Making fire

Making fire
A flint, metal implement to strike with it, charred cloth and piece of mushroom

Fire was an essential tool in early human cultural development and still important today. Many different techniques for making fire (also called firemaking, firelighting or firecraft) exist. Smoldering plants and trees, or any source of hot coals from natural fires is arguably the first experience humans had with controlling fire.

Fire by friction is the most commonly used method for making primitive fires. Ancient techniques for starting friction fires include the hand-drill, the bow drill, the fire plough, the fire saw, and the pump drill. The flint and steel method was also used by primitive cultures. Steel or iron, when struck against any glassy stone such as quartz, jasper, agate or flint, will produce sparks. Sparks are caught onto suitable tinder and fanned into flames. A flint alone does not produce incandescent embers; it is the flint's ability to violently release small particles of iron, exposing them to oxygen that starts the burning. These methods have been known since the Paleolithic ages, and are still commonly in use with certain 'primitive' tribes but difficult to use in a damp atmosphere. (The control of fire by early humans is said to date back to either Homo erectus or very early Homo sapiens, that is, hundreds of thousands of years ago, based on archaeological evidence of hearths).[citation needed]

The skills required to create, control and use fire using primitive methods, often in a survival situation, have come into popular use as a component of bushcraft.


Primitive methods

Natural occurrence

Fire occurs naturally as a result of volcanic activity, meteorites, and lightning strikes. Many animals are aware of fire and adapt their behavior accordingly. Plants, too, have adapted to the natural occurrence of fire (Fire ecology). Thus humans would have known about fire, and later its beneficial uses, long before the ability to make fire on demand was developed. In addition, the first and easiest way to make a fire would have been to use the hot ashes or burning wood from a forest or grass fire, and then to keep the fire or coals going for as long as possible by adding more wood and plant materials many times each day. Natural sources of animal fats and petrochemicals that burn could have been used to keep and maintain fires that started naturally.

The oldest way to make fire would have been to carry a burning coal around from a natural fire, and to keep it smoldering in dry plant material (such as white sage or tobacco) that can hold a burning coal for long periods of time. Dry tinder can be added to the coal, and then blown on to form flames. The problem with this method is that the coal can burn out, and the coal needs new plant material over long periods of time to keep smoldering. It may have been difficult to travel long distances in wet conditions with a burning coal wrapped in such plant materials. Many natives in North America still use certain smoldering plants to keep a fire alive for days. Birch bark, tobacco, sage, and other plants smolder very well and provide both smoke for insect repelling, and hot coals for fire making.


The hand drill is debated to be the oldest method of fire by friction, characterized by the use of a thin, straightened wooden shaft or reed to be spun with the hands, grinding within a notch against the soft wooden base of a fire board (A wooden board with a carved notch in which to catch heated wood fibers created by friction). This repetitive spinning and downward pressure causes black dust to form in the notch of the fireboard, eventually creating a hot, glowing coal. The coal is then carefully placed onto suitable tinder and fanned gently until flame is produced. It can take a great degree of practice and experience with many types of woods to discover a successful combination of materials. Softer woods are easier and should be learned before one attempts hardwood. However, fire can be made with any type of wood given the amount of experience an individual has.

The bow drill uses the same principle as the hand drill (friction by rotation of wood on wood), but the spindle is shorter, wider (about the size of your thumb) and driven by a bow, which allows longer strokes. With a well built bow-drill and enough practice, fire can be easily created even in wet conditions.

Another simple fire making tool using friction is a fire plow. It consists of a stick cut to a dull point, and a long piece of wood with a groove cut down its length. The point of the first piece is rubbed against the groove of the second piece in a "plowing" motion, rapidly, to produce hot dust that then becomes a coal. A split is often made down the length of the grooved piece, so that oxygen can flow freely to the coal/ember. Once hot enough, the coal is introduced to the tinder, more oxygen is added by blowing and the result is ignition.

A fire pump or pump drill is variant on the bow drill that uses a coiled rope around a cross-section of wooden stakes to produce friction on a hard surface, combusting material underneath the mechanism.

