by Howard Faxon

Copyright© 2015 by Howard Faxon

True Story: This isn't a story. It's a reference work for authors and others interested in how to ignite and control a fire. Please don't try to rate or grade it.

Tags: MaleDom  

This was an incredibly difficult paper to write the research and verification involved came quite close to defeating me several times.

Starting a fire is the hardest when you need it the most.

These instructions are for times such as that.

A calm or gently breezy, dry day makes the job a lot easier!

One, it's damned hard to start a fire with wet wood. How can you tell wet from dry firewood?

If it feels cool or cold when held against your lips then it's too wet to START a fire with.

It can be dried out by setting it quite close to an existing fire until the surface chars a bit, enough to catch and burn.

It take a minimum of an hour or so, depending on conditions.

If the weather's wet and the ground is soaked break off dead twigs and branches from standing trees for your kindling.

Cut standing dead trees for your firewood if no wood is available that's propped up off the wet ground. If the ground's frozen, consider it wet.

If everything you find is wet, unless the wood's been soaking in water the heartwood is dry. Split out the dry stuff.

Split wood has more surface area than cut wood. All things being equal, split wood starts easier and faster than cut or worse, round log wood.

Lay a floor beneath your fire set with reasonbly dry stuff before you try to get a fire started.

It keeps the cold and the moisture from the ground away from firemaking when it's the most vulnerable.

It reflects the heat back into your initial fire, kick-starting it a bit.

There's four thicknesses of wood to stockpile before you start your fire. Yes, STOCKPILE. Make sure you're ready to make your fire first!

One, tiny twigs the size of a pencil lead or smaller. Feather sticks can substitute for this. Have a double handfull at hand.

Two, pencil-sized twigs. Have ready a good thick handfull.

Three, small split branches the thickness of your finger. The amount you want depends on the weather. I try for eight to twelve when it's nasty.

Four, split logs the size of your wrist or larger.

Ready four to eight pieces to burn while you break up more wood, unless you have to go a ways to chase it down.

Drag your branches and such close to your camp. How many? My rule is to work until I can't see straight.

It takes three logs or more to make a flaming fire. Two logs make embers.

I'm no back-woodsman, but my experience says that it needs a chimney effect to make an upwards draft.

Before you can burn any wood you need FIRESTARTERS: that which takes the initial spark or flame and bootstraps it into somthing that won't easily be put out.

Shaved curls or firesticks are the fire-starter's friend. The curls have a high surface area and a low mass.

That promotes the fire catching. Place them on the initial fire edges up-and-down, not flat.

When I first got into buckskinning I made my firestarters by taking a block plane to the corners of a 2x4 and shaving off big concentric curls of pine.

A guy in the camps named Glade used to make self-bows out of osage orange. I begged him for those curls. They were tissue thin and burned like crazy!

When I cheat I use either fire blocks like Esbit solid fuel or military trioxane or hexamine tabs, cotton balls saturated with vaseline (a cheap, excellent favorite) or wax-and-lamp-oil-impregnated makeup removal pads that can be torn apart to expose easily ignitable fibers.

Use one part paraffin lamp oil to eight parts paraffin wax. Cool the wax-soaked makeup pads on aluminum foil so you can peel them off.

I store both types of messy firestarters in ziplock baggies.

The dry fiberous inner bark of some trees, when worked between your hands or pounded to shreds, makes very good tinder.

Most trees with fissured bark have a generous layer of flammable inner bark, also called cambium or bast. A few trees I know of that provide bast which has been harvested for rope-making are: Cedar, Linden or Basswood, Elm, Hickory, Oak, Cedar, Mulberry, Chestnut, Aspen, Cottonwood and Maple.

Look for a dead fallen tree on which the bark is coming loose. If the bark hasn't come loose on its own then you'll have to work for it.

Split the bark with a tough knife or axe head, peel it off and scrape away the inner bark with the back of your blade.

The stuff is somewhat hygroscopic--it sucks moisture from the air, becoming hard to use as a spark catcher.

I recently watched a YouTube video of a guy fighting with that, and solved it by striking sparks into a small tin of dry punkwood pieces.

They almost always provided a glowing ember with one strike of a ferro rod.

This will work with flint and steel as well, but the sparks are less generous and colder, making it more difficult to kick-start. Still, it works dependably.

A lit candle stub can boot-strap a lit match or a lighter flame into a fire quite nicely but it's vulnerable to wind and rain.

If it's all you've got, poke a hole in your fire base deep enough to protect the candle flame and prop heavier sticks around it, but leave enough room over the candle for your kindling. Once your flame gets going poke a stick into the hole the candle's in and pry it out to let the wax do its job.

Once the flame catches the residual melted wax provides more fuel. Two for the price of one.

How do you light a candle without a lighter or a match?

Get some char-cloth or punkwood glowing.

Have prepared some spalls--toothpicks or small splits that have been dipped in molten sulfur.

Touch the sulfur to the glow and blow gently. The sulfur ignites into a ghostly blue flame at a much lower temperature than wood does.

A candle may be ignited from that. They're quite difficult to put out. DO NOT get bits of molten sulfur on yourself. It causes scars.

