7 Methods of Primitive Fire Starting

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I have used all of the following methods successfully. Each one CAN produce fire, but is not guaranteed to. My personal favorites are the fire piston and the flint and steel. I have noted a few “ibles” about making both. Certainly you could also purchase both. They are small and easy to pack, and have a high success rate. But I suppose you never know when all you’ll have is a few sticks and a shoestring so it’s good to know how to use ’em.

Please note that I did not have images available for the techniques listed here so I let Google fix that for me. I noted no copyright notices on the sites where the images were located.

Step 1: Hand Drill

Picture of Hand Drill

Hand Drill
Using a hand drill is one of the simplest friction methods, but high speed can be difficult to maintain because only the hands are used to rotate the spindle. It works best in dry climates.

Step One Cut a V-shaped notch in the fireboard, then start a small depression adjacent to it with a rock or knife tip. Set a piece of bark underneath the notch to catch the ember.

Step Two Place the spindle, which should be 2 feet long, in the depression and, maintaining pressure, roll it between the palms of your hands, running them quickly down the spindle in a burst of speed. Repeat until the spindle tip glows red and an ember is formed.

Step Three Tap the fireboard to deposit the ember onto the bark, then transfer it to a tinder bundle and blow it to flame.

Step 2: Two-Man Friction Drill

Picture of Two-Man Friction Drill

Two-Man Friction Drill
Two people can do a better job of maintaining the speed and pressure needed to create an ember using this string variation of a friction drill. Step One Have one person apply downward pressure to the drill while the other uses a thong or shoelace to rapidly rotate the spindle.

Step 3: Fire Plough

Picture of Fire Plough

Step 4: Pump Fire Drill

Picture of Pump Fire Drill

Pump Fire Drill
The Iroquois invented this ingenious pump drill, which uses a flywheel to generate friction. The crossbar and flywheel are made of hardwood; the spindle and fireboard are made from softwoods (as in the hand drill).

Step One Bore a hole in the center of a rounded piece of hardwood and force the spindle in so that it fits tightly. Select wood for the crossbar and bore a larger hole that will slide freely on the spindle.

Step Two Attach the crossbar to the top of the spindle with a leather thong or sturdy shoelace.

Step Three Wind up the flywheel so that the thong twists around the spindle, then press down. The momentum will rewind the crossbar in the opposite direction. Repeat until friction creates a glowing ember.

Step 5: Bow Drill

Picture of Bow Drill

Bow Drill
Of all the friction -fire-starting methods, the bow drill is the most efficient at maintaining the speed and pressure needed to produce a coal, and the easiest to master. The combination of the right fireboard and spindle is the key to success, so experiment with different dry softwoods until you find a set that produces. Remember that the drill must be as hard or slightly harder than the fireboard.

Step One Cut a notch at the edge of a round impression bored into the fireboard, as you would for a hand drill. Loosely affix the string to a stick bow, which can be any stout wood.

Step Two Place the end of a wood drill the diameter of your thumb into the round impression, bear down on it with a socket (a wood block or stone with a hollow ground into it), catch the drill in a loop of the bowstring, then vigorously saw back and forth until the friction of the spinning drill produces a coal.

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Step Three Drop the glowing coal into a bird’s nest of fine tinder, lift the nest in your cupped hands, and lightly blow until it catches fire.

Step 6: Firepiston

Picture of Firepiston

Firepiston
How does it work?
Air gets very hot when it is compressed under high pressure. A classic example would be the heat that is created when one uses a bicycle pump. But when the air is compressed in a firepiston it is done so quickly and efficiently that it can reach a temperature in excess of 800 degrees Fahrenheit. This is hot enough to ignite the tinder that is placed in the end of the piston which has been hollowed out to accept it.

Ancient examples of the tube itself are of hardwood, bamboo, or even horn. It is closed on one end, very smooth inside and accurately bored. Equal care is taken in the creation of the associated piston. A “gasket” of wound thread, fiber, or sometimes leather insures a proper seal for successfully creating the compression. This gasket is “greased” to help with the seal and to allow free travel of the piston. The walls of the bore must be perfectly straight and polished smooth.

Step 7: Flint and Steel

Picture of Flint and Steel
Picture of Flint and Steel

Flint and Steel
Striking the softer steel against the harder flint will produce sparks to flame your fire. The curved steel striker provided with flint and steel kits is easiest to use, although with some practice you can produce sparks by using the back of a carbon-steel knife blade. (Stainless-steel knives are usually much too hard to shave sparks from.) An old bastard file or an axe head will also work.

Step One Grasp a shard of hard rock, such as flint or quartzite, between your thumb and forefinger with a sharp edge protruding an inch or two.

Step Two Tightly clamp a piece of your homemade char cloth or a lump of birch tinder fungus under the thumb holding the piece of flint. Grasping the back of the striker, knife blade, or file in your other hand, strike a glancing blow against the edge of flint, using a quick wrist motion. If you’re using an axe, hold the head still and sharply strike the flint near the blade, where the steel is harder. Molten sparks from the steel will fly off and eventually be caught by an edge of the char cloth, causing it to glow.

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Step Three Carefully fold the cloth into a tinder nest and gently blow on it until it catches flame.

Another option is to use a magnesium-and-steel tool, which is an updated version of an ancient method that creates a strong shower of sparks. The advantage of this method is that the magnesium shavings flame briefly at an extremely high temperature, eliminating the need for char cloth or tinder fungus.

Step One Using a knife blade or striker, shave a pile of magnesium flecks into a nest of tinder.

Step Two Strike the steel edge of the tool with the back of a knife blade or the scraper provided to direct sparks onto the tinder.

Step Three When the tinder starts to smolder, gently blow on it until it bursts into flames.

Rock Striker
An ideal tool for starting a spark-based fire, the striker should be made of flint for best results. If you can’t find flint, look for quartzite, which is much more common and is hard enough to strike sparks from steel.

Step One Identify quartzite by the many crescent-shaped fractures on the surface.

Step Two Choose a quartzite boulder that is flat or discus-shaped and drop it against a larger rock to chip off an edge. Round or oval rocks are more difficult to break.

Step Three A flake broken from the quartzite boulder is usually sharp enough to use as a striker or knife. If you can’t find one to your liking, break the boulder again.

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