Fire Building

Written by Roger Perron and David R. Reed


Have your match container attached to YOU AND WATERTIGHT. (Sniper Note: To make waterproof matches use strike-anywhere kitchen matches. Light a candle and coat the match head completely with wax. Don't glob it on too thick and make sure you get some on the wood too. Women's nail polish will also work well. Also remember this, when working in the dark you must always know where everything is. You cannot afford to lose or misplace anything in a survival or combat situation. All equipment should be tied to you using "dummy cords". So that even a dummy can't lose it. On my first winter exercise in the army I lost one of my gloves. My squad leader gave me his and told me never to let it happen again. He suffered while I stayed warm. It was a lesson I never forgot -- both for practical and leadership reasons.)

An axe is the most important tool in the bush, more so than the gun, bow and arrow, next in line is a good machete or those new all purpose shovels. The hunting knife comes next, but well sharpened and a good one. (Sniper Note: In my opinion you can't beat a good K-Bar, USMC, or Air Force Survival knife. The blades on these knives have a high tensile strength, are less brittle than stainless steel, and sharpen quickly with less than ideal abrasive surfaces. A sharpening stone to go with the knife is very important, You can sharpen with other things but unless your blade is extremely dull, you'll only make it worse.)


It needs to be prepared carefully. Choose a site that is sheltered, especially during high winds. Do not light a fire at the base of a tree or a stump. Clear away leaves, twigs, moss and dry grass from a circle at least 2m (6 feet) across & scrape everything away until you have a surface of bare earth. If the ground is wet or covered with snow, the fire MUST be built on a platform. Make this from a layer of green logs covered with a layer of earth or a layer of stones. If land is swampy or the snow deep a raised platform is needed, known as a temple fire.


This hearth consists of a raised platform, built of green timber. Four uprights support cross- pieces in their forks. Across them place a layer of green logs and cover this with several inches of earth. Light the fire on top of this. A pole across upper forks on diagonally opposite uprights can support cooking pots.


If there are particularly strong winds, dig a trench and light your fire in it. Also good for windy conditions: encircle your fire with rocks to retain heat and conserve fuel. Use them to support cooking utensils. Their heat, as well as that from the fire will keep things warm and you can use the rocks themselves as bed warmer. Slate and shale have air pockets that when heated, turn into grenades.


To light a fire from coal, collect a bundle of dry tinder, softly tease a large piece and place the coal in the center, fold the rest of the tinder over the coal and with the tinder ball held very loosely between the widespread fingers. Now whirl the ball round and round at arms' length or if there is a strong wind blowing, hold the ball in the air, allowing the wind to blow between the fingers. The ball will start to smoke as the tinder catches. When there is a dense flow of smoke, blow into the ball, loosening it in your hand. These few last puffs will convert the smoldering mass to flame thus fire from coal at last. Another trick is to attach a pierced can to a 4 foot rope, put the coal & tinder in it, & let it swirl till it smokes & flames.

Select fire area, out of the wind, protected from rain and snow. Secure fuel and build a fire before darkness. Gather adequate supply of fuel first, so that fire can be fed immediately as it grows. Tinder is highly combustible substance in which a spark can be blown into flame and innumerable materials of this sort can be found, and carried in special containers such as tinderboxes, etc.

Tinder impregnated with a solution of saltpeter and later dried MUST be carried in an airtight container. If carried otherwise the saltpeter will become damp with moisture from the air. (Sniper Note: A very good fire starter is a ball of dryer lint soaked with candle wax.)


Many bushmen start all fires, indoors and out, with them. Although in terms of initial effort they are often more bother than a handful of dry twigs, they are fairly dependable. One is easily made by shaving a straight-grained stick of dry split softwood with single knife strokes until one end is a mass of wooden curls. (Sniper Note: Make a "pine cone" looking thing with a knife and piece of wood, the smaller the slivers the easier they will be to light.) The usual procedure is to bunch no less than 3 such fuzz-sticks so that the flames will be able to eat into the shavings, toss on any stray whittling, light the mass and then go through the usual procedure of adding progressively larger firewood.


