Friction fire starting (stick rubbing!)
In our previous lesson we covered percussion fire starting, itís time to move on to friction. There are certain advantages to each method, and in turn each has shortcomings. Percussion needs relatively little energy (a good thing in case of emergency) but in order to have good chances of success it requires certain specific materials that might not be available to us (like quality tinder, or even pyrite or a knife).
Building most of the friction fire starters takes nothing but wood and can be done without a knife (it will of course take longer and the results wonít be as good). So as long as thereís wood, we can start a fire. If thereís no wood or any suitable replacement at all, you probably pissed God off and getting a camp fire should be the least of your concerns. While tinder is always important, you wonít need charcloth or Vaseline coated cotton balls, because these methods produce an ember (as opposed to flint and steel which gives you sparks). The big problem with friction fire starting is that all the energy used comes from you.
In a survival situation, where every calorie is precious, starting a fire with a bow drill can cost you a lot of stored energy. Less than ideal circumstances (moist or green wood, bad weather, etc.) can make your task even harder. Your state of mind will also influence your chances of success. I think it was Cane who once wrote ďWhen your sphincter puckers, accuracy suffersĒ. That applies to any fine or complex motor skill during a stressful situation (gross motor skills actually improve sometimes).
So, even if you turn out to be a friction fire making prodigy who can get a flame by rubbing two bars of soap together, donít leave your lighter at home.
In my experience with aboriginal peoples, those who rely on friction for their fire starting needs try their best to keep fires going in their villages and transport them when they move. They also know that while making a hand drill is simple, finding dry seasoned wood that will easily produce an ember without too much work isnít such an easy task. So they usually treasure their drills and use them for as long as possible.
There are several different ways to get an ember through friction, but they all follow the same principle. Itís a simple energy transfer that produces heat (just like rubbing your hands fast). If done with the correct materials and rhythm the friction will also produce dust, which will become hot enough to produce embers. These embers can be moved to some tinder and blown into a flame.
We will only focus on four methods here: two drills (bow drill and hand drill) and two very basic fire starters that require a bare minimum of materials and crafting (fire saw and fire plough). These are my versions of these primitive fire starters, based on what works best for me. Donít hold back and change whatever you want to better suit you. After all, should the brown stuff hit the fan your
bow drill will be a much better tool than mine
, since youíll be the one trying to make it work.
The first friction fire starter weíll discuss is the bow drill. Although itís the one with the most components, and which requires more work to make, itís also the easiest one for beginners to consistently get an ember with.
There are five key components in a bow drill:
-Hearth board (sometimes called fire board, base board or just board)
-Bow (shocking, I know)
Taking the time to select the right materials for each part and to craft them as well as possible will dramatically increase your chances of success. At first, try to practice in ideal conditions with the best possible components. As you master the bow drill you can play around with moist wood, bad cordage, etc. just to challenge yourself a bit.
When looking for wood to make your bow drill, try to find a branch that recently fell from the tree. This will mean it will be dry (not seasoned, but at least drier than a live one!), and the moisture from the ground wonít have had time to penetrate too much. Wood that lies on the ground for too long starts to rot, and rotting to us means a loss of energy (weíll get less BTUs from that piece of wood).
Remember to look up, if youíre lucky youíll find a branch that fell off the tree but ended up caught up in other branches. Those are excellent; since thereís a chance that Mother Nature did the seasoning for us. Donít go out of your way to get one of those dead branches, though. Conserve energy and donít take unnecessary risks.
These are some good wood options:
Willows (the majority work well)
Try to find something as thick as your wrist or thicker. The same wood can be used for the hearth board, spindle and handhold. In fact, the same wood should be used at first to keep the wear somewhat uniform. Once you get bored with using the same wood, you can start trying out different combinations to see what happens.
The bow needs to be flexible (but not flimsy!), so a green branch is better. You can also use a dry branch with a natural curve if there are no suitable green branches around. But youíll need to be very careful when you make the split to fit the string. For a basic bow drill, a branch as long as the distance between your elbow and the tip of your index finger will do just fine.
The string can be tricky. It needs to be about twice as long as the bow (one and a half times as long minimum). The cord you choose needs to be able to withstand friction without melting or being shred to pieces. Be careful with synthetic cordage, most nylon ropes will melt if they arenít thick enough. Cordage made from natural fibres wonít melt, but it can be cut due to abrasion. Thin cordage might work for one or two uses, but for several uses you need to look at something about 5mm thick (a bit less than ľĒ if Iím not mistaken). Iíve replaced the laces on my hiking boots with thicker ice skate laces. They are thick cotton strings that can be used for a variety of things (they make decent tinder when chopped up to expose more surface area!).
You can just ignore all the above and just use paracord. It works just fine. But be warned, itís not such a chick magnet as cotton ice skate laces, making fire from powdered string is just damned sexy.
