Net Gain: Making Your Own Survival Nets

How to carve needles and gauges and use them to make your own trail-worthy survival nets.
pocket survival net
Various needles, gauges and cordage used in netting, along with finished projects.|Photo by Mark Ray

Since ancient times, people in the British Isles have used nets in a method of trapping rabbits called ferreting. Unlike North American rabbits, rabbits there dig underground burrows called warrens made up of interconnected tunnels. Small purse nets are staked over the holes in the warren. A small animal such as a ferret or dog is then released into the tunnels. This animal chases the rabbits, which are then caught in the purse nets as they attempt to escape. The project described here is based on this type of utilitarian net, but the methods used in creating it will transfer to almost any type of net making.

Most nets today are made on complex machines, but making a net by hand requires very few tools. Until the 1750s, even the largest nets were made with only the needle and gauge. The netting needle is actually a shuttle or bobbin used to hold cordage for tying the net. The gauge or mesh stick determines the size of the individual meshes in the net. Each mesh of the finished net when stretched will be twice the width of the gauge. Therefore, to function properly together, the needle should be slightly narrower in width than the gauge. Needles and gauges can be made with only a knife from almost any wood, but for long-term use they are best made out of hard, springy materials, such as hardwood, bamboo, bone or antler. Most netting needles today are made of plastic.

Before creating your tools, it is first necessary to determine the use of the net and what size mesh will be needed. The stretched mesh size of this purse net project is 2.5 inches. This means that the gauge width will be half that, or 1.25 inches and about 5.5 inches long. The needle should be about 8 inches long and roughly 1 inch wide. The spade, or tongue, in the center of the needle is about 2.5 inches long.

Make The Gauge

First, find some suitable wood to use. A straight-grained piece of hardwood is perfect. It should be dry, but if only green wood is available, it can be split, carved into blanks and dried before carving to final shape. Cut the raw material to rough length and then split boards from it. Next, carve it to approximate width and reduce the blanks to around 1/8 of an inch in thickness. Draw the outlines of the needle and gauge on the boards, then carve the outside edges to shape. Now smooth the blanks with the edge of the knife, using it like a cabinet scraper. The gauge is finished, but the tongue of the needle must now be created.

Using the point of the knife, drill into the areas around the tongue that need to be removed. Drill holes like this every quarter of an inch or so around the perimeter of the tongue, skipping the area at the point for now. Next, carefully remove the wood between the holes with the knife, cutting deeper as you go. When the point of the knife just starts to go through, flip the blank and use these areas as a guide to work from the other side.

Carve the tongue to shape, creating a point at the end. Finally, separate the point from the body of the needle, taper the edges and smooth everything up. Sandpaper is helpful if available, but this can also be done with the edge of the knife. Load the needle with cordage, pushing the edge of the needle down with the thumb to expose the tongue. Cordage can be made from scratch, but when starting out, it is best to use cotton or nylon net twine. It is also helpful if the cordage has some body to it. If it is nylon, it may need to be waxed.

The Knitty Gritty

Start the net by wrapping the end of the twine hanging from the needle around the gauge so that it is doubled all the way around. Tie the two ends together using a square knot. This creates the first mesh of the net, and it is important to keep it as tight as possible. Pull it from the gauge, leaving the loaded net needle attached. Cut another piece of heavier cordage, such as cotton clothesline, and thread it through the mesh you just made. Tie the ends of the clothesline together using a double overhand knot. This anchor cord will hang from a nail, a hook, a branch or another object and will serve to keep the net tight while it is worked on.

Next, position the first mesh with the square knot halfway up. Bring the needle and twine down in front of the gauge, take it behind the gauge and thread it through the back of the mesh. Pull the twine tight and allow the bottom of the first mesh to rest at the top edge of the gauge. Pinch the bottom of the mesh with your thumb and forefinger to hold it in place. Now throw a loop to the left and push the needle under the two strands of the mesh from right to left, allowing the needle to pass over the loop you threw to the left.

Pull down with moderate pressure to tighten the knot. Next, while pinching the knot, pull up and then sharply down again, using strong pressure. The purpose of this is so that the knot does not slip below the bottom of the mesh, where it will collapse and not hold.

Links In A Chain

Continue as above, making a chain of identical meshes. This chain will become the first two horizontal rows of mesh in the flat net section used for your survival net. For this project, the length of this chain will be 32 meshes.

Once the chain is done, remove the anchor cord from the first mesh. Now, fold the first row of 16 meshes accordion-style and put the anchor cord through it all. Tie off the anchor cord to your anchor point. Continue tying as before, but now work left to right, tying a third row of meshes. Once you have tied 16 meshes, the row will be complete. Leave all the meshes on the gauge as each row is being tied, sliding them off every time a new row is finished. Continue in this way until you have 26 rows of mesh.

Each end of the net must now be attached to a metal ring. First, secure some small iron or steel rings. These can usually be purchased at a local hardware store. Key rings may also be used. I used 1-inch diameter rings.

Thread a large needle with some of the same twine you used in making the net. Tie the free end of the thread securely to one of the rings. Pick up one end of the net section. Starting with the first mesh, pass the needle through, fixing each mesh one by one to the ring with a lock stitch. Once all 16 meshes are fixed to the ring, do a double lock stitch at the end, cut the twine and, if you are using nylon, burn the starting and finishing ends of the twine, creating a tiny bulb that prevents the stitch from coming undone. Repeat this process when attaching the ring on the other end of the net.

Next, install the drawcord by threading paracord through all the meshes on one side, through one of the rings and then through the meshes on the other side. Run the ends through the other ring—one end through one side of the ring and the other end through the opposite side. Tie off the paracord in a double overhand knot and burn the ends to seal them, leaving about a foot of slack between the net and the knot in the paracord when the net is stretched. This will allow the net to be opened when set and allow it to close on prey when pressure is applied.

This small net can has many uses. It can be turned into a dip net to catch fish or used in a variety of ways to trap animals. With the addition of a tumpline, it can be used to carry loads. It is also perfect to hold food when hoisting it into a tree to keep it away from bears and other animals. It makes an excellent gear hammock in a tent, and it can be used in a pack or in camp to keep clothing or other items organized and separated. Most importantly, this practical project is your key to unlocking the exciting world of net making.

This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN™ Winter 2016 issue #205. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

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