Scraping away at fatwood with a rasp gives little curls and sawdust. It should be sticky and clump up when squeezed between your fingers.

Making it is a great way to work on your woods kit while you're trapped indoors.

A tiny little pile of this the size of your thumb nail will easily catch flame from a flint and steel.

Remember to take along or make on-site little split out slivers of fatwood before you strike your flint or ferro rod. It's wicked good.

Fatwood comes from the stump and roots of dead resinous trees such as: Pine, Fir, Yew, Larch, Juniper, Balsam and Cedar.

Fatwood should smell something like pine incense or turpentine. Often you can see the threads of shiny hardened tree sap in a bright light.

Some hardware stores sell plastic bags of it. Check near the charcoal.

A bit of dried moss splashed with lamp oil can be your very close friend. Hobby shops carry bags of dried sphagum moss for flower arranging and indoor terrariums.

Steel fur wetted with lamp oil will catch a spark as well, but it's a bit more 'delicate' and flickers out quickly.

Keep these in pill bottles or sealed up in zip-lock baggies.

Some people swear by birch bark. If it's available scrape up a little pile of the outer bark's shavings with your knife then get some sparks in there. Feed your initial flames with little curls of more birchbark. They burn hot and fast, but go out equally fast. Of course, you have to have the birch trees around to start with...

Try asking an arborist (tree removal specialist) or a place that sells firewood for a stash.

Offer to harvest it yourself. Bring a paper shopping bag!

Red or white Horseshoe fungus tissue from under the top skin will catch a spark and glow for a relatively long time--hours for a big one.

They can be used to start a fire or to transport fire when moving campsites.

Black Chaga fungus is known to be good for this as well.

You can buy rolled up paper or blocks of sawdust impregnated with wax too. You can easily make these at home by using a sacrificial paper egg carton to mold your firestarters in. Cut the whole thing apart when the wax cools.

The boyscout method of using dryer lint for the fibrous material can have drawbacks if there's a lot of synthetic fibers in the lint.

This is not an exhaustive list by any stretch.

FIRE BUNDLE: Also called a fire nest. My best practices involves twisting and smashing dried grasses until they fuzz up, bending them in half and wrapping the ends of the stems with more strands of grass. Tie them together. You should have a hole in the middle. That's where the coal goes.

Do the same thing with inner tree bark. Increase that surface area!

Given you've got a tiny little promise of a fire burning. Pick it up on a piece of bark or some such and lay it in the middle of your bundle. Fold it shut enough to make positive contact with the bundle material. Blow smoothly and steadily on it until it blows up into a good flame.

Keep it ABOVE your face as you blow, not UNDER. The smoke will choke you out, and when it ignites, well, The first time it happens to you, you'll probably scorch your face. I lost half my beard!

Quickly put that flaming handful of fire under a big double handfull of twigs.

Ah, hell. Lets be organized about this.


Clear a spot making sure there's no leaves, roots or peat under your fire lay. You want to see bare mineral soil there. No organic stuff.

You DON'T want to start an uncontrolled fire.

Along the same lines, if it's windy build your fire in a pit.

If it's not to be built in a pit, circle the fire lay with rocks taller than the size of your heaviest firewood. CONTAIN that fire.

Keep a bucket of water near the fire. Not to heat for your use, but to drown the damned thing if it gets loose.

That's written into the rules of every buckskinning camp I've ever been to. They check, too!

If a previously used fire burn is available, build your fire lay over that. Don't char more dirt than you have to.

Nothing grows on severely burned soil such as that found under a camp fire for a long, long time.

Besides, those cold dead chunks of char will eventually catch fire which is wood you won't have to find and carry.

It makes good sense to harvest partly burned wood from other firepits. (Hopefully, ones that nobody else has laid claim to! That's a good way to make enemies.)

If you're in a leave-no-trace environment or you're on turf or grass, cut a hole in the turf deeper than the roots go and lever up the piece of sod like a tile.

Put it aside and, if you have it, wrap the sod in some wet canvas or a gunny sack above and below. That'll keep it green and healthy.

Later, when you're fire's out and you've drowned the embers cold, put the sod turve back.

A little more water over the top and some foot work will make it look like nothing ever happened.

You don't need more than an eight inch by eight inch fire to cook over. It's easier to break your wood into larger pieces, though.

Your fire will be the size of your firewood unless it's in a pit or between stones taller than your wood is thick.

Build your initial fire vertically. Stack things up. Fire likes to climb. This will increase your chances of getting it going in bad conditions.

Assemble a platform under where you're going to start your fire made of thick tree bark or sticks laid tightly together.

Make sure you have all your kindling and first thicker wood pre-cut and ready to hand.

Dry grasses formed into a 'nest' or fire bundle will carry the glow from a bit of ignited charcloth, a coal generated from a bow drill or directly from sparks thrown by a ferro-cerium rod.

Do whatever you have to do to get that initial flame going.

You can use virtually any of the items listed under "firestarters" above for this and substitue for the next item on this list.

The tiny little dry twigs harvested from a pine tree or shaved curls will net you a blaze. Three firestick "flowers" gives a good result.

(split-up sticks of fat-wood work very well for the twigs as well as the pencils.) pencil-thick, then finger-thick sticks will cascade your fire into sturdy life.

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