Anybody who practices Filipino Martial Arts quickly comes to love the burning smell that rattan gives off during training, but there’s a much larger rationale to using rattan than just a smoky aroma.
To the uninitiated, the choice seems to be a needless expenditure. Why not just go down to the hardware store and pick up some hardwood doweling or PVC piping? Broom stick? A stick is just a stick right?
Actually, there are several reasons to choose rattan, and the overriding concern is safety. Most hardwoods are, in fact, hazardous as a material for training batons. When cut from a larger piece of timber, the wood fibres are severed. The grain patterns that shows up on the wood marks the ends of the fibres, and are essentially fault lines. After repeated impact, the fibres will part suddenly, sending shards everywhere.
Rattan, however, is a vine, composed of numerous fibres running the whole length of the stick. After many repeated impacts the rattan fibres will start to shred. There is never an immediate failure of the material, only a gradual breakdown. Compare this with hardwood or PVC piping, where the material might appear undamaged, but at any moment could shatter. Unlike rattan where the ends will be harmless, frizzy lumps, wood creates knife-like pieces. And since these shards appear at impact, they will also be traveling at ballistic speeds.
There is no way to tell when a piece of hardwood is thinking about fracturing.
For FMA training, rattan is the ideal material. In addition to being less risky than hardwood, its mild flexibility absorbs the shock of impact that would otherwise be transferred to the wielder’s hand. Some claims have been made that prolonged stick-to-stick training with hardwood will eventually lead to tendonitis and other joint problems.
This shock-absorption goes for being struck with a stick too. Rattan was never used for real fights, duels or warfare since it has much less killing or wounding potential. Instead, blades or hardwood sticks would be the norm. Rattan is for training, weapons are for fighting. This doesn’t mean that rattan can’t hurt you – it still has density and mass, and when moving at speed it can still cause injury, and even knock-outs.
A new field for sticks is the use of modern synthetic materials. These are essentially indestructible, eliminating the need to replace rattan. Although much heavier than normal rattan, the synthetic sticks are very good approximations of rattan, and well worth the money. They come with two caveats. First, the extra weight is hard on the wrist, so build up to using them full-time. Second, they will chew apart rattan in a hurry; synthetic vs. synthetic, and rattan vs. rattan.
Now, if you've managed to get a hold on some raw rattan, and want to get it ready for hitting, here's the procedure we recommend:
First, you need to bevel the ends of your stick. This eliminates sharp edges and helps prevent the stick from shredding from the end. While you're doing that, you will also want to take the edges off the nodes both for safety and for a comfortable grip. Both tasks can be accomplished with a bastard file.
The nodes just need to be filed down a little - there's no need to make them disappear.
Some people like to put a burn pattern on their sticks, which is done with careful use of a propane torch. It is very easy to over-do it, so be warned. After it has cooled (the sticks stay surprisingly hot), rub it down with a cloth or buffing wheel.
One method we had heard of previously involved baking the sticks in an oven. Well, after experimenting with it, we really don't recommend it. The chances of over-drying the rattan are quite high, and you're left with something that feels more like a stale bread stick.
Since rattan is essentially a whole bunch of small, hollow straws, many have used different materials to fill up those spaces to prolong the life of the stick. We have tried soaking sticks in linseed oil with good results. Although it isn't quick (you will want to leave your sticks to soak for two or three weeks, and will need plenty of drying time too), but you will end up with something much heavier and tougher. (Do not use food oils like olive or canola - they will eventually go rancid)
When your rattan is drying, coat the ends with lacquer or glue. Anything you put in as a filler can run right back out again - we had one student who didn't, and there would be a thin spray of drops thrown against the wall every time he took a swing.