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Saturday, 16 September 2017

Bushcraft Basics; Cordage

I have started building up the 'bushcraft basics' pages here at Bushcraft Education and these can be found from the menu at the top of the page. The plan is to eventually have a whole suite of pages dedicated to basic bushcraft skills and this is the latest one. They can be found as permanent pages HERE  but for now I will post them as regular blog posts too.

I hope you enjoy it.
Geoff

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A vitally important commodity to the bushcrafter is something to bind, knot and secure things with. Mors Kochanski dedicates a chapter of his famous book Northern Bushcraft to the topic of 'bindcraft' and Dave Canterburys well known principle of  '10 C's of survivability' includes cordage. 

Whether that cord comes in the form of the ubiquitous 'paracord', is split down from larger ropes, improvised from seat belt's, straps, belts, shoe laces or duck tape it doesn't matter as long as you have something to pitch a tarp shelter, make bow drill strings or improvise traps.  Cord has a host of used beyond just tying knots, jute twine can be shredded down to it's constituent fibres and used for fire lighting, it can also be used to make a wick for an improvised lamp or candle, lamp wick was traditionally used to make the bindings of old fashioned home made snow shoes. 

As bushcrafters though the interest in cordage largely lies in the skill of being able to make it yourself. Even if you have plenty of synthetic cord it is satisfying to be able to make it yourself from natural materials and how about challenging yourself to use a home made natural string to gt your bow drill fire going?

So how do we make it? First let's look at the materials we have to choose from, how to identify them and prepare them.  


A selection of cordage and material ready to be made into cord, from left to right; horseradish fibres from the stem of horseradish leaves, cord made of elm bark, a bundle of lime bast with the start of a piece of cord. 
There is a whole range of plant fibres that we can use for cordage so we need to start by identifying it; 
Believe it or not as well as providing a delicious ingredient in the form of it's root the chunky ribs of the horseradish leaves provide strong wiry fibres for cord making. Processing them takes a bit of effort and will make your hands stink for days. It's leaves are surprisingly large and can be differentiated from other similar leaves like foxglove and comfrey by it's evenly serrated edges and hairless leaves compared to the soft downy leaves of the alternatives.


The lime tree is one of the best sources of natural cordage available to us in Europe, the bark of the tree can be processed to make some of the strongest natural fibres you can hope for. 
Lime leaves have this distinctive serrated heart shape. 

Another good source of fibres for your cord making is the bark of the elm tree (the leaf pictured above is from a wych elm). We featured a post on some of the potential problems with harvesting and using elm bark in our bushcraft and the law series so rather than repeat that here you can check that post out by following this link. 
                  
The much maligned stinging nettle is not only a great source of wild food but the fibres from the stems are another fantastic source of very strong fibres that can be used for making string. 
As well as being excellent material for making whistles willow is also an excellent source of bark for cordage, but it takes some considerable preparation before it can be used. 

These few examples are not an exhaustive list and cord can be improvised from other less ideal materials as well such as the fibres of bramble stems, honeysuckle bark, grass or cat tail leaves to name just a few. 

Some of these fibres can be used fresh and horseradish are fine to use as soon as they are harvested but almost all will benefit from being dried and re-hydrated before being turned into cord. Nettles in particular benefit from this as if used fresh they will dry and your string will turn into what looks like a DNA helix rather than a nice tight piece of sting. They can be stored dry for a considerable amount of time before being used. Others; lime bark and willow in particular must be processed before they are any use at all. 

Lime and willow bark must be harvested in the summer otherwise it can't be separated from the wood  easily. The easiest way to get plenty of lime bark is to fell a large 'sucker'. Lime will send up shoots or suckers from the base of a mature tree and these can get quite large, if you can fell one that is wrist thick or even larger and as long as you can find you will get a huge amount of fibre for cordage making. Once you have felled it you can strip the bark off using a stick carved to a chisel shape at one end and it should come off in one piece.  

Harvesting and stripping elm bark 


You want to strip bark with your hands and wooden tools as much as possible, maybe a single cut down the length of the piece with your knife or axe to ensure the fibres are as undamaged as possible. 
A good selection of harvested elm and lime bark. The wood is great as well lime makes fantastic hearths and drills for fire lighting and elm is wonderfully strong. 

Although elm bark can be used as is lime bark needs to be allowed to 'rett' or ferment in water, this process rots away some of the plant fibres leaving only the fine flexible fibre that we want to use for our cordage. Ideally this water should be running but a large trough is an acceptable substitute. 

Once retted the inner bark can be stripped from the outer bark and dried ready for future use. If you are careful some of these strips can be as long at the sucker they were cut from and the longer the individual fibres the stronger your cord will be as you will have to do less splicing and joining. 

A big bundle of lime bast, bast is what we call this bark once it is prepared for use. 
The bast can be used as it is for some projects such as the binding for this grass coil basket.   For a finished coil basket check out this post about how to make them on the Geoff Bushcraft Blog.              
                     
If you are going to make cord though you will need to process your fibres a little more, although the retting process is specific to lime bark among those materials discussed here the next few steps are going to be the same for any fibres you choose to use.

Your two main options for turning your fibres into cord is plaiting or reverse wrapping, reverse wrapping is the better option for plant fibres in my opinion although I will always plait rawhide. A plaited rawhide rope makes an excellent option for a bow drill string. It's incredibly strong and resistant to abrasion and is also slightly so unlike all but the very best ropes made from plant fibres it is very forgiving when it comes to the extreme abuse that being used as a bow drill string subject it to. Reverse wrapping takes a little getting used to but produces an excellent cord that will look just like the kind you might buy in the shops and which will not fray when cut. To reverse wrap your fibres into cordage you will need to find the middle of a bundle of fibres, take the bundle between the thumb and finger of each hand and twist in opposite directions until the fibres kink and form a loop. This loop is going to be one end of your cord. From there on you will hold the twisted portion of the fibres to keep them still and then with your other hand you will twist the upper bundle of fibres between your thumb and index finger until is is tightly twisted and then take the lower bundle of fibres behind the first so that it is now uppermost, repeat the process.

The first twist in the fibres.


  video

This video shows the process of making reverse wrap cordage as it is very difficult to explain. 

Finished reverse wrap lime cordage. 

Some uses for natural cordage, fishing line for these gorge hooks

Snares, completed with grass stem runners so they open and close smoothly.


deer sinew binding for fletchings on a stone age arrow experiment. 




Making cord from natural material is very rewarding and almost therapeutic, it takes a long time to make any significant amount of cord but it is very satisfying and calming.  It will also surprise you just how strong this cord is, especially the particularly excellent lime and nettle cords which really are strong enough to use for fishing line, small mammal snares, nets and even ropes for hauling if made large enough.

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