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Primal man survived the dangers of the wild and built civilization using fire.
Today we have access to many things you can use to build a fire. Matches and lighters are nice and easy.
If you don’t have those, there are still many methods you can use, from flint and steel to magnifying glasses to even ice!
We’ve covered those in a previous article. But today we are going primitive.
Back to how that primal man built his fire.
Mechanics of Building a Fire
Learning how to start a fire is quite complex if you look at the physics, but in practice, it can be quite simple.
You apply heat to a fuel while there’s oxygen around and the fuel turns into flames. This is called the fire triangle.
Wood is an abundant and easy source of fuel.
I presume you’re trying to start a fire on Earth instead of Mars and aren’t doing it underwater, so we’ve covered oxygen.
Now, how about that heat? Without matches, lighters, sparks, and methods to concentrate the sun’s energy, we’re going to have to use a physics trick.
Take a moment and rub your hand together. Nice and fast. Notice how your hands are getting warmer?
The kindling point of something is the temperature at which it bursts into flames. For most varieties of wood, that’s between 300 and 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Great! Now, how do we get there with friction?
Methods to Start a Fire with Sticks
Simple! You rub a stick against another stick. Gotta do it fast. Really fast.
So fast that you can’t do it just by grabbing a stick in each hand and rubbing them against each other.
Though that might warm you up from exertion, it won’t light tinder on fire.
Most methods of quickly causing friction with wood involve spinning the stick like a drill.
The simplest method of starting a fire with a stick is the hand drill.
You can make this primitive fire starter easily, but actually starting the fire will take effort.
A hand drill has two pieces, the spindle and the fireboard. You can also call the fireboard a hearth or baseboard if you’d like.
The wood used for both the spindle and the fireboard should be moderately soft, but not punky or rotten. Cedar, willow, aspen, cottonwood, and basswood are good choices.
The spindle, or drill, should be a stick about 20 to 32 inches long, straight, and between 3/8 to 1/4 inch wide. No bark, please!
Smaller drills will produce friction and heat more quickly but may drill through the fireboard before you’ve achieved fire.
Speaking of, the fireboard should be a flat piece of wood about a quarter of an inch thick. You can achieve the flatness required by batoning the wood using your knife.
Put the tip of the spindle about a quarter of an inch from the side of the fireboard to create an indentation. Use your knife to make that indentation a bit deeper, so that the spindle can bite into the fireboard.
Now drill (we’ll get into how in a couple of lines), but just for a moment! All we want now is an outline of the edge of the spindle.
Before you start drilling though, you need to cut notches into the side of the fireboard. The V shape should meet up at the edge of the outline left by the brief drilling session.
The purpose of that notch is to collect wood dust while allowing air (and oxygen) to get at the dust.
Stick your spindle back into the depression, and start drilling.
Crouch next to the baseboard, with your shoulders over the fireboard. Hold the fireboard in place with one foot.
Place both of your palms on either side of the top of the spindle. Spin the spindle between your palms and fingers, moving them back and forth.
Don’t forget to apply downward pressure as well! That helps to increase the friction and produce more wood dust.
When your hands reach the fireboard, move one back to the top then the other.
Don’t move both at the same time unless you want to let the spindle jump out of the hole and let everything cool down! We don’t want to lose our progress that way.
Eventually, you will see smoke, then the wood dust will blacken and turn into an ember. Use this to ignite your tinder!
Because this is such a hands-on approach, lots of practice may be required.
Also, environmental factors play a huge role in how quickly you can turn wood dust into embers. Humidity, in particular, can be your enemy.
Related: How to Build a Smokeless Fire
Want something a bit easier? Try the bow drill, also called a fire bow.
The bow drill upgrades the hand drill by using a bow instead of your hands. Also, a handhold is used on top of the spindle so you can apply constant downward pressure so you don’t need to stop your progress every now and then.
Because it’s so much easier, even a child can do it!
The spindle can also be quite a bit thicker and shorter. Aim for about a foot long and about an inch wide. Whittle both ends into points, one end more dull than the other.
To create a handhold, take a piece of hardwood that fits comfortably in your hand (cutting off bark is a good idea) with a flat side. Use your knife to dig a hole, right in the middle and about half an inch deep. A 45 degree angle is a good idea. A stone or piece of bone also works well.
The fireboard is almost exactly the same as with the hand drill, except it should be made from a wider piece of wood to accommodate the wider spindle.
The bow is perhaps the most complex part of the operation, and even it is still not too difficult.
Find a branch about as thick as your index finger, still alive, that is slightly curved. A good length to aim for is the same distance as from your elbow to the tip of your fingers.
