Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Rope Candle and Bushcraft Manifesto update

This past weekend I was out stargazing and owl calling with my two year old, Monkey, while visiting my mother-in-law in extreme northeast Iowa. While we were out Monkey asked "Daddy can we walk in the woods and look for creatures?". How could I say no? I didn't have a flashlight to help us to spot the tripping hazards but luckily I had a small candle in my pocket. I lit the candle with a cotton ball and my ferro rod and off we went. The candle wasn't giving off much light, and I was having trouble keeping it lit when I remembered a short hank of rope that was in my coat pocket. I pulled it out, poured some melted wax on it and lit it with the candle. Presto! A mini torch! It put out a surprising amount of light and stayed lit easily. When I got back home I twisted up a hank of jute cordage into a 6" section of 6 ply rope and coated it with wax. I carry it in a tin with some char cloth that I use to light it. Not gonna leave home with out now. After all you never know when your little one will want to hunt for creatures in the dark...

Also as a side note I finished my Bushcraft Manifesto (or at least an early draft) and I have it available as a pdf if anyone is interested. Just shoot me an e-mail at norseman55731 @ and I'll send you a copy to peruse and critique. I have added some sketches to the Bindcraft section that a gentleman sent me after attending a program I did where I taught my style of cordage making. I think he did great job and it make the text easier to understand.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bushcraft Manifesto-Firecraft

Almost done! One more section and the rough draft will be complete, which is good because I'm presenting it tomorrow on Thursday.

The Knowledge: Firecraft
Fire has a countless uses. Some are obvious; heating, cooking, signaling. There are also some not so obvious uses. Some of the less obvious are water purification, utensil and container making, tree cutting, insect repellent, scent cover-up, habitat improvement and the list goes on. The ability to light a fire in any kind of weather is absolutely invaluable for prevention of hypothermia and fire making is one of the first skills one should perfect. Start out with simple, sure fire methods (i.e.; ferro rod and petroleum jelly soaked cotton ball) and then move on to more advanced methods (i.e.; fire-by-friction). It is also a good idea to practice lighting a fire with one match (and only one). It is very easily done, it just takes time and preparation to get it done. To get a fire started you will need:

  • Tinder: Very dry, lightweight materials that are flammable such as dried grasses, dried inner tree bark (cordage materials often make good tinder), wood shavings/sawdust, birch bark, jute twine, cotton balls, bull-thistle down, etc...)
  • Kindling: Very dry thin wood either split from larger pieces or broken down limbs. The smallest kindling should be about pencil thick and graduated up to thumb thickness.
  • Feather sticks: Very dry thumb to wrist thick wood that has been shaved to create thin ribbons of wood that remain attached to the main body of wood.
  • Small wood: Dry wood up to wrist thickness. As a general rule the small wood for you fire shouldn't be bigger in diameter than you can break without using a saw or an axe.
  • Large wood: Dry wood forearm thickness and up. Large wood is used to sustain a fire for longer periods of time, and to build up a good bed of coals for roasting or baking.

As was stated above when getting a fire going use dry wood. Dry wood burns faster, hotter and smokes less then damp wood. That being said there are times when throwing damp wood on the fire isn't a bad idea. If your camp is particularly buggy damp wood can create smoke and repel insects. Damp wood is also useful to keep a fire going through the night. Once you have established a good be of coal a couple of damp (not wet mind you) logs can be laid on the fire to burn very slowly through the night. With luck you all you will have to do to start a fire in the morning is rake up the coals and throw on some dry wood.

The Fire Trinity
Before we get into the discussion of fire lighting methods it is important to understand that a fire is almost a living thing in a figurative sense, not spiritual (for me anyhow). Fire, like other living things, needs food and air. If you don't feed a fire enough it starves, deny it oxygen, it suffocates. On the other hand if a fire is fed too much it grows out of control; likewise too much oxygen causes a fire to over exert itself and it will burn brightly, but quickly vanish.

The three things a fire needs are fuel, oxygen, and heat. Limit one of the three and a fire will suffer.

Ferro rod, Cotton and Petroleum Jelly
I half jokingly tell people "If you can't light a fire in the woods with this method under any conditions you probably shouldn't be in the woods". But seriously, if you can't light a fire in the woods with this method under any conditions you probably shouldn't be in the woods... seriously. A ferro rod (ferro is short for ferrocerium) is a man made "flint" made of various metals (iron,cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, praseodymium, magnesium) and when struck with a piece of high carbon steel it sends a shower of hot sparks. Small ferro rods are found in cigarette lighters but you can purchase larger ones fairly inexpensively that are good for hundreds of strikes.

Some ferro rods come attached to a block of magnesium that can be scraped into your tinder to aid in fire lighting, others are simply a 3" rod roughly the diameter of a pencil often referred to as a "scout" or "army" model. I personally prefer the scout/army model mainly because the rod is thicker and less prone to breakage and because in my experience the magnesium is overkill. That being said I own both styles. I carry the scout/army with me on a daily basis, and the magnesium block stays in my billy can kit for day hikes and camping trips. When it comes to knives and fire lighting equipment always error on the side of redundancy.

