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Oct 22 2010

The Craftsmanship of Dick Proenneke

Several years back, PBS, Public Broadcasting, began showing a few videos that have been produced about the life of Richard L “Dick” Proenneke. (1916-2003) The titles of these videos are: “Alone in the Wilderness”, “Alaska, Silence and Solitude”, and “The Frozen North”. Most people who have seen any of these, have more than likely seen Alone in the Wilderness. This video is of footage shot mostly by Dick himself, with his 16 mm Bolex camera, and the narration is writings from his journals in the book, “One Man’s Wilderness”.

proenneke1.jpgRichard L. Proenneke Photo

For most of us, this was our introduction to Dick, and his life. It is one of the only films ever made that shows the process of making a cabin in the wilderness, using only hand tools. It is a real gift.

Dick was a man whose life took him to a lot of places and exposed him to a lot of things, and those things may have been instrumental in helping shape his abilities for life in the wilderness. Born and raised in Iowa, he joined the US Navy and was a Navy carpenter, a rancher, diesel mechanic and heavy equipment operator.

He originally went to Alaska to start a cattle ranch, and wound up commercial salmon fishing and working as a mechanic. He spent the final years of his working career in and around Kodiak Alaska at the naval base there, until a work accident nearly cost him his eyesight. His life in the ranching business probably helped him understand nature and wildlife on an intuitive level, and his life as a carpenter and mechanic probably prepared him with the self-sufficiency needed for the next phase of his life. He retired at age 51 to Twin Lakes, living as a naturalist, nature cinematographer, and scientific observer in the remote Alaska wilderness.

In 1962, Dick made his first trip to Twin Lakes Alaska, part of what is now Lake Clark National Park, and lies 40 miles North of Lake Clark, 100 miles West of Kenai and about 350 miles West of Anchorage. This area is full on bush country, and only accessible by floatplane in summer, ski plane in winter.

He was originally introduced to the Twin Lakes area, by friends he made while working at the Navy Base at Kodiak. A retired Navy Captain and his wife, Spike and Hope Caruthers, who had a cabin there, invited Dick to the area, and loaned him the use of their cabin. Dick in turn loaned the use of a camper he had to the Caruthers in the Kodiak Area.

Dick set out to live in a way similar to Henry David Thoreau, as he had written about in “Walden” as a test of his personal life and values. During July 1967, Dick spent time harvesting logs At Twin Lakes, from a small stand of spruce near Spike’s cabin, and on May 21, 1968, he returned to Twin Lakes to build his own cabin, where he remained for the next 16 months. He may not have known at the time, but that first stay would evolve into where he would live for the next 31 years. It began as a test to see what he was made of, and became his home.

He lived in Twin Lakes, off savings from his retirement, from payments received for meteorological and wildlife research, photography he did for the National Park Service, and from showings of the film footage he shot in and around the area.

In 1999, Dick returned to the States to live with his brother in Southern California, Returning only once for a short visit during the summer of 2000, to dedicate his Cabin to the National Parks Service. The cabin is now maintained in the state Dick left it, as a historical site and museum.

Among the many things Dick was, he was a very talented woodsman and woodworker. The first forty minutes of the largely autobiographical video “Alone in the Wilderness” depict him building his cabin from the spruce logs he felled the year before. The video is also interspersed with shots of him doing the other things that make up his life at Twin Lakes.

Let’s have a look at Dick and the tools he brought with him to Twin Lakes, as he builds his cabin, furnishings and living accessories. For many, this is an excellent opportunity to see a trained carpenter from the old school, go about his work with hand tools, and without drawings. Knowing what he wants to do, seeing it in his minds eye, using his skills and developing the materials available right there at his cabin site.

This video is just a taste of the first movie in a series of four, Alone in the Wilderness. If you navigate to the following links, you can watch excerpts of Alone in the Wilderness, Alaska Silence and Solitude and The Frozen North on YouTube.

Alone in the Wilderness

Alaska Silence and Solitude

The Frozen North

Recently, Bob Swerer Productions has released Alone In The Wilderness Part II. Here is a seven minute excerpt from Part II:

Both the first and second videos from the “Alone in the Wilderness” series depict Dick woodworking, but I highly recommend watching all four, or even purchasing the videos from DickProenneke.com. If you are like me, you’ll watch them many times.

One of the first things you’ll notice is that Dick has to prepare the cabin site. He clears the brush and lays down a gravel base that he hauls from the lake. Next, he hauls the logs one by one from where he has them stacked to the cabin site. How does he do it? Look closely, he isn’t just dragging them on the ground. He has logs laying crossways in the trail. Dick fashioned an old school skid road.

