The Ultimate Guide to Making Fire

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This is your ultimate guide to making fire! It may be an on-going project that will be tweaked, added-to and tuned-up from time to time, so bookmark it and read it time and again to keep your fire-making skills honed!

How many times have you ever been camping in your life and not had a fire? It’s tradition, even if you’re just using it to roast marshmallows for s’mores. You also make fires in your fireplace, and sometimes you even make bonfires around which to throw massive field parties. Lots of homesteaders use burn barrels to keep trash to a minimum, as well.

Fire can sometimes be a necessity, though. In a SHTF situation, you will need fire to purify your water, you may need it to cook your food, and in the colder months you will definitely need it to stay warm. But do you know all the ways to make that fire?

Making Fire: Preparation

When you are preparing to build a fire, you will need to know which method to use in order to determine all of the tools you are going to need. However, there are some pretty standard items you should have as well.

Tinder Bundle

A small bundle of dry grass, leaves, straw and sticks that will be used to receive the spark or ember — also called a “bird’s nest” because of the close resemblance. The tinder bundle will receive the ember or spark (which will form an ember in the bundle) made using one of the methods listed below. Cup your hands around the tinder bundle to slowly enclose the ember and gently blow. The oxygen will feed the ember and cause it to spread throughout the bundle, eventually igniting a flame.

Kindling

Small pieces of dry wood stacked in a pyramid or other shape. Once the tinder bundle is ablaze, it will be slid into the kindling stack.

Fuel

Larger pieces of wood that will be added slowly to the fire once the flame is established and burning good.

Accelerant

If you have some form of petroleum or other flammable chemical, fire making will be much easier. Some accelerants include gasoline*, kerosene* and petroleum jelly. Add the accelerant to the tinder bundle or kindling to make the fire take and set faster.

(*Note: Southern Dreams Homestead does NOT recommend the use of gasoline or kerosene in making fire.)

Char Cloth

A piece of cloth made cotton, jute or linen that has been burnt slightly and will catch fire with even a small spark. You can make your own char cloth by using a small metal container (like an Altoids tin) and a cotton bandana (which you should have in your bug-out bag, anyway, right?).

Learning the methods of making fire.

Methods for Making Fire

Friction Methods

Making fire using friction methods is (in essence) done by rubbing two pieces of wood together. It is probably the first way man discovered to make fire… and it is actually not that easy! The concept itself is fairly easy, but in practice, it can prove to be quite difficult.

Basically, you’re rubbing two sticks together — yes, just like in the cartoons, except it takes longer than 3 seconds, and it doesn’t cause a sudden burst of flame.

The two main ways to make a friction fire are with a “drill” or a “plow” (also spelled “plough”). The friction wears down the wood which creates an ember. The ember is transferred to the tinder bundle to create the fire.

The Drill

The drill is the most common way you see people making primitive fire and is comprised of two main pieces. The “fire board” or “hearth” is notched to one side and has an indentation adjacent to receive the spindle. The “spindle” is the stick you will spin in order to create friction.

The general concept is to place the spindle into the indentation on the hearth, hold the hearth still with your foot, spin the spindle, and form an ember from the dust created in the notch. You must be using wood that is totally dry or this will not work.

Be sure you have a leaf or something underneath the hearth at the notch to catch the ember as it forms. Sometimes the ember may get stick in the notch, so be careful when dumping it out. If it breaks apart, it will fizzle out fast, and you’ll have to start all over again.

You can spin the spindle by hand if you’re wanting to really go old-school, but that is probably the hardest way and will tire you out the fastest. Simply place the spindle between your flattened hands and move your hands back and forth – think Mr. Miyagi in the original Karate Kid movie. As you rub your hands together back and forth, apply downward pressure on the spindle to cause more friction on the hearth.

The Bow Drill

Diagram for using the bow drill method for starting a fire
Image Credit: Wikipedia

You can also use the bow drill method which is much easier. The diagram to the right shows you the spindle and hearth as well as the “bow” and “bearing block”.

The bow is comprised of a slightly bent stick with a string (seasoned preppers will use 550 cord) tied fairly taut between the ends. You don’t want it “bow and arrow” tight, but if it’s too loose, it won’t work at all. Same concept as the hand drill method, but you’re using the bow to spin the spindle and the bearing block to apply downward pressure.

The thing to understand with the bow drill is that you can’t start with too much downward pressure, or it will be virtually impossible to make this work. Loop the bow string around the spindle once. Then, apply light pressure on the spindle with the bearing block and move the bow back and forth in a sawing motion.

If you’re looking to practice the bow drill method and need a starter set to get the hang of it, you can actually get one here.

Additional Reading: The Beginner’s Step by Step Guide to Bow Drill Fire Craft

The Plow

The plow method is lesser known than the drill method, but just as effective. This time, you’ll use a rock or other sharp tool (like your knife) to scratch a straight trough in the center of your hearth about the same width as a stick you’ll use for the friction. The trough needs to go all the way to the end of the board so the ember will have a place to form (similar to the notch in the hearth in the drill method).

Kneel down, hold the hearth between your knees at an angle, and move the stick rapidly back and forth in the trough until an ember forms at the base of the hearth. Again, make sure you have a leaf or something at the end of the hearth to catch the ember so you can transfer it to the tinder bundle.

Sparking a Fire

The spark method is much, much easier than the friction method. It uses (obviously) a spark to start the fire. How you get that spark is the issue here. You can catch that spark with your tinder bundle or use a fire starter straw.

