How To Start A Stick Fire

In our last post, we showed you how to start a fire with a water bottle and a few sheets of paper. And is a great technique in case you are stranded out in the wilderness or a deserted island.  But what if you are left with nothing more than the shirt on your back?

In that case, you have no other option but to start a friction fire by rubbing some sticks together. This is also sometimes called the “Fire Plow” method.  And if you’ve never learned this method, we recommend you do, because it’s not as easy as you may think. And learning this can mean the difference between life and death.  You probably remember the movie “cast away” with To Hanks.  He actually used the fire plow method to start his fire.

Below, we outline some step-by-step instructions on how to make a fire with sticks Tom Hanks style, along with a great video from our friend Grant Thompson:

** Follow instructions below for more details & tools to use **

Making a Cutting Tool By Banging 2 RocksStep #1: Find/Make a Cutting Tool

Next, lets go look for some sharp rocks.  Find one that’s Sharp enough, and strong enough to carve and shape the wood we find; the base wood, and the stick.

However, It may not be possible to find a sharp enough rock , so we may have to resort to smacking 2 rocks together to produce one.  But don’t worry!  This is a lot easier then it sounds once you know a good technique, and the right type of rocks which are knappable.

Plus we’re not looking to shape an arrowhead or anything fancy like some flintknapping expert.  We just want to break off a nice sharp stone with just one blow.  There’s a popular known technique known as percussion flaking.

Upon much research, we think this to be one of the best percussion flaking methods to apply in producing sharp rocks with very little effort.  Christian Noble demonstrates that in this video.

Now that looks easy doesn’t it!?  But only if you’re breaking off a piece from a knappable rock.  The problem lies in the fact that most rocks are not knappable; meaning that they do not have a predictable fracture.  So stones like sandstone, granite, limestone, or most volcanic rocks will not work.  However, these stones will serve as good hammer stones for breaking apart the knappable rocks.

So what your interested in is finding some knappable rocks that have a concoidal fracture, such as quartz, silcrete, Jasper, Basalt, chert, Agate, Obsidian, Porcelainite, Shale and some other sedimentary rocks.  This link also provides a long list of many other knappable stones you can find.  Also many of these stones are described in the 2:30 -to- 3:55 section of this video.

It’s not really that important to memorize any of the aforementioned stones.  To determine any rocks knappability, you just need to strike it with another rock near the edge so that the rock fractures off, or breaks off in a nice uniform fashion.

Search For KindlingStep#2: Gather Tinder

First, lets go look for some tinder. This will be what we transfer the burnt embers onto to ignite a flame.

If you’re on an island, there will likely be coconut trees. And at their base, you should find some coconut husks. These husks will work perfectly as tinder because they are packed with very fine dry fibers that should burn easily.

If no coconut trees are present, then collect some dried weeds, dried grass, dried leaves, or anything that is easily combustible such as tiny sticks, twigs, or tiny wood shavings.

You can also find some of the driest trees around, and chip off its tree bark with your sharp rock.  Make sure any tinder collected is dry. If not, let it dry out in the sun.

find some dry soft woodStep #3: Gather Your Wood

Ok, now you’re equipped with your tinder and cutting tool, let’s go gather some wood to keep our actual fire going.

It’s It is best to gather at least 4 different size types of wood.  Starting from skinny twigs and/or wood shavings, and then working your way up gradually to bigger branches, or logs.  Make sure that you have a good bundle of each.

This will allow you to build big, long-lasting fires to cook with, keep warm, keep animals away, and act as a good signal for being rescued.  Soft wood can work, but hardwood may work better because it burns slower and longer.

If there is no broken limbs , or tree logs laying around, you may need to use your newly constructed cutting tool/stone to cut down some skinny branches/trees if they are too thick to break by hand.

And a good rule of thumb to keep in mind when collecting your wood, is that if the twigs and sticks breaks easy — if you can really hear it snap, it’s going to burn and catch better in the fire.  Anything that’s green or wet or too bendy, that stuff isn’t going to burn as well.

Now Gather Wood For Creating Your Fire…

Great!  Now you got all your wood for sustaining your fire, but now you need wood that will help you create it!  This is the wood for your “Fire Plow”, your base and stick tools.  Try to find a soft, dry wood such as: hibiscus, sotol, or cottonwood.  These are all lightweight soft woods, and when they are dry, the easier it will be to start your fire.

prepare tinder in a nestSrep#4: Prepare Tinder In A Nest

We first need the tinder to catch fire before we can get the twigs and smaller branches to catch fire.