Among the tools he brought in to build the cabin as well as for survival was a 36 to 40 inch one man tree saw, with teeth filed for softwoods which were predominant in the area, a metal frame style tree saw, a double bladed axe and a hatchet. He has a splitting maul for firewood as well. There is also a shot of him filing an adze, an adze that he was also shown to use like a light sledgehammer when building sawhorses. He uses a drawknife for debarking, flattening and shaping his logs, poles and rough lumber.

Something worth noting about Dick’s axe. He chokes up on the handle often to shave shape and carve. He relies on it for a lot of tasks. He even uses it while hunting. It is hard to see his axe in any shot when it is not in motion, but if you are used to seeing what a good axe looks like, the area near the blade has been filed down to a thinner profile.

proenneke2.jpgRichard L. Proenneke Photo

I am originally from logging country in the Pacific Northwest. We know that many new axes will chop nearly as well as a sledgehammer. The cutting edge is simply too blunt, and when swung, the axe bounces off the tree better than it cuts. You would think it dull, but no. Its cutting edge is just too blunt, and the axe can’t penetrate into the wood fibers to cut cross grain.

What was often done to a new axe by their new owners, was to file or grind that area just behind the edge down some and use a shallower bevel angle on the edge. If you relieve this shoulder a bit, the axe will cut into the wood and not bounce off the wood as you chop. It also makes the blade a lot more versatile as we can see from Dick’s skill with it. This is physical work. Dick knew he needed his tools to work for and with him.

It appears he has at least four handsaws. One is a ripsaw, which he used to resaw logs into planks. He claimed he could rip a log 5 inches in diameter by 42 inches long in 15 minutes. That is not a bad pace when you have a lot of ripping to do, so it was likely in the 4-6 ppi range. There is a shot of it leaning against the planks he had cut. It looked like a 26” Disston D-8.

Dick commonly used both hands on his saw when it was stable to do so, but I couldn’t see a thumbhole on this saw. In the places we see dick cross cut, the saw looks like a D-8 also, but it doesn’t look discernibly different than the crosscut while viewing on the fly. If I am wrong about two D8’s then Dick is using his Rip Saw for some of his crosscuts, and this is doable. He likely dressed most all his sawn edges with his planes anyway.

There was a short cross cut saw, a short panel saw, with no back that looked to be approximately12 inches long, and with what looks like an aluminum handle, as a well as a keyhole saw, used to saw the elaborate latch and lock he made for his Dutch door. It was also likely used to saw out the crescent on the outhouse door as well as make the wooden spoons he carved.

His edge tools appear to include at least a framing slick and gouge, a, block plane and a number 4 Stanley smoother He made many of the handles for tools that needed them from spruce on site, such as the handles for his framing chisels. He likely had more chisels and gouges than just one of each in his kit; likely some of the bench chisel style variety.

There was also what was called a “thin bladed wide chisel” he was shown using to split logs to make boards from for framing windows and doors. It did not appear to have a wooden handle. He struck it with his claw hammer. Something similar to this chisel was seen fitted later with a long wooden handle for chiseling holes in the lake ice for fresh water during the freeze. He had what looked like a wide-bladed, small cold chisel like chisel, likely a brick set, which he used to tack Oakum Moss between the logs while insulating the cabin

His sharpening tools appear to include files, which while not shown would have to include saw files, perhaps a Lansky puck of Carborundum, which he used on his axe, hatchet and drawknife, and likely some other Carborundum stones, which were popular for sharpening in that era.

His drilling tools appear to include a brace, but all we ever see is the collet of that brace while he is drilling handles he made on site for his large augers. It is likely he has a number of bits for his brace, and the large augers we see him use in the timber framing, He likely made the handles for his large augers for a couple reasons. In addition to the leverage he gains, they negate the need for additional braces with different sweeps.

proenneke3.jpgRichard L. Proenneke Photo

His striking tools appear to include a large framing claw hammer, a smaller claw hammer in the 16 ounce range that he used to tack the tarpaper and visqueen on his roof. He made a large wooden mallet carved from spruce. There is also a Crowbar available to him up there, often used for un-boarding boarded up windows for weatherization in winter.

Layout tools include a one-foot combination square, a folding ruler, a tape measure, a chalk line, what was likely a 24 inch level, a pair of dividers and carpenter pencils.

Dick made wooden hinges sawn from seasoned spruce stumps, and made dowel like pins for various joinery needs. He applied glue with a brush in some of these joinery applications. It is hard to say which glues, but they were used outdoors as well as in. In other cases he fashioned round mortises, where a tapered pin went into a hole, much like what was used traditionally in Windsor chairs, but I never saw any tooling that would taper a hole. My guess is that Dick shaved the pins with a drawknife and or whittled them so there would be a friction fit.

proenneke4.jpgRichard L. Proenneke Photo

He made many accessories for living from tin gas cans, so there was likely a pair of tin snips or two but we never see them. There was at least one pair of vise grips and perhaps a pair of pliers. He made baking pans for his beloved sourdough, the starter that he got from Mary Alsworth, Babe Alsworth, his friend and bush pilot’s wife. He made wash basins, other tools for the kitchen. Carrying pans, tin totes and trays, for packing sand, gravel, cement mortar and stones. He made a pail with bail for carrying water from the lake, and covered storage for dry goods.

