Tag Archives: fire

My diary from the Power Off weekend in March

Here are my notes, scribbled first on paper during the last weekend, when we had no electricity for the March Spring Equinox and Power Off Weekend II – please excuse it jumping from past to present tense, this is how I wrote it:

Friday …

Worked like crazy to get the new Five Senses website ok – to go live by 11pm Friday (the official start time of POW, when the whole electricity supply is turned off for 48 hours, at the flick of a switch). Totally mad – but we did it. Brain a bit frazzled though so we opted to come down gently by turning off the lights and watching the film “9” until just past midnight, then we powered off to bed by candle light. A box of matches symbolically placed by the bed ‘just in case’. The second POW had begun. I smiled and slept deep.

Saturday …

Sunshine and light very early, warm too – not like the December Power Off (the first we shared with other folks). Walked around the house naked – no hurry, no biting cold. First desire was for hot water, to make tea and porridge. Stood in the kitchen I awoke to remember there was to be no electricity. Used the camping gas burner. Easy, if slow. Looked around as water warmed slowly, thought the floor could use a vacuum – dusty – then realised I should brush it instead but I couldn’t be arsed.

After breakfast I set off up the drive to meet the walkers for my Hidden Gems of Orkney walk (second Saturday in the month – introducing them to unknown and wonderful parts of Orkney). From 9.30 – 13.30 I was out on the beach (scoured by the recent storm), in the Hall of Clestrain (exploring ruins) and building temporary stepping stones for the group to cross streams. Larger versions of childhood games. A cool breeze but sunny.

Returned home. Rachel looked very happy and relaxed. We drank tea in the conservatory, soaking up the faint warmth from the sun. (All this tea brewing was made easier by three thermos flasks which we keep filled whenever there is a fire). Profound sense of relaxation. R relaxed and yet energised (excited) by the ambiance – after overcoming the automatic choices of computer / film / music / iplayer (we have no TV) she had instead settled upon thinking. So had spent the morning contemplating. It seemed to have been time well spent.

After this rest my mind starts to think ‘food’ which means cooking … need to do washing up from last night’s marathon website writing session … needs hot water … needs fire … needs fuel … must saw up wood, so I needed to get moving as nothing would happen instantly, at the flick of a switch. However, it all seemed so much easier than the December POW when it was freezing and I had to burn all the driftwood to keep one room warm. This time was far more relaxed. The sun gave enough warmth. A good reminder that it was the Equinox.

Sunshine on the pages of my book making me smile with joy – sunlight so appreciated – feeling of great happiness, love, alive!

Sun close to setting. Yet another lovely day for a POW. I’m sure we are lucky but also more appreciative of the sun, it’s light, warmth, presence, life. Now is the equinox, sun is out west over Hoy Sound, dropping behind clouds over Stromness, directly west of here. Simple, profound relationships of time and seasons and directions, with the Sun and a spinning Earth.

Tried to use a sun dial to tell the time but it was out of sync with human time by 40 minutes. Nice to realise I don’t need to know the time today – in ‘holiday mode’, not knowing or worrying what time it is. No visible clocks or watches in the house … unless I dig into my rucksack or look at the mobile phone (which I did earlier when playing with the sun dial). The sun is starting to set time again, dusk is falling, TV schedules, even the rugby results can all wait.

Vacuum flasks are very good – working well – good supply of hot water and means I don’t need to tend the fire constantly (driftwood and peat) unlike December! A wood buring stove would be so good though. Note to everyone, get a stove, with a flat top. That with a good pipe to vent should be a basic of all houses, so even if not used much it is there for emergencies like power cuts. Much more fuel efficient and burns paper bricks, driftwood, garden cuttings, anything if push comes to shove.

Light fading but too early to light candles – sit right by the window like in times of old, to the last possible minute reading by sunlight, book facing flat out to west like a solar panel or flower for maximum light. Room is calm without electricity. People are naive to think we burn lots of candles to replace electric light (low energy bulbs of course) because in the most part we are enjoying sunlight, the flickering flames of a real fire and I am quite delighted by my navigational prowess in negotiating rooms in the dark:

Choosing tea by smell in stead of lighting up, using my sense of touch often, and listening for when a kettle is coming to boil or when a hot water bottle is near full with the hot water I’m pouring. Sounds, smells, textures all coming to prominence in the gentler light. You must try it to feel it.

Light a candle. Put white sheet of paper behind it to reflect light into room. So simple but effective.

So peaceful in the house – sound of wood crackling in the fire, birds twittering outside.

Ate bacon, eggs, mushrooms, bread and now next cup of tea … slight smoky taste, wonderful. Almost feels like bed time but still not fully dark. Fun 🙂

Crescent moon in the West, high above the ocean, casting light through this window. Went outside to pee, which is easier outside in the dark 🙂 Fantastic sky! All the main constellations very clear with a bright moon giving good light to see by and also hiding the smaller stars, leaving only the brightest. Leo, Gemini, Orion, Cassiopeia and the others all prominent. Moon pointing towards South quite nicely. Top night.

Happy reading. Kind of miss watching a film though.

Went to bed, time unknown, but too sleepy to read more. Fell asleep quickly.

Sunday …

Awoke in the night … stars … but not sleeping well … bad dream … so awaken in a low mood. Light gas, boil water, porridge, tea and then a bit of bacon and egg 🙂 Twice in 24 hours! Go wild.