You will discover that some of the soft inner barks teased and spun into cord will smolder slowly when lighted. This is called: Slow Match. It's worth while to discover which plants whose barks have this property. Lengths of cord made from such a bark can be used to maintain a "coal" for a length of time and so save your precious matches. A slow match is a length of rope or cord that hangs smoldering to give fire when wanted. It is used as a means of preserving fire and also as a mean of carrying it from place to place. It can be made by making a length of cord or thin rope from 1/4" 1/2" in diameter, from suitable barks or palm fibers. Most of the silky soft fiber barks are ideal. When one end is put in fire or against a glowing coal it will take hold of the spark, smoldering slowly. A slow match is a safe way when having no match or fire-lighting material to preserve the vital spark for further use after you have doused your fire and left camp for an hour or 2. For such a use, the slow match should be hung from a branch and exposed to air currents. Birch bark can be detached in the thinnest of layers and these shredded to make tinder. Bark of some cedars is also good. Piece of your shirt or pants, dry moss, lichens, dead evergreen needles, dry hay are among the can be pulverized for tinder, even bird nests. Dry fuzz from pussy willows is a well-known tinder, so is a dry wood that has dry rotted and can be rubbed to a powder. A handful of very dry pine needles often works; you can also use the fluff of the so-called cotton grass, that of the cattails and the downy heads of such flower as mature Goldenrod. Tinder is any kind of material that takes the minimum of heat to make it catch in fire. Good tinder needs only a spark to ignite it.


It is the wood used to raise the flames from the tinder so that larger and less combustible materials can be burned. The best kindling consists of small dry twigs and the softer woods are preferable because they flare up quickly. Those that contain resins burn readily and make fire lighting a snap. The drawbacks of softwoods are that they tend to produce sparks and burn very fast. Have lots of slower burning wood ready when you get the fire going, resinous softwoods like lighter knot burn very fast.

As a general rule, the heavier the wood the more heat it will give, this applies to both dead and green woods. Mixing green & dry wood makes a long lasting fire, which is especially useful at night.


Hickory, Beech or Oak for instance burns well, give off great heat and last for a long time as hot coals, they keep a fire going through the night.


Tend to burn too fast and give off sparks. The worst spark-makers are Cedar, Alder, Hemlock, Spruce, Pine, Chestnut and Willow. Remember that damp wood is sometimes advantageous -- producing smoke to keep off flies, Midges, and Mosquitoes. Use your fire to dry damp wood. Always cut an ample supply of firewood, you never know when you will get a spell of rain or snow. 3 days is best provision. (Sniper Note: In cold weather it is not unusual to burn a cord of wood a day to stay warm. A cord is a heaping full size pickup truck load. If you are conservative you can stretch this considerably. I add this note because those who have little experience will usually gather to little firewood. You do not want to discover this at 10:00 at night when you have 8 hours to go until daylight. Gather a lot more than you think you will need. When first stranded, everyone in your party should devote an hour to gathering firewood. If it looks like there is plenty, then send some people to collect other useful items for the shelter. ) MAKE SURE that you do get one stack ready also you will need 4 mores for your signals -- Should one pile refuse to light the extra one will do it.


These make excellent fuel; frontiersmen of the Wild West used buffalo chips for their fires. Dry the droppings thoroughly for a good smokeless fire. You can mix them with grass, moss & leaves.


Peat is often found on well-drained moors. It is soft and springy underfoot and may be exposed on the edges of rocky outcrops -- looking black and fibrous. It is easily cut with a knife. Peat needs good ventilation when burning. Stacked with plenty of air the peat dries rapidly and is soon ready to burn.


Coal is sometimes found on the surface - there are large deposits in the Northern Tundra.


Shales are often rich in oil and burn readily. Some sands also contain oil - they burn with a thick oily smoke that makes a good signal fire and also gives off a good heat. (Sniper Note: Shales can also explode when heated!)


If you have had a mechanical failure and crashed or broken down with fuels intact you can burn petroleum, antifreeze, hydraulic fluid and other combustible liquids. Even insect repellent is inflammable. Anti-freeze is an excellent primer for igniting heavier engine oils. With a little Potassium Permanganate from your survival kit, you can set it alight in a few seconds. In very cold areas drain oil from an engine sump before it freeze. If you have no container drain it on to the ground to use later in its solid state. Tires, upholstery, rubber seals & much of any wreckage can be burned. Soak less combustible materials in oil before trying to make them burn. Mix petrol with sand and burn it in a container as a stove, or dig a hole and make a fire pit. Burn oil by mixing in petrol or antifreeze. (Sniper Note: Liquid fuels like gas or a mixture of gas and oil when soaked in a sand pot make a very hot, long burning fire. Ice fisherman use a coffee can with a roll of toilet paper soaked in kerosene (fuel oil) to do the same thing. JP-4 (Jet fuel) can be used too. High octane AvGas is pretty dangerous stuff, you must be very careful with it. ) Do not set a light directly to liquid fuels but make a wick and let that provide the flame. The same goes for insect repellent.


