Ask a Woodlore Instructor – Keith Whitehead

In January we invited you all to take part in an interview with one of Woodlore’s Fundamental Instructors, Keith Whitehead. Many of you got involved and kindly sent us your questions, which we then whittled down to the best 10 entries. During a break from preparing for this year’s course season, Keith sat down with us for a chat and gave us his answers:

Keith Whitehead

Keith Whitehead

1. After having spent years and years perfecting your skills and teaching them to many students, are there any skills or particular things you just keep getting wrong or at least, struggle with a lot every time? Greetings from Belgium, Ruud.

Answer: There are many skills that I have wrestled with at one point or another. Part of learning something thoroughly is going through the hard times, solving problems and finding and honing the details. Once this is done, the journey doesn’t stop as most of our skills are perishable and require constant maintenance. This is probably one of the things that is the most difficult to do. It is easy to become complacent with the things that you have learned and it is essential to make an effort to maintain and improve your level of competence. You are never an expert.

2. I have had to make a few rhymes, and stories, to help my kids out on remembering the Evenk hitch, taught-line hitch and single fisherman’s knot, but I wonder if I could put the question to more experienced Woodlore staff: What’s the best mnemonic, rhyme, or story, for teaching kids a particular knot? 😉 Thanks in advance and best wishes to you all! Best, Paul.

Answer: This question takes me back to my childhood when I was in the Cubs and then the Scouts. It seems a long time ago now but there are two mnemonics that I still remember from learning knots at that time. The first is for tying that classic Scout knot, the reef or square knot, and it runs: Right over left and under; left over right and under. Simple but easily remembered.

Reef knot guide

Reef knot guide

The second is for tying a bowline: The rabbit comes out of the hole, goes round the tree and back down the hole again.

Bowline knot guide

Bowline knot guide

Tying knots is a very useful skill and it seems that the more you tie, the easier they become to learn.  I find that the easiest way to remember them is to use the knots that you learn and tie them repeatedly until the muscle memory is formed and the learning embedded.

3. Keith, it seems to me that bushcraft encourages one to perceive one’s surroundings and the material therein from multiple perspectives, seeing them as part of natural beauty, as indicators of climatological conditions, as potential evidence of animal activity, as potential resources to employ in the service of developing tools or constructing solutions to problems, etc. I am a classroom teacher, intrigued by the potential of bushcraft experience and instruction as vehicles for experiential education, the development of critical thinking skills, and as a means of stimulating interest in environmental issues and concerns. Bushcraft seems to foster creative thought and problem solving. As an instructor, what are your thoughts on the viability and potential risks of bushcraft serving in such capacities with teens? – Bentbrook

Answer: I think that Bushcraft has huge potential for developing the types of skill that you mention but in my opinion, both the viability and the risks of such an approach are dictated by the same essential factor.

The key to any successful learning programme is to have experienced and passionate teachers. Without an understanding of the subject that comes from spending time living with the skills and without the passion and drive that are necessary to gain such experience, there is a risk of not giving the students what they deserve.

With the right people in place, the potential is there to provide rich learning experiences and promote a love and understanding of the natural world.

4. Hi Keith, congratulations on the new knife.

My question is probably not worthy of a £20.00 voucher but it is this, fancy a beer sometime, then I can ask you how to finish my kuksa off. – Rik

Answer: Thank you for your very kind offer. If it’s the hollowing of the kuksa that is the stalling point of your carving, just take a little at a time. Any beer can be forwarded to our P.O. box address.

5. You have a blank cheque and 7 days holidays, where would you like to visit on the planet and why? – Ed1975

Answer: Ever since “The Forest People” appeared on my university reading list, I have wanted to visit the pygmies of the Ituri forest. The book is a magical and inspirational read and I have always wondered if it was to some degree romanticised. I have been assured that this is not the case but unfortunately the area of Africa that this book refers to is now a very dangerous place to be and the pygmies of that area are now living a less traditional life. To be able to visit these people at the time when Colin Turnbull was writing, would have been an incredible education but barring the invention of a time machine, it is a little impractical.

I have spent some time visiting schools in KwaZulu Natal and was lucky enough to experience some of Africa’s amazing wildlife at Hluhluwe park and the St. Lucia wetlands. I think my choice would be to visit some of the wider plains of Africa to experience a wilder environment. It is an awe inspiring continent.