Swept floor of conservatory and kitchen with dustpan and brush. Did some tidying, just the usual stuff but feels good. Did my daily poo inspection (shocking, I’ll skip the details). Makes me notice I’m feeling a bit off, weak, light headed. Opt to treat for dehydration. Head is fuzzy so finding talk and ideas hard to enjoy. Drinking water.

Thinking R is distracted then realise it is probably me. Walked outside barefoot onto the grass, opening my awareness. My book reading marathon has taken me away from R for too long. Need to play 🙂

We talk about how hard it is to relax, how hard it is to have weekends off work, especially when self employed and self motivated. How society is requiring people to work more, consume more, be forever active, no time to really rest. Even holidays have to be ‘earned’ by excessive hours before and afterwards, effectively eating into that rest time by being ever present, haunting.

So pleased to have the opportunity to contrast the two POWs, December and March. I’m keen to now do June, September and Dec again. This time there is so much more daylight, the air is warmer, the sun also providing warmth this time, even at 59 degrees North. Again it is so good to be aware of the sun’s journey across the sky, setting West, Equinox really means something. Not in a religious or spiritual way, as such but observational, scientific … this is reality, it does this whether you notice it or not. The world spins in orbit of the sun, the moon orbiting Earth, tides ebb and flow. Call me names if you like but this is what is going on and I like being aware of it. I love it! It is good to be aware of my place in the universe, I feel more self-confidence and happiness as a result.

Time to play Ticket to Ride. Set up in conservatory, where there is enough warmth from the sun, sheltered from the wind. Start to feel better, gradually.

Win the game. I go and make soup. Lentils been soaking overnight in the dirty pressure cooker – my idea to save washing up, so looks pretty ugly, with remains of venison stew (sorry my dear vegetarian friends). Cook over gas again because pressure cooker not good over naked flame, anyway it boils quickly and job is done with little fuel used. Cook veg including the defrosted peas and sweetcorn . Yummy. Feels super healthy, esp after the previous bacon fest and fat.

Pet watching – two cats, one mouse. Comical. I’m smiling again. Seals, ducks, calm water.

R is spinning in the conservatory, I’m gonna light the fire. Tidied the garage a wee bit earlier.

Took photos of the setting sun between 6 and 6.30pm together with the moon high in the South West. Beautiful light blue sky with powdery clouds like the end of an avalanche, covering the moon. Then she is back. Always she.

Cooked over wood fire – mashed potato with mackerel and cabbage, in the skillet. Simple but tasty. Wonderful time, light fading, again using all the remaining light, precious. I know we would normally have lights on now, if we were using electricity, like nearly everyone who has electric lights (or is it everyone?) but really it seems that is all about fear, fighting the dark, like it is bad, evil. Now it seems lovely and calming to be here as the sun fades and to welcome the night. I am safe in my own home after all. I have nothing to fear. The night is beautiful.

I lament the loss of darkness (by which I mean the gentle light of lamp and fire and candle) for a constant blaze of continual brightness, only ended when I close my eyes. How unnatural, limiting, sterile. It is hard if this is how you were brought up. Harder still if you were scared as a child with stories of monsters, evil, things unknown. Stories that contained and controlled people for so long seem to limit us now we have the technology to fill the night with reassuring light. Am I the only one to think this? I remember the street lights being switched off at night and the world sleeping, except the owls and foxes and their companions. This seemed as natural as the sun setting and switching off lights. But nowadays we live in perpetual light, whole towns lit, shops advertising, security cameras searching … fear on the one hand, commerce and consumption on the other. Convenience but at what price, I ask?

Monday …

Last night we felt very comfortable with the power off and so today we are in no hurry to switch back on.

Kitchen is tidy(ish). It was fun last night washing up with water boiled over the wood fire, in the kitchen with one candle, memories of Ferry Farm.

Flasks of water still nice and warm from last night too so I am quick on the porridge, green tea and juice situation.

Very happy with the house and delighted the day is grey, windy and damp – shows what a good weekend it was – sun, stars, low wind. Very lucky.

Rachel needs to rest because of the antibiotics, so I am encouraging a relaxed day for many reasons.

Finished book last night around midnight. Excellent stuff. But late to bed. Also a roof tile seems to have broken. Awoken by sound of flapping plastic (rapid tapping on roof driving us mad). Tried to ignore but just couldn’t sleep – ended up having to half crawl out onto roof to fix.

Still no power on. POW continues, day 3 🙂

Lit fire for warmth and mood … last bits of wood, not enough to last the day, maybe 3 hours at most. There is some outside I can go cut up, later. First to cook lunch – lots of vegetables for health. Somewhere over the weekend (Friday night I guess, we had mackerel and rice with vegetables. Now we are vegetarian until I next go shopping.

Little desire to turn electricity back on except to send out a SurveyMonkey for the post power off folks and to let the outside world know we are ok. They could reach by mobile phone (unused over weekend, so still charged) but is nice to let everyone know and to check nothing major has happened to them. All seems quiet. Notice good news re Healthcare in US (I assume it is good news, having missed the debate).

We recognise now the importance of the power being turned off completely (for us anyway) like having no chocolate or cigarettes I guess. The temptation when the power is back on to “just do …” is strongly ingrained in us. It is so much easier to relax when you know the power is off. We talk of the tendency to overdo things unless breaks are forced upon us (even by ourselves – hell, who else is going to help us if we are otherwise dumb enough to overwork?) – the compulsion to be doing things, socially productive things – so we talked about things like meditation, yoga, rest, weekends – and the struggle in today’s society to ‘do nothing’. Even when physically inactive we are under pressure to be doing things – thinking – or imputing data (reading or watching TV etc.)

