Primitive Fire Making

The 3 most common methods


CAUTION: The following should be done OUTDOORS in a SAFE AREA. DO NOT add any accelerant (such as gasoline, lighter fluid or gunpowder) to your tinder or fire lay. Doing so WILL cost you, at the very least, your eye brows and other facial hair - IT COULD EVEN COST YOU YOUR LIFE AND THE LIVES OF OTHERS AROUND YOU. Eddie Little Bear's Sundries accepts no responsibility for damages resulting from the improper and/or unsafe use of this material. Above all, keep your Common Sense with you at all times!


The three most common methods of Primitive Fire Making are the Burning Lens, the Bow Drill, and Flint & Steel. A well educated Mountain Man, Long Hunter, Voyager, Backwoodsman, etc., should be well versed in all three methods. In fact, it is useful knowledge for anyone who camps - whether you are a Reenactor or not.

Of these three methods, the Burning Lens is the fastest and easiest. However, it requires the Sun, so it is not truly reliable - being dependant on the weather and/or time of day. A Burning Lens is simply a small. powerful magnifying glass. Suitable ones can be found at most any sporting goods store (the bigger Swiss Army knives include one).

The Bow Drill is the slowest and most physical method. But it is also the most reliable and about the only one a person could make, from scratch, in the field. It consists of a Fireboard made from a soft wood (such as Pine or Bass Wood), a Drill made from a hard wood (such as Maple or Oak), a Bow made from a piece of "springy" wood (such as Ash, Hickory, Osage or any "green" wood for an emergency bow) and a leather or Rawhide lace (such as a work boot lace), and a Hand Piece made from either a smooth, dimpled rock or a piece of hard wood.

Flint & Steel is the best all around method. It is nearly as fast and easy as a Burning Lens and every bit as reliable as a Bow Drill. It's main draw back is the Steel itself. Contrary to popular opinion - knives, hatchets, gun barrels and belt buckles are RARELY- IF EVER made from the proper steel for starting fires. And, in fact, damage can result from attempting to use any of these items. Fire making steels should only be purchased from a reliable Primitive Suttler. The flint used can be "true" or English Flint or any of the other rocks in the flint family, such as Chert, Quartz, Obsidian, ect.. Many of these can be readily found almost anywhere in North America. (Look around creeks, streams and small rivers for fairly smooth rocks that fracture to a sharp edge when struck with a blunt object). For our purposes, we will refer to any rocks of this family as Flint.

Whichever method you choose, you will need Tinder. There is no great mystery to Tinder. It is simply very fine kindling. Most materials will work, as long as they are Dead, Dry and Natural. Old (rather than new) rope: hemp, sisal, jute, manila. Inner bark of most dead trees: cedar, birch, pine, cotton wood, spruce, juniper, etc. Grasses, weeds, and reeds; cattail heads, nettle, milkweed, dog bane, yucca, etc. Tow (the fibers from the flax plant) and raw, untreated cotton are also excellent forms of tinder. Tease rope, tow or cotton strands into fibers. Pound bark into fibers. Rub grasses and weeds into fibers. The finer the Tinder the better, but don't make it into dust. You want it in strands, like hair. Additionally, for reasons I can't explain, it works better if your tinder is made of two (or more) types mixed together. Once collected, your Tinder should be kept in a waterproof container so that it stays dry.

Another useful item is Char-Cloth. Char cloth is basically what the name implies, cloth that has been partially charred. Small squares or circles of untreated, 100% cotton or linen cloth are placed in a small can, which is sealed except for a small hole in the top. This can is then placed in the coals of a fire for 5-10 minutes (depending on the size of the can, type and thickness of cloth, etc.). Remove the can from the coals when it stops smoking from the hole in the top. DO NOT open it until it is cool to the touch. After it is cooled, the cloth should have a uniform black color and the feel of Silk. Cotton or linen strings or shreds can also be used and, in some Reenactor's opinions, are more authentic. However, they are somewhat fragile after charring and I do not recommend them for beginners. Char is almost necessary for the Flint & Steel method, although some Old Timers claim they can get along without it. It also makes the Bow Drill method much quicker and easier. When used with a Burning Lens, it makes the fire starting process almost instantaneous.