A ferro rod can light an amazing variety of natural tinders with a little bit for prep time, but for emergencies I always carry a small tin of cotton balls coated with petroleum jelly. To light a fire simply fluff up a cotton ball to expose the dry center and then strike the ferro rod to it. They usually light with the first strike, if not make sure you have enough dry cotton exposed and hit it again. Once the cotton starts to burn the petroleum jelly will keep the flame going (even in a strong wind) for several minutes. That being said you should be sure to have ALL your fire building materials together before you try to start your fire.

One Match Fire
The trick to a one match fire is very dry wood(notice a trend here?) and feather sticks. They way you lay your fire before you you light it is crucial in a one match fire. I prefer to start out by laying my tinder bundle down and building a open faced "tee-pee" of thin kindling around it. I will also lay aside my feather sticks and small wood before I try lighting my fire. Once I have everything set up I light my match and touch it to the tinder bundle. As the tinder bundle starts to light the kindling tee-pee I slowly add more pieces of kindling and my feather sticks, but not too much, remember to let the air flow. Once I feel that your kindling tee-pee is burning strong I beging to build a small wood "cabin" around my tee-pee. I start by laying for pieces of wood in a square around the base of my tee-pee and then four more pieces on top of that following the contours of the tee-pee; in the end your cabin should sort of like a pyramid with a flat top. I build the cabin around the tee-pee until the cabin is slightly taller than the tee-pee. I have found that this laying a fire in this manor gives you a really goo bed of coals and creates it's own airflow. By stacking the wood up and following the contours of the tee-pee you create a chimney that draws air and heat upwards so all I have to worry about is adding fuel.

Fire by friction may not be easy, but it is NOT impossible. One of the greatest feeling I've had since becoming an outdoor educator is seeing the face of someone that has lit there first successful fire using a bow-drill with materials that they collected themselves. The trick to successfully lighting a friction fire is practice, practice, practice. You need to practice in order to get get your form just right. Proper form is almost more important that proper material. If you have the marginal form and excellent materials you won't get a fire going, however if you have excellent form and marginal materials you will.

Bow-drill parts:
  • Bearing block-The bearing block is what you hold in your hand to apply downward pressure on the spindle to increase friction. The bearing block can be made of the same wood as the rest of your set or a harder wood. Hard woods tend to polish up more and generate less friction which is a good quality in a bearing block.
  • Spindle- The spindle of your set should be made of a soft wood that is very dry. Slightly damp wood can work, but you'll work a lot harder. It is a good idea to square off your spindle instead of having a round spindle. A square spindle will rotate better than a round one because your cordage is more likely to slip on a round spindle instead of turning it. The top of your spindle should be more pointed than the the bottom to further reduce the friction between your spindle and your bearing block.
  • Hearth board- The hearth board, like the spindle, needs to be made of dry wood. To test if a the wood you have selected for your bow-drill set is suitable give it the thumbnail test. Press you thumbnail into the wood and if you easily leave a dent you have the right materials.
  • Bow- I prefer to use a bow that isn't bow shaped. I like to use a straight bow because I have less trouble loading the spindle into the bearing block and hearth board. When I've use springy curved bows I've spent a lot of time launching the spindle off into the woods. For my bow string I like to use a long synthetic boot lace. Natural materials work but they are prone to fraying and breaking.
  • Ember board- The ember board is simply a thin piece of wood (a dry leaf will work fine) that catches the dust from your spindle and hearth board that will be heated until it becomes a coal in your hearth boards notch.

If you keep the arm holding your bearing block locked in tight to the leg thats steadying your hearth board and you apply the right amount of pressure while keeping the spindle vertical you should get a fire.

Once you have selected and prepped your materials for your bow-drill set using the thumb nail test take your hearth board and make a small indentation about 1/2 a spindle in from the edge of your hearth board using your knife point or a piece of flint, etc. Repeat the process by putting an indentation in the very center of your bearing block.

Now load your spindle into your bow and place the appropriate ends of your spindle into the notches of your bearing block (more pointed) and hearth board (less pointed). Place leg on your hearth board close to the indetation you've made. Now apply downward pressure while locking your bearing block arm into your leg. Begin to move your bow back and forth slowly while applying downward pressure. To much pressure will keep your spindle from spinning, not enough and you won't generate enough friction.

An important note: pay attention to your shoe laces and pant leg on your hearth board leg so that they don't get wrapped in your bow string.

Once you have successfully bored out the indentation you put into your hearth board so that your spindle locks into its (1/4" or so) set your bearing block, bow, and spindle aside and pick up your hearth board. Using your knife, or flint cut a v shaped notch into your hearth board so that the narrow end of the "V" is about 1/3 of the way into your bored indentation. The "V" is where your powdered wood will gather and be heated by friction until it forms an ember.

