Traditional Firestarting – Part II: Fire from Friction

by A Manly Guest Contributor on January 18, 2011 · 12 comments

in Manly Skills, Self-Reliance, Survival

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Darren Bush.

Today we continue our discussion of traditional firestarting with a primer on making fire from friction. Last time we talked about using flint and steel which is a really cool method and actually useful in real life situations.  Fire by friction is more temperamental and requires more technique and more patience.  It is a useful survival technique, but I don’t go out of my way to make fires this way on purpose.  On the other hand, I use my steel quite often.

If you want to understand how fire by friction works, consider the time you slid down the slide at the playground and realized you were going way too fast. You tried to slow yourself down by grabbing the sides of the slide, but your hands soon became too hot to hold on. If you never had this experience, think about how warm your hands get sliding down the rope in the gym. Hot stuff, right?

Imagine concentrating all that energy into a small space. Properly concentrated, a little bit of friction can create a fire very quickly. The trick is patience, patience, and then more patience. “You can’t hurry love,” said Diana Ross. “You just have to wait. Love won’t come easy; it’s a game of give and take.” So is fire by friction. You can’t hurry fire.

The Theory

To create a fire you need heat, fuel, and oxygen. The heat is supplied by friction between the spindle and the hearth board. The fuel is supplied by the hearth board eroding and creating punk: fine, dark brown powdery stuff. The oxygen is provided by Mother Nature. Simple as that.

The Equipment

The hard part is choosing the right materials for a spindle, a hearth board, and a bow. Hearth boards are best made of a softer wood like cedar. I use old shakes; they work great. I have also used cottonwood and willow in a pinch, but nothing smells as good as cedar when you’re starting a fire. Some like catalpa wood.

Spindles should be long, straight pieces of wood. In the west, folks often use mule fat (the bush, not the equine lipid). Horsetail works well too. I find that a good cedar or fir spindle works great. It should be about 9 or 10 inches long and the same thickness, about ¾ to 1 inch, throughout the length of the spindle. If the thickness varies, the string will crawl toward the narrow part of the spindle.

The bow should be a flexible piece of wood with enough spring to maintain tension on a piece of rope. I use willow limbs, but you can use a number of things.

The socket (the top part of the whole equation) should be a harder wood like walnut or oak and should be comfortable to hold. I have used elm or ash; my current socket is half a piece of ash. Osage orange is wonderful and is good for a bow as well if you can get a nice piece bent in the right place.

The Technique

First, grease the top of your spindle. I rub it in (what’s left of) my hair, behind my ears, along my nose, anywhere there are skin oils. If you have some fat, soap or grease, a little dab will do. That means the spindle will NOT have friction on the top but will on the bottom, where it meets the hearth board.

There is a definite technique for holding the bow and drill successfully. For right-handed people, use the directions that follow. For left-handed people, reverse everything. Place your left foot on the left side of the hearth board and the indentations on the right. The cord should twist around the spindle once, and position the bow and spindle so that the business end of the spindle is facing down, the arc of the bow to the right (away from your knee). Hold the socket in your left hand and steady your left wrist against your left lower leg. Move your right foot back from the hearth board a bit, and place the lower end of the spindle in the hearth board where you want an indentation.

Now you’re ready to make an indentation. Pick a spot where the diameter of the spindle lines up with the edge of the hearth board. Then, rotate the spindle slowly and wear away a little dimple, and you’ll see some smoke. When you wear away a large enough dent to hold the spindle easily in the depression, stop and use your knife to cut away a small notch, almost to the center of the spindle dent. This allows the punk dust to fall out of the hole, but it also provides an edge where heat can really build up and eventually cause the punk to ignite. Place a leaf or other small flat object under the notch to catch the fruits of your work.

The trick is slow, methodical, rhythmic movements. Don’t push down super hard, don’t go super fast, just nice and easy does it. You will see punk start to pour out of the notch and land on the leaf or piece of bark collecting the punk dust. Smoke will waft up and smell really good. When you see a good amount of smoke, stop and look at the punk. If it continues to smoke, congratulations! You have a coal in your punk! Now place the coal in your prepared tinder bundle, and blow gently until the coal catches the tinder and bursts into a happy flame.

The Hand Drill

The hand drill is nothing new, but it’s much harder. The thumb loops are a modification by wonderful artist/primitive skills advocate Dino Labiste. The concept is identical, except you need to use your thumbs to apply downward pressure. The spindle is not consumable, so small pieces of wood are carved into “bits” you place in the spindle. Same rules apply–slow, methodical and rhythmic movements, no speed demons or anything like that. Patience wins.

For more information about primitive fire by friction, check out If you’re interested, you can purchase fire-by-friction materials there. It’s a blast. I especially enjoy the contest to build the smallest fire-by-friction set.


Darren Bush is the owner and Chief Paddling Evangelist of Rutabaga, but he’s also an amateur blacksmith, longbow shooter, and primitive skill aficionado. He believes primitive skills are highly undervalued in modern society.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bean January 18, 2011 at 1:49 pm

I enjoyed everything about this article except the fire-starting model. In the world of the wilderness I have inhabited from time to time, a thin leather foot protection would have been completely destroyed within hours. The forest and outback do not suffer fools lightly.
It looks good in a mock-up possibly, but not really credible.

2 John January 18, 2011 at 3:25 pm

Different strokes for different folks, Bean. I’ve done some pretty extensive trips wearing mocs or Vibram Fivefingers with great success. Don’t be so quick to judge techniques that you know nothing about.

