Piedmont Profile: Flintknapper Bill Earnhardt makes modern artifacts
By Shavonne Potts
What started as a childhood hobby of making arrowheads with his brother turned into something Salisbury resident Bill Earnhardt never grew out of.
Earnhardt is a flintknapper.
As a flintknapper, often referred to simply as a “knapper,” Earnhardt shapes flint, obsidian or other stone by striking its pieces away with another stone or copper tools.
The resulting sharp-edged pieces of stone are used as knives, arrowheads and other cutting tools.
Earnhardt, 65, has been knapping for more than 40 years.
He owns Union Furniture Refinishing, which he’s operated for 42 years, and is now semi-retired, he said.
But for much of his time, Earnhardt can be found with tools in hand in the yard or in his shop, chipping away at some new stone he’s just bought.
“I grew up playing cowboys and Indians,” he said.
He and his brother, Jerry, began making their own arrowheads. Jerry’s interest waned but Bill’s interest grew.
Earnhardt doesn’t make much money flintknapping, though it does help with his granddaughters’ college funds. He does it because he loves it.
He and his wife, Joy, have traveled throughout the United States for knapping events, where they’ve met knappers and bought and sold pieces.
The couple have been to New York, Texas, Missouri, Georgia and Florida.
These flintknapping events are usually advertised by word of mouth, Earnhardt said. One knapper tells another and the word spreads.
He’s sold pieces to collectors and other knappers. Other pieces are on display at Horizons Unlimited and at Catawba College.
In the 1970s, Catawba College archaeology professor Peter Cooper was instrumental in Earnhardt continuing to tell people about his work.
“He probably helped me more than anybody,” Earnhardt said.
A 30-something Earnhardt held many seminars in front of Cooper’s classes. And he and his son, Dwayne, went on a couple of digs with Cooper.
In the beginning, it was Cooper’s encouragement that kept Earnhardt working and perfecting his craft.
Earnhardt’s specialty is making thin blades.
In the knapping world, “the thinner it is, the better,” Dwayne said.
On the scoring scale, thinness is the most important factor.
Dwayne, along with California flintknapper Jim Winn, created a scoring system to rate blades and other pieces. Until that time, knappers generally rated their pieces based on how closely they resembled authentic artifacts.
The grading system includes length, width and diameter of a piece.
For instance, a piece that is 6 inches or longer is considered to be more difficult to produce, so extra points are received for pieces of more than 6 inches.
The thinnest piece ever found in North America is the Sweetwater Biface, which is three-sixteenths of an inch thick and was probably made sometime between the years 1300 and 1500.
It was found in 1986 in Sweetwater, Texas. The goal of all flintknappers is to re-create the Sweetwater blade.
“No one has been able to duplicate the blade,” Dwayne said. “It’s so thin.”
In the beginning, Earnhardt tried to make his blades resemble as closely as possible ancient artifacts made by Native Americans.
“I copied a lot of them,” Earnhardt said.
Soon he began altering his pieces, adding curves and handles.
He said he would classify his work now as modern flintknapping.
When he first started out, there were not many knappers, he said, and now, “it’s big time.”
Earnhardt’s tools include sand and cinder block, which he uses like sandpaper to rough up a stone. He also has made hammers out of metal piping and copper. The hammers help crack away at the obsidian or flint.
To protect his hands, Earnhardt wears gloves, sometimes without the fingers so he can feel the stone. He also uses rubber and cloth as a lap barrier to prevent stone shards from landing on his leg. He wears safety goggles to guard against flying debris.
He recently showed how he creates his pieces for a group of Boy Scouts from Troop 334 based at Union Lutheran Church.
The Scouts, along with some of their parents, gathered at the church for a Saturday lesson on flintknapping.
Mixed with a little humor and an intense concentration on his pieces, Earnhardt demonstrated how an experienced flintknapper hammers away until he’s satisfied.
Adam Appleton, 14, called the process “pretty cool.”
It was the first time he’d ever seen flintknapping or even heard of it.
Watching the process unfold before his eyes, Appleton had no clue how Earnhardt was going to make a chunk of stone into something that resembled a piece dug up by an archaeologist.
“I liked seeing how it could be done more than one way and get the same result,” Appleton said.
Earnhardt showed the Scouts a video of how he turns stones into knives and arrowheads using an electric grinding wheel. His brother, Jerry, died in 2004 and Earnhardt dedicated his video to his brother.
His daughter, Lisa, creates Earnhardt’s instructional videos.
Flintknapping was something Levi Morgan, 15, had never heard of, but took to with great interest.
“It’s pretty neat. I would like to learn to do it,” he said.
However, Morgan said, he doesn’t think he’s patient enough to learn the skill.
“There’s a lot of work you put into it,” he said.
For more information about Bill Earnhardt and modern flintknapping visit, www.modern-flintknapping.com.