It should be moderately bendy, so that when you apply light pressure it only moves a little bit. If the stick is too easy to bend then it will be too weak, but if it doesn’t bend at all the branch is too strong.
Just use your knife to weaken up that strong branch by whittling out the inside of the curve. You want the branch to bend evenly, so pay attention to where you whittle to prevent any weak spots.
Now we need to attach cordage to either end of the bow. Use a cord that is about half again longer than the bow.
Natural cordage is best, as synthetic cords can melt from the friction. A quarter inch of cotton cord is best but most choices work so long as they’re not too thin. Shoelaces are basically the boundary of too thin.
Attach the cord to either end of the bow. You can cut a hole into the ends, whittle a ring for the cord to lay in, or split the ends and hold the ends of the cord in with a knot.
You want the cord to be inside the curve and not off to one side or the other, else the bow will twist while you’re drilling.
Now, wrap the spindle in the cord. The loop should be on the far side of the cord from the bow.
Put one end of the spindle in the indentation in the fireboard (you remember that step from before, right?). Hold it in place with the handhold and hold the bow with your primary hand.
Keep your foot on the fireboard. We don’t want this contraption flying apart!
Push the bow forward then pull it backward. The spindle will spin, produce wood dust, then eventually embers.
A little more effort in the construction saves a lot of effort in the drilling!
Two Man Friction Drill
The two man friction drill is sort of halfway between a hand drill and bow drill. You don’t need a bow, but you do need a cord and another person to help you.
A handhold is also a great idea unless you want a serious friction burn on your palm.
One person holds the fireboard in place with their foot and the spindle in place by applying downward pressure.
The second person wraps a cord around the spindle several times, grasps both ends, then pulls one side then the other.
Easy, so long as you have a partner.
Pump Fire Drill
The Iroquois looked at the bow drill and thought that it was still too much effort. So they came up with the pump drill.
Pump drills use a flywheel to build momentum for the friction, and a crossbar instead of a bow. Both are made of hardwood, while the spindle and fireboard should be softwood.
The fireboard should be the same size as those used for a hand drill. The spindle should be just as long and either thicker at the top so you can bore a hole through it, or just as thin and have a crevice.
The flywheel is a circular disc of hardwood with a hole bored through the middle of it. That hole should be just wide enough that you can stick the spindle through the flywheel with some effort and friction will hold both together.
You can also make the flywheel from metal or plastic, if you have something weighty and disc-shaped you can bore through.
An inch thick and six inches wide is good, though you can experiment with different sizes.
For the crossbar, you want to whittle a branch so that it is about a foot long or a little longer. The middle should be wider than the ends, as you need a hole big enough in the middle for the spindle to move freely.
Take a long piece of cord. Affix it to one end of the crossbar, up to the top of the spindle, and back down to the other end of the crossbar. Use the hole or crevice so the cord pushes down on the spindle.
When the cord is slack, the crossbar should hang several inches above the flywheel.
To drill the fireboard and produce embers, hold the crossbar in place with one hand while spinning the spindle. The cord will wrap around the spindle until it can’t wrap anymore.
Now put your other hand on the other side of the crossbar. Push down on the crossbar.
The cord will unwind, then the momentum from the flywheel will keep the spindle spinning until it’s all wound up again. Let it do so, then push again.
It’s even easier than the bow!
Plus, you can use the pump drill for actual drilling. Affix a sharp rock to the bottom of the spindle and you have a tool that can drill a hole pretty easily!
Also spelled fire plough, this primitive fire starting method doesn’t use ANY spinning. Crazy, right?
You still need two pieces of wood, but in this case, you use a friction stick instead of a spindle.
The friction stick should be made of hardwood, about a foot long and half an inch thick.
Use soft wood for your fireboard. Instead of a flat piece with notches, this time it should be about one foot long, up to six inches wide, an inch thick, and have a groove its entire length.
Cut the groove with your knife, but not too much. You just want your friction stick to be able to catch in the groove.
Stick the end of the friction stick in the groove. Hold it at a forty-five degree angle while keeping the fireboard firmly in place.
Push the friction stick back and forth in the groove. It’ll deepen the groove, shave the wood, and the friction will turn the shavings into embers!
There are many wonderful technologies out there which can be used to ignite things at your leisure.
But whether you are in a survival situation or are just practicing primitive skills, there’s nothing quite like taking several pieces of wood and forcing them to produce fire.
Go ahead and triumphantly shout “fire!” after igniting something with just wood. You know you want to.