Brandon and Gwen's Adventure

Brandon and Gwen's Adventure

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Handmade Knife for Gwen

A major part of being an outdoorsman is that you never stop learning new things. One such skill I have been looking to learn is bladesmithing (knife making). OK, maybe bladesmithing is a bit beyond my current skill level (don't expect me to don a leather apron and a pair of dark goggles), but one does not need to be a blacksmith to produce a long lasting, well crafted blade. Like most skills, creating your own made from scratch knife can be both expensive, as well as daunting. But, it doesn't have to be. For example, if you know what you want your knife to look like and possess some level of patience and some common tools normally found in your garage, you are well on your way to creating your first knife. Which is exactly what I have just done. When my wife added a knife to her Christmas list I immediately began looking for one to suit her needs. She asked for it to be all purpose, durable, with a 3" blade, and a "hint" of pink -because she's a lady :). It didn't take long before I decided that this was the excuse I needed to make my first knife. The best part is it was free! With the exception of purchasing pink paracord -I was fresh out :). Here is an iPhone pic of what I ended up with:
This began as an old Black Diamond brand flat bastard file. Like this:
A photo posted by Brandon Libby (@brandon_libby) on
Of course, there are other ways to get the metal necessary to craft a blade, such as an online knife supplier like, but I wanted to see if I could be more creative. Besides, if I utterly failed it wouldn't cost me a dime. If you decide you would like to use a file like I did (and many others on the internet) then you will need to get your hands on older files. The reason is simple, older files contain carbon throughout their structure whereas newer files only contain carbon on the surface level. In order to create a strong, sharp, long lasting blade you will need high carbon steel through and through. Older files provide this. One major difference to using a file vs. purchasing your steel from a supplier is that the file will need to be annealed before beginning the process. This is to soften the metal so that you can work with it. Believe me, these old files are strong as hell! Conversely, the knife supplier will provide you with steel that has already been annealed, thus saving you this step. OK, enough about knife suppliers. So how do I know if I have found a file that has high carbon content? I'm not an expert in metallurgy, but the easiest way I know is to clamp the file in a vise (with just the narrow tip sticking up), slap on a pair of safety glasses and give it a lateral whack with a hammer. Did it break? If you answered yes, then you have a winner. If it bent, well's back to the pawn shop with you. Now that you hopefully have found a good piece to work with, it's time to begin the process. The first thing you need to do is anneal the file. The bad news is you need a forge to do this. The good news is.... Here's mine:
A photo posted by Brandon Libby (@brandon_libby) on
Pretty gnarly, isn't it? There are many ways to make a forge. Some are better than others. I had some old bricks, partially burned logs, starter fluid, and 100' extension cord, and shhh my wife's hair dryer. What you are trying to accomplish here is a tiny recreation of the pits of Hell. You need to heat the steel to ~1000*F to where glows red hot, and then to allow it to slowly cool back down to room temperature. This releases the initial heat treatment and gives you a nice soft piece of metal to work on (your blades and drill bits will thank you). You will need to make a small brick fort, pre-burned coals from the bottom of your firepit, some lighter fluid (to help get this thing going) and a long lighter or match. Once you build your little fort and stuff it with coals, soak the coals in lighter fluid and ignite the coals with your long lighter or match. Use your wife's hairdryer (at your own discretion, don't tell her I said it's OK) to stoke the fire. You can then place the file into the fiery cauldron with a long pair of pliers -be sure to wear gloves! Now that the blade is in the fire, keep hitting the whole mess with air from the hairdryer. What you are looking for is a bright red glow uniformly across the entirety of the file. Once this is achieved, using extreme caution, remove the file with your pliers and gloves and place it somewhere to cool off slowly. Sneak your wife's slightly melted, somewhat campfire scented hairdryer back into the drawer. Once the file is cooled, the annealing process is complete. Your file is now ready to be worked. The first thing you will need is to design and create a template (or you can download them from the internet, like these). I used a piece of paper, a pen, and a few drawing aids to help with making precise circles. Here is what that looks like:
