by Todd Walker
Primal fire has been coaxed from dead wood by twirling a straight stick between two human palms for millennia. I’m still amazed every time I look down at a pile of charred wood dust smoldering on its on accord and sending wisps of smoke skyward.
Starting a fire with modern devices, which accompany me on outings, can not compare to our ancient ancestor’s fire. As my preparedness journey moves forward, I find myself practicing primitive more and more. What if those modern devices fail, or run out of fuel, or get lost? Could I create that all-important fire from what the forest provides?
Primitive fire craft includes many methods. The bow and drill may be the most popular for modern primitive practitioners and bushcrafters due to its mechanical advantage found in the bow. However, the hand drill is more simple in design with fewer parts required. Two summers ago I began my journey to master hand-spun fire methods. Blisters turned to calluses as I birthed a primal coal from twirling a stick between my palms.
Here’s a video of my early experimentation with hand-spun fire…
If you’ve tried and failed to bring fire to life with a hand-spun spindle grinding on a piece of wood, here’s a hack which may give you the needed boost to light your first hand drill fire.
Hand Drill Thumb Loops
I have spent many hours spinning sticks on wood without thumb loops to produce embers. Failure in my beginner hand drill experiences was mainly due to running out of strength and stamina at that crucial time where downward pressure and rapid twirling was required to raise the temperature of charred dust to the point of ignition. My arms and shoulders would fatigue killing my technique and any chance of a glowing ember.
Over the years I’ve read of this simple technique which offers twirlers a mechanical advantage with hand drills. A helpful article by Dino Labiste on Primitive Ways made sense to me. I gave it a spin.
Material and Tools
- Cordage – about two feet of sturdy cordage
- Spindle – my river cane spindle capable of using wooden plugs or any spindle material you have available
- Hearth Board – a suitable wood for friction fire 1 to 2 inches wide, 1/2 inches deep, and long enough to place your foot on it with enough board left for drilling
- Knife – whittling plugs, divots, and hearths
- Welcome Mat – a leaf, piece of leather, or anything which will collect the charred dust and glowing ember
Step 1: Notch Your Spindle
Cut a 1/8 inch nock in the top of the spindle deep enough for your cordage to mate securely. On my cane spindle, I have a smaller piece of cane which serves to cap the hollow storage chamber at the top of my spindle. I notched the cap as I would a cane arrow or atlatl dart.
Step 2: Cut Cordage to Length
You need a length of cord which will drape through the nock and hang down the spindle. Allow enough excess for tying a loop on each end of the hanging cordage. I tied one loop first, ran the cord over the nock, and estimated the amount needed for the second loop before cutting.
Adjust the length until your thumbs (inserted in the loops) and hands are in the middle of the spindle when assembled.
Step 3: Tie Two Loops
I had planned on using one of the four knots I use most often for camping and woodcraft – the bowline. However, Allen, the son of the landowner who allows me to use their property, showed up at my shelter and taught me a new knot he uses while fly fishing – the perfection loop. Either knot will work, but I enjoy learning new knots.
Trim the loose ends of the loops near the knots. I found that leftover cordage can get in the way while spinning the spindle.
Step 4: Give ’em a Spin
Place your thumbs through the loops and grip the spindle between your palms. Place the bottom of the spindle in a divot hole in the hearth board. Begin slowly twirling the spindle between your hands to get the feel of how the thumb loops aid in spinning. As you spin you should notice the divot should begin to smoke and create a bit of charred dust around the rim of the divot. Stop and prepare the divot with a V-shaped notch which slices into the pie-shaped divot hole.
Step 5: Go for the Coal
The loops will generate a lot of downward pressure on the hearth board. Don’t overdo it in this beginning stage or you may drill through your hearth board without producing a coal. Spin with medium pressure until the hearth board notch is filled with charred dust. I’ve found that using thumb loops reduces the time needed to generate enough char to fill the board notch.
Now is the time to apply more downward pressure and rapid spinning. This increases the friction between the spindle and board which raises the temperature of the char dust to ignition temperature. If you think you’re to that point with smoke flying, stop spinning but keep the spindle mated to the board socket. Watch to see if the char is producing smoke on its own. If so, gently remove the spindle and tap the hearth board to loosen the char from the notch. Carefully lift the board and fan the char with your hand. If there’s an ember in there, it will continue to grow and glow.
If you don’t see the char pile smoking, all is not lost. I’ve twirled embers on my second attempt with the same char dust many times.
Congratulations! You’ve produced a primal ember by rubbing two sticks together. Now transfer the fire-egg to a tinder nest and blow it to flame.
Step 6: Trouble Shooting
- Too much downward pressure in the beginning produces gritty dust. Take a pinch of the dust between your thumb and forefinger to determine how fine the dust feels.
- Less pressure produces fine dust like baby powder which creates more surface area and increases your chance of ignition.
- Wood selection has much to do with success or failure with any friction fire method. Some woods are more prone to produce coarse dust. Others char into a fine powder. Experimentation with different wood combinations will prove this point.
This is not an exhaustive essay on how to spin a coal with the hand drill. It is, however, a simple hack which will increase your chances of creating coals consistently.
Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,
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