I measure the temp in the fridge: 10 deg C, the same as elsewhere in the house, except this one room we live in, with the fire. It is 19 deg C in here. Still drafts as the fire sucks air from under the door and through cracks in the walls but comfortable. 🙂

Sun comes out as it rolls over Stromness. The room temp reaches 21 degrees. Too hot 🙂

We decide the best way to welcome electricity back into our lives (excepting the 30 minutes earlier today when I briefly powered up to send out the survey) is to watch rugby! So we start up the internet, there are beeps and the fridge grumbles into life, and we get the good old BBC iplayer going, watch Wales, then Scotland.

The stove remains off. This big dinosaur of a beast that consumes electricity like the antithesis of a power station. For now, we prefer to be cool and eating frugally. Some day a wind turbine will power it for ‘free’ but not now, not this day.

I think back to the sounds of the weekend … the kettle singing a rising scale to tell me when the water neared boiling, no electric kettle has ever sounded so beautiful with its impatient roar … I think of the sunlight changing throughout the day but mostly as it faded gradually at dusk, or the shadows moving as we walked to bed with candle in hand, and no house has felt alive like that beneath the constancy of electric light. Don’t get me wrong, electricity is amazing, truly astounding and near magical – and precious … but it is not everything and we can have so much more if we have both light and dark … and all the shades in between. We can have electric guitars and synthesisers but there is still beauty and joy in violin and drum, the chirping of a skylark or the sighing of the wind.

I ask you to consider it all.

The next Power Off weekend is in June 19-20. I hope some of you will join us. See the Facebook Group for details.


Miracle Thread: Bog Cotton – July Harvest

The annual gathering of Cotton Grass / Bog Cotton took place today – a day late but no great disaster.

Cotton Grass / Bog Cotton

Cotton Grass / Bog Cotton

I went up the hill this morning for my annual gathering of bog cotton or cotton grass, as it is also known. last year I had delayed going out to gather it, waiting until it was perfectly dry and just ready to drift on the wind (the fluffy seeds) when in the night I was awoken by sudden storm – wet and windy! I knew then that it would scatter the white cotton everywhere making it impossible to harvest. Sure enough, the next morning I marched up the hill to find it white, like there had been a frost or light falling of snow – but it was the bog cotton seeds, released by the plant or pulled away by the wind, scattered! That day I trudged back down and set my sights upon the later thistle and rosebay willowherb harvest, which are easier to find, being lowland plants.

This summer I have been paying close attention to the condition of the bog cotton and the weather, waiting. Last night was perfect: It had been dry for days, the wind was light but a new front was due, so the seeds were ripe for picking – still bunched on the plant so easy to gather but ready to release and dry! I should have gone. It had been a busy day and the forecast was for the winds to remain light, so I slept.

With a groan I again awoke to the sound of wind and rain. Surely not?! I set off up the fields, soon soaked by the wet grasses and made my way to a good, healthy patch of white tufts. There were still there. Some were gone, strewn across the ground, seeds that have escaped. The rest were there still, hanging on but soaking wet.

I got a bag full in 10 minutes and returned home, relieved and happy, my nose clear and scenting the distant cattle, the odd smells of things unseen. The cotton is now in a pillow case over the solid fuel stove, slowly drying so I can keep it dry and use all year, until this time next year. There is no supermarket for this sort of stuff -just like the old days, the weather and season matter greatly. Be lazy and stay in bed and you miss it for at least a year!

Bog cotton actually had many uses, one of which was as a stuffing for pillows, so my harvest over the fire looks appropriate! Of course, it has also been used like commercial cotton to make thread and cloth, described in the Great Exhibition of 1851 as “garments woven by crofting women … much admired for their beauty and fine texture” (the fabric, not the women, alas).

Bog cotton is also reputed to have miracle healing powers for the sheep that eat it, though I do not know how accurate this observation from the 19th century is.

There are a number of traditional Scottish stories that refer to shirts made of this plant, known locally as canach or caineachan. I’ll quote from Flora Celtica:

“such as the tale in which a girl refuses to marry her suitor unless he procures a gown of canach down.”

“In another story a prince is bewitched and becomes a creature, neither man or beast. His distressed father calls on the local maidens to weave 3 shirts from canach down but only one girl sees it through to the finish. When the prince receives his 3 shirts he turns back into his handsome old self and marries the lass, and they all live happily ever after.” (p159 Flora Celtica, Milliken and Bridgewater).

So what do I want with the downy, white seed heads? I have not the patience to weave a shirt, though I will try spinning some thread from it. I do not believe it shall make me more handsome – though I suspect the stories demonstrate just how hugely labour intensive making garments from this lovely, soft material would have been. It is hard enough to gather it, let alone clean it, spin it and then weave it. I sit here in my cotton t-shirt bought pre-made and I am grateful.

What I want the bog cotton for is making fire – as a very fine, fibrous plant material it is perfect for helping the most stubborn ember to glow bigger and grow into a ball of heat! A dry bag of it in my pack weighs next to nothing and it also makes fantastic down-like insulation, which could just save a hand from freezing – and in the outdoors that is the sort of advantage that might save my life – just being able to open a karabiner or a rucksack for precious food. I’ve been there so I speak from experience.