A photo posted by Brandon Libby (@brandon_libby) on
My technique was simple, trace the file with a pencil and then draw your knife within the confines of that traced edge. Then cut it out like so:
A photo posted by Brandon Libby (@brandon_libby) on
Place your template on a piece of wood that matches the thickness of your file. In this case, mine was ~1/8". Glue your template to the wood and, when it dries, cut it out with a jigsaw. Like this:
A photo posted by Brandon Libby (@brandon_libby) on
This wooden template will serve as a guide to shaping the knife. Here is what mine looked like after some serious grinding and cutting:
A photo posted by Brandon Libby (@brandon_libby) on
Now that you have your basic shape, you can start to taper the edge so it looks like a real knife and not a Hollywood prop. This is what I had after hitting it with the belt sander a bit:
I was getting pretty excited by this point! You have some options at this point, you can create several different types of edge grinds depending on what you plan on doing with this particular knife. Make sure that you leave about 1mm of material thickness at the cutting edge. This is to ensure that this portion does not warp during heat treating. You will remove the remaining material just before the sharpening process. Now that you have cut out the shape of knife you prefer, shaped the edge grind -remembering to save 1mm of material at the edge you are ready to begin the heat treating process. Shiny!
A photo posted by Brandon Libby (@brandon_libby) on
I'm afraid it's back to the fiery cauldron. Basically, repeat the exact same steps as you did in the annealing process, only this time, quench the red hot glowing blade in used motor oil. You have to do this quickly, do not hesitate or stare at the pretty glowing knife. Drop it in the oil immediately. If you did find yourself in awe of the glowing mass, no worries, simply drop it back in the forge for another 5 minutes or so before pulling it back out (red hot) and quenching it. Here's an extreme closeup of my process:
A photo posted by Brandon Libby (@brandon_libby) on
Once the knife is quenched, it will be covered in some nasty scales from scalding the oil. It is best to remove these with sandpaper before the final heat treating process. Note: the final heat treating process should begin within an hour of quenching. So make sure you sand that crap off fairly quickly. With most of the scaling sanded off you are ready for final heat treatment. To do this, you will place the blade on a cookie sheet and place it in the oven for ~2hrs. The temperature you set it at will determine the final hardness of your knife. Don't get too caught up in the science of this. I set my oven at 400*F. I set the timer for 2hrs and went on to other things to keep from pacing back and forth in front of the oven. Here is what my knife looked like after 2hrs at 400*F:
Fresh out of the oven. Heat treat completed. It has a golden hue indicative of the 400*F temper. Next, I cleaned it up, cut the 1mm of material down to an edge, and began the polishing process.
I also decided to add a couple of functional serrations for fun. The polishing process I used was to create a nice finish without going crazy with it. Since this particular blade will see a lot of use, I stopped at 1500 grit sandpaper. Here is what I did: Sanded the surface longitudinally with 100 grit. Sanded the surface longitudinally with 220 grit. Sanded the surface longitudinally with 320 grit. Sanded the surface longitudinally with 800 grit. Sanded the surface longitudinally with 1500 grit. This is what it looked like:
A photo posted by Brandon Libby (@brandon_libby) on
You can make out the teardrop camper hatch I'm building in the reflection. There are an almost infinite number of choices for the handle. I chose to do what is called a strider wrap with paracord. I don't have any pics of the process, but here is the video I watched to perform this wrap. Here is the final product one more time:
That's basically it. I hope this rudimentary post inspires someone else to try this out for themselves. Cheers, Brandon

