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|December 11-17, 2008
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How to build a fire
It’s cold. It’s wet. It’s getting dark. And your last match just went poof.
by Dave Philipps
Now, of course, we’re spoiled. Making fire is a snap. The mystical has become mundane.
But you can get a feel for that Paleolithic wonder by starting a fire the old-fashioned way — no matches, no lighter, just wood on wood.
James Kulbeth, a longtime Boy Scout leader, has done it dozens of times.
“I thought it probably wouldn’t be that hard,” he said on a recent cold, windy afternoon when he agreed to demonstrate the craft.
On his first try, years ago, he fumbled with a stick and board for more than an hour before he saw a flame.
“It takes practice,” he said as he unpacked the fire board, spindle and bow he has used to teach countless scouts the ancient art of matchless fires. “But once you get good, it’s pretty simple.”
Humans have been making fire for perhaps 50,000 years. Some struck together flint and pyrite to make sparks (pyrite means “fire rock” in Greek). Many rubbed wood on wood to make heat from friction. Mayan friezes and archaeological sites from the Aleutian Islands to Madagascar all offer evidence of people rubbing wood on wood like a bunch of Boy Scouts. Socrates noted in 400 B.C. that a magnifying glass was easier, but the basic flint or friction methods remained almost unchanged until 1827, when an English chemist began selling the first matches.
“I wanted to know I could be able to start a fire without a match,” Kulbeth said. “I wanted to be confident with that skill, in case I needed it in a survival situation.”
Some local experts say that in a survival situation, rubbing two sticks together is the last thing you want to depend on because it is so difficult. But we’ll get to that later. First the fire.
Kulbeth knelt down and made a nest-like bowl of dried grass. He set it aside.
He had already made everything else he needed.
He took out a wood board, called a fire board, from a large fanny pack. It was about an inch thick, 3 inches wide and 12 inches long.
In the long edge of board he carved a small, V-shape notch. At the tip of the notch, he carved a small, shallow, bowl-shape depression.
He took out a foot-long wood spindle (he likes using yucca stalks for this, but any soft, dry, straight wood will work) and wrapped it once in a small hand bow made of a bent stick and a leather strap.
He put the tip of the spindle in the depression on the fire board, steadied the top of the spindle with a hand-size piece of wood, called a palm socket, with another socket-like depression in the center, and began to saw back and forth.
Everything he was using could be made by hand, using little more than a pocketknife, but you would need the time and expertise to make them — something most people don’t have when they really need a fire. Kulbeth carries his around in a somewhat bulky kit.
He’s had the same bow and palm socket for years.
It took only five strokes for smoke to start swirling up from the fire board. Where wood met wood, friction was heating tiny bits of sawdust. The smoldering sawdust piled up in the notch on the fire board. Soon there was a pea-size glowing ember.
Kulbeth set it in the nest of dried grass and cupped the nest up to his face, gently blowing on it, as if teasing a tiny baby. The ember snuffed out.
He tried again. Smoke swirled. A pea-size ember glowed in the notch. The ember went out.
He tried again. Smoke swirled. The fire board broke.
He tried again. Sawing back and forth.
“If nothing else you get warm by doing all this work,” he said with a smile.
The fire board broke again. He’d been working for more than 20 minutes.
He carved a new notch, made sure the depression for the spindle fit perfectly, and started bowing, back and forth.
Smoke swirled. Hot sawdust piled in the notch. A pea-size ember formed. Again, he set it in the nest of dried grass and cupped the nest up to his face, gently blowing.
He blew and blew.
The ember glowed bright red each time, as if blushing, and then suddenly — almost magically — the grass erupted into flame.
Watching Kulbeth you couldn’t help but have new respect for both the flame and the difficulty.
“There is no doubt mankind as we know it was radically, revolutionarily changed by being able to make fire on demand,” said Peter Kummerfeldt, a Colorado Springs-based outdoors-safety expert who taught survival skills to Air Force pilots for 12 years and now conducts courses around the world.
“But in an emergency situation, starting a fire by friction is impractical, unreliable and difficult, so what’s the point?” he said. “By the time most people need to make a fire, if they are lost or something, it is late in the day. They are dehydrated. They are wet. They are likely hypothermic. They need heat fast.”
Kummerfeldt has tried every method so his students won’t have to. Friction is impractical, he said. Matches can let you down. Even waterproof matches are a joke.
The only thing he finds reliable is an inexpensive fire steel and Vaseline-coated cotton balls.
“It’s cheap and nearly foolproof,” he said.
To prove his point, he herded a reporter to his backyard, set out of few cotton balls and said have at it.
It took one strike to ignite the cotton, which burned in a steady wind for 12 minutes.
“Now,” Kummerfeldt said. “Which would you rather have?”
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