It is interesting to note how many plants associated with wet ground are helpful in making fire – how these are our friends and not weeds. Today we stick close to the land, rarely venturing out in a boat, be it on sea or a lake, so it is hard for us to imagine how our ancestors lived close to and on water. They had no roads, no metal tools – so they thrived at the water margins. Land we have either built cities on or drained for farming – little remains, to our loss.

Bog cotton is my friend!

Note: I only gather small quantities from any one location allowing natural processes of seed germination to carry on unhindered. To take too much from any one plant or area breaks to rules of aesthetics and nature (one and the same).

Bog Cotton is the common name of Eriophorium vaginatum.

Accidents Don’t Just Happen – Risk Management

Teaching fire making and control

Teaching fire making and control

Accidents don’t just happen – or rarely. Look at the language we use when talking about accidents –

  • not paying attention
  • wasn’t aware
  • being careless

In psychology, paying attention, being aware and caring, or being concerned, are all aspects of consciousness – being alert, or fully present. Accidents usually happen because of what is called “human error”, which is to say not using all of your mental energy for the task in hand. Being distracted, unfocused, absent minded, tired, indifferent.

A big part of risk management and hazard awareness is anticipation, projecting forward to hypotehetical scenarios and taking avoidance action, thus reducing the risk.

Another two aspects of accidents that scupper the best made plans or risk calculations are bad design and material failure. Many situations and equipment are designed without sufficient safety in mind because society is accustomed to and tolerates injuries – acceptable risk. Accidents in the home are a classic example. Equipment failure can be hard for a user to predict hence industry standards to ensure testing and acceptable failure rates. Poor maintenance increases the risk.

Children can be excused blame for a lot of the accidents they get into – it is part of their growing up to be distracted, mentally less focused and unaware of risks – they run and fall, and later drive cars to show off and too often crash.

It has to be part of their education to teach them about hazards, risks and safety – to make them aware, equip them mentally to pay attention and to care about the consequences of their actions. To for worn them of bad design, of the unpredictable and to make their world a safer place!

They must be taught to swim and to use fire safely. The hazards of fire and water cannot be avoided. Life without them would be no life at all.

Fire your imagination

Fire your imagination

Published in The Scotsman, 12 April 2008

There’s a memorable film called If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, which is a hilarious parody of the “ticking the boxes” travel package. Why people would choose to put themselves through such things in the name of relaxation is something tour guide, Malcolm Handoll, finds very hard to comprehend – which is why he set up Five Senses, a tour company with a difference.

Gathering firewood - Rackwick, Hoy

Gathering firewood - Rackwick, Hoy

If you join Handoll on his Orkney-based outings you’re likely to find yourself exploring an ancient burial site by candlelight, visiting a present-day Celtic drum-maker or learning to navigate using a compass.

It’s all part of what he terms “the Five Senses experience”, an off-the-beaten-track adventure that is different, imaginative, and fun.

Handoll grew up in north Wales, between the sea and Snowdonia National Park. “My childhood was one of playing on the hillside, exploring nature and getting lost in my imagination – the timeless meandering of summer,” he says.

Holidays were spent in old cottages “with wood fires, smoky tea, candlelight and rattling windows”.

It all affected him profoundly. So much so that certain sounds and smells take him back in an instant. The experience he says was the foundation for Five Senses.

“My enthusiasm for exploring is matched by my awareness of the environment and my ability to find my way, naturally and simply. Using all five senses opens a whole new world and I get a huge buzz out of helping others to find it too,” he says.

He is aided and abetted in all this by his partner, Rachel DuBois, who was an inveterate globe-trotter until five years ago. Encountering both Orkney and Handoll in one go upset her equilibrium so much that she got engaged and put down roots within weeks.

And for sheer hands-on enthusiasm you can’t beat the pair of them. Their Orkney tours last three days and in that time you’ll try out fire-making with an ancient bow drill (an experience Handoll says is guaranteed to be magical) and learn how to find your way through natural landscapes. You’ll visit artists crafting pots, painting, taking pictures and creating sculptures. You’ll see how bodhrans (Celtic drums) are made and played, and you’ll find yourself testing the extraordinary acoustics of an ancient Neolithic drum – in its original setting. You’ll explore cliffs, beaches, hill and moorland and learn to use your senses to connect with your surroundings.

Rachel DuBois and Malcolm Handoll - Five Senses

Rachel DuBois and Malcolm Handoll - Five Senses

Orkney can test survival skills pretty efficiently. “People can learn not just how to survive, but how to thrive in the outdoors,” says Handoll. To this end, your accommodation is an old stone bothy – mod cons not an option. Party-poopers can upgrade to a B&B by pre-arrangement, but if you’re the type who needs to do that then you’re hardly on the right wavelength when it comes to getting the most out of this kind of experience anyway.

If it smacks of New-Ageness, Handoll certainly doesn’t come across that way. He’s a former instructor at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s national outdoor training centre, and he’s seen first-hand just how beneficial to mind and body these “back to nature” experiences can be. And no, you don’t have to be a fitness freak.

Because the groups are small, the activities are tailored to fit the level of fitness of the people involved. Those with mobility problems are catered for too, and the courses are child and pet friendly to boot.

Unsolicited testimonials on the internet are certainly complimentary. What comes across is the friendliness and enjoyment factor – which is the whole point, says Handoll.

“Our courses aren’t meant to be strenuous – unless you want them to be – they’re meant to teach you the skills you need to go outside and have fun.”

