Northwest News

Crafting arrowheads: Idaho flintknapper chipping away at art for 2 years

Flintknapper Steve Gobbel fashions an arrowhead out of obsidian at his home in Twin Falls, Idaho.
Flintknapper Steve Gobbel fashions an arrowhead out of obsidian at his home in Twin Falls, Idaho. AP

It may look like a chunk of obsidian to most people. But Steve Gobel sees the arrowhead waiting to be freed.

Whether he can depends on how he hits the obsidian, cuts it and shapes it.

The Twin Falls man, 63, has been flintknapping for two years and estimates that he has made more than 100 arrowheads.

Gobel, who has dabbled in taxidermy and painting, makes and sells arrowheads, arrowhead necklaces and obsidian knives. Gobel started flintknapping after it became too much of a hassle to ask private owners for permission to search for arrowheads on their land.

“I got tired of digging 4-foot holes to find one,” he said.

So he started making his own.

Patience required

He watched YouTube videos. Then he got a chunk of obsidian and started chipping away. It’s not an art that many would like, he said, because it takes a lot of patience.

“I don’t have anything better to do and nothing to stop me,” said Gobel, a retired transfer station worker who, as a boy, took $1 Saturday art lessons from a painter in Hazelton.

Patience is needed because obsidian is prone to cracking and splitting.

“I’m learning something every time. I know I’m going to make mistakes every time,” he said.

Working with obsidian

He gets much of his obsidian at Oregon’s Glass Butte, and it sits in a pile near his driveway. He uses a diamond-bladed tile saw to make small, rectangular blocks.

Obsidian is an igneous rock that forms when molten material cools so rapidly that atoms are unable to arrange themselves into a crystalline structure. The result is a volcanic glass with a smooth texture and very sharp edges.

Dressed in camouflage pants and cap, Gobel sat in his backyard Sept. 30. He took a rectangular chunk of obsidian in his hand and started to chip at the sides with a bit of copper attached to a piece of antler.

For shaping, most flintknappers use copper because it has give in it and “bites” the obsidian.

“You start on the edge and push the flake down and away,” Gobel said, pushing the copper against the chunk.

As Gobel chipped the sides away, obsidian fragments popped up and fell to the ground.

“Then I will thin it down and shape it, unless I don’t break it,” he said, just before the piece snapped in half.

“Like I did there.”

Bandages necessary

Though it’s easier to make a big blade than a small one, Gobel finished a smaller arrowhead from the broken attempt.

As he flaked the sides of one of the broken pieces, a piece of leather from a recliner covered his lap. The leather was worn, and the cotton underneath was exposed. But use anything besides leather and you'll push that flake through your leg, Gobel said.

Cuts are common, and bandages are necessary.

As the arrowhead took shape, Gobel shaped a notch so it could be tied to the shaft of an arrow; older arrowheads often featured flakes down the middle for arrow shafts. For a final touch, Gobel used the deer antler to shape the tip.

“I can show you how to do this,” he said, “but it doesn’t mean you will go out and do the same.”