If using coconut husks, separate it’s fine fibers into a nest-like fashion; shredding the material into stringy fibers  This will allow any embers dropped inside to ignite many of the strands all at once.

If you gathered dried weeds, grass, leaves, tiny sticks, twigs, wood shavings, prepare in the same method, but make sure it’s compact enough so that the embers we place inside don;t fall through the bottom.

If you scraped bark off a tree, you should pound this material with a stone to separate its fibers. The fibers should then be wadded back together into whatever other tinder material you have to prepare your nest.

Yo should be good to go, now just set this nest aside, and go onto the next step.

Prepare The Fire Plow SticksStep#5: Prepare Your Fire Plow

It’s important to note that when preparing both the “stick(plow)”, and the “base”, it’s best they both come from the same branch. And if possible, the base wood should be harder than the stick so the groove doesn’t get too deep.

Prepare The Plow

Use the sharp stone you found or created from step#1 to make your plow.  Fashion it with the following dimensions: 1 foot X 1 inch X 1/3 inch.  And carve the tip of the plow so it comes to a 45 degree angled point on both sides.

Prepare The Base

Use your sharp rock to carve a flat spot on top of the base of the wood.  Shaving it down until you got a surface at least 8 inches long.  Now make a shallow groove down the center to act as a track for guiding your plow.  Now wedge something underneath the front portion of the base to help stabilize it.  Also sit on the back portion of the stick to help stabilize it.  Now get comfortable, because your ready to start making fire.

Begin Rubbing Sticks TogetherStep#6: Begin Friction Process

Make sure you are sitting on the bottom base stick, and that it is stable, and you are comfortable.  Your strong hand should be on the bottom.  Overlap your weak hand over the other, making sure to leave about a 1-inch gap at the bottom portion where the plow meets the base.  The stick should nestle securely at the base of your thumbs.  See top portion of diagram on left.

Now set the tip firmly in the center of the groove track, and proceed to push it back-and-forth, making sure to keep it at a 45 degree angle(the same angle you set your tip at).

Don’t worry about applying too much pressure yet.  When the heat of the friction builds to where the wood is ready, you’ll notice a change in how it feels, and might even see a little smoke.  When you reach this point, you can start pushing a little faster, and using your strong hand to push down adding a little more pressure to the tip.

You should see a lot more smoke now, and bits of charred wood dust start to pile up at the top.  Put your back into it, and increase the pressure, making sure that the tip is stopping just short of the pile accumulating at the top.  Once you see a little ember burning, continue a little longer just to be sure.

dump burning coal in tinderStep #7: Dump Embers In Tinder

Once you stop, it should continue smoking.  Now go and grab your coconut husk, or tinder bundle you prepared earlier and press right up against the side of your burning coal.

Now turn the ember base over the tinder material, and tap the bottom with the stick to make sure all of the burning embers transfer out.

Now you can loosely cover it over with more fibers, or tinder material.  This will protect it from any wind gusts, and continue to smolder.

Make sure not to pinch it too tight, or you will smother it out.  Also don’t hold it too loose as the other fibers wont burn.  Allow the heat to build slowly.  There is a certain amount of air it needs to get, depending on how much tinder that you actually used.

The amount of smoke that generating out from the tinder is a good indication of how well it is working.  You can blow gently into the bundle to help speed up the process.

You Just Made FireThe Fire Ignites

When the smoke becomes thick, and you start to feel it heat up, you can start getting more aggressive, and waving it around to allow more airflow.  You can also blow right into the center of it.  Keep doing this until your flame ignites.

Once you have a flame, quickly rush it over to where you have your first level of kindling set up(wood shavings, small sticks, twigs, etc).  If this kindling doesn’t catch fire, or your flame goes out, you can usually re-ignite it by blowing some more air into it, or by adding in more tinder.  Just as long the smoke is thick, this means that there are burning embers, and can easily be re-ignited.

Well, you just learned how to make fire from scratch.  So go have fun trying to make one.  And please let us know how you did.



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Image Attribution:

Stone-Age Cutting Tool II, by Stephanie Watson, used under CC BY / Modification: image resized(made smaller)

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