Five Senses tour exploring Dwarfie Stane

Five Senses tour exploring Dwarfie Stane

Variations on this theme include a Rites of Passage weekend to mark life-changing occasions such as birthdays, coming of age or forthcoming marriage. Built around the ancient rite of passage into adulthood that young warriors may have gone through, the course involves novices learning ancient life skills that they in turn can pass on to the next generation.

These skills include fire-making and night walking. It all culminates in “much celebrating around the camp fire” and the passing on of ancient secrets from the “elders” in the group. For those a little wary of what might be involved, Handoll – a qualified mountain leader fully versed in first aid – is in no doubt how much safer it is than the average booze cruise through the pubs that is the norm for most stag and hen nights.

Malcolm making nettle cordage - with tour car behind

Malcolm making nettle cordage - with tour car behind

And the fact that there are no central traffic reservations with lamp-posts to be tied to has to be a bonus.

For more information visit www.allfivesenses.com

By Kath Gourlay

Making Fire by Friction with Bow Drill, Hand Drill, Pump Drill, Plough and any wood-on-wood methods

So you want to make fire, without using matches or magnifying glass or even a flint and steel? Here are a few tips to focus you on the most important aspects … get a drink and settle down to read this blog …

(Also read other posts I have added here already) You will notice a lack of pictures – but you have seen many other sites, so you have any idea (otherwise you’d not be reading this!)

Bow-drill kit for making fire

Ultimately, if you really want it bad enough, you will get it, you will master fire making … but don’t expect anyone else to do it for you … you have got to WANT to LEARN. You can read all the books and watch endless video clips … but in the end it comes down to how badly you want to do it. If you are in a real survival situation, freezing and dieing, it is a bit late to learn!


Think about your fire making to date – be it camp fires, bonfires, a stove, whatever. The basics are the same:

  • Water is a problem. It boils at 100 degrees C, well below the combustion temperature of wood or other fuels. As it evaporates off it takes energy with it (latent heat). Dampness means energy lost through evaporation. Water also can cause the material to rot (break down) and thus become too soft. Water also excludes a vital component of fire … oxygen.
  • Oxygen – in the air, 21%, most air being Nitrogen. The air you breathe out contains approx 16% oxygen, carbon dioxide and water vapour. Your breath is moist (think of cold days) yet still has oxygen in it. Oxygen is essential for burning to occur! Not enough – it chokes, but too much air will remove the second vital component of fire – heat!
  • Heat – or energy – the spark, or the ember, an existing flame or the sun, chemical or electrical. You need this energy and enough of it for combustion. Not enough and you may only warm things, to much and you have either rapid combustion or other materials start to also burn, and you have a big problem – fire out of control. Making fire is about CONTROL.
  • Fuel – the material that is burning, combusting, giving off more heat and to you is the fire. Fuel has a certain amount of energy and you can release that (burn it) slowely or fast, depending whether you want an explosion, a flash in the pan or a smoulder. You control the rate of burn – but how?

The Rate of Burn is controlled by you – regulating the amount of oxygen and the size of the fuel, and how much energy is available – how much is being diverted to evaporate off moisture (say from green logs), or radiating or convecting away before it does any use / work warming fuel. (Don’t waste precious heat with a fast burning flaming fire – it looks good but all that heat is warming the atmosphere – not your next fuel which will be cold and damp. Even ‘dry’ fuel contains water!)

Fire in Orkney

Think of fires you have lit, or controlled. Think of the amount of air you let in, the fuel sizes and how you managed the fire. This is it – this is what you do – except, when making fire by friction you are doing it on a mini scale … with tiny fuel, a tiny amount of heat and some amount of water moisture. There is usually plenty of air about outdoors, maybe too much (wind) – so your job is to control this environment in which your tiny amount of heat and fuel is … look after it like it is a new life … protect it, feed it and help it grow.

OK – if you have got that – you are well on your way to making fire!

Practice safely – have water to hand, maybe an extinguisher and ensure the environment around cannot accidentally become fuel itself!!! Think of the wind direction and strength – think of the consequences and what might happen. Always be in control. Never leave a fire unattended until it is totally safe to do so – and if you don’t know that, do not start a fire!

Assess the risk – have you phone connection with the emergency services? Have you a safe exit? Who and what else is potentially in danger? Get it wrong, just once in your life, and you are an arsonist. Don’t!

Fire kills – never play with fire.

Some useful links:

The best books on the subject from my library:

Mears, RayOutdoor Survival Handbook

Brown, TomTom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival

Kochanski, MorsBush craft: Outdoor Skills and wilderness survival

Gatty, HaroldFinding your way without map or compass

Akkermans, AnthonioBushcraft Skills and how to survive in the wild

Mabey, RichardFood for Free

Wiseman, JohnSAS Survival Handbook

Grylls, BearBorn Survivor – Survival techniques from the most dangerous …

Montgomery, DavidMountainman Crafts and Skills

Wescott, DavidPrimitive Technology: A book of earth skills

That’s more than enough! Good luck – and don’t give up!

OK – a couple of pictures showing good bowing technique:

bowing technique with a guiding hand to keep spindle upright

bowing technique with a guiding hand to keep spindle upright

bowing using the full length of the bow = good

bowing using the full length of the bow = good

Careful transfer of charred dust "ember" into centre of tinder

Careful transfer of charred dust "ember" into centre of tinder

🙂 Write if you need help

Fire Making with a Bow Drill: Quick Reference

Fire Making with a Bow Drill:

Quick Reference

Fire by friction with a bow drill

Fire by friction with a bow drill

Prepare your tinder: Imagine a bird’s nest – smallest and fluffiest to the centre, getting progressively larger outwards with enough bulk to protect your hands from heat. Have plenty of spare tinder to hand!

