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Thread: Agave Leaf Fiber Bow Drill String

  1. #1
    Member RoadLessTraveled's Avatar
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    Default Agave Leaf Fiber Bow Drill String

    One of the biggest challenges I've wrestled with in my pursuit of friction fire is making cordage from natural materials that is strong enough AND flexible enough to be used as a bow drill string. I've tried several different materials, different thicknesses, different weaves. But nothing was both strong and flexible. I'd seen several video demonstrations using palm tree branches or agave leaves. I think I dismissed those materials at first due to laziness because I had hoped to find a simpler method, one where I could just take the material, twist it a bit, and use it on the spot. But finally I was persuaded that I had to bite the bullet and go through the more complex process of processing fibers out of a leaf.

    Here's a description of my journey in making a cord from an agave leaf, following the process of removing the fibers that I have seen demonstrated to successfully produce a bow drill string.

    Here's a look at the leaf in its original condition. I received the leaf about two weeks ago from a friend. My best guess at its species is that it's an Agave weberii.

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    Here's a look at its cross section. You can see the fibers protruding from where it was cut:

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    My first step in processing the fibers was retting the leaf by soaking it in water. This helps to soften the meaty plant material surrounding the fibers which makes extracting the fibers easier and reduces the risk of damaging the fibers as they're removed.

    In she goes:
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    After two weeks:
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    Here's what the leaf looks like after soaking for two weeks. You can see where the decay had discolored the middle and top part of the leaf. The thicker part of the bottom of the leaf didn't decay as much. But the soaking process did soften it as well.

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    The next step in the process is to begin separating the fibers. This is done first by gently smashing or pounding the leaf, and then by pulling the leaf apart into separate chunks. After I pulled the leaf apart, I further pounded each chunk which helped to further disconnect the fibers from the surrounding meaty plant material. Finally, I coiled the individual chunks up and put them back in the water until I could find time to scrape the fibers clean:

    First smash/pound the leaf
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    Then separate it into chunks
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    Store until able to clean fibers
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    I was able to find time during lunch to go to a nearby stream and scrape the chunks of the leaf to remove all the green and meaty part of the plant away from the fibers. I held the chunk tightly in one hand and pulled it between the thumbnail and first finger of my other hand. At first, I used the underside of my thumbnail. But soon I discovered that the green parts of the plant push up under the nail and began to hurt! So I was able to use the topside of my thumbnail. It wasn't as effective so I had to scrape more times, but much more comfortable. In the future, I'd like to find a tool for this purpose. I think I lost a lot of the fiber during this stage as some of the fibers broke as I was scraping them. I'd like to improve this part of the process.

    A typical amount of fiber from each chunk
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    Close-up of the fiber
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    I processed a little over half the leaf, about 6 chunks like the ones shown above. Using the extracted fibers I twisted this cord:

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    About 2 1/2 feet long! Definitely long enough for a bow drill cord.

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    I succeeded at making fire with the bow drill using only natural materials!

    Here are the materials I used:
    Spindle Sotol stalk
    Hearth Sotol stalk
    Bearing Block oyster shell from the Gulf of Mexico
    Bow branch of a tree
    Bow String agave fibers
    Coal Extender cottonwood punk wood
    Tinder Bundle Texas Cedar bark

    I tied only one end of the string to the bow and held the other end. The idea is to minimize the tension on the bow string by putting only as much tension as is needed and not more. I don't know if this was critical or not, but I had seen it done by others who succeeded, so I followed their example. In time, probably I'll determine how important this is. But trying to hold the tension on the string while bowing is a challenge all by itself. It made the process more complex and difficult. When I didn't have enough tension, the string slipped. Too much tension and I pulled the spindle out of the hearth. I've also seen a slightly flexible bow used with natural cordage. I think I'd like to try that next time.

    I anticipated that _IF_ I succeeded at making an ember, it might be a small one. So I brought some punkwood as a coal extender to make sure that ember didn't go out. I had a bit of trouble getting the cedar bark to catch, so I'm glad I had the punkwood.

    Here's a picture of the fire with the instruments I used to make it.

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    And a video of using this bow string to make a fire:
    Last edited by RoadLessTraveled; 03-11-2013 at 04:20 PM. Reason: updated video link


  2. #2
    Super Moderater RangerXanatos's Avatar
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    Nice report. Green thingies sent.
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  3. #3
    Senior Member kyratshooter's Avatar
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    Sure hope I don't freeze to death with no fire while waiting the two weeks while processing the fibers!
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  4. #4
    Senior Member hunter63's Avatar
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    You are to be commended for an all natural fire making set up.

    Those plants don't grow around here....Wisconsin...so doesn't do me much good....although the rendering process is very interesting.
    Thanks for posting.
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    Super Moderator crashdive123's Avatar
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    Nice project. Well done.
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  6. #6
    Member RoadLessTraveled's Avatar
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    Thanks! I had tried for over six months to make a cord that was strong enough and flexible enough to be used as a bow drill string. It was a great relief when I finally succeeded
    Last edited by RoadLessTraveled; 03-08-2013 at 07:08 PM.

  7. #7
    Member RoadLessTraveled's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kyratshooter View Post
    Sure hope I don't freeze to death with no fire while waiting the two weeks while processing the fibers!
    Ha! This is definitely not a method for emergency situations.

    I took longer retting this leaf than necessary. It was the first time I ever tried retting and I wanted to be familiar with an extreme case so that later, when I tried other retting methods, I would be able to compare against it. This type of method would be one that you do in the background (like smoking meat), in preparation for its usage.

    On the otherhand, here's a much faster method. I made this bow drill cordage in less than 1 hour.
    Yucca-Leaf-Fiber-Bow-Drill-String

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