"Primitive" Fire starting

Recently I got into a discussion of bow/drill fire starting with someone.  Not so much the “how”, but the “what”.

I decided it might be a good topic to add here, to supplement my BrainTan Buckskin post.
In Colorado, I lived right on the river and had a nice stand of willows, some western birch, and narrow leaf cottonwood in my yard. 
The cord on my bow (a curved piece of… willow?) is braintan buckskin. It lasts pretty well unless I try to teach someone else firestarting. (I have been known to make a “practice bow” for them.) I have used elk rawhide for my cord, and if you flex it a LOT as it dries it will be flexible enough to work, and it lasts a good long time. I had one last for years, through making a fire just about every day. Probably well over a thousand fires from that one cord. Maybe close to two thousand.

One thing I found is that, for me, it helps if the bow is NOT flexible. I actually used a cow rib bone once when I didn’t have my kit with me, and it worked pretty well.

I used old, dead standing, willow or similar thumb-thick (or slightly thicker) birch for the spindle. (The spindle pictured is 10.25″)  I use a good spindle until it is too short to be comfortable anymore.
The fire-boards I used in Colorado were usually birch. The larger dead branches would often naturally split making it really easy to get a good fire-board just by breaking it off the shrub. If it still wasn’t completely split, a whack or two on a big rock would usually finish the job. I still prefer wood that is similar in its qualities.  Just don’t try to use evergreen wood (the resin in the wood lubricates, and you want friction, not lubrication, to make heat).
The inner bark of the cottonwood made good tinder, not resinous like juniper, but still easy to light. Big dead branches (or half-trees) were always falling off, and the bark would come off, exposing the fibrous inner bark. I’d collect handfuls of it and fluff it up.  The wad of tinder in the picture seems to be a combination of cottonwood, juniper, and various unidentified fibers. I have a habit of just picking up promising looking tinder as I walk, often not even thinking about it. 
The small bundle below the mass of tinder is a little buckskin bag full of charcoal from previous fires. I sometimes add a bit to my tinder nest if I sense the coal might need a little help. Once that charcoal starts to glow, which it does quickly, you almost can’t lose your coal.

For the bearing block, I found a nice river rock that fit my hand, and I chipped and ground out a socket and lubed it with elk tallow.  The most annoying thing to improvise is a good bearing block (this is what you place on top to apply the downward pressure on the spindle and keep it all from wobbling around). 

I also use a square of elk rawhide to catch the coal.

I have improvised EVERYTHING in the above list at one time or another. Normally you can just tell when the wood will work.

The bag under it all is what I carry it in. It is (poorly) braintanned elk. Not shown are 6 extra spindles (one is yucca), a spare fireboard (2/3 the length of the old one), and a piece of birchbark. Sometimes I also keep an extra bow cord in there. I also have a yucca spindle in there with buckskin thumb-loops for more hand drill attempts (“making blisters”).

Then you put it all together and do this:

Keep your hair tied back; bandanas and stampede strings out of the way, and keep your body over the spindle, with your shoulder directly above the bearing block and your wrist locked against your shin bone for stability.

Good luck … or better yet: practice.

Since we are on the subject of fire, here are some easier methods.  If you have access to the right materials (a steel striker, flint or chert, and some char), you can make a flint and steel fire.  “Thank you” to one of my regular readers who sent me this good-sparking steel!

What if you have nothing but a magnifying glass (or far-sighted glasses)?

And, you can make it even easier by having some “char” to focus your lens on.  Funny thing is, the glowing part of the char is hard to see in the bright sun.  It catches almost instantly and might catch you off-guard.  Watch me burn my fingers and be amused.

Now, if you want a fire really easy, and I mean “matches and gasoline” easy, try a firesteel (from firesteel.com) and some dryer lint.  It just doesn’t get easier than that.  My 5 year-old daughter can make fire in seconds this way (see video at the very bottom)- and has more than once.

There is really no excuse to be without a fire in a survival situation.  Even in wet conditions you can find some dry tinder somewhere, and you should be able to find some method to light it.  Just learn and practice.

There are more primitive, much more difficult (for me) methods, such as the hand drill and “fire plow” (really “rubbing 2 sticks together”).  If I ever manage to succeed with either of those methods, I’ll post the video.  If anyone wants to come here and teach me those methods, I’m up for it.

Bonus video:

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3 Responses to “"Primitive" Fire starting”

  1. D. M. Mitchell Says:

    That was great, Kent. Thanks.

  2. undergroundcarpenter Says:

    Hi Kent,

    I'm a city boy. Until now, I've never seen anyone start a fire without a zippo. You make it look easy. Thanks for posting those vids.

    Dave

  3. Kent McManigal Says:

    It is easy. Easier to do than to explain.

    Someone commented on Facebook that he wished I would “show [a] fire that STAYS LIT”. Well, I am in town, under a “fire ban” due to the drought, and I don't think the local cop particularly likes me. I was already breaking the “law” by making the small fires you see, and I did let my daughter put kindling on hers to make a “real fire”. I'm not sure I'm willing to face arrest just to make a video under current circumstances. It's a matter of picking my battles.

    Truthfully, if you can't build a sustained fire with the flames you see me make in these videos, you probably need to work on that skill first.

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