In addition to the above mentioned items you will also need firewood and kindling arranged in your choice of fire lays. I won't go into a discussion of that here, because hopefully you already know how to make a campfire using modern methods - such as matches and lighters. This is not intended to teach you how to make a campfire, but rather how to start it in the Traditional ways.

One other item is required for all open fires - Fire safety equipment, such as a water bucket, sand, or a fire extinguisher. Having a "buddy" on hand, just in case, is never a bad idea either - especially for beginners.

Once you have your materials assembled, you are ready to start your campfire. With all the methods you start out with a small ball of your Tinder. How much is needed varies depending on the type of tinder used, but generally a golf ball-sized bunch (when compressed) will be about right.

Fluff the ball and form it into a small "birds nest". Assuming you will be using Char-Cloth, you should place a single piece of it in the center of your nest. Position yourself within arms reach of your fire lay with your back to the wind.

Burning Lens Focus the Sun's rays through your lens to form a pin-point on the char. Instantly you will see a glow on the char. If you are not using char, continue focusing on your tinder until it begins to smoke. Set the lens aside and gently blow on the char or tinder until the glow begins to grow.

Bow Drill Place you tinder partially under the V-notch in your Fireboard. Wrap the lace around the drill one turn. Place the sharp end of the drill in the hand block and the dull end into the fire block. Begin to work the bow back and forth, like a sawing motion. Slowly increase your speed while keeping a steady rhythm. Watch for smoke coming from the fire block. Continue "sawing" until the smoke is constant (not just an occasional puff). Quickly set the bow and drill aside and dump the hot "sawdust" from the block onto the char. Gently blow. If no glow is seen, repeat the above. It may take several tries to get the "sawdust" hot enough to catch the char. If you are not using char the procedure is the same, just a little more difficult.

Flint & Steel Find a sharp edge on your flint. If no sharp edge is available, you will need to "knap" a fresh edge. This is done by gently tapping the edge with your steel until a piece flakes off. You should now have a sharp edge. If you don't, your rock probably isn't flint. Assuming it is, you should get sparks by striking the flint and steel together at a 45 angle. This can be done either by holding the steel steady at the desired angle and striking the flint on it or by holding the flint steady at the desired angle and striking the steel on it. Either method is acceptable, so try both and see which works better for you.

If you are holding the steel steady, you will notice that your sparks go downward. Hold the steel 2-3 inches above your birdsnest while striking and shoot the sparks onto your char. When a spark catches on your char, set your flint and steel aside.

If, you are holding the flint steady, you will notice that your sparks go upward. So you need to take your char out of your birdsnest and lay it on top of your flint, holding it in place with your thumb. When a spark catches on your char, drop the char into your birdsnest and set your flint and steel aside. This method is often easier - especially on windy days.

With either method, once you have a spark on your char, gently blow on the char until the glow begins to grow.

All Methods Many beginners tend to panic at this point and start rushing. You do not need to rush. Slow and steady is safer and actually works better. Lift your birdsnest while continuing to blow gently. Fold the birdsnest loosely in half, trapping the glow in the center. Begin blowing somewhat more forcefully now. Keeping the birdsnest 6-8 inches away from your face at all times, raise it above your head. This keeps the smoke out of your face and allows the wind to now help you. Continue blowing harder until flames are seen. Place the (now flaming) birdsnest into your fire lay and begin feeding it your smallest kindling. Once the fire is established, begin feeding larger kindling, working up to your normal fire wood.

With any of these methods (and a little practice) you should be able to start your campfire in a minute or less. Easily as fast as you could light it with a match or lighter - possibly faster. And, remember, matches can get wet and lighters can run out of fluid

I guarantee you will find that these "Primitive" methods of fire starting will work under conditions that even a match or lighter won't! Try it, you'll see. But be warned, you may never want to go back to "Modern" methods again.

- Eddie Little Bear

 Primitve Fire Starting /Ed "Eddie Little Bear" Emerson / updated 09/09/2007