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
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:

3 comments:

Le Loup said...

The way I define tinder is that tinder will catch a spark from the old style flint & steel (not the ferral rod!). This being the case then kindling will include anything that will take fire from tinder, such as dried grass, coconut fibres, frayed rope etc and of course twigs, leaves and small kindling sticks. These are what "kindle" a fire.
You will not find dried grass in a tinderbox unless there is the room, and it is not there to catch a spark.
The reason I stress the difference is because anyone trying to learn the proper method of tinderbox/flint & steel fire lighting will get very confused unless there is a clear description of both tinder and kindling and the two are not confused with one another.
With respect & regards, Le loup.

Norseman said...

Le Loup,
I being an 18th Century re-enactor fully understand where you are coming from. That being said I am gearing this series of articles towards novices to the outdoors that attend my classes and I like to show them the ferro rod because of it's utility, simplicity, and reliability. I do appreciate you calling me out on this and I plan on adding a couple of paragraphs on flint & steel. This is why I posted this series here, to be called to task for my slip-ups! Thanks for the constructive critisism and keep it coming!!!

Perkunas said...

Due to stuf flike that you keep on making,you have one more reader,man:)