6. Man, it’s been a long time since one of these! Nice to see it make a return!

Keith, what do you feel is the most meaningful life lesson bushcraft and nature has taught you? – Ciaran – WINNER OF KEITH’S FAVOURITE QUESTION

Answer: Failures are inevitable but how we deal with them is of the utmost importance. Never give in. This does not mean that you can’t rest or rethink; it does not mean that you have to push on blindly in the same direction; it simply means that you must not be overcome by failure. Strength comes from the ability to pick yourself up and have another go and the satisfaction of your hard earned success is its own reward.

7. Hi Keith,

When out in the wilderness, how do you typically like to spend your time. I know for most people getting into bushcraft a lot of the focus during outdoor adventures is centred around lighting fires, building shelters etc. Once those priorities fade into the background, how do you like to enjoy nature? –  Jamie

Answer: A lot of the time that I spend in nature, I have responsibility for a group of people and aim to ensure that they have the best experience possible. At such times, when the day is at its close, I love to be by the fire with people who I am meeting for the first time or with my friends and colleagues.

When I go out by myself, I like to walk slowly and sit quietly. Animals come very close by when you sit still for a while and you are constantly surprised by what you encounter. Listening to the sounds that surround you and observing the animals or even plants that make them, helps you to understand and link some of the complex strands that go into making up the tapestry of nature. The skills that we learn and practice are a vehicle that allows us to enjoy the natural world at its fullest.

8. How can those with little money get the most out of learning woodlore craft? It is one of my dreams to learn all that Ray teaches although I will never be able to afford most classes on offer, even in my own area. His programs have been such an inspiration and living in a city makes this interest expensive? – C. Kenny

Answer: You don’t need a lot of money to start. The most important thing is to get out and start to apply what you read. Even in the largest city, you will find plants that are useful in Bushcraft; look in parks, walk canal towpaths and observe the trees that may line some of your streets. Start looking for the sign left by animals that frequent these places and use the clues to lead you to observe the animals themselves. All these things are possible and free, you just need to step outside and enjoy the learning.

9. How effective is a Millbank bag? – Paul

Answer: The Millbank bag is a very reliable piece of kit but it is designed to do a very specific job. The only thing that it will remove is the larger, macroscopic particles that are suspended in water. It will not kill or remove pathogens. The way that we prefer to use these bags is to run our water through them and then kill any organisms by boiling. For this to be an efficient process, the bag must be maintained in clean order and thoroughly saturated before filling. Once full to the top, the water must be allowed to run until the contents are level with the printed line on the outside of the bag; the remaining water can then be collected as it drips and subjected to further treatment.

Millbank bag

Millbank bag

10. Modern equipment and tools or old school craft tools – basically traditional or modern? – Davie

Answer: We tend not to distinguish between traditional and modern but rather ask ourselves what works and what does not. The most important thing to us is that the tools and techniques that we use and rely upon, are reliable, practical and efficient. There should be no romantic notions with regard to the old ways and no false assumptions that new is always better. Try things out and use the skills and equipment that are best suited to what you do. Woodlore has spent many years honing these very things to a high degree and Ray is incredibly practical in this respect.

Keith has enjoyed reading and answering some of your questions; we hope you’ve enjoyed it too. We’d like to thank everyone who sent in their questions for Keith and congratulations to Ciaran, whose question was picked by Keith as his favourite. Ciaran wins a £20.00 Woodlore Voucher for his entry.


2 thoughts on “Ask a Woodlore Instructor – Keith Whitehead

  1. Steven Johnson

    Hi Keith, regarding tying knots and rhymes to remember them by, I also remember being taught the couplet for tying a reef knot. I was taught: “Right over left and under: left under right and over”! Complete bull-sh*t of course. I don’t know now if I remember it wrong or if it was taught me wrong but as never tied many reef knots I never challenged it.
    It stands as evidence of how easy it is to get misinformed and also how dangerous misinformation can linger. I now tie reef knots by muscle memory as the rhyme won’t shift.
    Keep up the work. Woodlore is a force for good in this troubled world.
    Steve Johnson


  2. BelgianBirkebeiner

    Thanks for answering my question Keith! I take my two trips a year to Sweden pretty serious in regards of maintaining and training several useful skills like axe-work and shelter building besides having a blast fishing and cooking on an open fire. Like you said, it is important to take the time to hone and rekindle several skills once in a while. Kind regards



Join the conversation:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.