7 Methods of Primitive Fire Starting




I have used all of the following methods successfully. Each one CAN produce fire, but is not guaranteed to. My personal favorites are the fire piston and the flint and steel. I have noted a few "ibles" about making both. Certainly you could also purchase both. They are small and easy to pack, and have a high success rate. But I suppose you never know when all you'll have is a few sticks and a shoestring so it's good to know how to use 'em.

Please note that I did not have images available for the techniques listed here so I let Google fix that for me. I noted no copyright notices on the sites where the images were located.

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Step 1: Hand Drill

Hand Drill
Using a hand drill is one of the simplest friction methods, but high speed can be difficult to maintain because only the hands are used to rotate the spindle. It works best in dry climates.

Step One Cut a V-shaped notch in the fireboard, then start a small depression adjacent to it with a rock or knife tip. Set a piece of bark underneath the notch to catch the ember.

Step Two Place the spindle, which should be 2 feet long, in the depression and, maintaining pressure, roll it between the palms of your hands, running them quickly down the spindle in a burst of speed. Repeat until the spindle tip glows red and an ember is formed.

Step Three Tap the fireboard to deposit the ember onto the bark, then transfer it to a tinder bundle and blow it to flame.

Step 2: Two-Man Friction Drill

Two-Man Friction Drill
Two people can do a better job of maintaining the speed and pressure needed to create an ember using this string variation of a friction drill. Step One Have one person apply downward pressure to the drill while the other uses a thong or shoelace to rapidly rotate the spindle.

Step 3: Fire Plough

Fire Plough
This produces its own tinder by pushing out particles of wood ahead of the friction. Step One Cut a groove in the softwood fireboard, then plough or rub the tip of a slightly harder shaft up and down the groove. The friction will push out dusty particles of the fireboard, which will ignite as the temperature increases.

Step 4: Pump Fire Drill

Pump Fire Drill
The Iroquois invented this ingenious pump drill, which uses a flywheel to generate friction. The crossbar and flywheel are made of hardwood; the spindle and fireboard are made from softwoods (as in the hand drill).

Step One Bore a hole in the center of a rounded piece of hardwood and force the spindle in so that it fits tightly. Select wood for the crossbar and bore a larger hole that will slide freely on the spindle.

Step Two Attach the crossbar to the top of the spindle with a leather thong or sturdy shoelace.

Step Three Wind up the flywheel so that the thong twists around the spindle, then press down. The momentum will rewind the crossbar in the opposite direction. Repeat until friction creates a glowing ember.

Step 5: Bow Drill

Bow Drill
Of all the friction -fire-starting methods, the bow drill is the most efficient at maintaining the speed and pressure needed to produce a coal, and the easiest to master. The combination of the right fireboard and spindle is the key to success, so experiment with different dry softwoods until you find a set that produces. Remember that the drill must be as hard or slightly harder than the fireboard.

Step One Cut a notch at the edge of a round impression bored into the fireboard, as you would for a hand drill. Loosely affix the string to a stick bow, which can be any stout wood.

Step Two Place the end of a wood drill the diameter of your thumb into the round impression, bear down on it with a socket (a wood block or stone with a hollow ground into it), catch the drill in a loop of the bowstring, then vigorously saw back and forth until the friction of the spinning drill produces a coal.

Step Three Drop the glowing coal into a bird's nest of fine tinder, lift the nest in your cupped hands, and lightly blow until it catches fire.

Step 6: Firepiston

How does it work?
Air gets very hot when it is compressed under high pressure. A classic example would be the heat that is created when one uses a bicycle pump. But when the air is compressed in a firepiston it is done so quickly and efficiently that it can reach a temperature in excess of 800 degrees Fahrenheit. This is hot enough to ignite the tinder that is placed in the end of the piston which has been hollowed out to accept it.

Ancient examples of the tube itself are of hardwood, bamboo, or even horn. It is closed on one end, very smooth inside and accurately bored. Equal care is taken in the creation of the associated piston. A "gasket" of wound thread, fiber, or sometimes leather insures a proper seal for successfully creating the compression. This gasket is "greased" to help with the seal and to allow free travel of the piston. The walls of the bore must be perfectly straight and polished smooth.

