Learning how to start a fire with sticks is an essential bushcraft skill. Lighters may run out of fuel, matches can get wet and ferro rods can get lost. As long as you know how to create a friction fire, you can still survive.
You build a friction fire by using the heat from friction to form an ember. From the ember, you start the fire.
It’s the old idea of rubbing two sticks together and hoping for the best. Friction fires take time, patience and practice, but once you’ve developed the skill, you can make a fire without a usual fire starter or igniter.
When learning how to start a fire with sticks, here are four different techniques to try, namely, with a Bow Drill, Hand Drill, Fire Plough or Fire Thong.
How to Start a Fire with Sticks: The Bow Drill Fire
A Bow Drill uses a bow to turn a spindle against a board, creating enough friction to create an ember. The bow allows you to turn the spindle faster with less wear and tear on your hands. There are four basic parts to a bow drill: a spindle, a bow, a handhold, and a hearth board.
For a spindle, use a stick about 12″ long and about as wide as your thumb. Find a stick that is fairly straight and smooth.
The wood of the spindle must be dry to get an ember.
Choose a soft wood with a low ignition point. Stay away from resinous woods like pine. The goal is to create a soft, easy to ignite wood dust.
The top wood of choice for the spindle is a dry yucca stalk. (This is also the best for the hearth board.) Other types of wood that work well for a spindle are cottonwood, cedar, ash, beech or aspen.
Make the top pointed and the bottom end rounded. You’ll use a handhold to press down on the top of the spindle. Having a pointed top will create as little friction as possible against the handhold, while having the rounded end against the hearth board will create more friction and more heat.
Notch a shallow groove around the center of the stick to help hold the string in place.
To make a bow, take a stick that is as long as your arm. Tie a string on it. This string can be anything from cordage to a drawstring or a bootlace. Tie the sting to either end of the stick, creating a bow shape. Make sure to leave enough leeway in the string to allow it to wrap once around the spindle while still remaining taunt.
If you have two people, you can use this technique without a bow. Simply have one person on each side pulling the string back and forth to spin the spindle.
The handhold is an object used to press down on the top of the spindle to keep the spindle from flying loose while applying enough pressure to cause friction against the hearth board. It also protects your hand. You can make a handhold from a variety of materials, including a block of wood, shell, a concave stone or even a small jar. If you use a piece of wood, cut a notch in it to hold the end of the spindle.
The hearth board is a piece of dry dead wood. Cut a small depression in the wood to hold the spindle. Then cut a small V-shaped wedge beside it and put some tinder in the wedge. The idea is to heat up the wood enough to create wood dust and an ember and then use that ember to ignite the tinder.
Basic Steps for Using a Bow Drill
First, wind the bowstring around the spindle one time, fitting it into the groove on the spindle. Put the spindle in the depression on the hearth board with the rounded end down. Hold the hearth board securely with one foot so it does not move.
Use the handhold to hold the spindle vertical, applying just enough pressure to keep it in place while still allowing the spindle to spin.
Move the bow back and forth, slow and steady at first, then ramp it up when it begins to smoke. A little bit of sand put in the depression of the hearth board may help to increase the friction of the bow drill.
Once smoke appears from the dust or the tinder, there should be an ember. Add the ember to the tinder and blow gently until it becomes a flame.
How to Start a Fire with Sticks 2: The Hand Drill
A Hand Drill is similar to a Bow Drill, except with a hand drill, you roll the spindle between your hands instead of using a bow. If you don’t have any string or cordage, the hand drill is an alternative to the bow drill. It works best in hot areas with very dry wood.
Make sure that whatever stick is chosen for the spindle is smooth or it will tear up your hands. While rolling the stick in between your palms, press down and roll your hands downward to put pressure on the hearth board.
How to Start a Fire with Sticks 3: The Fire Plough
If you’ve ever seen the movie Castaway, then you’ve seen the Fire Plough. This was how Tom Hanks was able to create a fire on a deserted island.
Take the hearth board and cut a groove in the center. Place some tinder at the edge. Then, run the spindle up and down the groove, pressing down to create friction. Continue until smoke rises from the wood dust or tinder. Use that ember to start the fire.
How to Start a Fire with Sticks 4: The Fire Thong
Instead of using two pieces of wood to create an ember, a Fire Thong uses one piece of wood and a tough piece of rope or cordage to create friction.
Take a long dry branch, a few feet long and at least a few inches in diameter. Split it halfway down the center, leaving the other half intact. Wedge the stick open with a rock or other object. Place tinder in the split at the center. Run the cord through the split and down to the edge of the tinder.
Holding the stick in place, pull the cord back and forth quickly until it smokes. The tinder should ignite or an ember may be created on the stick (or the cordage) itself. This is a lot like the bow drill without the bow or the spindle.
Knowing how to start a fire with sticks is a useful bushcraft skill. Friction fires are probably some of the most difficult fires to start, taking both practice and patience. However, if you ever find yourself without any of the usual ignition sources or fire starters, a friction fire is your next best option.