Fire is the cornerstone of human existence. It’s what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, and without it who knows where we’d be.
Even Darwin believed that fire was one of the most important technological advancements in our evolutionary history, and may have significantly contributed to our genealogical advancement into modern humans. In Greek mythology Prometheus stole fire from the gods and shared it with the mortals, taking them out of darkness. He was celebrated by all of humanity but was punished by the gods, who chained him to a rock where his organs were eaten out by eagles every day for all of eternity. In ancient times, before humans were able to create fire on their own, we would wait for fire to occur naturally (a strike of lightening or spontaneous combustion) and then keep that fire going 24/7. In many cases it would be someone’s sole responsibility to keep the fire stoked at all times, and if it were to go out, oftentimes that person would pay with their life. Needless to say, fire is—and has been—pivotal in human existence. So how did we go from stealing fire from the gods to the flick of a match? From waiting for lightning to strike to the turn of a car key? The stepping stone is fire by friction.
Yes, rubbing sticks together. I assure you that no matter where you come from, your ancestors created fire by friction.
There are many different types of friction fire: bow drill, hand drill, pump drill, fire-saw, fire-thong, and fire plow (you may have seen Tom Hanks use this method in “Cast Away”). Although each vary in technique and components used, they all use the same basic concept of rubbing combustible materials together to create heat, similar to rubbing your hands together to keep warm. Rubbing two pieces of wood together rapidly creates hot sawdust which, if hot enough, will eventually turn into a coal. This coal is then transported into a bundle of tinder and blown on, introducing oxygen until it ignites into flames. The flaming tinder bundle is then put inside of a tipi structure and food is cooked and good times are had.
The first time I made fire by friction was in the southern sequoias of California at Element Skate Camp. I was a camper, 14 or 15, and was taking a wilderness survival course with The Elemental Awareness Foundation. I remember being frustrated and feeling like it was impossible for me. I was a late bloomer, my arms were tiny, and I didn’t think I was physically capable. I tried for days and days, and finally—with the help of many people yelling and screaming for me to not give up—I was successful. It was one of the best feelings I have ever experienced; I felt like I had stolen fire from the gods.
HOW TO MAKE A HAND DRILL FIRE
Before you attempt to make fire be sure that you have two things set up, a tinder bundle, and a tipi structure. Friction fire can be exhausting, so you want to work smarter, not harder.
The tinder bundle is a nest-like pile of dried material; grass, leaves, bark etc. You want the interior of the bundle to be very fine material, like cat tail down. A common mistake is to not spend adequate time preparing the tinder bundle, so take your time, and be sure that you have enough material: about the size of a softball.
The tipi is the most efficient fire structure. Much like the tinder bundle, the interior of the tipi structure should be finer material and get thicker as you work your way out. Leave a door, or passageway open to the center of your tipi, this will allow your tinder bundle to start the center of the structure. Be sure to leave enough room between sticks so that air can get through. Fire needs air to survive.
The hand drill consists of two pieces of wood: the stalk, and the fireboard.
The stalk is a long and slender piece of wood, about the diameter of your pinky, two to three feet long, usually mullein, horseweed, willow, or mule fat. My personal favorite is mullein because it involves minimal prep and can be found in most parts of the country, oftentimes growing along a riverbed or even a freeway.
The fire board is made of a medium-hard wood, about a half inch thick and long enough to hold with your foot as you kneel over it. I have found that incense cedar and sotol work very well as fireboards.
Make a small pilot hole in your fireboard about ¾” from the edge with a knife, a small indentation will do.
With one knee on the ground and one foot stabilizing the fireboard, place the stalk into your pilot hole and begin to spin it by rubbing your hands together, as if you were trying to keep your hands warm.
Move your hands back and forth as you work your way down the stalk to the base of the fireboard. Once at the base move one hand at a time back to the top of the stalk, making sure the stalk and fireboard do not lose contact -You need to retain as much heat as possible. This is “one pass.”
Repeat the previous step until you see smoke and dust, one or two passes should do.
You will have burned a shallow hole into your fireboard after a couple passes the diameter of your stalk. Now you must carve a notch out of your fireboard.
Think of the hole you just burned into your fireboard as a pizza pie, now you want to cut out 1/8th, or one slice. Make sure that the crust of your imaginary piece of pizza would be off the edge of your fireboard. With your knife, make two pilot cuts that meet in the center of your burn hole, and carefully cut out your notch.
Once your notch is cut, your tinder bundle is assembled, and your tipi structure is built, you are ready to make fire.
Put a leaf, or something dry underneath your notch before you begin. Hot saw dust will collect here when you begin to make passes. This is called the “Coal Catch.”
Just as you burned in your pilot hole before you cut your notch, place the stalk in the hole in your fireboard and begin to make passes. Concentrate on speed and downward pressure, the combination of these two elements will bring success. You may need to make several passes. Once your notch has filled up with saw dust pause and see if the dust continues to smoke on its own. If it does, you have made a coal.
This is the infancy stage of fire. It is a baby that must be taken care of and nurtured to strength. Chances are you have exerted yourself physically to get this far, take a breath. This coal will burn on its own for several minutes, so there is no need to rush the next steps. Rushing increases the chance of failure.
Once you have gathered yourself, carefully tap the fireboard so that the coal releases from the walls of your notch. Pick up the leaf, or whatever you used as your coal catch and gently transfer the coal into the center of your tinder bundle.
Fold your tinder bundle, as if it were a very delicate taco, so that the coal is surrounded by the by the bundle but not smashed.
Hold the bundle about 10 inches away from your face, take in large breaths through your nose filling your lungs to their capacity, and gently blow on the tinder bundle long and steady. Your breath has moisture in it, be sure to not spit on your coal by getting too close.
You will see the coal begin to grow, and react to your breath. It will respond when you are doing the correct thing, glowing hotter and billowing out smoke. You must be receptive and give the coal what it wants. The smoke will be extremely dense right before the tinder bundle ignites into flame, be careful to not inhale lung-fulls of smoke, this could lead to failure.
Your tinder bundle will ignite into flame. Do not get too excited and drop the bundle, or pose with it for too long to take the perfect photo. This fire must be given more fuel; put it inside of your tipi structure, then close the door to your tipi with some sticks. You may have to blow on the flames to ignite your structure.
You have done it. You have just made fire with your hands. Humanity depended on making fire just like this for thousands and thousands of years, before we took fire for granted. Congratulations.