Step 7: Flint and Steel

Flint and Steel
Striking the softer steel against the harder flint will produce sparks to flame your fire. The curved steel striker provided with flint and steel kits is easiest to use, although with some practice you can produce sparks by using the back of a carbon-steel knife blade. (Stainless-steel knives are usually much too hard to shave sparks from.) An old bastard file or an axe head will also work.

Step One Grasp a shard of hard rock, such as flint or quartzite, between your thumb and forefinger with a sharp edge protruding an inch or two.

Step Two Tightly clamp a piece of your homemade char cloth or a lump of birch tinder fungus under the thumb holding the piece of flint. Grasping the back of the striker, knife blade, or file in your other hand, strike a glancing blow against the edge of flint, using a quick wrist motion. If you're using an axe, hold the head still and sharply strike the flint near the blade, where the steel is harder. Molten sparks from the steel will fly off and eventually be caught by an edge of the char cloth, causing it to glow.

Step Three Carefully fold the cloth into a tinder nest and gently blow on it until it catches flame.

Another option is to use a magnesium-and-steel tool, which is an updated version of an ancient method that creates a strong shower of sparks. The advantage of this method is that the magnesium shavings flame briefly at an extremely high temperature, eliminating the need for char cloth or tinder fungus.

Step One Using a knife blade or striker, shave a pile of magnesium flecks into a nest of tinder.

Step Two Strike the steel edge of the tool with the back of a knife blade or the scraper provided to direct sparks onto the tinder.

Step Three When the tinder starts to smolder, gently blow on it until it bursts into flames.

Rock Striker
An ideal tool for starting a spark-based fire, the striker should be made of flint for best results. If you can't find flint, look for quartzite, which is much more common and is hard enough to strike sparks from steel.

Step One Identify quartzite by the many crescent-shaped fractures on the surface.

Step Two Choose a quartzite boulder that is flat or discus-shaped and drop it against a larger rock to chip off an edge. Round or oval rocks are more difficult to break.

Step Three A flake broken from the quartzite boulder is usually sharp enough to use as a striker or knife. If you can't find one to your liking, break the boulder again.

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    19 Discussions


    2 months ago

    I have read books and stories from around the world and learned about some incredible methods for making fire.
    Most are seen in survival and prepping videos and guides.
    But there are two I have never seen and can't seem to locate instructions for using anywhere on the web.
    I've found a few references in libraries but there are no "how to," guides that I can find.
    First is a chemical reaction that I found spoken of in Greek and Mesopotamian literature. The characters in the story used two substances that they kept in small bottles. When the two were mixed and poured over tender you got fire in seconds even when everything was wet!
    The other was called a tinder box. It was made of clay and had three compartments and three lids. One that had small holes in it. You made tender from the bark of a certain tree and packed it in two of the compartments. Whenever you were ready to put out the nights fire you put the lids on two of the compartments and used the whole thing like a scooper to collect a red glowing ember. You put the lid on that section and the whole thing went inside a carrying case with a sling. That ember would continue to burn and smoulder for many hours and it would smoke a little all the time. If the smoke stopped you had an hour or two to replenish the tinder.

    Has anyone heard of these or know of detailed instructions for how they worked and for how to use them?


    9 months ago

    Love the post. However, Does any one know what types of accelerant fuels our ancient ancestors used. An examply as natives used tree pitch in america.
    This is for my school study for my Ancient Histories class. I wanted to know more as this entire class has been amazing.


    2 years ago

    As a "prepper" I got stuck in the rut of *only stocking* the supplies for "the basics"- water, food, seeds, shelter materials, procurement, processing and storage, other various tools, my blades & firearms (in that order, hahaha!). I was *heavy on the materials and light on the knowledge!* We all start somewhere right?

    As a visual learner, I binge watched a show called 'Dual Survival'. It was amazing for learning to start with whatever is available. But I've had my head stuck on one method of ultra-efficient, primitive fire making I once saw, still used in the African bush today, that I've seen before & wanted to try. Its a variation on The Fire Plough! Now I've gotten a crash course refresher, I've also learned a bit more- that pump drill is incredible! I'll be trying that for sure. Thanks for all the info. (A very clear, concise and well written article. From one writer to another.)