Preparing yourself

· Prepare all before starting, imagining the whole process

· Compose yourself and visualise fire / pray to the fire god

· Arch of bare foot on fireboard to hold securely

· 1” from spindle to foot, to keep stable and “feel” vibrations

· Front leg shin upright, rear leg knee on ground, comfortable

· Rear foot turned sideways for tripod-like stability

· Body-weight forward, to apply variable pressure

· Bowing hand free to move in long, steady strokes

· Spindle hand locked tight against shin to hold steady

· Eyes watching hearth, notch and spindle and bow cord

· Bow hand tensioning cord, should it start to slip

· Listen intently and feel vibrations

· If cord slips about spindle, stop and tighten

· Don’t rush; it is a process which must be continued to the end.


· Start with smooth, steady strokes, fairly slowly

· Start with light downward pressure on the spindle to dry off moisture

· As hearth dries and warms you can increase pressure until smoke begins

· Increase downward pressure to stop squeaking, or if surfaces become glazed – roughen wood and restart

· Continue bowing steadily at medium speed until smoke is billowing out and then keep going

· Remember to breathe steadily, keep calm and do not rush

· It is essential to keep the spindle upright and steady all the time

· Once you get smoke do not stop!

· Continue bowing until notch is full of black, smoking dust

· Dust should fall through notch onto a suitable leaf, leather, flat bark etc. ready to be transferred to the tinder nest close at hand, instead of letting it fall directly onto the tinder

· Finish bowing by easing downward pressure and bowing faster

· Take care not to move fireboard or disturb the fragile dust pile

· Now you can pause for breath! Steady your nerves and wobbly hands before the delicate stage.

Moving the dust

· The dust must continue to smoke gently, on its own, possibly glowing a little

· Very carefully lift away fireboard to leave dust pile smouldering on its own – but protect from the wind / rain

· You may need to rotate the board away, using a stick to detach dust from the notch whilst lifting fireboard

· Try hard to not disturb dust pile, but gentle breathing on it is good, encouraging it to glow and continue smouldering, to coalesce and form a fragile ember

· No need to hurry at this stage. Regain composure and breath before next stage

· Place this smoking dust ember carefully in the pre-prepared nest of tinder

· Add any remaining loose hot dust

· Hold nest between widespread hands to scoop up the whole bundle, palms inward.

Blowing air into a tinder nest in windy Orkney

Blowing air into a tinder nest in windy Orkney

Coaxing a flame

· Wrap tinder gently around ember to keep warm but do not suffocate – treat this ember like a delicate baby!

· Raise tinder nest to aid airflow and allow rising heat to remain in the nest

· Hold gently and allow air flow but keep contact between ember and tinder – avoid blowing too hard too soon

· Balance the closeness of tinder with the amount of air, enabling the ember to grow and extend to its surrounding downy tinder

· Allow time for ember to extend to the tinder – don’t rush but periodically breathe gently (not too close, to avoid sparks and cold breath)

· Blow gently, coaxing more smoke, keep tinder ball moderately compact but allow air to move through. Add more tinder to outside of ball if hands get hot

· Don’t give up – if it is smoking there is still a chance!

· As heat increases tinder will smoke liberally

· Now you can blow more steadily into the glowing centre, blow upwards and watch what is happening!

· Just prior to ignition the tinder ball will smoke very densely but continue until you actually have free burning flame

· Protect hands throughout and keep face away to avoid sparks!

Fire at last!

Gently place burning tinder within pre-prepared small kindling and nurture this as carefully as the tinder nest before. Enjoy!

Fire made by friction

Fire made by friction

Fire Making with Bow Drill – Fire by friction

Fire Making with Bow Drill

A helping hand - learning to steady the spindle when making fire

The basic idea

By rubbing two pieces of wood together quickly, you create enough heat to burn the wood – not to a flame, but to create a hot, black dust.

A piece of wood (spindle) is rotated rapidly whilst pressing its tip into a second piece of wood (fireboard) at 90 degrees to its grain. Both the tip of the spindle, and the hole worn in the fireboard by friction, will be blackened by the heat. A small notch cut into the hearth will allow the hot black powder to be collected.

The heat will cause the wood to smoulder and smoke. Collecting the black powder into a small pile in the notch keeps it together and hot. This powder, if hot enough, will continue to smoulder and smoke, even after you stop rubbing the wood. This delicate pyramid of black dust (called an ember or coal) is the source of your fire. It should be smoking and may be slightly glowing orange. It must then be carefully placed into the centre of a pre-made “nest” of fine, dry tinder – without breaking it or losing its heat.

For fire you must have:

· fuel (tinder)

· heat (ember)

· oxygen (air and breath)

Despite the exertion of creating friction, it is essential to be calm and not rushed. The nest must gently cocoon the delicate ember so as to keep the heat in (like a baby) but not smother it (you must allow air to reach the ember). As heat rises, make sure you have the tinder above, as well as around, the ember.

By keeping very gentle pressure on the tinder nest, a slight contact can be maintained between the finest tinder that surrounds the ember. This is an ‘extender’, heated by the ember and it too begins to smoulder and grow very hot. The size of the glowing ember is therefore increasing and the heat grows larger and more intense, aided by a little oxygen. Too much air will cool the ember, so it must be treated gently.

