Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A new quest: Bellows without tanned leather

In a moment of idle curiosity, I wondered whether you could make a practical (historic) bellows without tanned leather or woven cloth. It occurred to me that perhaps you could use something already flexible that did not need not some days-long chemically complex tanning process nor a tight warp loom to produce.

How about an animal bladder? I know they were used for two purposes in-period: as a bag for light items by the first peoples of North America, and as a balloon by dark ages Europeans. Are they large enough? Robust enough? Anyone ever heard of a bladder-based bellows?

Any other ideas are welcome: any animal, vegetable, or mineral alternative to tanned leather and cloth is a possibility.

Period references are of course extremely welcome. Please! Inform me!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Tin prospecting in New Mexico

About a month ago I scheduled a trip to New Mexico to visit an online friend named Ted French, who runs a mineral shopin Hillsboro, NM. He had offered to be my guide up into an area called the Taylor Creek Tin District where you can dry-wash for tin ore.
Strange as this may seem to most people, I liked the idea, so I flew up to Albuquerque this past Monday, and spent Tuesday up in the Gila National Forest with Ted.

  • We turned off US-25 onto New Mexico 52
  • We turned off New Mexico 52 onto County Road 59
  • We turned off County Road 59 onto Forest Service Road 2226 (or something)
  • Then we just turned off the road entirely.

On the "New Mexico 52" part we drove past a sign that said "Continental Divide".  Kinda cool. On the "County Road 59" part we drove past a sign that said "Fire Hazard Risk: Extremely High". (Picture on right) Also kind of cool. Tellingly, there were no more signs after that.

Ted drove us through the pine-needle-carpeted forest to an unremarkable spot, and we got out of our trucks. Just over the hill was a dry creek bed that was our destination, and we walked up the bed togetther, with him pointing things out and giving instruction as we went.

We reached a a spot that suited Ted and plunked down our gear. He handed me a 35mm film container and a pair of huge tweezers. He note again which colors, textures and density of material I was looking for, and turned me loose. It was pretty plentiful. Tweeze-plunk, tweeze-plunk for several minutes, each "plunk" a pebble of tin ore. Meanwhile, he was scouting the next "good spot" and when I'd run dry I'd catch up with him and he'd get me started again. Shockingly it was pretty much that easy. I tweezed around an ounce fairly quickly. Ted could prospect faster than I could recover the material, so he started gathering ahead of me: finding the next spot for me, then a spot for him. In the time it took me to gather an ounce or so, he'd prospected ahead for both of us, tag-teamed the gear forward, and had time left over to recover... about 5 ounces. I am but dust. 

During this time, the bright blue skies clouded over a bit, and we had a couple spritzes of rain. After the third spritz, when we'd been up there three hours or so, I decided that my two goals: first, to estimate how hard this task was, and second to gather a smeltable amount of tin ore, had both been accomplished. The rain was a bit dissuasive, so I was ready to go. Ted agreed, and just as we were starting to gather up the gear, it started to spritz again. By the time we had the gear rounded up, Ted was looking at the ground with a surprised expression.

"Is that white?" he asked. I held out my hands, and raindrops filled with a substantial amount of snow were hitting my arms. "That's sleet!" he said. "Cool weather!" I offered. We both grinned.

Then the thunder: loud and close at hand. Our smiles faltered. Up until now, "Thundersleet" had been a term with which I was unacquainted, but no longer. Thunder itself is not really scary, but its implied progenitor, Lightening, is a bit of an adrenaline rush when you're miles from the road, in a pine forest at 8500ft elevation, and distinctly remember a forest service sign saying "Fire Hazard Risk: Extremely High". Just imagine the thrills of a lightening strike between us and the roadway!

Happily, the Thundersleet ceased within a few minutes, just as we arrived back at the trucks.

Less happily, it was replaced with (I am not making this up) thunder hail. Not seed- or pea-, but marble-sized hail poured down on us. The very loud and continuous clatter was overwhelmed occasionally by peals of thunder that (since we were at elevation, and quite close to the source) were that very loud sizzly-crackley thunder rather than the deep bass rumble you get when you're farther away. The hail was coming down so fast that by the time we got to the main road, we weren't driving on individual hailstones, but on a fairly well established half-inch-thick layer of hail on the road. I was quite glad that I'd decided to go with the added expense of real 4-wheel drive on the rental truck. One point for the rookie!

Video of the hailstorm
Video of the hailstorm
I relaxed a bit when we reached the actual blacktop. For a moment, picture yourself thinking of "Driving a big 4 wheel drive pickup truck for the first time, on a layer of hail, on a back-country county road" and being relieved.

I finally thought to take some video of the hailstorm after it had started to wane a bit.

The next odd bit was that when we passed the sign that said "continental divide" the sky was bright blue and there was no precipitation of any kind. The whole storm was trapped on the western side of the mountains. The rest of the drive home, or in my case to Albuquerque, was downright boring.

... and it's clear skies
Then we cross the divide...

The net-net is that I came home safely, with enough raw tin ore to fiddle around with, having gathered the ore myself and gotten a feel for how hard that was to do: Mission Accomplished. The weather drama and new vocabulary were just a bonus. 

1 Oz Cassiterite
About 1oz not counting the big lump.

Fitting in in New Mexico

Now, off to crush the ore and smelt some tin!