Dick even made hinges for various doors from these tin cans and nails. From the looks of other metal work for the stove and pipes, as well as flashing and 55 gallon drum usage, he likely had a hacksaw as well. For those without a cutting torch, a cold chisel will take the top off a 55-gallon drum too.

There was also a round point shovel, which he used for gardening and cutting moss for his roof. A hoe he used for mixing mortar for his fireplace and a pointing trowel for cementing the rockwork on the fireplace.

Amongst the tools Dick made were saw horses, a planing horse, which like a Japanese planing beam, had a stop on one end he could plane against. He made a number of different ladders. The spruce mallet, the handles for his augers and framing chisel and gouge. There was also the pack frame for carrying his moss for the roof, which I suspect may have later became the lid to his underground root cellar.

He also made jigs to help make things. The frame he built around the tin box he used to carry mortar and rocks. He made support forms for his rock fireplace chimney and a support form for building its arch. The snow shovel was cut from a 55-gallon barrel, and the bottom of a 55-gallon barrel was used for his cement mixer. He had a shop storage area adjacent to the outhouse where he kept dry wood and his tooling as well.

He made his furnishings. A bunk bed, dining/writing table, chair(s) and benches. He had seating inside and out. He made a couple tables and a carved a bowl from a burl he sawed off a tree. A wall mounted paper towel holder, cabinet next to his bed, various shelves for his dishes, utensils and cooking spices. A kitchen counter appears to have been made from 3-4 planks. He hung his cast iron frying pans on the wall or stored them in an animal proof cache he built outdoors. Even had the use of a cutting board, but did he bring that in? He likely made his snowshoes.

Unfortunately the videos never show all the tools he was seen to use all at once. The logistics of doing this, even as minimally as it was, was something that required a lot of thought and planning. Dick clearly had done his thinking and knew what was needed to use with what was at hand in the Alaska bush country. He had a good friend in Babe Alsworth, helping to fly in the things he needed. Dick was a resourceful man who knew his way around tools and how to use them productively to get what he needed made under a very tight schedule. The Alaskan spring, summer and fall passes by in a very short five months.

What is a self-sufficient craftsman? Fine craftsmanship does not have to be French polish. Is what Dick made rustic? Sure, but it is as durable as the land and stood the test of daily use over 30 years in unforgiving country. If you were wondering what tooling you really must have in your kit, if there is to be nothing other than human power, now you have a good idea.

proenneke5.jpgRichard L. Proenneke Photo

Know that even though there is power from gas and electricity, these tools and skills can still be of great help to us. If you were wondering what skills you need to develop to use them, this too is a good overview. If you need help learning to use tools, and gaining knowledge for building with them, there are many, many titles in the Woodworks Library, which will help address this. Please feel free to go in and have a look around. If you have further questions about these tools and skills, you can also contact me.

If you are interested in some of this tooling, there are some links to many great new and used tool vendors on my Woodworks Tool Source Links page. For some of the specialized timber framing tools, two vendors come to mind. Caribou Blades is a maker of many fine tools for building and surviving in Bush country, and they are truely bush tools, made off grid in the remote bush country of British Columbia, Canada. Scott and Aki have been living this way since 1997. They have been doing “green” since before it became cool. Their tooling is primarily made in the same way Dick made things, from recovered steel, and local woods. Probably the greenest way to go if that appeals to you, and you support people who like Dick did, are living a simplified life, off the grid in a green way. Alternatively, Barr Quarton of Barr Tools also forges up a fine line of timber framing and woodworking tools in Northern Idaho. Both are highly recommended.

The three documentaries about Dick Proenneke and his life are available for purchase from Bob Swerer, the producer of the videos at www.dickproenneke.com They are all wonderfully produced, well narrated and well worth a watch. There are two books, “One Man’s Wilderness”, which is available from Amazon, and “More readings from One Man’s Wilderness”, that is either available from Amazon, or as a pdf download from the National Park Service, Here.

I understand there may be a third book in production from Dick’s journals that will fill the gap between the One Man’s Wilderness of 1968-69 and 1974-1980 where “More Readings” takes over.

Finally for a wonderful video to go out on, here is a 15-minute clip that depicts Dick in his twilight, in 2000 when he returned to Twin Lakes to dedicate his homestead to the National Park Service.

I hope you enjoy these videos and woodworking insights from Dick, to the world.

“Too many men work on parts of things. Doing a job to completion satisfies me”.

~ Dick Proenneke ~

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