A single bone needle lays on a hair-on deer hide. The needles are sturdy enough to use with a thick hide like this. Photo by Fala Burnette (Wolf Branch Homestead)
Picture in your mind a recently taken deer from a hunt, and think about nothing else but the legs of the deer. What is your first thought, when you think of what to do with them after you've processed the meat? For most people, these are considered a waste product, just like the hides or heads. However, there are many different things that can be harvested, or made with, a single deer leg (excluding the meat). The legs can be used for a gun rack, the hide can be removed and tanned, sinew can be cut from the back of the leg, the hooves can be pulled off, and the bone itself can be used for a variety of other projects. For now, I will discuss the leg bone itself, and a very interesting way you can put it to good use.
During the process of making a deer hide arrow quiver for my husband, I was presented with an issue while stitching it together. A hide with hair on is very thick, and the leather needle I was using continuously bent while trying to sew it together. Having punched holes into it prior to this with an awl, I still had a difficult time maneuvering needles through those holes. It was then that I reached for something I had made only a few days prior- a bone needle. It was the first one I had ever made, very wide towards the eye end (similar to a nalbinding needle). Where the store-bought needle for use on thick leathers had failed, this handmade bone needle succeeded greatly, and I was able to finish the quiver and present this to my husband shortly after.
Bone has been long used in tool making, though not as prevalent today. For this particular craft I prefer to use the leg bones of deer, as they are straight and sturdy, yet small enough to manage. While primitive and modern techniques are listed, you can choose to combine the methods to best suit you. First, be prepared with a cleaned and thoroughly dried leg bone. It isn't necessary to bleach the bone, as the wearing down to its surface will whiten it significantly.
Safety Notes: We recommend using protective eye-wear for the splitting of the bone, a respirator mask for the sanding and shaping (it creates quite a dust), and gloves to prevent your fingers from being scratched while sanding as well. Please also make sure to dispose of or properly store all shards of bone, so that pets will not swallow them and children cannot get a hold of them either.
Laying on a piece of sandstone used for shaping, the transition from leg bone to needle is shown. A whole bone is split to become a rough piece, which is then shaped carefully into a needle. Photo by Fala Burnette (Wolf Branch Homestead)
If you'd be willing to invest time and hard work into making a bone needle the primitive way, start with your bone set onto a semi-even surface such as a stump or flattened rock. We use the same piece of sandstone to split the bone that we use to shape it, as the top of it is fairly even.
The piece you'll really want to use on this bone is the sides, as they are fairly straight and not as curved. There are indented sections on the back of the leg bone, which you will use to split it so that you can keep those large, flat segments on the side. There are a variety of ways to split this, but I will discuss using only a stone. You will need to find a small rock with some weight to it, and for a better chance of success at splitting the bone correctly, you will need to find one that is narrow with rounded edges (it will fit into that groove you are trying to split). Have a firm grip on the bone with one hand, and pound into the groove with the rock using your other hand. It will take a great bit of force to get the bone to crack, so please use caution.
I highly recommend using natural, rough sandstone to shape the needle, however other rocks such as quartz are great to use as well. We source our rocks from the natural branch on our land, where these types of rocks are usually found in or near the water. You'll want to find a stone that sits flat and won't shift as you apply pressure to the top of it. Look for a stone that has a coarse, yet semi-flat top side as well if you can, as this will help the needle shape evenly. In your shaping process, make sure that the flat sides of your bone needle are not too thin (you do not want to be able to see through the bone, as this will mean it is too brittle to use). This is a labor intensive process, and can take sometimes two hours or more to shape one piece of bone.
When your needle has been shaped to your satisfaction, another time consuming task is at hand to finish it. You will need a bow drill (constructed a bit differently than those you see today for fire-making) to make the hole for your needle's eye. To see how your bow drill should look, use images of Alaskan Native bow drills for reference. These bow drills were set up to put holes in bone and ivory, with a very fine point to them made from a variety of different materials. Save the sinew from the back of the leg early on, and use this to make a strand of cordage that loops through the eye when not using the needle. Having your needle with a cord like this will help you keep up with it much easier.
This section is a little easier to describe, as it will take considerably less time. In the same way, have your bone set onto a flat surface. Remember that while you are targeting a specific, flattened area of the bone, other pieces can still be evened down. Use a small chisel and hammer in the groove mentioned before to split the bone, carefully tapping the chisel. With either method, you will be left with a multitude of widths and lengths in your bone pieces, so use your best judgement in finding a piece that you want to work with. For the shaping process, use a stationary benchtop belt sander. Be very careful and apply gentle pressure while using the sander, not only for the sake of your fingers but to also prevent the bone from splitting.
Once you have the bone to your desired shape, use a sturdy twist drill bit to make a hole for the eye. It's important to have a good quality bit that won't bend, and to also make sure you have the bit centered. It will take some pressure to get the hole going, but do not push down too hard, as thinner pieces of bone will be most likely to break here. You may also choose to use a handheld rotary tool if you have one for this step. Similarly to the primitive method of making your bone needle, I suggest threading a piece of twine through the eye when you are not using it. Hanging the needle can prevent it from becoming lost in your workshop, or if you do have a sewing/leathercrafting kit, store it with your other needles.
A group of differently sized bone needles. Photo by Fala Burnette (Wolf Branch Homestead)
The next time you hunt and process the deer, make sure to save the legs for this unique project. If you are not a hunter yourself, have a friend or family member save them for you the next time they make a kill. I suggest having all four legs, and saving all of your pieces, just in case one needle breaks during the process or during later use. Again, remember that these methods can be modified and combined for your ease. The process of making your own bone needle will be well worth it once you've used it, and the time invested should feel very rewarding in the end while you admire your handiwork.
Find the author's deer bone needles for sale on Etsy.
Fala Burnette is a homesteader with her husband at Wolf Branch Homestead in Alabama. They are currently building their own log cabin and milling their own lumber, along with raising heirloom crops in the Spring and tanning furs during the Winter. Read all of Fala's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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