The most common way to get a spark, of course, is a lighter or matches. Every prepper should have both in their survival kit. Be sure that the matches are waterproof, though – it would be bad to need a fire and only have wet matches.

A ferrocerium rod (ferro rod) or flint can be struck with steel (like the back of your knife) to create a spark.

Making Fire with Lenses

Remember burning ants with a magnifying glass when you were a kid? If not, you missed out on a lot of common science. Using a lens to focus the sun’s rays into a fine point, you can set your tinder bundle on fire relatively quickly.

You can use a magnifying glass, a lens from a camera or a pair of prescription glasses, or even a bottle of water. In fact, I have seen people use a condom to hold water and make fire like the water bottle, and even people use a smooth, clear piece of ice in a lens manner. These types of lenses are called “refraction lenses” or “fresnel lens”.

You can also use a “reflection lens” to focus the sun’s rays in the same general manner as with the refraction lens. Reflection lenses can be found in things like flashlights and car headlights. Think of the way a satellite dish catches their signal, reflects it back into a centralized point a small distance away from the center, and catches it with the antenna.

The same concept is in play here, only you’re catching the sun’s rays and focusing it back on a small dry leaf, piece of string or cloth to catch it on fire. You could even use the bottom of an aluminum can polished with some toothpaste or chocolate (just be sure not to eat the toothpaste or chocolate afterward).

Making Fire with Electricity

If you happen to have a battery (like from a flashlight) and some wire, you can arc the positive and negative terminals of the battery with the wire, which will heat up. You can do this against the tinder bundle, and eventually the wire will get hot enough to ignite the bundle. Be careful, the wire will be hard to hold against the battery terminals – you might be able to attach it with some duct tape.

A better way to do the battery method is with a 9-volt and steel wool. Touch the steel wool to the terminals on the 9-volt and soon the steel wool will begin to smolder. Put the smoldering end into your tinder bundle.

If your car has broken down and you need fire, you can use the battery and some wire to create a spark. We’re going to assume you have jumper cables since you’re a good prepper. Connect them to the battery and touch the ends together to form a spark. Shoot the spark into the tinder bundle or char cloth.

Making Fire Using Pressure

The fire piston (also called a “fire syringe” or “slam rod”) uses (believe it or not) a key concept in thermodynamics called the adiabatic process.

A piston with a rubber seal on it is inserted into a closed tube forming a tight fit. There is a small piece of char cloth affixed to the end of the piston. The piston is then slammed rapidly into the tube.

This action super-heats the oxygen and ignites the char cloth.

Making Fire: The Fire Pit

Your fire pit can be as simple as a hole in the ground or rocks forming a circle – anything that will encircle the fire and contain it.

If you want to get really fancy, you can make a “Dakota Fire Hole“. Do this by basically digging two pits (one large, one smaller) into the ground and connect them with a tunnel underground. Build your fire in the larger pit. The airflow from the smaller pit through the tunnel will help feed the base of the fire with oxygen.

The Dakota fire hole is typically used when trying to be covert and not let anyone see the light from the flame. The pit is dug deep enough, and the fire made small enough that the flame doesn’t rise above the pit.

You can also place a grill rack over the fire pit and use it as a cooking surface.

Further Education on Making Fire

Still looking for more information and tips on fire building? Here are some excellent sources from some of my friends:

Tips for safety when making fire

Fire Safety Tips

Now, before you spark that fire, be sure you’re following a few basic safety rules.

  • Always clear your area of fire hazards. Clear a 10-foot area around your fire pit down to the dirt removing anything that could catch on fire.
  • Never leave your fire unattended. An adult should always be present to monitor the fire.
  • Always circle your fire with rocks. This is the best way to keep the fire from spreading on the ground.
  • Never build your fire pit near low-hanging branches. The heat from the flames may ignite the branch.
  • Always carry a first aid kit. In case you get burned, you’ve got an immediate way to treat the wound.
  • Never pull sticks out of the fire. If the ember from the stick drops onto something outside the pit, you could be in immense danger.
  • Always keep a bucket of water and a shovel ready. When you’re finished with the fire, douse it with the water and cover it with dirt.

How do You Make Fire?

Do you have any tips and tricks to share about making fire? Have a favorite method or tool? Let us know!

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19 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide to Making Fire”

  1. This is one skill that I definitely need to improve on, so thank you for these great options! The bow drill is super interesting. Will be a fun thing to experiment with this summer 🙂

    Reply
  2. Great post and good info that everyone should know. I carry a small magnifying glass as my means to start a fire. Other than that, I always have a Bic lighter (or 3) on hand. I do know how to do most of the other methods, and can use them, in a pinch…but I’m saving those for the day when I have no other choice. I don’t mind hard work, but making a fire from rubbing two sticks together just sucks…no matter how you look at it.
    Great post! I enjoyed reading this. These are definitely tips that every person that is into self-reliance should know.

    Reply
    • Thanks Laurrie! Yes, “rubbing two sticks together” can suck, but once you master the method, it’s all gravy! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go master a few of these methods. lol

      Reply
  3. This blog brought me back to my childhood. My grandmother cooks on a coal stove. Most time when we ran out of kerosene oil, we came up with very creative ways to start a fire. Buring plastic or shoe/floor polish on the coal or wood was two methods I have used to start a fire.

    Thanks for sharing these great tips for starting a fire. Love that you shared the videos; they were helpful. The thermodynamic method of fire piston seems interesting.

    Reply

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