As for as the article, good write up. I was lucky enough to learn the bow method at age 13, as I work at a scout camp that still values primitive fire starting. I can go from a cold set to a lit bird’s nest in under a minutes, and have the Minute Man pin to prove it.

A couple tips on technique… I am right handed, and use my left foot to hold down the floor (or hearth) board. My left hand that is holding the thunderhead (or socket) goes under the left knee, so when I am pumping I can use the inside of my leg to stabilize the spindle. If you then take your right leg and kick it way out behind you and then lean onto the spindle, you will get a spark much faster as you are applying MUCH greater pressure.

Remember nice, even strokes that utilize the whole bow length, and pressure, pressure, pressure!

3 M.J.L. MacFabe January 18, 2011 at 5:30 pm

This Article was good. I have never had real success with this method yet though I might try to go slower and more steady next time. As to the foot wear comment, I agree. If those were thin leather on the bottom they would not last long. I live in the Yukon and people up here wear something very similar in the winter and even then they really only put them on when it’s below -5 C other wise they get to wet. The image shows what looks like a thick sole though. If that’s the case they would last a lot longer. but we digress

4 Jay January 18, 2011 at 6:25 pm

In Scouts we always used to call it fire from “fiction”..

5 Steve January 18, 2011 at 7:14 pm

Very well written article that combined impeccable style with great practicality.

Thank you, Darren!

6 Darren January 18, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Just so ya know…

hose mukluks have been across the Boundary Waters in winter, showshoeing to the top of fourteeners, and a few dozen other places where they performed quite admirably. No boots have ever kept my feet as warm…none. The uppers have been replaced at least twice, and it’s probably time to retire them.

By the way, this guy has done okay with them as well…

As I always say, your mileage may vary. I do wear thicker leather boots if the occasion calls for it, but from November to April I pretty much live in mukluks here in Wisconsin. I have another pair of unlined mocs I use for canoe tripping — kneeing with the top of your feet against the bottom of a canoe feels a lot better with a piece of leather there instead of laces and a tongue. And I have a pair of Bean (no hard feelings) boots for sloppy slurpee snow and bird hunting in the fall. And a pair of ballet slippers if I want to perform a pas de deux with Mrs. Canoelover. It’s all about the right gear, right place, right time.

And in the countless days I’ve spent outside over the past 48 years, I’ve only injured my foot once. At age 16 I stepped on a board at a construction site and sent a 16d into my instep…wearing a pair of Red Wings Irish Setters I didn’t blame the boot, I was being careless.

Y’all walk safe. DB

7 Cory January 19, 2011 at 10:35 pm

Steger Mukluks are the best cold weather footwear available, period. I wish I would have researched my boot choice when I bought a pair of lightweight Sorrels for hiking, since I could have purchased Steger arctic mukluks (without the “ribbon”) for about $10 more.

Anyways, another great article. It is good to challenge one’s self and build a fire without matches or a lighter.

8 Simon Frez-Albrecht January 20, 2011 at 11:36 am

Good article, and I like that you address the issue of locking your arm against your leg, that’s something that a lot of the classic survival manuals neglect.

I would suggest adding a tidbit about the tinder bundle that you mention. Maybe just a paragraph about some possible good materials and basic construction. For someone without any background in the subject, I think including that could make a big difference.

Simon in CT

9 Simon Frez-Albrecht January 20, 2011 at 11:46 am

Oh and on the shoe topic: In the summer I often hike in flipflop sandals on a trail, and normally wear nothing more than a pair of lightweight cross country racing flats for bushwhacking. I put at least 700 miles (most of it running) on my last pair before I wore through the rubber on the sole.

Granted, I don’t frequent jungles with venomous snakes and bugs the size of my head, but I wholeheartedly agree with the statement “right gear, right place, right time” by Darren above, and for my environment, boots are overkill at least 9 months out of the year.

10 Bean January 23, 2011 at 11:30 am

Well, I certainly appreciate all the feedback on my foot ware comment. Living in the greater Pacific Northwest, the forest and mountains are ALWAYS extremely damp, regardless of the time of year, so only waterproofed boots have been my choice for long outings lasting more than a couple of days. I concede the point from the writer on below freezing temperatures. Animal skin such as used by Inuit peoples in Alaska, Yukon and Nunavut work very well in the deepest winter months, but then one is walking on ice or snow well below zero C or 15 degrees F .
Thanks for the response.

11 SA Rahim December 18, 2012 at 1:51 pm

I Really Loved the Content on This page. A Great Effort done by you Brother. Keep It Up. Let people like me know How the Ancient Man Lived on This Earth.

12 Tim UK April 4, 2013 at 7:42 am

I know this is an old post but I have some relevant comments (I hope!).

I am a great fan of AoM and read it from the UK; I work with school groups in a woodland centre over here as a volunteer and fire lighting is my subject. For the bow drill I would suggest using the same wood for the drill AND hearth board; as long as you have the right wood in terms of hardness then the set is very efficient as you get equal wear of both friction surfaces and thus generate the all important combustable dust more quickly.

Secondly, the single most important tip I was told was to set a small shell or indented stone in the bearing block. Crush green leaves into this every time you use it and you have a completely zero friction bearing; when you are learning this method and your stability isn’t perfect then simply trying to overcome the bearing friction can get very tiring.

Great site!

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter