In this blog we will be dealing with wood choice, identification and selection for friction fire. Friction-fire technique will be covered in the next blog.
As the season progresses we as instructors are asked many questions by clients on our courses. Perhaps the biggest “inspiration” for blog posts are these questions, especially if they are asked continually. Due to time constraints on some of our shorter Survival courses techniques such as making hand or bow-drills from scratch are not possible, and to be honest our thoughts on friction fire are somewhat “double edged”.
Generally the attendees on our courses are on the spectrum from complete novices to reasonably experienced outdoors people, every now and then we’ll get someone that is very much skilled-up and want to progress further. For the average person booking on a single multi-day course the likelihood of mastering friction fire is slim, by mastering I mean being able to source the correct woods, making sure they’re properly seasoned, fashion them into their constituent parts and finally getting the technique down to a tee. For this reason and given the level of clientele’s basic skills, we always feel that the realistic foundations should be addressed before leaping into the intricacy’s of friction-fire. To put it simply, we’d rather see everyone leave our courses and be able to start a fire with a lighter/fire-steel, and safely/consistently maintain said fire.
Q. Is Friction-fire a realistic way to get a fire going in the wild?
A. Yes and No! As experienced outdoors folk and instructors, every member of the BCS team is capable of heading out into a woodland environment, Identifying the appropriate tree’s, choosing the appropriate standing dead wood and fashioning them into a hand/bow drill set. Now ask the same instructor to do this same exercise in the torrential rain, or in a purely soft wood forest. The answer is going to be very different, probably a No!
In our opinion, friction fire has too many variables to be 100% successful, 100% of the time, compared to a ferrous rod. As an amateur or semi-skilled person, even being put in the same environment where success is almost guaranteed, there’s an overwhelming chance that they’ll fail. Having said this, the more you practice and bring your own skill set up, the higher the chances of success in a favourable environment……more tools in your tool box!
Remember; From an Anthropological point of view, friction fire was used as a traditional living skill, whereby the friction fire sets that were used were kept in an indoor setting, or kept dry 100% of the time or dried/seasoned prior to use.
Choosing your woods
Q. What am I looking for when selecting wood for a friction fire?
A. As the old saying goes; Fail to prepare, prepare to fail! We’ve included a table below to give you an idea of what woods should be used in combination if you’re just starting off, however just as important as your combinations is the “state” of the wood. By “state” we mean how old or seasoned is it? there are two main considerations when choosing seasoned wood for your friction fire set;
- If the wood is green then you’re on a hiding to nowhere. Any piece of wood that’s green means it’s still alive, like all organisms, if the woods alive it needs moisture to survive, as we all know moisture will put a fire out. As you can see in the close up picture below, cut into the inner wood, if you see any green then it’s no good. Discard it or keep it in a dry place for next year. Note – Woods such as Hazel & Ivy will give you an ember when slightly green, although this is unusual for other woods.
The wood on the left has been cut as a hearth board for a bowdrill set. You can see the green tinge to it if you zoom in. This piece has a good 6 months worth of seasoning to go until it is ready to be used. Note; If you are unsure of the age/condition of the wood, then place it against your lips, you will be able to easily feel any moisture as supposed to your finger tips that aren’t as sensitive.
Another good signifier that your wood is not seasoned/too wet is to begin spinning the spindle against the board . If you look closely you will notice that the shards of punk wood being deposited are “sausaging”. This is to say they are long thin strips of wood coming off either the spindle and/or board. This is the classic sign that either the spindle or board are not seasoned, and to try and get an ember from this set will not be impossible but will take a ridiculous amount of work.
- If the wood is starting to rot or turn into “punk wood” then it’s no good, you need good solid seasoned wood which turns into a fine dust for friction fire to work. When you cut into the wood if it’s got streaks of dark grey/blue then it’s starting to rot. Similarly if the wood is crumbly or fibrous its past its best.
Of course you can select and cut the wood you need green, then keep it in your house or shed ready for future use. To give you a rough idea it takes 1 – 1.5 years to season wood for friction fire (7% moisture content), however in a “survival” scenario you won’t have this luxury, so identifying “standing dead wood” still on the tree is a great skill. A top tip for this during the spring/summer is to look for the branches that don’t have any leaves on them, as they will be dead.
The opposite piece of wood is in optimum condition for friction fire. The wood is a pale, smooth and “creamy” texture to it. When placed against the lips you can feel it is bone dry, and as discussed above has no grey fletchings signifying it is not “past it’s best.
When a spinndle is spun against the board the dust is coming off in a fine brown/black dust. This is a signifier that both spinndle and board are in ideal condition.
Below is a table of combinations for the Bow Drill friction fire, the Bow drill is used as it’s the most likely technique used by beginners. Please be aware that this is our personal findings, and various species of woods, environment and individual user will all have a bearing on a successful outcome. The following gradings have been given for success rates;
Excellent – >90% first time success with very little effort/technique.
Average – <100% Success with moderate output. Good technique used
Poor – <60% Success. High physical output needed. Good technique used
Note- The above percentages have been given for “standing dead” wood.
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Q Should you use a hard wood spindle on a soft wood board?
A. This question is always hotly debated! Mears/Kochanski have always written and taught the hard on soft rule, and if you look at the combos above the mix’s with the ‘Excellent’ rating against them are all Deciduous woods with a harder spindle on a softer wood board……with the exception of Hazel on Douglas Fir. Having said that, at the time of writing this blog, my favourite combo is Ivy on Ivy. To put it in a nut shell, if you’re just starting out, try and keep to the hard on soft rule, as you’re likely to have better luck. Just try and remember that all broad leave tree’s are hard woods and all coniferous woods are Soft woods, having said this some hard woods are softer than other hard woods……It’s up to you to get to know the different qualities of woods.