As the whole tinder nest becomes hotter it begins to smoke liberally. Now you increase the air by breathing long and steadily onto the glowing orange ember and the now-glowing tinder. If all is done correctly and you have enough tinder to last to this point, it will ignite into flame.

Once a flame is started it will normally continue to burn reliably. This burning tinder is immediately added to a pre-made fire of fine kindling. The fire must still be gently coaxed and adjusted until fully alight by arranging the fuel so it can be heated and still get enough air to burn.

Preparing your materials

The Kit consists of:

Bow: curved, rigid wood with a cord tied to both ends

Spindle: completely straight and no longer than the span of your hand

Fireboard: with a slight depression (hearth) and a narrow v-notch

Hand-block: of wood, stone or shell, to hold top of spindle and protect your hand

Leaf: or leather or suchlike to collect the dust in the notch

Lubricant: to reduce friction in the top end of spindle (green leaf, grease, etc)

Tinder: dry and of various sizes – from very fine to small.

The right combination of woods for spindle and hearth is critical.

A wide variety of woods have been successfully used to make fire in Scotland, as demonstrated by Patrick Cave-Brown in 1986.

In general, medium soft woods work best, such as hazel (spindle) and pine (fireboard hearth). A debate continues to smoulder about using the same wood for both. Current vogue is that wood from the same source, rubbed at 90 degrees is a good combination. Certainly you don’t want a hard spindle and soft hearth or you will too quickly drill a hole.

Use the rule of thumb – a spindle about as thick as your thumb, a fireboard about as deep as your thumb and a depression (hearth) with its centre about your thumb width from the edge (easier for the notch to be cut).

Measure in a thumb width from the edge of the fireboard and make a hole with a sharp knife, bone etc. Carefully widen this hole to the diameter of your spindle and of shallow depth (just enough to seat the spindle).

The end of the spindle that is to create friction is the “working end”. This should be cut in a shallow angle to fit snuggle into the hearth and have its entire surface in contact with the bottom of the hole. It will thus look very blunt and slightly rounded (like the end of a broom handle). Keep this end dry and free of grease!

The opposite end of the spindle wants minimal friction, to rotate freely and not get too hot. In addition to using lubricant, cut its tip to a more pointed shape, resembling a blunt pencil.

By seating the spindle into the small hole in the fireboard and bowing gently, the two woods become worn to a matching shape (married), slightly burnt and ready to be used properly.

Only once the hole (hearth) has been established should you cut the v-notch that is to gather the wood dust. The notch want to only be about 45 degrees (a 1/8th wedge) and only reach to the centre of the hole. Too wide or too deep and insufficient wood is left to get worn by friction. Too narrow or not cut deep enough and it will choke up and not collect the dust. Cut the notch by marking an imagined centre line from the hole’s centre out to the fireboard edge. Take small cuts either side of this imaginary centre line, bit by bit, eating into the wood towards the hole. Once the v-notch is cut, smooth its edges to reduce the chances of the dust sticking to it.

Assembly and posture

Place the fireboard on the ground, notch preferably facing you and with the leaf beneath the notch. The notch and hearth should be to the right of your foot (ie closer to the bow). Wrap the cord once or twice around the spindle so that it is very tight, gripping the spindle. Make sure the spindle is “outside” the line of the cord, so not to be impeded by the bow. Locate the working end of the spindle into the hearth depression and hold in position with the hand-block.

You will now have the bow gripped at one end by your right hand, your left hand holding the hand-block and keeping the spindle located in the hearth, your left foot holding the fireboard.

Your body form when bowing is essential. You must be balanced and comfortable – able to operate the bow continuously for some minutes whilst maintaining a firm downward pressure on the spindle and be able to keep the spindle quite steady. One foot must firmly hold the hearth down on the ground so it cannot move.

If right handed you will best hold the bow in that hand. Thus, place the arch of your left foot firmly onto the hearth about 2 cms from the hearth. Kneel on your right knee so that your upper body weight is over the fireboard and your left shin vertical. Place your right knee inline with your left foot and turn your rear foot (right) to one side, thus making three points of balance for stability. You want to be steady as a rock, yet able to subtly adjust your downward pressure on the spindle and able to make long, flowing bowing, slow at first, faster at the finish.

Brace you hand holding the hand-block against your shin, preferably by wrapping your arm around your leg and resting your wrist beneath your knee. Use the larger muscles in your leg, and your bones to hold the spindle vertical and steady throughout. If it wobbles too much you lose contact between the woods and hence friction. The spindle must be held firmly all the time, and be pressed quite firmly into the hearth.

How to operate the Bow Drill

First, think about your goal – making fire – and visualise it. Make clear your intention to light fire and if you choose, consider the sun god and call down a piece of the sun to make fire.

Ensure all is prepared ready and positioned to hand – the tinder nest, spare tinder and a twig or knife to help move the fragile ember out of the notch, where it tends to stick.

Do not rush – this is not a race. It is about style, form and technique. It is preferable to bow barefoot, not just to look more authentic but to feel the board and any movement. As with the hand holding the spindle, you want to sense any juddering or slipping. A bare foot also grips the wood far better. Use your foot!

Remember – good form and focus can overcome all sorts of difficult conditions. Good materials will not make fire, by themselves. Practice & persevere.

