How do you make fire from traditional natural tools? Learn all the details as Jeff talks to us in Archaeology Park at Oregon Country Fair and starts a fire with a bow drill. He explains about the tools, types of tinder, methods of firestarting and answers questions from the crowd. The kids are super cute as they ask about his leather clothes and what he’s doing.
Arch Park Firestarting at OCF
Transcription by Jessica LaMotte
Karen: Alright, so we just hit the Upper River Loop. Here we are on Saturday at Oregon Country Fair. I hear some music coming up, let’s see what we got. You never know what’s around the next bend. One of the things I love so much is that it’s so shady and wooded. All these beautiful trees around, different kinds of trees, bushes and the birds chirpin’. Oh, we’re at Archaeology Park! And this gentleman here is making fire from a wood spindle with a hand drill, and he’s dressed all in buckskins and fringe and leather. He’s blowing on some moss that is a ton of, there it is! It just burst into flames!
Jeff: So, if you got here late, you didn’t miss anything. We’ll just keep doing fires all day.
Karen: So he’s got some furs on the ground and a bunch of tools. Looks like some different, uh, oh that’s cattails on the ground there, and some different spindles for firestarting. He’s doing demos all day. We have some questions coming up.
Jeff: What about my clothes?
Child: Why are your clothes all ripped?
Jeff: Oh! My clothes are all ripped because they’re really old.
Child: Why did you step on the fire if it can burn your foot?
Jeff: Oh, I have superpowers. I don’t burn.
Child: Did you make this hole?
Jeff: Yes, I made those holes. Didn’t you see me do everything?
Child: Did you do fires earlier?
Jeff: Yeah! I’ve been doing fire. I did fire all day yesterday, I’m gonna do fire all day today.
Child: Are you gonna do big fires?
Jeff: Uh, I can’t do big fires because that’s not safe.
Child: Did you know elephant bones have bigger bones than wooly mammoths?
Jeff: Naw, really? I didn’t know that. That’s a new one.
Karen: How long have you been doing Archaeology Park here?
Jeff: This is year 24.
Karen: Wow! 24 years. And tell us your name again?
Karen: And so tell me about all the different stuff that you do. I assume you do other stuff here too?
Jeff: Oh no, my niche at the fair is friction fire, almost strictly.
Karen: Do you bow drill and hand drill?
Jeff: Bow drill and hand drill. Um, I focus more on bow drill because it’s just less energy, calorie burn, and so I can do it all day, over and over again, and still have energy to go play at night. Hand drills, I’m good for a few hours of that, then I’m toast. Because I just don’t do hand drills all day, every day. I mean, I’ve got friends that do it like it’s just a big lighter, you know. But they’re just doing it all the time, so, but also, I mean my focus here is sort of fitting into Arch Park is education, and so I don’t want to focus on any one approach and I want people to understand there’s options, there’s choices, and there’s different ways of doing it. Just some of them aren’t practical for here.
This is a socket, it used to rock, it has a depression in it. I cheated with a masonry bit.
Karen: Just to make a depression in it, though?
Jeff: I just had to do something quick. But my original one was pecked and ground. So you can just take one rock and peck and grind. Like making a mortar and pestle. Um, but the idea is that you just want to get a depression in there that’s smooth and roughly bell shaped, roughly. This one’s bad cuz it’s kinda got this edge. This kind of abrupt edge. I don’t like it, but it works.
Um, you can run with a piece of wood, even hockey puck shaped, um, or a branch! You can just have a branch, as long as whatever you’re holding in your socket hand can have a conical depression in it such that the top of the drill has a hole. And so you’re making this sort of jeweled bearing of sorts and so, hand goes on top there, with a wood socket.
Karen: So it stays in.
Jeff: You have to keep the tip of the drill very pointy to minimize contact area up in there. Otherwise you start getting more friction up inside, which you don’t want. It’s kind of like driving with the breaks on, literally. But then, also if you’re not careful, if these two guys are matched, they’ll start making embers. Little tiny ones that will fall out of the top, before you ever get what you want with your ember at the bottom.
