Thursday, May 13, 2021

Random Knotty-ness

Before there was paracord, the prepper's cordage of choice, there was something even more versatile and a lot easier to find in rural areas: baling twine and wire. These have been staples of farm ingenuity for a long time, and so their uses are impossible to fully list.

Way back in the olden days (pre-1980), farmers had been storing hay for their livestock in “small”  rectangular bales for decades. After the hay is cut and allowed to dry, it is picked up by a baling machine that compacts it into a rectangle (about 14” high, 18” wide, and of various lengths  between 30-60”, determined by the farmer running the baler) and ties it together with either wire or twine. 

Since farmers need to feed their animals every day during the winter months, they were constantly opening up bales that had been put up in storage during the summer. Opening bales leaves two lengths of twine or wire per bale, and it starts to pile up by mid-January. Perfect for quick repairs and fastening loose things, frugal farmers never discarded it. Luckily, you don't have to live on a farm to find it.

Types of Baling

Baling wire is soft steel wire, normally around 14 gauge (Ga) diameter, ungalvanized and sold in rolls of roughly a mile in length. Here's one that's 14.5 Ga and 6,500 ft long. $80 for 100 pounds of steel wire isn't a bad price, and they do deliver. 

Personally, I hate wire-tied bales. The wire is small enough in diameter that it cuts into your hands when you pick up the bales, requiring the use of gloves, and the ungalvanized wire also rusts if left in contact with the ground. Picking up the bottom layer of a stack was always a challenge, as I never knew many would burst as I lifted them.

Baling twine comes in a few forms and several sizes. The natural fibers, jute and sisal mainly, are biodegradable and easiest on the hands. They also have a high tensile strength and tend to hold knots better than synthetic fibers. Tractor Supply Co. is a national chain of farm supply stores, and they sell a sisal fiber twine with a 350 pound tensile strength in a “bale” of two rolls having a total length of 9000 feet for about $50.

The plastic fibers are better for long-term storage and are more pest-resistant. Going back to Tractor Supply Co., you can see there are several “weights” to choose from. The lighter twine, the ones with tensile strength around 100 pounds, are for straw and grass bales that don't weight more than 40 pounds. The heavy twines with tensile strengths over 200 pounds are for holding the larger round bales together.

Rolls vs. Reels

You may have noticed I used the term “roll” of twine or wire and not “reel”. A reel of anything comes wound around a core of some sort, while a roll doesn't have a core. Reels feed from the outside and the loose end is always on the outer edge, away from the center, while rolls feed from the inside. Reels have to turn as you draw the cordage off of it, rolls don't move. 

The reasons for using rolls instead of reels have to do with how the baling machines operate, but it makes using and storing them anywhere other than a baler a bit of a challenge. As you use up the roll you are pulling the twine from the center and making the whole thing weaker. By the time you get about half way through the roll, it's not strong enough to move without the roll collapsing. Wire is almost as bad, with the added issue of rusting from the outside and being two or three times as heavy. That's messy and wasteful, so here's the trick to avoiding that problem.

  1. Find a clean 5-gallon bucket with a lid. Tractors and large equipment use oil and fluids by the gallon, so 5-gallon buckets are common. If you're working with wire, a little leftover oil or hydraulic fluid won't hurt and may help prevent rust. Check any local restaurant for empty buckets if you're on a budget; otherwise most of the big-box home supply stores sell them.
  2. Remove the lid and place the roll in the bucket. Don't remove the wrapper if there is one, just drop it into the bucket.
  3. Cut or punch a small hole in the center of the lid using a sharp knife or screwdriver. The hole should be no bigger than the twine or only slightly bigger than the wire you're using.
  4. Find the loose end of the twine or wire in the center of the roll and feed it through the hole on the bottom of the lid. Tie a knot or twist the wire to keep it from falling out of the hole.
  5. Replace the lid on the bucket and secure it. Most lids have tabs that will lock onto the bucket.
  6. If your bucket has a handle, tie or twist the cordage around the handle so it doesn't fall back into the bucket. I also like to tie a utility knife or wire cutter to the handle so there's always one available.

You can use smaller variants of the bucket trick to keep thread and other small lines neater and clean. Any container that the roll, reel, or spool will fit into with a small hole to feed it through makes a world of difference.

Baling wire and duct tape have kept more farm machinery operating than you can imagine. It's always handy to have twine around for quick binding jobs, and buying a roll that's over a mile long will last you years.

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