Monday, October 6, 2014

Overland Expo East 2014

Overland Expo East 2014

Overland Expo has been around since 2009 and is the largest gathering of its kind. The west coast edition has grown so large so quickly that it only made sense to show the east coast a little love. The first annual Overland Expo East (Oct. 3-4, 2014) was held at Taylor Ranch in Fletcher, NC. The unofficial numbers: there were 5,000 attendees, over 100 vendors, 300 session hours of overlanding courses, all held on a 300 acre horse ranch. We were greeted at the gate by the friendly staff and quickly headed towards the parking lot.

Having only witnessed Overland Expo on Expedition Portal and never in person, I was overwhelmed with the amount of exciting things to see. Hell, the parking lot looked like it was torn from the pages of Overland Journal. After parking, we headed over to registration where we received our credentials and were presented with a pair of swag bags filled with brochures, info about the event -including a map, and some decals -I heart decals.

We then proceeded to follow the extremely well labeled path towards the rear of the property where we would choose our camping location amongst a sea of roof top tents, Landrovers, Landcruisers, Jeeps, Tacomas, Sportsmobiles, Earthroamers, etc. Luckily, there was still one flat spot right next to the lake to drop the teardrop for the weekend. At our vantage point, we could basically see the entire event from the comfort of our window. Of course, this also meant that where ever we were on the property, we could also see the tiny camper perched on the top of the hill -cool!

The first night was spent doing some preliminary scouting in order to find out where our classes would be held, be it in a classroom (in a large enclosed tent), or in a unique area that catered to a specific task such as vehicle recovery, field welding, etc.. There were so many cool rigs, trailers, and products in the main vendor area that Gwen had to guide me around by my hand to keep me from running off and getting lost like a little kid at Disney World -did I mention I was overwhelmed?

Friday morning (Oct. 3rd) began with dual battery basics. The instructor was charming and had a very firm understanding of 12v batteries and how to get the most our of them. It was an interesting class and as appealing as dual batteries are, I think this is one mod that won't find it's way into either of our rigs. More on this later. Next, we headed over to meet up with Rachelle Croft and Rhonda Cahill of Expedition Overland for a lesson in basic compass and map navigation. This was my first experience with using a real compass and I really enjoyed it. The rain didn't stop us from having a great time and we stayed mostly dry, that is until Rhonda managed to soak my backside while trying to drain the pooling water in the canopy. Overall the class was very informative and I walked away with a greater understanding of navigation via map and compass ...and a wet backside.

We then headed to Basic GPS navigation. There was a lot of information in this course, but for the most part what I learned was to pay close attention to which companies were easiest to share information. Some companies make it difficult to do so. Google Earth is also worth investing in if you aren't already using it to plan your trips.

In addition to putting on an awesome event, Jonathan Hanson also teaches class as well. We were fortunate enough to spend time learning non lethal Hi-Lift Jack techniques. It was a fairly basic class, but the info is invaluable. I enjoyed lifting his Tacoma by its impressive Pronghorn brand front bumper. Another valuable class consisted of food prep and packaging. There was a lot of info available from the instructor and we learned a lot. Luckily we brought note pads along with us.

I won't bore you with an account of each class we took as there were numerous, instead I'll just say they were very well thought out and equally informative. We learned to weld with car batteries, purify drinking water, package food, navigate, vehicle recovery and a ton of other fun and useful things. Needless to say, we are looking forward to attending Overland Expo again in the future -next time, in Arizona.

Oh, I almost forgot, the reason I don't think we will be going with a dual battery system has to do with our needs. Since our main reason for wanting dual batteries was to keep from becoming stranded with a dead battery in the middle of nowhere, we found a better solution: Antigravity Micro Starting system. Amazon has them for <$100 USD with free shipping. Despite their small size, they will jump start several dead batteries, charge your iPhone, iPad, etc. several times all on one charge. What ever your needs, they are worth looking into.


ARB 2500 awning mounted and ready to go.

Adventure Trailers flippac equipped JKU. 

Exploring Elements was there having just finished up in Alaska. 

Paul May from Equipt was very friendly and brought his very well equipped 4 Runner. 

Dave Rees showing Gwen how to field weld using 3 automotive batteries. 

Mario Donovan instructing

Mario Donovan of Adventure Trailers fame demonstrating safe trailering in technical terrain

One of the many Defender 110's in attendance. 

