and get the same result?


So here some of the more useful breakages that have turned out to be great discoveries on my bone working journey.



Making Needle Blanks



As I have mentioned in previous blogs, a bone will behave differently depending on what state it’s in.  Cooked, not cooked, boiled, raw and weathered bones all behave differently and have different properties so the skill is to match the properties to the tool you want to make. Once you can do this then making certain tools becomes much easier. For example, all you need to do to make needle blanks is take a cooked bone, preferably roasted as they seem to work best, and give it a good wack with a hammer (modern or primitive).  The bone will shatter (remember safety goggles, thick gloves, and battle armour)  into thin sharp pieces perfect for turning into needles and gorge hooks. Now okay, this might not be the most sophisticated way to make something but it definitely cuts down on the workload and it is relatively predictable if not precise.



Arrowheads to fish hooks



Multipurpose is something we like when we’re talking about primitive living skills. It cuts down on effort again and means you have more energy and time to be doing other important things like catch food or collect water. We also like to recycle and this next discovery does both. The design of fish hook in the picture is a relatively new design to me but one that is growing on me very fast.  This fish hook can be used to catch fish in the usual way but if you mount it onto a shaft you have a great barbed arrowhead. Two uses one tool ! Now if you’re making this design then that’s fine but the really exciting thing for me is that I made this tool from a broken arrowhead. It used to have two barbs but one snapped off but instead of throwing it away I turned it into a multipurpose hunting tool!!

broad head arrow

Arrowhead before breakage

fish hooks and arrow head

Arrowhead after breakage – the newly discovered fishing/hunting multitool


Making an Awl in under 5 mins

This last discovery is the one that excites me the most! Not because it’s the most extravagant or because it the best thing since the invention of gravy but because I’ve never seen any reference to it anywhere and because it reduces your workload by such an amount. If I was to make an awl the ‘conventional’ way I would usually halve the bone either length ways or cross ways ( it doesn’t matter which really) and then proceed to sharpen the end, which takes a lot of abrading, especially if you’re making one to punch through leather as it needs to be super sharp.  Although this isn’t the longest process in the world it still takes time and effort, however, if we implement my new method for making an awl it can literally take seconds.



I discovered that if I took a cooked deer femur (the bone of the hind leg that is connected to the pelvis) and held it firmly at both ends and twisted my hands in opposite directions this would cause the bone to splinter in two and form into an already made awl! No abrading. No cutting! No time!


Awl made using conventional abrasion technique


Awls made using newly discovered twist and splintering technique

It’s these sorts of discoveries that keep the subject exciting for me but are also fundamentally important to the subject as a whole as they stop the stagnation of skills and allow skills and the people practising those skills to develop forwards. The idea that I might be discovering new ways or indeed rediscovering old forgotten ways is something that keeps me excited and passionate about my subject. Even when you’re not learning …you are!! Let’s just hope I continue to break things for many years to come and who knows what I might discover!


Joseph Philbin



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