Once you gather the materials making the fire drill isnít hard at all. Start with the hearth board. Cut your branch down to size (notch around it with your knife and then break it) and carefully split it in half. To split it place it perpendicular to the ground, place the knife at the top with the edge pointing down and hit the back of the blade with a baton (another piece of wood), try to keep it straight. This is called ďbatoningĒ. Iíll add a short appendix on how to do it properly. Once the branch is split pick whichever half you like best and make one side as flat as possible. The hearth board should be at least two inches wide and thick enough not to break when some pressure is applied.
To make the handhold, take the other half of the split branch and cut a piece between four and six inches long. Make one side as flat as possible, and whittle the other to be comfortable to hold. Get rid of any sharp edges or coarse textures. Dig a hole with your knife as close to the centre of the flat portion as you can. Shape the sides as to create a conical depression. Do it slowly and carefully. If you need to apply a lot of force, your knife is dull. Sharpen it up a bit. Working with a sharper blade takes less pressure and is safer.
Handholds can be made from other materials besides wood. Some people spend a lot of time making nice antler or bone handholds and carry them all the time. A good mate of mine carved one out of a boarís tusk and he carries it around his neck (the necklace is holds enough string for his bow drill, too). This isnít just because they like those materials, it has a practical side to it (be patient, all shall be revealed).
Take some more wood (you can use leftovers from a previous split) and try to find a piece about a foot long with the grain running straight. This will be your spindle. Spindle thickness will affect how many times it will rotate on each pull of the bow. A thinner spindle will rotate more times than a thicker one. However, a thick spindle puts less stress on the string. Unless youíre stuck with really crappy string, a spindle a little thinner than your thumb will do fine. Shape the piece of wood into a nice uniform shape with your knife, and whittle a point at each end.
For the bow, you need a flexible branch that bends evenly. You need to find a balance between flexibility and strength. If the branch doesnít flex, the string will skip and get damaged. If it bends too much, you wonít be able to apply the needed torque. A good test for this is to put your knife on the ground with the blade pointing away from you. Then place the branch over the knife, the centre of the branch right across where the blade joins the handle. Grab the ends of the branch and apply some force towards you, the branch should only bend about halfway up the knife blade (thatís about 2Ē if youíre using a Clipper).
Some OCD folks make a little notch on their knife to mark their favourite bow curvature. That way every bow drill set they make is pretty similar, since the bow determines a lot of the feel of the whole set.
Make a short split on each end of the bow (between 1 Ĺ and 2Ē long. If the bow has a natural curvature, make sure to orient the splits so that theyíll be parallel to the ground when the bow is laid on the floor. Be precise with your cutting. Make sure the splits run through the middle of the branch in a straight line. Tie two short bits of string around the split using a knot that wonít loosen up. Now thread the ends of the bow string through the splits and tie a knot on the other side so they canít slip out. Move one of the short lengths of string you tied before down until itís next to the bow string. This will close the split and hold the bow string securely.
Itís difficult to figure out how much slack the bow string will need, youíll have to adjust it as you work. At first, donít make it too tight or you wonít be able to wrap it around the spindle.
Weíre almost done, thereís just one thing left to do. Place the hearth board on flat even ground, take the spindle and use its point to make a mark close to one of the ends of the hearth board and about a spindle width away from the edges. Carve a shallow hole similar to the one you gouged on the handhold.
Iím sure that astute FTF members have realized two things. The first is that with such precise measurements as ďa thumb wideĒ or ďhalf a Clipper bladeĒ thereís a lot of guess work involved in this. Well, thatís the way it should be. Each of you should come up with a method to measure the dimensions of your ideal bow drill set, the one that works best for you. I measure everything with my knife (If I could Iíd use it to brush my teeth, too!). My boar tusk carrying mate uses the string to determine the size of each component (for instance, he picks a branch half as long as his string for the bow).
The second thing you guys probably have seen coming is that if the spindle, board and handhold are made out of the same wood, when that spindle starts spinning it will burn the handhold as well as the hearth board. This is why my friend carries a non-combustible handhold on his person. Thereís another solution to this, a simple one, thatís known as the ďburn inĒ. This process helps shape the handhold hole so that we donít waste any of our wonderful fire making energy there.
If youíre right handed, place your left foot over the hearth board with your right knee on the ground. Keep the right leg parallel to the board and sit on your right foot (or lean so that your chest rests on your left knee).
To get started you need to wrap the string around the spindle. Make sure that the spindle ends up on the ďoutsideĒ of the bow or it will knock against the bow when it spins. The string should be tight, but be careful not to break the bow. You might need to adjust your string length a bit. It should feel like the spindle is ready to pop out.
Hold the bow and spindle with one hand and place one end of the spindle on the hearth board. Take the handhold with your other hand and place it over the top of the spindle, applying pressure to keep it from freeing itself from the string. The bow should be pointing up towards you. If it isnít, make the necessary adjustments (you might need to start over and wrap the string around the spindle in a different way).
Your right hand (if youíre a righty) should be holding the bow, while your left should be on the handhold. Lock your left arm against your left shin.