Jonathan Hanson's Hi-Lift safety course underway. 

How to winch with a Hi-Lift. 

NC Transport's Doka. 

Every kind of Defender you may desire was in attendance. 

Gwen falling in love with this 510hp Supercharged V8 Landrover Sport during her Landrover Experience participation. 

An all electric Motoped spotted near the fire pit. 

Adventure bikes as far as the eye can see. 

Many people were eager to share their personal vehicle builds with others. 

Expedition Overland's Toyota Tacoma.

Gwen trying her best to stay warm. Camp fires were forbidden in the campgrounds. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Doors but no roof!

Super special teardrop offroad camper door #1

Water pump
Water tank fill valve

Biggest pumpkins ever!

Putting the pieces together...

Brandon fixed my boo boo...

Safety first!

Supervisor of cuteness!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

And the build begins...

We have been plotting and planning to build an offroad teardrop type camper and have finally started to get to work. The idea is to be able to offroad and have a quick place to sleep on any terrain. Setting up a tent every night is getting old, and so are we (well at least Brandon is hahaha)! The idea is based of the Moby off-road trailers.

The build started August 12th...

The iphone is also the radio, hence the "selfies" all in the same spot :)

Almost done with the base part after multiple
trips to the Lowes and Home Depot! 

We got another yorkie too...

The pen is for size reference. 

Kokopelli and Ninja

So this happened today. I was in charge of measuring.
Why do they make millimeters so small!!
And, you know what Brandon said, "Well, at least I get to use the router now." Love that man.

Overland Expo East in 25 days!!! I hope we get the cabin part done, otherwise we will be in the tent!!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Cathedral Caverns State Park

Cathedral Caverns State Park is located near Woodville, Alabama and was designated a U.S. National Natural Landmark in 1972. According to our guide, nicknamed "Elmo" -at least I hope it's a nickname, archaeologists state that the cave was inhabited by Native Americans as early as 7000 BCE and as late as 200 years ago.

Some of the unique features of Cathedral Caverns include:
  • A massive cave opening that stands at 126 feet wide and 25 feet tall making it the widest opening of any commercial cave.
  • A 35 foot wide flow stone wall -which Elmo stated looked like the "southbound end of a northbound pachyderm". 
  • A 792x200ft "Big Room" -which was simply amazing to see in person.
  • Goliath Column,  measured at 45 feet tall.
It would seem that the cave temperature is fairly stable and quite comfortable throughout the year. I would suggest going when the weather is either too hot or too cold to visit other state parks. Of course, you can visit whenever it is open, but the temperature differential will be appreciated more during extreme outside temperatures. We chose to go when it was hot outside, the inside of the cave was a wonderful escape from the hot humid Alabama air. 

The tour started with a brief introduction from our funny little tour guide, Elmo. I would describe him as being in his late forties, about five feet seven inches tall and round in the middle. He was sporting a pair of denim overalls and his bearded face was adorned with a warm tooth barren smile. With all due respect, Elmo is a really nice host who obviously loves his job very much. The introduction was followed up with the typical: hands off, stay together, keep your hands and feet inside at all times -yes, it's a walking tour (unless you are Elmo, then you ride an electric golf cart out front), but you get the idea.

As our group moved through the enormous entrance, I couldn't help but to wonder what the first group who passed through this very spot so many years ago must have been thinking -I imagine bears would have been the first thing on my mind. Today the interior is well lit with small incandescent bulbs projecting light from the cave floor toward the ceiling. These lights illuminate the various natural wonders that carry on for over two miles of meandering foot paths. There is a galvanized steel pipe barrier that lines both sides of the sidewalk throughout the tour in order to keep visitors from wandering off into the expansive darkness. Ever so often, Elmo would stop to show us an interesting stalactite (the jagged mineral outcrops that line the ceiling) or stalagmite (similar structures that line the floor). Eventually stalactites leaking water onto the cave floor would form deposits. These deposits would build up, thus creating stalagmites. After millions of years of doing this, they would eventually meet in the middle. And there is your science lesson for the day. 