A fire saw is a method by which a piece of wood is sawed through a notch in a second piece or pieces to generate friction. The tinder may be placed between two slats of wood with the third piece or "saw" drawn over them above the tinder so as to catch a coal, but there is more than one configuration.

Pre-modern methods

To produce sparks, one may strike a hard stone, for example flint or quartz, on another containing iron such as pyrite or marcasite. Sparks with this method must be immediately in contact with tinder, or with black charcoal cloth or steel wool that will smolder from the spark. The material used to hold the spark is held above the flint or quartz, tight against the stone. The striker is then brought against the stone in a quick, straight downward motion. The stone pulls steel flakes off the striker, which become hot, molten sparks. The use of flint in particular became the most common method of producing flames in pre-industrial societies. Travelers up to the late 19th century would often use tinderboxes in order to start fires with a much greater ease than that of a bow drill or hand drill.

One of the easiest methods of creating fire is to use a lens or condensing reflector (such as a spotlight lantern reflector) to focus the energy from the sun onto tinder. It is most effective on dark coloured tinder which absorbs heat and light energy better (light coloured tinder reflects heat and light energy).

A concave mirror can be used to focus the sun's rays on some tinder as well, such as a polished soda can bottom.

An unusual method of making fire is by using a device called a fire piston. Commonly constructed from wood, horn or plastic, it is composed of a hollow tube with one sealed end and a piston which fits snugly within the tube. At the end of the piston is a depression where tinder is held during compression . The tinder is inserted into the depression, and the piston is quickly pushed into the tube. This compresses the air, raising the temperature in the tube, similarly to the way a diesel engine fires, to the point where the tinder ignites and forms an ember. Tinder can come from a variety of sources such as "Tinder Fungus" and char-cloth. This was observed in the jungle[which?] by Laurens van der Post.

Modern methods

The invention of matches dates from the 19th century, when the tips of small wooden rods were coated with sulfur or phosphorus, two naturally-occurring elements which are easily-combustible when combined with friction. The chemicals used in matches today are bound to the base by use of gelatin.

Lighters, such as those for cigarettes or grills, combine ferrocerium with fuels such as butane or ethane, and can produce adjustable flames. They are also generally very simple to light, often implementing a wheel-mechanism which, when spun with the thumb, creates friction on an internal fragment of flint. Other lighters, such as those used to light grills, most often only require the push of a button to produce a flame.

Electric firemaking involves the use of an object with a high electric resistance on tinder. A current is run through the object until it is red hot, much like the burners on an electric stove, and is brought into contact with the wood, lighting it. Also, a low electric current, such as a battery, coming in contact with a thin wire mesh (such as steel wool) will produce heat along the lines of charcloth which will also ignite with the proper tinder.

A gas flame may be ignited by a spark, typically generated by piezoelectricity. Other substances like flint, and metal alloys such as ferrocerium can be used to create hot sparks by mechanically scratching the material with a knife or sharp object. The resulting sparks can then be used to ignite man made or wild dry tinder. Some sparking devices using ferrocerium alloys contain high amounts of magnesium within the ferrocerium alloy resulting in much hotter sparks. And some also have a built-in striking blade which provides an easy method for sparking with one hand.

There are thousands of combinations of chemicals which will ignite when mixed together (some explosively). These are known as hypergolics. Chemical methods can produce poisonous or toxic waste.

Sustaining fire

Once the tinder is lit, it must be transferred to a larger tinder, such as a bundle of dried grass and then blown gently until a flame is created. Then it is necessary to put this lit bundle on the ground and then twigs or other small tinder be placed above it, then small branches and large twigs and so on until logs can be sustained in the fire. Most fires that fail are due to trying to shortstep the process of stepping up the size of the fire; one can't light a log with a match.

It is important to increase the size of the wood slowly, as a small flame cannot heat a large mass enough to cause it to emit combustible gases. In addition, it is important to ensure a proper airflow to bring enough oxygen to the process without displacing the flame from the gases or cooling the fuel too much.

Once a fire is well underway, it is then possible to add fuels with more water or sap content as the heat may be enough to boil off the water. In wet weather, dry fuel can also be obtained by splitting dried out logs. Although the outside might be wet, the freshly split inner surfaces should be dry.

See also

External links

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