Apply a good deal of pressure to the handhold and start spinning the drill. Keep going until you get smoke coming from both the handhold and the board. The important thing is to get smoke from the handhold (no, this is not a complicated Internet prank to burn your hand, bear with me). If you keep spinning and get no smoke, stop, reverse the spindle (use the point that was on the board on the handhold) and try again. Keep trying until you succeed, bushcraft ainít for quitters!
After the handhold begins to smoke keep going until the hole is the same diameter as the spindle, the curve will match the drillís point. From this moment on, itís important to keep track of which side of the drill is up (I carve a little arrow pointing up on mine).
Disassemble your bow drill and rub the spindle against the hole in the hand board. Get rid of any dust. Then push the spindle as hard as you can against the handhold. We need to lubricate this end of the spindle. Rub it against your scalp, the sides of your nose; get some ear wax on it. The natural oils from your skin will help lubricate it.
Push the end of the spindle against a small rock to tighten the fibres and then repeat the above procedure until the surfaces shine a little. This means that those parts are harder than when we started, and have some lubrication. This will keep them from burning and wasting any of our precious energy. Geometry can help as well, if this end of the spindle is very rounded it will make contact with more surface area on the handhold, thus reducing the tendency to drill through the handhold.
Try to keep moisture away from these parts of the drill. Any swelling will cause friction, which in turn will divert energy from the board.
As a finishing touch, you need to cut a notch on the board for the ember to collect in. Make two cuts in a 45į angle centred on the hole in hearth board all the way to the closest edge. Place something under the board to catch the dust and, hopefully, ember that drops through the notch. A piece of bark, a dry leave, etc.
Now youíre finally ready to drill for fire. There are two stages. Start by assuming the position explained above. At first, drill slowly with firm pressure on the handhold. The board should begin to smoke and start producing dust. You donít want a lot of smoke, just a hint. Keep going until the notch is full of dust. Once the notch is full, relax some of the pressure on the handhold and start drilling fast. Make lots of smoke! You might need to apply a bit more pressure if youíre not successful at first. Once you make a lot of smoke, stop. Check your dust. If itís still smoking a few seconds after you stopped drilling: thereís an ember somewhere in there!
Gently blow on it until it glows red, transfer it to your tinder and keep blowing until you get a flame. Hold the flaming tinder up and scream to the top of your lungs: ďMother Nature is my b%tch!Ē.
Sounds easy, right? Well, while itís simple there are so many variables that it certainly isnít always that easy. The climate, type of wood and your coordination all play a part. Here are some primitive trouble shooting tips to sort out some of the most common issues.
If the board refuses to smoke and the handhold is feeling hot, try lubricating it a bit more or checking whether the other side of the spindle is actually harder. You can also whittle the board end of the spindle into a sharper point. This is sometimes necessary with very hard woods.
You need to learn to understand what the different colours of the powder mean. You should aim for dark brown (sometimes almost black) powder with a somewhat fuzzy feel. If youíre getting light brown powder with a dusty consistency youíre going too slow and not pushing hard enough. Very dark brown or black powder with a flaky feel means that youíre going too fast and pushing too hard. Colour is an indication of heat (speed, light colour is low heat, dark colour means more heat), while consistency is an indication of pressure (dusty means too little, flaky means too much). I picked up this tip on powder from a website, and found it quite accurate.
Dry soft woods wonít cause any problems and youíll get an ember even with less than ideal powder. But itís important to refine your technique if you want to be able to rely on it in different situations.
Thatís the basic bow drill. I bet you guys are missing flint and steel by now. Weíll continue with the rest of the friction fire methods in our next lesson. Weíll also go over some bow drill variants.
I think youíve got enough information to move on to the next assignment:
Build a bow drill and try to get an ember!
Play around with different woods and dimensions, using the ones in this article as a guide. Try bigger bows, thicker spindles, whatever you like. Although making a wood handhold is part of the learning process, you can make it out of some other material as well.
Just two warnings before you start. If you arenít using natural wood, make sure that whatever you picked isnít impregnated with dangerous chemicals. Nasty fumes can result from the drilling process.
The second warning is actually a very important point: keep a playful attitude. Have fun with the process and donít put too much emphasis on the result. Bushcraft is 95% psychology. All the skills in the world arenít worth a damn if your mind isnít strong enough. Successful survivors and long term bushcraft practitioners share a ďparty onĒ attitude, like Cody Lundin calls it. Friction fire starting can be hard and frustrating, if you allow it to.
Approach it as a positive challenge and focus on what youíre doing well. If you get fire quickly, great youíve got fire. If it takes you a few tries, even better because youíll learn to identify and cope with whatever obstacles got in your way.
I just canít stress the importance of positive attitude enough. In my work as a SAR volunteer Iíve met people who made it out of some nasty situations not because of their gear but because of their knowledge and, even more, because of the strength of their mind. Those who were psychologically strong always displayed a ridiculous sense of humour considering their situation.
So, go forth FTF cavemen, rub sticks, and make fire!
Iíll add a few drawings and detailed batoning instructions tomorrow. Thanks for reading!
Remember the assignment:
make yourself a nifty bow drill set and try to get an ember.