Of course, the first people to enter Cathedral Caverns would not have had the luxury of our bearded little guide, nor would they have had indoor lighting. They certainly would have missed out on quite a bit. For example, Elmo stopped us as soon as we hit the first turn and lost the familiar glow of sunlight that was initially leading the way. Here we found ourselves standing on top of a small hill with a small stream a several yards below the railing. He pulled out a flashlight from the center pocket of his overalls and began to scan the walls and ceiling until he came upon what he was searching for. On the right wall about ten yards away, there was a small bat hanging upside down sleeping. According to Elmo, these "chicken nugget" sized mammals are great with sweet and sour dipping sauce. You may deem otherwise, but I'll take his word for it. Having found the little chicken nugget, he switched the golf cart into gear and we moved on.

If you squint your eyes, you may see a small bat.

As we carried on, the cave began to expand ahead of us and the pathway snaked its way up and down and left and right over and over again. The whole way, Elmo continued to scan the walls for chicken nuggets and occasionally would stop on one long enough for the group to see it. The next attraction was the original pathway where James Gurley, the man responsible for creating the original cave tour, had taken his guests in the 1950's. Where we had a nice wide concrete path with panoramic views of both sides of the cave, early guests would have been hugging the left wall in an attempt to stay upright. Also below was the path and bridge that Gurley would have driven his retired Army Jeep across in order to carry supplies in and out of the cave while he was developing it. The remnants of the old bridge and path were still there but, sadly, they didn't see fit to leave the little Jeep as part of the display. Again, Elmo switched the golf cart into gear and we followed behind. 

We then stopped at the flow stone wall. I peered up as I attempted to soak in the enormity of the massive 32 foot wall. The surface glistened and appeared to dance in the incandescent light cast from down below. My eyes followed across the smooth hilly top of the structure and down the grooves that separated the mounds. I decided that they looked like giant molars and snapped a couple of pictures of it. This is when Elmo put his hand on my shoulder and told me that he was going to toss me over the side. Before the tour kicked off I had made a joke, as I often do, and his idea of retribution was to make me a permanent fixture on the enormous flow stone wall. He pointed at what appeared to be a face on the side of the wall and calmly stated "that was the last guy who made jokes during one of my tours". Of course he was only kidding and I got that, but after he made his way back to the front of the tour, one of the group members said "I didn't know what he was about to do when he snuck up behind you like that". I just laughed and and snapped a few more pictures. Elmo hopped back on the golf cart, and the tour continued.

As the group ascended into the darkness, I found myself daydreaming again. I tried to imagine what the cave would look like as the light from our torches danced on the walls and stalagmites casting long shadows on the path ahead. I also pondered the likelihood of chicken nugget guano landing on our heads. What are the chances these little guys will wake up while we are down here? I suppose that I could tuck my head into my t-shirt and hope for the best. In some cultures it may be considered good luck to have a bat poo on one's head, but I'm a southern man and 'round here, that's just plain nasty! With that thought, I snapped out of my fantasy state and sped up to catch up with the rest of the group.

The cave was beautiful and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit. I won't give away too much of what we saw. It's an experience best enjoyed in person as words don't really do it justice. The entire tour took about an hour and a half so make sure you feed the little ones lunch first. One spoiler, if you are afraid of the dark, this trip is not for you. At one point, in the deepest part of the cave, Elmo cuts off all of the lights, placing you in total darkness. Once the lights come back on the tour is officially over and you can find your way back at your own pace which gives you enough time to snap a few more photos as you leave.

Elmo photobombed everyone with a camera or camera phone.

There are other activities for the kids, we took Victoria over to the mining area so she could try her hand as a prospector. They basically hand you a bag of sand a sifter and your child pours some sand into the sifter. A trough of flowing water is then used to separate the sand and expose all of the goodies hidden inside. She ended up with some cool rocks to take home along with some memories that hopefully will last a lifetime.