Friction Fire

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Friction fire is the most common primitive method for getting fire. In its simplest meaning is to rub two sticks together, however, there is a whole range of skills and knowledge that will need to be developed to have any success in making a friction fire. Mastering the simple movements, materials selection for which specific method, and the physical mechanics needed to enjoy any success, make this an enduring and extremely rewarding skill to learn.

Contents

Principles of Friction Fire

Contrary to populare belief it is not very easy to rub two sticks together and get a fire. Do not be fooled into thinking this is impossible to perform. It is very real and when a few conditions are met and a sound technique is applied it can be relatively easy to get a fire. Actually friction will not produce a fire by itself. You can rub sticks together all day long and you will probably never see sparks flying and igniting your kindling. This is the presumption most folks new to this concept oftem make. In reality friction fire will be successful if it can provide you an ember. An ember is a tiny pile of dust that glows faintly, and can then be transferred to a tinder bundle and blown into fire. Therefore those old movies depicting a someone rubbing two sticks and getting an instant flame is a bit of a misnomer.

When employing a friction fire method, it is important to select the proper wood species for your spindle and hearth. Each of these methods will require different types of wood based on low level friction versus a high level of friction. If you have success with a specific type of wood for a bow drill method it is probably not going to be very successful for the hand drill method. This is because these methods employ a high level of force like the bow drill and a low level of force for the hand drill. It is not necessary to always use the same wood for the hearth and spindle, though you might find more success with these using a high level of force method. Additionally you might discover that a good hearth for a hand drill also serves to be an excellent hearth for a bow drill. The fire plough and fire saw methods usually enjoy more success with the same types of wood for both the hearth and plough or saw. It is the authors experience that the fire plough and the fire saw have the most success when used with bamboo for both, which makes sense that the cultures that continue to use these methods today have an abundance of bamboo.

To define a high level of force method over a low level of force method we have to examine the technique being used. If a bearing block is being used then the method is considered to be a high level of force method, where the hand drill is a low level of force method because we do not apply a definite direct downward force to the spindle. Typically, in a low level of force method you want to use a wood with a soft pith center and a hearthboard that is thinner so as to reduce the area that heat is trapped. Using a low level of force method will not generate as much dust and will not be able to fill up a large notch used in the bow drill method.

The last principle to mention involves the ember. To understand and employ friction fire we have to pay attention to wood selection for both the hearth and spindle, we have to understand high level of force and low level of force, and finally we need to understand what is happening in the notch of the hearth. The methods below that describe using a hearth will need to be prepared using a burn-in technique and then creating a notch to catch the dust that will be generated during the process. The size and height of the notch can be critical in trapping the dust that will be created from the friction and to accumulate enough heat that will produce an ember. If the notch is too small the dust will spill out and there won't be enough area to trap the heat and create an ember. If the notch is too large it will take longer to fill with the dust and the heat will be lost, so it is critical to understand the proper size and depth of the notch in the hearth. A correctly size notch will allow enough dust to accumulate and the dust will absorb the heat and the heat will produce an ember.

In friction fire smoke does not always mean fire. You will often see lots of smoke rise from the hearth, and when removing the spindle, you will only see dust in the notch. To affect an ember you will need to understand that smoke is only part of the building phase and not the completion. Most of the time the smoke is the surface dust that is in direct contact with the hearth and the spindle is burning. This is typically a good thing and lets you know that you are generating heat, so keep the process going. Some material you may try will only generate smoke, and no matter how much downward pressure or speed of the spindle you will not get an ember. Mother Nature has a hand in this, so don't get discouraged, check your process, technique, and materials and make any adjustments and try again. Some wood will simply not produce an ember no matter how much smoke is produced. Only those species of wood that have been deemed with the highest honors get to produce an ember.

The interesting thing about friction fire is that it is not an exact science. There are several variables that can be adjusted to put you in favor of attaining a fire, but if your technique is lacking you may have difficulty with the best of materials. If your technique is solid, and you have poor or moisture in the wood, you may still not be able to attain fire. Lastly, there are times when your technique is solid, and the material is proven, and you still are not able to affect fire. This is the way of Mother Nature, and there are stories and examples of even the most talented folks at friction fire still fail to attain fire. We need to be attentive and examine our surroundings and environment as well as our method, our technique, and material selection, to improve our chances at success.

