Fire making is perhaps one of the most important skills to be first learnt, as it is a source of heat, a means of purifying water and cooking food. I was once told you should always have three means of making fire on you, preferably two physical means i.e. matches, flint and steel, etc. and the knowledge to make others i.e. bow drill, hand drill, etc. The theory of fire making is relatively simple, but, in practice it can be very frustrating, especially in wet or windy conditions. The key to success is preparation, practice and a bit of luck in finding the right materials for the job i.e. dry wood and good tinder. However, at the end of the day sometimes you just have to make do with what’s available, don’t give up and except its going to take some time to start a fire.Back to Index
Figure 1.4.0 : Egyptian bow drill
1. Left frame : http://www.dkimages.com/discover/DKIMAGES/Discover/Home/History/Africa/Ancient-Egypt/Artefacts/General/General-03.html
2. Right frame : http://www.geocities.com/gpkillen/materials.htm
The use of the bow drill in Egypt for drilling holes, especially in the production of stone beads is well known, as shown in figure 1.4.0. Reading around the web I also found a couple of webpages on how this technique was also used to produce fire. I managed to find a few very brief descriptions in a couple of papers on how Egyptians of this period started fires, however, I couldn’t find a good reference to backup these webpages. The key difference between the Egyptian bow drill and the more traditional bow drill techniques discussed in section 2 is the increased downwards pressure applied to the drill when bowing. This force is significant, therefore, to prevent the cord slipping on the drill multiple turns of cord are wrapped around it, as shown in figure 1.4.1. The number of turns required is dependent on the thickness of the drill and the cordage used. Experimenting with the example shown in figure 1.4.1 i.e. securing one end of the cord to a fixed point, wrapping it around the drill with the free end left loose and then trying to pull the drill down the cord to test if it would unwind, I found that three additional turns were required to prevent slippage. The bow used is also subtlety different with a distinct curved handle, being used more like a modern saw i.e. the elbow is no longer locked in one position as in more traditional bowing techniques, but is allowing to bend as you would if you were using a saw. Note, the bows used in the webpage articles vary quite a lot, the example given here is based on examples similar to those in figure 1.4.0. The bow is also shorter (cord length) than a traditional bow, in this example 12" long (total bow length 20") compared to 25" – 30" for a traditional bow. Note, to prevent flexing due to the increased force applied the bow needs to be quite strong. The example in figure 1.4.1 is a little bit on the thin side resulting in some bending when applying maximum force. This is not a significant problem as the multiple turns of cord around the drill prevent slippage due to this lose of tension, however, its still best avoided by increasing the bows thickness. Tip, as the bow length is reduced a smaller diameter drill should be used to increase the number of rotations per stroke. I found something around 1cm – 2cm diameter worked best, moving to a larger diameter didn’t work for me i.e. couldn’t bow fast enough to get the required drill speed. Perhaps due to this reduced drill speed I found it difficult to "burn in" the drill, having to cut out a larger initial recess in the hearth to stop the drill jumping out. When using an Egyptian bow drill set the most points to remember is to wind the cord on from the bottom up the drill and that when bowing the bow tip is angled / pointed downwards. This ensures that the turns of cord around the drill don’t get jammed i.e. start overlapping each other, as if this does occur bowing becomes increasingly difficult. This is one of the main reasons for having a shorter bow, otherwise the hearth would have to be raised off the ground to allow the bow to be held at the correct angle i.e. to prevent the tip of the bow hitting the ground.
Figure 1.4.1 : Egyptian bow drill
1. Bow, direct line tip to tip length 50cm, string length 30cm.
The Egyptian bow drill set shown in figure 1.4.1 was made from a piece of Pine with a natural bend, forming the required handle. The cord is attached to the bow through two holes drilled top and bottom. The top cord end is secured with a standard figure of eight stop knot, whilst the bottom end is wrapped around an adjustable wooden stop, as shown in the middle frame of figure 1.4.1. The stop has a figure of ‘8’ shape providing enough grip to prevent the cord from being pulled through the hole when bowing. The advantage of this method of securing the bow cord is that it allows the cord to be easily and quickly adjusted / tightened without having to untie / tie any knots. This particularly useful for the Egyptian bow drill as you can wrap the multiple turns of cord around the drill when the cord is loose and then tension the cord at the end. Tip, position the drill towards the top of the bow and ensure that the turns are tight in order to achieve a good tension. Note, the stop needs to be carved out of hardwood to prevent splitting. Reading articles on the Egyptian bow drill a commonly stated advantage is that the multiple turns around the drill helps prevent cord wear i.e. prevents slippage. This definitely true, however, this does not imply that you can use a weaker cordage, in fact you need a strong cord due to the increased forces applied when bowing. Another common suggestion is to tie the middle of the cord to the drill using a clove hitch, then wrap the cord around the drill above and below the knot. This does help prevent the cord travelling up or down the drill when bowing, but I found that the knots width and the additional number of turn required to ensure the drill travels the full length of the bow resulted in an impractical bowing angle i.e. significantly increases the width of the cord on the drill. From my experiences of using the Egyptian bow drill the embers produced are a lot smaller than those produced by the more traditional technique, being comparable in size to those produced by a hand drill. Below are some useful documents on the Egyptian bow drill ive found on the web (due to possible copyright conflicts these are only accessible from the local machine) :
Figure 1.4.2 : Fire plough
The fire plough is the classic example of rubbing two sticks together to produce a fire. Its advantage is that you don’t need spend a lot of time shaping or searching for wood of a specific size or shape. The disadvantage of this technique is that you need a lot of physical strength and stamina as well as technique to produce an ember (however, it doesn’t cut up your hands like the hand drill does). A fire plough set is made from a base (stave) and plough (splint), the plough being pushed back and forth within a slot in the base to generate the heat. The plough should be about a 8 – 12 inches long and 1/2 to 3/4inch wide, the top 1 - 2 inches thinned down to approximately 1/4 inch thick and carved to a 45 degree triangular shape i.e. /\ or /|. The narrower the tip the more the heat is concentrated at this point, however, this will tend to cause the plough to dig into the base, forming a deep slot, increasing friction making it difficult to push the plough back a forth. Tip, I found it difficult to use a plough with a flat bottom (the area that is in contact with the base), a rounded or shallow triangle shaped bottom worked best i.e. \/. Reading around the base should be 3 – 5 foot long and 2 – 3 inches wide, allowing the user to sit or kneel on this piece of wood, holding it steady. The pieces of wood I have are a lot shorter than this, so I secured it to a wooden platform as shown in figure 1.4.3. I have read differing advice about the hardness of these woods, some state the base wood should be harder than the plough so that the slot doesn’t become too deep, too quickly. Others, say the plough should be made from a harder wood, or, the same wood. Most texts suggest using hibiscus wood, described as a soft, light wood with a density of tough balsa. However, I don’t have access to this type of wood, therefore, ive tried Sycamore and Horse chestnut for the base. For the plough ive tried Hazel and Sycamore. At present haven’t formed an ember, got good smoke and wood dust from all of these woods.
