Live flame! The secret to quickly straightening bamboo / river cane for atlatl darts

Sometimes I could just kick myself when I think how long it takes me to try new things out. For all the experimentation in atlatl and dart making I have done over the years, straightening cane has always been a loathsome chore of my own making. But now, thanks to trying out the propane cook stove, straightening is quick and easy-peasy!

Sometimes I could just kick myself when I think how long it takes me to try new things out.  For all the experimentation in atlatl and dart making I have done over the years, straightening cane has always been a loathsome chore of my own making. But now, thanks to trying out the propane cook stove, straightening is quick and easy-peasy!

I’ll tell you how, below … but if you don’t want to bother — please do buy some of my fine, home made river cane atlatl darts over at Etsy.com!

My old (SLOW) method of straightening bamboo / river cane for atlatl darts

For years I have used my electric kitchen stove top and hot plates. The problem I have with hot plates and even electric stove tops is the amount of time I spend heating up the cane.  It normally takes me about 20 minutes to straighten a piece of cane (river cane or bamboo) and 90 percent of the time is spent waiting for the cane to heat up.  Recently, my son Cory bought me a hot air gun to replace the plate.  It was as effective as a hot plate but not any faster.

My new (FAST) method of straightening bamboo / river cane for atlatl darts

I have (all these many years) put off using real fire (from a propane camp stove) out of fear of burning or scorching the cane.

However, today I became impatient because my shop is without heat.  It’s cold this time of year and this week’s “snowmageddon” made the experience particularly frigid.  I just don’t enjoy standing around waiting for the cane to heat up.  And being impatient is the quickest way I know of breaking cane.  Luckily, I’ve found impatience is also one of the greatest forces in finding new solutions!

So, out of impatience, I got out my propane stove, fired it up and was immediately tickled pink at how fast the cane sweated up. You see, when heated, cane sweats. The surface takes on a wet shine because cane has silicone in it. Heat applied to the cane causes the silicone to melt onto the surface — wet, sticky stuff.  Sweating is also a sign that the cane is hot enough to bend.

To avoid scorching I held the cane about an inch above the flame and spun it back and forth rapidly through the heat. The cane heated FAST!  I was able to straighten 6-foot lengths in about 5 minutes instead of the usual 20 minutes!

Here’s exactly how I straighten cane for atlatl darts:

  1. Employ lesson you’ve ever learned about fire safety for the following steps, including, “STOP > DROP > AND ROLL!”
  2. Dry the cane. (about 4 -6 weeks, the green turns to yellow).
  3. Set the propane stove on a sturdy table or work bench. Park a half-round log in front of the stove. You will use the half-round to roll the cane back and forth on.
  4. Put on a pair of cheap, thick leather gloves.
  5. With the gloves on, fire up the stove, and start heating up the cane. Remember to spin the cane and move it back and forth through the heat rapidly. When it starts to sweat and the surface is shiny, push the cane down onto the half round (node) or push down and slide it back and forth (section between the nodes).

Types of cane bends

To be honest,  I normally straighten the node areas first because if anything bad happens, like breaking the cane at the node, I would rather have that happen before I have invested a lot of straitening time in the piece.  As you will discover, cane can grow relatively straight (really rare), or in a general curve (maybe 20 percent  of the time) or it can grow zig zag from node to node (most common) with curvy sections between nodes (happens a lot) and even twisted sections between nodes (sadly, not all that rare).  Its the thin end of the cane piece that is most likely to break and the second most common hard spot is the mutant node. Nearly every cane piece I have ever tried to straighten has at least one mutant node where all things are crooked and twisted and fragile, and seemingly impossible to straighten out.

Remember, push down gently, push a little farther than necessary as the cane will spring back a little. When straightening out those sections between the nodes, push down and slide the section back and forth across the top of the half round briskly several times.

“Twisted” cane

There is no way to untwist a twisted cane. The best you can do is straighten it in line with the rest of the cane shaft.  When I think I am done with straightening, I look down the length of the shaft and see how wrong I am. Always, there is this or that section or node that needs a tweak, sometimes two or three tweaks. This is (sad to say) normal.

Straighten your cane crown side up

Remember, perfectly straight is the wistful goal, straight enough to fly right is the achievable reality. No matter how hard you try (and trying too hard usually results in broken shafts) you may never get perfectly straight but you will get close enough. Just remember, “crown side up.” If you have a slight bend in the shaft, be sure you throw the dart with the bent side up.