About the easiest method is to place a steel or iron plate on a couple of stones a foot above ground level. Light a fire beneath this plate to make it really hot and while it is heating up arrange a pipe or narrow trough about 2 or 3 feet long. One end of this pipe is over the center of the plate and the other end is a foot or so higher than the plate. Into this top end of the pipe arrange by means of a funnel and trough water and sump oil or any oil to be fed down the pipe to the hot plate. The proportion of flow is 2 or 3 drops of water to one drop of oil. When the water and the oil fall onto the hot plate it burns with a hot white flame of very great heat. The rate of flow can be governed by cutting a channel in corks that plug the bottles holding the oil and water, or if tins are used, pierce holes in the bottom of the tins & use a plug to control the flow. This type of fire is excellent for an incinerator when great heat is required to burn out rubbish. It also makes an excellent campfire where strong flame and light are required.


These can also be used with a wick n a suitably ventilated tin to make a stove. Bones can add bulk when fat is being burned as a fire. Sometimes it is the only available fuel in Polar Regions.

Start flame with tinder or a candle, then place a network of bones cover it to support the fat or blubber. Use only a little fat at first. Unless it is surplus, burning fat means sacrificing food value, but seal blubber spoils rapidly and makes good fuel. Whenever you strike a match light a candle. Many things in turn can then be lit from it -- saving matches. Place it in the wigwam of kindling to start a fire and remove it as soon as the flame spreads. Only the smallest amount is burned & even a small candle will last a long time. Paper matches are no good in bush for they easily get wet, or damp, from perspiration & outer wetness. Strong direct sunlight, focused through a lens, can produce sufficient heat to ignite your tinder. The sun shining through broken bottles on dry leaves or pastures causes accidental fires. Your survival kit magnifying glass or a telescope or camera lens will serve instead. Shield tinder from the wind. Focus sun's rays to form the tiniest brightest spot of light. Keep it steady. Blow on it gently as it begins to glow.


Flint is a stone found in many parts of the world. If it is struck vigorously with a piece of steel hot sparks fly off which will ignite dry tinder.


Among the top best to start a fire even after being hidden 3 days in icy mud. A necessity to be included in your survival kit.

FLINT, 2001 BC-AD:

Flint and stone were the common methods before matches were invented and not great skill is needed for their use. Yet the synthetic flint used in a cigarette lighter is a considerable improvement on natural flint. A couple of pieces of synthetic flint pressed into a small piece of Perpex make an excellent emergency fire lighting unit. (Heat the Perpex and press the flints in while it's hot. Hold under the water and the *Perpex will shrink on the flints and hold them securely).


In parts of South East Asia people make fire using this ingenious method of suddenly compressing air in a cylinder and thereby concentrating the heat in the air to a point when the heat is sufficient to ignite tinder. Their fire making sets, frequently a cylinder of bone or hollow bamboo with a bone or wooden piston. A small piece of tinder is inserted into a cavity in the lower end of the piston. The piston is placed in the cylinder and the flattened end opposite the piston head struck a smart blow with the palm of the hand, driving suddenly down the cylinder. Compression of air with concentration of the heat it carries produces a small glowing coal in the tinder placed in the recess of the piston head. Frequently the jar of the blow will shake the tinder loose, so a spark remover is used with the set to pull out the glowing tinder if it lodges in the cylinder. The dimensions are roughly as follows:


You take 2 sticks of wood and you rub them vigorously against one another in a sawing movement. This method is often used in jungle. The stick that you use as the "saw" is a split bamboo or any soft wood type. The other wood stick must be very dry. The friction is done over a mass of good tinder.