Now repeat the whole process of loading your bow drill and getting your form right and start to slowly work your bow back an forth. As you progress you will add speed an pressure until you start to see smoke rise up from your notch. it is important NOT to stop drilling the moment you see smoke. Keep going for a while after you see smoke in order to be sure you have a good strong ember developed. When you feel confident of your ember slowly and carefully extract the spindle from your hearth board. If the smoke continues to rise up from your notch CONGRATULATIONS! If not, get back to it. If you do have a strong ember take a small stick and gently place the tip of it over your amber and roll your hearth board away from the ember. Now grab your tinder bundle and gently place your ember into the center of it an then gently begin to blow in the ember.

Most people force too much air onto the ember too quickly and either blow it out or burn it up before they can catch the tinder on fire. As you tinder begins to smoke you can blow a little harder, and the more smoke you get the harder you can blow. When the tinder bundle finally does burst into flames lay it down and begin to add your dry kindling to it. It's as simple as that, heck even a cave man could do it...

For more information on fire-by-friction visit these sites:

Friday, November 13, 2009

Bushcraft Manifesto: Bindcraft

This i think has to be the hardest section the my mini-manual to write. Trying to describe in words the process of making cordage is frustratingly difficult. I had a friend that I recently taught how make cordage proof read it and he said it seemed fairly clear. I hope to get some good photos of the process and add them soon. Any advice or clarification that you think might help would be greatly appreciated.

The Knowledge: Bindcraft

Arguably the most important skill to have in the wild is the ability to improvise cordage or rope.
Cordage can be used to:
  1. Make fire with a bow drill.
  2. Lash a more sturdy shelter together.
  3. Weave a mat, or thatching to make a better insulated shelter or sleeping pad.
  4. Make a fishing line or snare to procure food (a.k.a. protein & fat).
  5. Improvising equipment (i.e.; pack frames, bucksaws, baskets)

As a rule of thumb the easier a material is to collect for cordage the weaker, or more brittle it is.

The skills required to make strong, serviceable in and of them selves are simple until you try to convey them to someone else. All the people I have taught to make cordage seem to have what I call an "ah-ha!" moment after struggling to understand the hand movements. The technique I prefer to use reqires the use of both hands and generates strong cordage relatively quickly.

You start by taking the cordage material and folding it into a "J" shape and holding the curve (bottom) of the "J" in your weak hand. You should have two (2) tag ends, one (1) long and one (1) short. I like to start with the short tag end away from me, and the long tag end close to me. Take the the tag end that is away from you and take it between the index finger and thumb of your strong hand. Your palm should be facing the ground. Take your thumb and roll the cordage material up your index finger then rotate your strong hand so that your palm is now facing upwards. As you rotate your palm upward use the middle finger and index finger of your strong hand to grab the tag end that is closest to you. Now rotate your strong hand back to it's original position (palm down). This action crosses the two (2) tag ends. Now while holding the cordage in your strong hand slide your weak hand down the cordage just far enough to grip the place where the two (2) tag ends cross. Now repeat the whole process.

The reason that you have one tag end shorter than the other is splicing. When collecting cordage materials you usually end up with short sections that need to be spliced together in order to end up with usable lengths of cordage. Splicing as very simple; when you get about 1.5"-2" from the end of a tag is lay a new piece of material along side of it and continue twisting. It is important to have some distance between your splices away from each other because they are weak spots. Holding the cordage in the "J" shape automatically leaves on tag shorter than the other eliminating weak splices being too close together.

Cordage Materials List:
  • Basswood (Tilia americana)-The inner bark Collection/Processing: moderate Strength: moderate
  • Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)- The inner bark and rootlets. Collection/Processing: moderate Strenght: moderate
  • Ironwood/Eastern hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana)- The inner bark Collection/Processing: difficult Strength: strong
  • Wild grape (Vitis riparia)- Pencil sized vines with shaggy bark Collection/Processing: easy Strength: weak
  • Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica)- The thin skin on the outside of the stalk Collection/Processing: moderate Strength: very strong
  • Willow (Salix spp.)- Sapplings and thin branches can be used as wythes. The inner bark. Collection/Processing: easy Strength: relatively strong

This is by no means an exhaustive list of plant for cordage materials. I chose these 5 plants because of their abundance and resilience to harvesting. Basswood trees are very popular among whitetail bucks for rubing there antlers on during the fall rut. This action strips of the bark and exposes the inner barks, and usually shreds it into manageable pieces for you. Eastern red cedar is considered an invasive by land managers that are trying to restore prairies and are often looking for people to help clear them out. Ironwoods are often looked upon as less desirable in mature timber stands of oak and managers again are usually open to the idea of someone helping them to thin them. Wild grape grow abundantly in fence rows, along forest edges, in uplands, on floodplains, just about everywhere. It is pretty easy to find a downed tree top with grapevine growing in it that you can collect with out worrying about destroying the plant. Besides make decent cordage grapevine can be woven into serviceable baskets without a lot of trouble. Finally willows are extremly useful for cordage due to the suppleness of their small limbs which allows you to use them for tying an lashing. Also the inner bark make good cordage either prepared as described above, or simply by stripping the bark and using it as is.

For more information on cordage materials as well as different styles of making cordage visit these sites:

For a good source on knots and other related topics visit: