by Todd Walker
After 50 years, I finally made fire with sticks – almost.
Episodes of the TV show “Daniel Boone” inspired me to throw knives, axes, and other sharp objects into trees and barn wood in my youth. I always wanted to be like Daniel. An explorer, pioneer, trailblazing through our backwoods farm. I created many blisters on my hands rubbing sticks together. I know. Friction was in the wrong area. It was too hard. However, the desire to create fire from friction never died. I simply grew up.
Imagine the first cavemen stumbling over the thought of making fire. Well, it was probably a cave-babe that connected the dots. The ladies are smart like that. Any who, life changed when Grok could produce fire on demand. They had observed this fiery phenomenon after the loud booms from the sky. They even chased the blaze. But failed to harness it. They had witnessed it char flesh. Quite tasty indeed. “If only we could start one from, um, scratch,” mused Grok, rubbing his hands together vigorously. Ah ha! Friction. Heat. Fire! The rest is history.
I’ve started fires from flint and steel, storm proof matches, fancy survivor sparklers, and wrongly wiring a starter switch on my truck. But the most primitive fire starting method had alluded me. Rubbing sticks together.
Our recent discussion in Science class sparked my half century old interest. Newton’s First Law of Motion: Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it. The obvious outside force is gravity. How about friction? Well, there it was. The needed spark! Memories of blisters, bug bites, and no fire roared back into my psyche. A challenge. I’ll make fire with friction for my students! I accepted the challenge. Failure was not an option. I refuse to be embarrassed in front of 30 eighth graders.
Caveman Chemistry to the rescue. The first project in his book is a plan for a fire bow kit with training wheels. It’s modern. It’s controlled. It’s genius. Why didn’t I think of this 40 years ago. It’s so simple even an eighth grade teacher can do it.
To reproduce the Fire Bow Kit, you’ll need some dimensional lumber (2 x 4’s), string, dowel rod, suitable fire board material, fasteners and a few tools.
- About 60″ of 2 x 4 (51″ to be exact)
- About 4′ of 5/8″ hardwood dowel rod
- About 6′ of cordage (I used 550 paracord from my survival bracelet making bag)
- Fire board material
- Fasteners (nails or screws)
- Saw (power or hand – I used my miter saw)
- 1/8″, 5/8″ and 1″ drill bits
- Method of fastening (I used my impact driver and exterior screws – Hammer and nails would work as well)
- An open mind. Purists can stick with sticks. This project is meant to encourage folks like me that have never created primal fire. Hopefully these “training wheels” will build the confidence needed to start a ‘purist’ fire in the wild.
Putting it together
Cut 4 pieces of 2 x 4 measuring 14 inches each. Cut another piece 9 inches long. Set aside the 14 inch long boards (frame) for now. Take the 9 inch board (guide) and drill a 5/8 inch hole about 4 inches deep into the end of the guide. Tip: Measure off four inches on your drill bit and mark the measurement by wrapping a piece of masking tape around the bit. Once you reach the tape during drilling, stop. I did this free-handed by clamping the guide to my work surface and drilling horizontally into the stock.
Next, make a mark where you think the 5/8th inch hole stops on the wide side of the guide. Then drill a 1 inch hole that intersects perpendicularly with the first hole. The 5/8’s hole needs to completely open up into the larger hole you just finished.
Now cut a 9 inch piece off the hardwood dowel rod you purchased from the hardware store. They sell these in different lengths. I bought a 3 foot oak dowel and another “hardwood” dowel measuring 4 foot in length. I paid $5 bucks for both. Tip: Roll the dowels on the concrete floor before you buy them. You want straight dowels.
Insert the dowel into the hole in the end of the guide to see if it fits. You want it to move freely, but not to lose. I had to ream the hole just a bit to make just right. Once you’re satisfied with the fit, build the frame.
Lay two of the frame pieces wide side down on the work surface. If you’re OCD like me, I marked off the center point on both of the bottom pieces. Place the 2 ¼ inch on the center line and mark the end of the tape measure and the 4 ½ inch mark. Scribe these lines to accommodate the other two 14 inch frame boards and the guide board, which equals 4 ½ inches wide when stacked together. Now flip the frame upside down so that the bottom legs of the frame are on top. Line up the top two frame boards (which are now on the bottom) with the lines and secure the two bases with screws or nails. You are now ready to secure the guide board on two cross pieces.
With the bottom of the guide board flush and at a 90 degree angle to the two frame cross pieces, secure it with four screws/nails, two on each side.
This may the most important piece. I had some soft pine stock that I cut to fit the horizontal hole. Cut the fire board about two inches long. You’ll also need to cut a ‘chimney’ into the stock. I cut a 1/8 th inch slot about halfway into the fire board. The chimney allows the hot punk (charred wood dust created via friction from the spindle on the fire board) to spill out.
My bow is made from the remaining hardwood dowel. It needs to be around 3 foot in length. It’s not necessary that it shaped like a bow. The straight dowel works just fine. Drill a 1/8 inch hole in both ends of the bow. Then thread a six-foot length of cord through one end and tie a knot in the end of the cordage to secure it to the bow. Slip the other end of the cord through the other hole. I used 550 paracord.
Find a piece of hardwood that fits into your hand comfortably. Create a divot in one side. The other side needs to be smooth as you’ll be holding it with your left hand (if you’re right-handed). You may use anything from antler, bone, wood, rock for your block. I used a piece of cedar from the handmade bench I made for Dirt Road Girl this summer.
Lubricant will be need to be applied to the divot in the block to reduce friction while the spindle rotates. I used a bit of tallow the first test run. Then I used 3 in 1 oil. I was too lazy to walk back into the house for more tallow. Some people use green plant material in the socket. Whatever works and is available to you.
Tip: You’ll want to sharpen the end of the spindle that goes into the block like a pencil. The reduced surface space and causes less friction on the block.
Set up the bow drill
Place the fire board into the horizontal 1 inch hole. Insert the spindle in the guide – flat side down. This is the business end that creates the friction. Wrap the cord from the bow around the spindle so that the loop is on the side away from the bow. Create the lo0p with the bow at an angle. Tighten the cord as tight as possible by pulling the slack through the hole at the opposite end of the bow. Once tight, wrap the remaining cord around the bow forming a handle. This allows for quick adjustments for tension on the bow string.
Now lift the bow to a horizontal position increasing the tension on the bow string around the spindle. With your left foot on the base of the frame, start pushing and pulling the bow in a horizontal position – 2 to 3 strokes per second. Apply downward pressure to the spindle via the block. Your left arm will be resting on your left knee or shin. After a few strokes, you’ll start to notice smoke. Keep spinning the spindle until the black punk starts to build up and pour out of the chimney. Decrease the pressure on the spindle at this point to prevent burning through your fire board. Keep spinning the spindle with smooth even strokes on both the push and pull movement. With some luck and experience, heavy smoke will begin to appear. Eventually the hot punk itself will begin to smoke. This is the point where your ember is created.
Stop working the bow and begin blowing on the ember. I tried moving the ember and punk to my tender (frayed jute twine) with little success. I’m working on plans now to improve the horizontal hole to accept a larger fire board with tender already under the ember.
I don’t mind admitting failure. But I’m no quitter. I’ve yet to start a fire from the ember. In last period Science class yesterday, we filled the room with smoke. It was a great object lesson on friction – fire was close, but no cigar. So my 50 year quest for primal fire continues. Stay tuned for updates. I’ll be in my laboratory (shop in the back yard).
I will create fire!
Update: I ditched the training wheels and went with the big boy model. Check it out here.
Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,
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