The Mesmerizing How-Tos of “Primitive Technology”

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and "lazy person's memoir," called Borg Like Me.

4007 Articles

By Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and "lazy person's memoir," called Borg Like Me.

4007 Articles

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Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos on survivalism, bushcraft, backyard knifemaking, and the like. This is not because I’m some sort of doomsday prepper or endtimes weirdo. I just find the ingenuity and resourcefulness in many of these videos to be inspiring. And highly entertaining. And, I figure, it can’t hurt to know how to make a fire without matches, build a waddle and daub hut, or weave baskets out of vines and greenery. Of all of the channels on these subjects, the most captivating to me is Primitive Technology.

In a style similar to Jimmy DiResta’s DiResta series, Primitive Technology wordlessly follows an Aussie survivalist going about the business of creating everything required to sustain a life in the wilds of Far North Queensland Australia. In the course of the series, he’s built several small huts, kilns, hand tools, baskets, pottery, a sling shot, and more — all using only the tools he made himself. There is something extremely romantic and inspiring about starting with absolutely nothing but your hands and your wits and scratch-building the world around you.

The videos are obviously edited to make all of the builds as enchanting and effortless-looking as possible. So what. These are very watchable videos, and I definitely feel like I’m learning something with each. I had never seen the process by which a grass basket was made, for instance. I found that strangely exciting to watch. And the ridiculously laborious process of making and kiln-firing his own clay roofing tiles.

Here are a few of the videos on Primitive Technology and the notes from the YouTube postings. The Primitive Technology blog also includes more details on each video.

“The wooden frame was built with a 2X2m floor plan and a 2m tall ridge line with 1m tall side walls. Six posts were put into the ground 0.25m deep. The 3 horizontal roof beams were attached to these using mortise and tenon joints carved with a stone chisel. The rest of the frame was lashed together with lawyer cane strips. The frame swayed a little when pushed so later triangular bracing was added to stop this. Also when the mud wall was built, it enveloped the posts and stopped them moving altogether.

“A small kiln was built of mud from the ground and a perforated floor of clay from the creek bank. Clay was dug, broken tiles (from previous batches) were crushed and added to it as grog and it was mixed thoroughly. This clay was pressed into rectangular molds made from strips of lawyer cane to form tiles. Wood ash prevented the clay sticking to the stone. 20 tiles were fired at a time. 450 flat tiles and 15 curved ridge tiles were made with only a few breakages. 26 firings were done in all and the average firing took about 4 hours. The fired tiles were then hooked over the horizontal roof battens.

“An underfloor heating system was built into one side of the hut to act as a sitting/sleeping platform in cold weather. This was inspired by the Korean Ondol or “hot stone.” A trench was dug and covered with flat stones with a firebox at one end and a chimney at the other for draft. The flames traveled beneath the floor heating it. After firing it for a while the stones stay warm all night with heat conducted directly to the sleeping occupant and radiating into the room.”

“I made a batch of charcoal using the mound method then stored it in baskets for later use. Charcoal is a fuel that burns hotter than the wood it’s made from. This is because the initial energy consuming steps of combustion have taken place while making the charcoal driving off the volatile components of the wood (such as water and sap). The result is a nearly pure carbon fuel that burns hotter than wood without smoke and with less flame. Charcoal was primarily a metallurgical fuel in ancient times but was sometimes used for cooking too.”

“I made a cord drill and then upgraded it to a pump drill. A cord drill is basically a spindle with a fly wheel attached so it looks like a spinning top. the middle of a piece of cord is then put into a notch at the top of the spindle. The ends of the cord are then wrapped around the spindle and then pulled quickly outwards causing the drill to spin. The momentum of the fly wheel causes the cord to wrap back around the spindle in the other direction. When it stops the cords are pulled outwards again and the drill spins in the other direction.”

“I made 2 types of basket and a Celt hatchet. The first type of basket made was a coil basket. Bunches of palm leaves where wrapped in thin strips of lawyer cane to for a coil. This was then coiled into a spiral with each coil being tied to the last to keep it in place. This was done by sewing a new section of coil to the previous one. The basket was given a flat base so it could stand up but could be made any shape.”