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Soapstone Kudlik

by "Crazy Man of the Woods"

I bet that you have heard of the Inuit, the Native American people living in the far north. I once read in a book by Les Stroud that the farther you get from the equator, the less edible plants there are. Have you ever heard of the boreal forests the Inuit lived in, with the vast species of abundant edibles? Me neither! If you are not familiar with their climate, it was icy, snowy landscapes. Most of them survived off seal meat, and, since most indigenous cultures would not waste any part of any living creature they killed.

Since they had to eat only meat, and there was very little wood for making fires, they would carve simple soapstone oil lamps, called kudliks. They were basically shallow stone bowls that were filled with rendered seal blubber, and would light these with a wick made from arctic cottongrass. These lamps were convenient because they were fairly small and provided light and heat for cooking. However, I imagine one could only roast meat over the flames, or heat up hot rocks.

I live in the northeastern United States, and where I live we get a good bit of snow. Since I am a back-to-earth guy, I pecked the entire bowl out with a hammer stone made from sandstone. It also worked great for grinding. I have worked with soapstone before with metal tools, but I actually found it easier. I am not going to teach pecking in this article, as I am inexperienced with it, but I will give tips on carving it.

If you are working with a raw piece you found yourself, or if the piece is bumpy, grind the longer, flatter part into a flat surface. Grind the rest into whatever shape you want. Traditional ones are half-circle shaped, and are somewhat thin, but some have an elongated diamond-shaped top and the bottom was pointed, like if one took a mountain and stretched it out lengthwise. Mine is still very irregular, but it works. Basically it needs to have at least one flat surface, and maybe a base.

For those of you working with a "nicer", smoother block like I did, you'll have to make a flatter one with a base. First, lay the stone on what looks more like the base. You may need to flatten out the surface.

After you made the basic shape, then comes the harder part: hollowing it out. Depending on how w much oil you want to hold, make it wider and deeper. For cooking, it will be longer and deeper.

After you have shaped your lamp, the next part is the wick. Wicks can be made of any cordage material except sinew, or any good basic tinder. String works well, though must be all natural. I have not used jute before, but I have used cotton, and it had to be prepared for best results. Preparation is not necessary for inner bark or tinder wicks.

To prepare it, cut a string about 5-6 inches long. Then run the string thru a flame until it starts blackening. It's usually good to get the end aflame, though put it out after 5 seconds. This will smolder for a long time, so you might have to run it under some water. Unless you have a huge lamp (over 7 inches long) then you will have to cut the wick in half.

The last step is the oil. Where I live there aren't any seals, and I don't hunt. I used some bacon grease and it works great. Here is a list of oil you can use:
•bacon grease
•deer fat
•seal blubber
•whale blubber
•probably schmaltz (chicken fat)
•olive oil (I suspect it would work)
Basically any fat from any animal could work.

Before lighting, soak your wick in the oil. That way it lasts longer. Try soaking some milkweed fluff, cattail or thistle down, or a cotton ball in the oil and rest a flaming wick on that. It also helps to bend up the end of the wick.

You can use one inside your own house and will not set off your smoke alarm. Just remember to make sure that the wick doesn't hang over the edge of the lamp. Always rest it on a rag to keep the heat from damaging your table, and for picking it up (these things get super HOT!!!)

I encourage you to make one. I lit one with tyree different wicks at night, and had enough light that I turned the electric lights off at my house and could still read comfortably! If you are camping in a tent, however, don't use one. The lamp could melt the plastic. Good luck and get in the woods!