Figure 1.4.3 : Fire plough and base
Using a knife or the plough tip form a 6 inch slot or grove in the base, just deep enough to hold the plough in place. The general advice seems to be, if the slot is too long the wood dust produced from the friction could cool, too short, and not enough heat will be generated. The recommended method of holding the plough is to overlap your fingers on top, placing your thumbs under the plough, allowing your body weight to push down on the plough. In the kneeling position hold the plough at 45 degrees to the base, pushing it along the slot producing wood dust which will accumulate at the end. Tip, be careful not to allow the plough’s stroke to travel too far, destroying the wood dust pile. Like other fire by friction techniques a balance of speed and pressure is required. Based on some video clips of this technique ive seen, start off slowly until a steady stream of smoke is produced then increase speed and raise the end of the plough slightly to increase / focus the heat in the plough’s tip. At this time only managed smoke and brown / black wood dust, no ember. Below are some useful documents on fire plough ive found on the web (due to possible copyright conflicts these are only accessible from the local machine) :
Figure 1.4.4 : Fire piston
Figure 126.96.36.199 : Loading fire piston tinder
Figure 188.8.131.52 : Suggested fire piston tinders: punk wood, char cloth, charcoal, Bulrush down and Horse’s hoof fungus
The fire syringe or fire piston is the classic fire lighting method of the jungles of North Borneo. Constructed from two parts, a cylinder and piston, as shown in figure 1.4.4. Note, you also need a small stick to help push the tinder into the piston and to lift the ember out when ignited. The cylinder is a smooth bore tube into which an air tight piston is inserted, the other end of the tube is blocked with an air tight plug. Traditionally to create the air tight seal around the piston a recessed washer made from plant fibers was used, however, modern examples now tend to use a rubber ‘O’ ring. In the top of the piston a small recess is drilled, into which tinder is placed, as shown in figure 184.108.40.206. The piston is the length of the cylinder i.e. a rod of a slightly smaller diameter than the cylinder with a large handle attached to the other end. The handle is struck with force compressing the air within the cylinder. Following Boyle’s law, the reduction in volume results in a corresponding increase in temperature sufficient to ignite the tinder. Some websites state that the tinder reaches more than 800F or 425C. As soon as the piston has been struck it must be quickly pulled out of the cylinder otherwise the ember will be extinguished due to lack of oxygen.
Experimented with a number of different methods of holding the cylinder and striking the piston. The most reliable method I found was to hold the fire piston in the right hand, resting the base on the front of your right hip, striking the handle with the left hand. Holding the fire piston tight in against your hip helps reduce the amount of recoil, maximizing the depth of piston travel and therefore the temperature achieved at the base of the piston. Although the temperatures reached would suggest that any tinder could be used I found some difficult or impossible to ignite. Looking around the web some common suggestions are charred cloth, bulrush down, charcoal, punk (dry rotten) wood and horse hoof fungus, shown in figure 220.127.116.11. I found charred cloth very easy to ignite, closely followed by bulrush down, producing an ember every time. I found Horse’s hoof fungus (Amadou) a little more difficult to ignite, you need to scrape it up into a small pile of fluffy fibers, but even still it didn’t ignite every time. Later I tried un-processed Amadou from an old Horse’s hoof fungus I had found on the ground in the leaf litter. When dry I found the top Amadou fibers very fluffy, these ignited quite easily and smoldered well. Tip, I found that all these tinders ignited more easily if you do not compact them too tightly into the tip of the piston i.e. when the tinder is pushed into the piston, tease out a few fluffy fibers with the tip of a small stick. Charcoal and punk wood I have found very difficult, did manage to get a piece of charcoal to ignite once, but haven’t managed to ignite punk wood yet. Tip, found that cleaning out the cylinder using a stick wrapped in a strip of kitchen cloth and applying a new coating of Vaseline greatly improves the pistons seal and therefore its compression. Below are some useful documents on fire piston ive found on the web (due to possible copyright conflicts these are only accessible from the local machine) :
Below are some useful documents on fire saw ive found on the web (due to possible copyright conflicts these are only accessible from the local machine) :
Below are some useful documents on fire thong ive found on the web (due to possible copyright conflicts these are only accessible from the local machine) :