Start with long, smooth strokes of the bow, fairly slowly but still firmly, whilst holding the spindle steady in its hearth. Maintain a steady bowing, ensuring the cord is tight and rotating the spindle well. As your woods become hotter, increase downward pressure to increase friction further. This extra resistance will make it harder to turn the spindle so the cord is more likely to slip. If the cord is slipping you can grip it with your bowing hand to tension but if this does not remedy it you may have to stop and shorten it. As the cord heats up it may stretch – so start with a very tight cord.

If the wood is screeching it is either because the wood is slightly damp or you need more friction by increasing downward pressure. Occasionally the wood surfaces can become polished – this will need roughing up before restarting.

With good form and technique smoke will start to rise from the now hot hearth. Increase downward pressure slightly and continue bowing until smoke is billowing out. You need to build up enough dust to the top of the notch. With smoke billowing from the hearth continue for at least a further 30 strokes, slightly reducing the downward pressure and increase your bowing speed. If you stop too soon you must start again from the beginning!

When you stop you will likely be out of breath. There is no need to hurry but be careful to not disturb the fireboard or knock the fragile pile of dust. The dust should continue to smoke freely. It is worth allowing it time to coagulate or melt into more of a lump because of the heat within it. Take this time to regain you breath and composure – now begins the delicate part!

Use a tiny twig or knife etc to hold the ember to the leaf / leather whilst carefully lifting away the fireboard. This is the most delicate part of the whole fire lighting. Be gentle to avoid disturbing the dust because if it crumbles at this stage you will drastically cool it by exposing it to cold air. Placing the twig into the tip of the notch and rotating the board away seems to work.

You now have a pile of smoking, smouldering dust on a leaf. A gentle moving of air or a very cautious breathing should cause it to glow slightly but this is not necessary.

Having calmed yourself down and caught your breath you can place the ember into its nest of downy tinder. This enforced pause also helps the dust combine and form a more solid lump. Gently place this ember, don’t drop it. Also then add to it any other hot dust from around the hearth. Gently wrap this ‘baby’ in its downy tinder and blow gently to help oxygen reach it. Your breathe will cool it so keep at least 15 cm away and be gentle, watching at all times.

Holding the tinder nest in both hands lift it to head height and surround it with the edges of tinder – try not to let heat out. Raising it like this helps the heat to reach the tinder and heat it, helps air move and protects you face. Again, don’t hurry or blow too hard. Slowly the tinder will get hot and begin to smoke also. Keep a careful eye on the glowing ember and be prepared to close the tinder in on the ember if an air gap forms – you must keep the fine tinder close to the heat but avoid too much space (hence using very fine tinder closest to the ember). Add more tinder if necessary and also take care not to burn your hands or get sparks in your face.

The tinder nest will now resemble a smoking ball between your hands! Keep blowing into its heart and watching both the smoke and the glow. It will become more intense and you can blow more strongly, until it bursts into flame! You may need to give it one or two more puffs before it burns freely. Success!

Now place this flaming tinder into the pre-made kindling and treat as kindly as you did the ember!

More about your materials

Types of Tinder:

Rosebay Willow Herb down

Cotton grass

Poplar down

Thistle down

Clematis down

Cramp ball fungus, Daldinia concentrica

Horse’s hoof fungus, Fomes fomentarius (with saltpetre = amadou)

Wood punk, crumbled

Dry grass leaves

Thin outer bark: birch, clematis, honeysuckle, cedar, willow herb, juniper

Inner bark: cedar bark shavings, lime, oak, chestnut

“thinner than paper” fine like hair

Tinder kept in a tobacco tin / shoe polish etc

Fluff or down

Cat tail

Old man’s beard


Dried Bracken

Birch, Cedar, Spruce Bark – Hair or powder

Dried lichen, moss and grasses – Buffed and thin

Charred cloth (cotton or silk)

Bird down (from inside nest)

Dried Evergreen Pine Needles

Fine Wood Shavings

Pulverised Fir Cones


Squeaking – You need to apply more downward pressure, increasing friction. Wood may be too damp, needing gentle bowing to gradually heat and drive off moisture before increasing friction to create dust. There is no point drilling a hole and not creating the dust!

Glazing – This causes insufficient friction as the surfaces have become polished. Scrape off glaze or roughen to make a more abrasive wood surface of both tip and hearth.

Common problems include wet tinder and kindling, not enough air for burning, too much air space allowing cooling of the fuel, too large a fuel size, insufficient fuel readily to hand, and giving up too soon.

Moisture (water) will help transmit heat away from the fuel thus drastically reducing the chances of success. The fuel must be very dry.

Too large a fuel size will likewise take far too much heat to reach combustion and will not allow air to the fuel. The surface area of the fuel must therefore be great by being as fine as possible, getting progressively thicker as the air is pre-heated by the fuel. It is for this reason that as the fire becomes more established (hotter) with a good base of wood embers, the size of fuel burnt can increase considerably, and even wet wood can be burnt (there being sufficient additional heat to compensate for heat lost through evaporation (steam).

Other tips

Keep friction minimal at top (non-working end) of spindle with hand block. Use a lubricant and keep the tip more pointed to reduce contact surface area. Pay attention if this is the cause of squeaking – not the working end.

Keep lubricant away from the working end of spindle and hearth at all costs!

Take care to avoid injury from the spindle slipping out of hearth or hand block. Good posture is essential, and don’t rush.

For more advice and courses visit the Five Senses website or buy a fire kit and start playing.