“When the solution is simple, God is answering.” (Albert Einstein)

There is often a disconnect between people’s ability to do something under ideal conditions and their ability to perform the same thing in a real-world situation.  The army are well aware of this which is why a lot of the training they conduct tries to simulate the problems and stress that are encountered on the battlefield.

rattan_cordage_bow_drillThe same thing applies to mastering primitive skills such as the bow drill.  I have taught this to new students and, in general, about 50% of them can get an ember with their first notch (after a little bit of spindle flipping and cursing!).  It is a great moment to get your first ember and you go away with a new found confidence that, should you ever end up in that survival situation, you can make fire from a few bits of wood.

The truth is a bit different – for one thing I’m giving them very dry wood and have carved the spindle and notch etc for them, they are given a good bow and a nice paracord bowstring that withstands a large amount of uneven bowing and, of course, I’m standing over them telling them when to go faster  or apply more pressure.

And this is the point – even though their technique is not perfect, because every other element in the bow drill equation is almost ideal, the ember will appear.  I have found the same thing myself – using difficult woods (like bamboo) requires me to have all the other elements of the bow drill working perfectly – if, for example, I add another negative factor to the equation (a too short spindle or bow, a bad cord or have too much friction at the bearing block)…that is enough to tip the balance and the whole thing doesn’t work.

Learning the bow drill happens in stages with each level adding another negative factor that you learn to overcome.  As it gets harder with each progressive stage there is less and less tolerance if one of the elements of the bow drill equation is suboptimal.

Stage 1: you get your first ember and reach the point where you can get an ember every time

Stage 2: using more difficult woods

Stage 3: using woods found in situ (usually slightly damp) and getting an ember in the jungle (rather than in your backyard)

Stage 4: using natural cordage (also found in situ)

Stage 5: doing all the above, but without a knife.

When it comes to using natural cordage, most people (myself included) play around with some reverse spun cordage, use the Egyptian method of wrapping the spindle, get an ember and go away feeling confident that they could repeat the process in the jungle.


Watching some TV survival ‘experts’ struggling to get the bow drill to work in the jungle (their cord kept snapping and they weren’t getting enough speed) led me to revisit my assumption that I could easily use natural cordage with the bow drill in more difficult conditions and with less than ideal woods and I discovered that:

1) I could make very strong cordage, but it was so bulky that it hindered a smooth and fast bow action.

2) The Egyptian method of wrapping the spindle wasn’t giving me the speed and power that I could get from a single (or double) wrap and, with harder/damper woods I couldn’t easily get an ember.

3) Reverse wrapping cordage takes quite a long time and will often fray and snap just when you apply that extra speed and pressure needed to generate the ember….forcing you to start all over again and get very frustrated in the process.

4) It’s a good idea to always carry a small length of paracord with you!

rattan_ropeSo, although I could get an ember in my backyard without too much problem (using spun cordage and the Egyptian spindle wrap) when I tried to do the same with harder and damper woods found in situ in the jungle the whole thing (cord included) unravelled.  The problem was that these more difficult conditions required more speed and more pressure and the cordage just wouldn’t hold up.

As the jungle is basically a huge cordage supermarket I felt sure that there must be a solution out there and went off to look for it.  You might wonder why I simply didn’t research what cordage the locals used for the bow drill but, unfortunately, the bow drill was not a method used in primitive cultures in this part of the world (fire saw, fire thong, fire piston and  fire plough were the ones used) so there was on one to ask.  Also, strong cordage used for other purposes (e.g. bamboo skin can be spun to create cables strong enough to be used in suspension bridges) are not suitable for the particular stresses and abrasion caused by the bow drill.

Inner bark from the Terap tree produces strong cordage but requires a lot of time and effort to obtain (and you need to find Terap tree first).  Another reasonable alternative is to use thin surface roots from trees which work reasonably well but were not quite as tough as what I was looking for: what I really wanted was something that worked more-or-less as well as paracord, was quick to make and easy to find.

The solution was satisfyingly simple – a single twisted strand of rattan skin – although it took me  a lot of time and experimenting before I got there.  But it was worth it as rattan is easy to find (actually it finds you – hooking your shirt as you pass by to remind you it’s there!), you find it almost everywhere, it’s quickly processed and doesn’t require any splicing (which you need to do if using short fibres to spin a rope).

The only skill you really need to acquire is the ability to split rattan and, for those of you living in Malaysia who want to give it a try, you can pick up thin rattan sticks at the local shop (remember those whack-sticks from your youth?!) and try for yourself.

….or you could always carry paracord with you at all times instead!