Primitive Friction Fire Making – How to make fire by friction, flint and steel

Primitive Friction Fire Making – How to make fire by friction by rubbing sticks together and by flint and steel.

If you want to master the skill of firelighting, get hands-on help from an expert: Five Senses in Orkney, Scotland.

Making Fire by friction using bow drill, spindle and hearth

I was teaching a session this week – how to make fire kits and light fires using friction and the bow drill – when the comment was again made that none of the videos on the internet, none of the books or websites are capable of conveying enough about how to actually do it – reliably, on your own, in realistic weather conditions  (ie wet and windy).

The objective, a survival fire on the beach:

Flames of a beachfire with driftwood and seaweed

Flames of a beachfire with driftwood and seaweed

Here in the north of Scotland, we are teaching advanced fire making skills to beginners – in a climate that is challenging – wet, windy, high humidity and without trees. We have to really know what we are doing and really understand what is happening at our fingertips to make it happen.

Grass tinder "nest" as a reliable source of fire

Grass tinder "nest" as a reliable source of fire

If you want to learn – read the articles in this blog – but if you want to be able to do it straight away, this is not for you. Go buy a box of matches instead because fire making and fire control is a process, it takes time, attention and thought – plus hands-on skills. If you want it bad enough this blog will reveal how to do it – how to make fire – how to make your own fire kits – why things are done – what is happening – and why we use all our senses.

Smoke and fire -the tinder catches light

Smoke and fire -the tinder catches light

When Promethius “stole” fire making from the gods, humans made a huge leap forward and have evolved into who we are now and with the environmental problems we have created. Big stuff.

Read on – ask questions – and by the end of the day – make fire!

Bowing technique - fire by friction tuition

Bowing technique - fire by friction tuition - note tinder nest

bow drill technique, vertical spindle, full use of bow

bow drill technique, vertical spindle, full use of bow

Flint and Steel Fire Making – this is another friction method, the sharp edge of a flint or knife being used to shave of a splinter of very hot iron, which burns in oxygen as a brief spark. The very localised and extreme friction at the point of impact causes the iron to become very hot.

This short lived spark needs to land onto dry and receptive material, such as very fine plant fibres before the heat is lost. The heat it imparts to the tinder material must be sufficient to overcome water moisture, then heat up the material to a smoulder.

Thus, the main challenges of fire lighting using flint and steel revolve around getting the spark to land onto the prepared fibres – and for this to impart sufficient energy to overcome heat loss through evaporation and convection (wind).

The colour of the iron spark as it burns indicates the temperature. Orange is cooler than yellow – and white hot is associated with higher tech modern “steels” that are not steel but magnesium based. Steel is of course iron high in carbon.

Primitive forms of iron, prior to the extraction of the metal from its ore include iron pyrites (fools gold). Pyromaniacs will have to search hard for suitable ore to use and even then the sparks generated are a dull orange, lacking in heat. Life got a lot easier when iron was created from ores – lovely, reliable, yellow sparks – but still the issue of catching sparks on suitable tinder materials remain.

The prevailance of high tech magnesium “steels” has again caused fire makers in the outdoors to become lazy and to neglect their tinder. Air tight tinder boxes were used for a very good reason – to keep precious tinder that had been previously prepared and dried, safe and ready for use: dry. (By dry I mean away from atmospheric moisture, just as you keep foods from going soggy by storing in jars and tins.

Tinders are the most important part of fire making – learn to find and make tinders from whatever materials are available – store them and nurture any smouldering ember within them, by regulating oxygen and density of material, size and insulation.

Other of my blog posts have lists of suggested tinders but my favourites include locally available (seasonally) bog cotton and thistle. They make great insulation and if you have lots, can be a substitute for down.


4 responses to “Primitive Friction Fire Making – How to make fire by friction, flint and steel

  1. I was wondering if anyone knew what to use as a tinder bundle if you are out in the woods and it has been raining for a week. I live in Washington, USA. I have found good kindling, but getting that coal blown into flame has been hard for me. Everything I have found under trees that seemed dry has been too wet to blow into flame. Does anyone have any suggestions?

  2. Dear Steve,

    I am guessing, from what you have told me, that your fire making technique is focusing a bit too much upon flame as the means to fire making – when you should be concentrating upon heat.

    It sounds as if you are doing ok in making a viable ember, that is the “seed” heat source, but are losing it when trying to transfer this heat to damp kindling.

    You should try to “grow” that tiny heat bundle, for maybe as long as half an hour, all the time using what heat is escaping (along with smoke) to evaporate off water moisture.

    Also, as the ground has the most moisture, a fire place laid out on the ground, with a classic pyramid of twigs, is going to be cold and damp. Try a raised shelf or platform and fine tinder.

    For example – an ember created by bow drill friction fire making may be as small as pea, typically, being dependent upon the quantity of wood char dust created.

    Inserted into a cosy bundle of fine tinder, such as thistle, milkweed, wood punk, etc, this can grow or extend to the size of a golf ball.

    It is tempting to hurry towards flame and to use that ‘giant match’ to ignite the tiny kindling but this can be a jump too far for the limited heat you have, allowing much of it to convect or evaporate off and away from your fuels that need it.

    If the fuel is not fine enough, make it so, by rubbing, breaking, grinding it to a finer consistency. This will also help release the water and gases.

    Consider a ‘tinder nest’, or bundle of fuel, held in your hands (thus well off the ground and where you can best control the air imput, which is essential) with an orange glowing core that grows from the size of a golf ball to the size of an orange, maybe larger still. Insulating this with your fine fuel will keep most of the heat inside and away from your hands, building greater and greater heat (like you inside a sleeping bag). Your challenge is to manage the air imput to control this stage and keep the fuel dense enough for close contact – and thus allowing the next fuel, outer part of the bundle to warm and dry.

    Do not hurry to create flame!

    Make heat and nurture that with oxygen, for as long as it takes to become almost ‘out of control’. Also, use as much as possible the warming potential of the sun and human body to evaporate off moisture, so too the wind.

    Let me know your thoughts.

    Good luck ~ Malcolm / Five Senses

  3. Malcolm,

    Thank you for your advice. I will try it tomorrow. I think that is my problem. Patience. When I began starting friction fires I used unraveled, store bought twine, which was nice and dry. I got used to blowing 8 or 9 times and getting a flame.

    I will try to let the coal sit for longer. As a coal sits and glows, does it’s temperature rise?

    When you said insulate the tinder bundle, did you mean to surround it with fine kindling like thin twigs?

    If I were to lay out sticks onto the ground side by side, would that be considered a platform?

    Thank you again for your advice. I appreciate it.

    Steve at Alderleaf

  4. Malcolm,

    Thank you for the advice. I’ve started about 5 fires since I got your message. Patience is key.

    My next question is about the cordage. If I wanted to use something other than string, say a rootlet or withe, would the bowing technique need to be altered?


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