    Blessings from the WolfePack-
    -Eli Wolfe ("Mama Wolfe")


    2 years ago

    Anyone can produce a heat source (sparks, burning coal) in any weather conditions. The trick is to convert that brief heat source into a sustained fire. Even the experts like Cody Lundeen have failed to produce a sustained fire when conditions are bad and have spent miserable nights in the wild as a result. The lesson there is two-fold, that shelter is your number 1 priority in a survival situation - NOT fire - and that you must practice, practice, practice. The technique you use is dependent on the materials available so don't focus on just one. If you're new at this, I would recommend watching the TV series Dual Survival and Alone as well as YouTube videos on the various techniques. Some videos are better than others but you'll quickly learn which are which.

    That said, I'd like to register my vote for my #1 spark/coal EXTENDING method and that is a char tin (think Altoids or chewing tobacco tins). Forest fires produce char material that can be gathered (dried if necessary) and carried in that tin. Even if you're using friction techniques, dump that smoldering coal into your char tin and blow away - you've got a mini coal fired forge! Once you've produced your firstfire, it's easy to make your own charred material for your tin to keep it full. Check out video FYEnrb or search for "The truth about flint and steel + unspoken tips" on YouTube.


    2 years ago

    This is a great article.When you're standing in the cold outdoors with no lighter,it would really help to have tried some of these things ahead of time.Once at 15 below at night,my Bic wouldn't light,and my propane heater tried to light,but couldn't.I've tried to improvise a plough fire starter,but dry wood and wood type are critical.A man usually has shoe laces or a belt to work with,even if he's caught unprepared,but it really helps to know where and how to identify usable materials before he freezes,and how to quickly use them.


    3 years ago

    The built-in striking blade takes off enough material to start a fire but will not cause excessive wear, can be flipped over to show a fresh striking surface. Wetfire tinder is typically composed of paraffin wax, which is immune to moisture and a flammable, smokeless material.. http://patriotdeal.com/collections/all/products/flint-firestarter Use this code "PD10"and save 10%.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    check this out



    4 years ago

    Cool instructable! If you were in a cold climate which would be your favorite choice or choices of primitive fire methods?


    4 years ago on Introduction

    Some organized
    thoughts of firemaking Developments , time line for interested history
    bushcrafter buffs ;-)

    Fire skills =(before 8th Century BC) =

    .................................Handdrill and Bow Drill fire making

    ................................Stonefire making (flint on flint)

    ............................... Fireplough

    ............................... Firesaw

    .............................. Lightning.


    Classical Fire skills =(iron age 8th century BC Europe)
    .............................. ParabolicMirrors/Reflectors/BurningMirrors(Ancient Egypt-Present)

    .............................. Metaltinderbox with Flint & Steel

    Magnifying lens (13th century by Roger Bacon)

    .............................. Matches1805

    .............................. Flintlock Lighter 1823

    Modern Fire skills = 1900-Present date

    ................................BicLighter (1973 )

    ................................FerroRod (inventor Carl Auer von Welsbach 19th Century)

    ............................... FresnoLens (mid 19th century French physicist, Augustin Fresnel)

    ...............................9v Battery/radio transistor battery (1950's)& SteelWool (1890's)
    ................................Glycerin (1940's) & Potassium Permanganate
    ( 1950's)

    Cheers ;-)


    5 years ago on Introduction

    This is an awesome instructable. However, it is copied almost directly from this article (except step 6): http://www.fieldandstream.com/photos/gallery/survival/fire/2006/10/seven-ways-light-fire-without-match?photo=0#node-1000014415
    Maybe you should cite it so you don't get in trouble.

    There are actually a few ways of making char cloth. One is to put a cotton rag or material such as a piece of blue jeans into an airtight metal containder and put it in the fire. Another is to burn it and then stomp it out when it's a dark brown color.

    Correct, the point is to burn off some of the carbon so that it doesn't combust. To set them on fire is a silly and inefficient waste of material. But, the author can do whatever works for him. 


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    If your speaking to me a magnifying glass is about as Sherlock Holmes as I wish to get, but no, it's not what I would call primitive.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Might be hard to have charcloth without the fire first. In that case conk works, it is a tree fungus you can pick off the side of a tree and split open. It will hold a spark and smolder. It varies in appearance, but I find it most consistently on birches and beech trees. Google some images.