Friction Fire Methods

  • Bow drill - This method consists of a bow, bowstring, spindle, hearth, and bearing block.
  • Hand drill - This method is the easiest to construct as it simply uses a spindle and hearth.
  • Pump drill - One of the most complicated to construct but once built requires the least amount of energy to use. This method uses the spindle with counter weight, string to support weight, pump handle, and hearth.
  • Fire plough - Often constructed from bamboo consists of a plough similar to spindle and hearth.
  • Fire saw - Similar to the plough but instead of the plough has a plank that acts as a saw, and is typically constructed from bamboo.

Bow Drill

The bow drill is one of the oldest techniques on record for fire making. It consists of several items and can be a bit strenous to affect fire. The bow drill focuses a spindle with downward pressure applied with the bearing block onto the hearth while manuevering a bow forward and back whose string is wound around the spindle which causes it to twist, and build friction and heat in the hearth. When performing this technique you will begin to accumulate a fine dust in the notch of the hearth, which will then retain the heat and then give birth to an ember. The ember will be very fragile and will strengthen with time. The key to this technique is to not get in a hurry and maintain good form throughout the "drilling" process.

Materials

  • Bow and String - made from slightly bendable material, usually wood. The string can be made from 2-ply cordage or similar.
  • Bearing block - a rock, shell, hard wood, or synthetic material to serve downward pressure to the spindle
  • Spindle - made from specific wood that will work in conjunction with the hearthboard to produce a fine dust and smoke.
  • Hearth or Hearthboard - also made from a specific wood that will compliment the spindle to produce a fine dust and smoke.

Preparing Materials

Bow and String - This is the most critical item needed in this techique. You will need to find a length of wood, branch, limb or other material the size of your arm that has a slight bend and is moderately flexible to serve as a bow. The string can be the most difficult if you have to rely on 2-ply natural cordage. Often a piece of synthetic string like paracord can be used. The string is attached at both ends of the bow and is left with a little slack to accomodate the spindle.

Bearing Block - This is the easiest item to aquire or make as almost anything can be used as a bearing block. The one requirement is that it needs to fit in your hand and have a place on the opposite side to retain the spindle. The concept of a good bearing block is to provide the least amount of friction to the spindle while bearing down. A smooth hard surface or divot is recommended to retain the spindle.

Spindle - This needs to be a stick or length of wood approximately 6"-8" in length and is rough carved to allow the string to grip the spindle. The spindle then needs to be rounded on the side for the bearing block and pointed on the side that goes into the hearth.

Hearth - The hearth is the most important item and will need to be split to about 1/2" thick, approximately. Then you will need to carve a divot into the hearth about 1/2 the width of your spindle from the edge. The overall length of the hearth needs to be long enough to secure under your foot which should be at least 8". The width should be at least 2", and this will give you the ability to drill down both sides.

Preparing the Hearth

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How to use

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Hand Drill

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Materials

  • Spindle - typically made from a dried plant that has a soft pith.
  • Hearth or Hearthboard - made of dry soft wood to compliment the spindle

Preparing the Hearth

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How to use

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Pump Drill

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Materials

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Preparing the Hearth

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How to use

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Fire Plough

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Materials

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Preparing the Hearth

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How to use

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Fire Saw

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Materials

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Preparing the Hearth

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How to use

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Material Selection Success Chart

This chart shows the rating on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being the most easy to attain an ember from the two selected types of material.

INSERT CHART HERE - pending approval. Link to come if not approved.

This chart was compiled by Storm, a wilderness expert that devoted a lot of time and effort to the research in the field of friction fire, to provide such a chart.


Troubleshooting

When attempting a friction fire using one of these methods, there are several things that can go wrong.

See Also

References

External Links

--Travisty (talk) 14:24, 17 January 2014 (CST)

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