Use a piece of cane about 60 cm long and a dry stick. Make a small slit in one of the cane's end, and then lay it on a stone. Maintain this slit open using a small wedge (stone or wood). Place a mass of tinder under the cane and between the cane and the tinder mass pass a thong or lash which you will slide quickly against the cane in a sawing movement. Meanwhile retain the board or cane with your foot.


This method will take 10 minutes, if experienced! Fires have been made throughout the world long ago from glowing embers obtained by the combined use of bow, drill and fire board. Although the technique is simple, considerable diligence and effort is required. You will need a bow, with a thong long enough to loop around the dry stick that is to serve as a drill, you will need a socket with which to hold the drill against a hollow in the fireboard. By moving back and forth and so rotating the drill in the fireboard, you cause so much friction that a spark starts glowing in tinder gathered to catch it. The spark you blow into flame with which the campfire is lighted.


The use of the socket is to hold the drill in place while the latter is being turned. The socket, which for this purpose is held in one hand, can be easily grasped knot of wood with a small dimple cut into it. It can be a smooth stone with a slight depression worn in one side, often found near water.


This variation of the fire bow is particularly useful with very dry tinder. Instead of using a bow to spin the spindle, just use your hands. Roll the spindle between the palms of the hands, running them down with each burst of spinning to press the spindle into the depression in the baseboard.

When the friction makes the spindle tip glow red, blow gently to ignite the tinder around it. Putting a pinch of sand in the spindle hole increases the friction and speeds the heating of the tinder. A cavity below the spindle dimple with a passage between the two will allow embers to fall into your tinder.


This method of ignition also works by friction. Cut a straight groove in a soft wood baseboard and then plow the tip of hardwood shaft up and down it. This first produces tinder & then eventually ignites it.


Among the North American woods favored for making fire by friction are: Poplar, Tamarack, Basswood, Yucca, Balsam Fir, Red Cedar, White Cedar, Cypress, Cotton-Wood, Elm, Linden, Willow. The drill and the fireboard are both often made of a single one of the above woods but not ALWAYS the case. When not sure of type of wood see below: PUNK. *


The drill should be a straight & well-seasoned stick from 1/4 to 3/4" in diameter & some 12 to 15" long. The top end MUST be as smoothly rounded as possible so as to incur a minimum of friction. The lower end for maximum of friction MUST be blunt. A longer drill, perhaps one nearly a yard in length is sometimes rotated between the palms rather than by a bow. (Hand drill method) The hands maintaining as much downward pressure as possible are rubbed back and forth over the drill so as to spin it as strongly and as swiftly as possible. When they slip too low, they MUST be shifted back to the top to the top with as little delay in rotation as possible. The method is however not as effective as bow and socket.


The size of the fireboard that may be split out of a dry branch can be a matter of convenience. The board can be about 1" thick and about 3 to 4" wide, and long enough to be held under the foot. Using a knife or a sharp stone, start a hole about 3/4" from the edge of the board. Enlarge this hole, thus fitting it, & the end of the drill at the same time, by turning the drill with the bow as later described. Then cut a notch from the edge of the fireboard through to the side of this cup. This slot or undercut " V" that is usually made wider and deeper at the bottom. It should be at least 1/8" into the hole itself, will permit the hot black powder that is produced by the drilling to fall as quickly as possible into tinder massed at the bottom of the notch. (Generous bundle of tinder under "V" cut!).


The bow string from a shoe lace to a twisted length of rawhide etc. is tied at both ends so as to leave enough slack to allow its being twisted once around the drill. NOTE: To use a fire set, the drill is put under the thong, and twisted so that the drill finally is on the outer side of the thong & with that portion of the thong nearest the handle of the bow on the upper side of the drill. This is important. If the thong is on the wrong way on the drill, it will cross over itself & cut in a few strokes, also the full length of the stroke can't be obtained.


The campfire, first having been made ready to ignite. The tinder is bedded under the slot in the fireboard. If you are right handed, you kneel on your right knee and place the left foot as solidly as possible on the fireboard. Take the bow in the right hand, looping the string over the drill. The drill is set in the cavity prepared in the fireboard. Pressure from the socket, which is grasped in the left hand, holds the drill in position. You can grip the socket more steadily you will find if you will keep your left wrist against your left shin and hug the left leg with that arm.

The bow is held in the right hand with the little and third fingers outside the thong so that by squeezing these 2 fingers the tension of the thing can be increased. Press down on the drill, but not enough to slow it, when you start twirling the drill by sawing back and forth with the bow. Only a light pressure is put on the socket. Now start drawing the bow smoothly back and forth in sweeps as long as the string will conveniently permit. Maybe you have dropped a few grains of sand into the cup to increase friction. When the hole starts to smoke, work the bow even faster, never stopping the swift even action. Press down more firmly on the drill. When the drill is smoking freely & that you have the Punk grinding out easily so that the V cut is full of it, put extra pressure on the socket at the same time give 20 to 30 faster strokes with the bow.

Lift the fill cleanly and quickly from the foot piece. Fold some of the tinder over lightly and blow gently into the "V" cut. If you see a blue thread of smoke continuing to rise, you can be sure you have a coal, you will see it glowing red. Fold the tinder completely over the foot piece & continue blowing into the mass. The volume of smoke will increase and a few quick puffs will make it burst into flame.


Hot black powder (punk) will begin to ground out into the tinder. Keep on drilling, for the heartier a spark you can start glowing there, the quicker you will be able to blow it into a flame. By examining the "punk" you can learn if the wood used is suitable for fire making. The punk which will produce a glowing coal MUST feel slightly gritty when gently rubbed between the fingers and then with more pressure it should rub gradually to a silky smoothness as soft as face powder. This testing of the "punk" IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT; if you do not know for certain that the woods you are using are suitable for fire lighting.


There are other refinements that are worth knowing: The boring or burning of a hole for the thong at the tip and also through the handle of the bow. The end of the thong at the tip of the bow has a thumb knot tied on the topside. The hole through the handle takes the long end of the thong, which is then wound round the handle in a series of half hitches. This hole in the handle enables you to adjust the tension of the thong with greater accuracy. A socket of shell or smooth grained stone with a hole in it is less liable to burn than a socket of wood. Tinder MUST be carried in a waterproof bag. If you have any to cartridges to spare, empty the powder out of one or two to start your tinder. Battery sparks can be used to ignite tinder.

Other items can be used to focus the sun's rays:

Watch crystals: (Sniper Note: If the watch is a Rolex or look alike, use the magnifier over the date to concentrate suns rays.)


Make a small hole in any paper sheet, spit in this hole or put a clear water drop that you present to the sun rays as a magnifying glass


A survivor's pack is not likely to include a complete chemistry set but there are some very common chemicals that if they are available, can be used to produce combustion. The following mixtures can all be ignited by grinding them between rock or putting them under the friction point in any of the types of fire drill already described. Mix them carefully, avoiding contact with any metal objects. All are susceptible to dampness and MUST be kept dry.


In a mixture of 3/1 by volume is a fierce burning incendiary that can also be ignited by dripping a few drops of Sulfuric Acid on to the mixture.


Mixed 9/1 is less sensitive and temperature is a critical factor in how long it takes to ignite. The addition of Glycerin will also produce ignition. Sulfuric acid is found in car batteries (Sniper note: Boil car battery acid in a bottle until it gives off white fumes. This will concentrate the acid enough to be used in pyrotechnics.)

Potassium Chlorate:

Is found in some throat tablets, their contents may be listed on the pack. Try crushing one & see if it works. (Sniper Note: If you have enough, the white tips of kitchen matches contain plenty, and can be used to make explosives -- Handle with care!)


Smoke is the result of incomplete combustion thus by feeding the fire with small dry twigs which catch fire almost instantly the size of them about 1/8" thick there will be no tell tale blue smoke haze.


Made by filling and old tin or small hollow piece of branch with clay earth, packed tight at the bottom. The earth should come to about an inch from the top of the tin. Into this a twig is pushed a piece of old cotton rag or very finely teased bark fiber is wound round the twig to serve as a wick. Fat from your cooking is poured on top of the earth and when the wick is lit the lamp burns with a clear flame. The amount of light can be controlled by the size of the wick.


In building a campfire is to make pigsty construction with heavy logs on the outside and then pack the inside with light brushwood. Such a fire is rarely a success. The light inside wood burns out in a quick blaze of glory but the heavy outer logs lack sufficient heat to get them properly alight and also having only small points of contact with each other at the corners do not burn well nor do such fires give out a good radiation of heat.

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