And Murphy’s law always works, because they’re super tiny embers and they will fall on your bow hand and stay there, leaving little tiny blisters. So you’ll wind up with this constellation of blisters and you still won’t have what you want.
But also there’s all kinds of bone options. This is rear leg joint bone of elk. Some techs will call this the astragalus. Some will call it talus. Um, and a lot of the mammals have these, I don’t know if all of them do, but they don’t always look like this. I mean it’s amazing how different this bone function can be in some of the more raccoon-like and other animals that size and marmots and whatnot. Um, the ungulates have this specifically in this form. Cows, deer, elk have this. The cow ones are just too big, they don’t make sense. But deer and elk are essentially interchangeable. The deer are just maybe a third this size, so they can be a challenge to grip.
Karen: So that one looks like it fits your hand just right.
Jeff: Yeah, this cow elk one fits my hand very nicely to keep my fingers away from this drill while it spins
Karen: And so does that minimize the friction, too, having it be bone instead of wood?
Jeff: Yes. And a lot of these elk ones are already a really good hemisphere, you know, half-sphere inside. So they’re really smooth and ready to go. Some of them have, um, little bits of bone growth that you might need to carve away with your knife, but you do it once and it can be a dull knife. This carves much like soap stone. But the beauty of it is you can drill holes in it and put lanyards on it. You can’t do that with a rock.
I like the moss here in this valley. I don’t know what the genus of this stuff is but it grows everywhere near water for the most part. It doesn’t require any processing, and, but it’s a bit coarse, but I’ve found it to be very effective, especially for here at the fair.
However, inner bark of cedar would be a great choice, out in the desert the inner bark of sagebrush would be my all-time favorite, um, because it’s so flammable and so easy to work with. The inner bark of cedar and cottonwood wind up having this sort of raffia-like texture to it, so this needs to be pounded between two pieces of wood to break the fibers apart. The fuel-air mix for this is all wrong. So this, trying to get your ember to cooperate with this would be like putting your lit match next to a chunk of firewood, nothing will happen.
Karen: That’s good to know, too, because we have some of that, I didn’t know how to process it for tinder. Great!
Jeff: After, ideally, you get something with this kind of consistency, and even finer.
Karen: It’s like grass, it’s almost like broken-up, dry grass.
Jeff: No, that’s exactly what it is, but even to the point of crushing this even more. Ideally you want something that’s close to almost powder, um, which is why I wind up using last years cattail. So this is the fresh one, I just use this to have people understand well what are they looking at. So this is this years, so the fibers aren’t very big, whereas, this is maybe ¾ of an inch diameter, this will go out to an inch, inch and a quarter, easy, by the end of this season.
Karen: That’s the top of the cattail part you’re talking about. It looks a hotdog on a stick part.
Jeff: But it will grow out to be a big, fluffy flower so that all these tiny seeds on these fibers will blow on the wind, just like dandelions. And it’s the same consistency as a dandelion flower head.
Karen: Well you’ve got quite a crowd around. As you’ve been speaking to me now the kids have come and all sat down, all different ages.
Jeff: Well maybe that’s a sign we should do another fire.
Karen: I think it’s time to show that.
Jeff: You guys ready for a fire?
Karen: They have big eyes with wonder, they’re waiting to see Jeff do his magic here
Man: What is the stick you make the fire with?
Jeff: This is, uh, I’m running with cottonwood and cottonwood root. With bigleaf maple on bigleaf maple root, right here, great combination. Out in the desert, sagebrush on itself, any part of it above ground, you can mix and match all you want, total consistency. I’ve done well with juniper on itself. Now in Arizona, southern Utah, yucca on yucca makes this look ridiculously easy, it’s almost effortless. Um, so it just depends on where you are and what materials are available. There’s lots of stuff that will fight you to the bitter end, and not cooperating. But there’s a fair bit of stuff that works well. And it’s the matter of just knowing ahead of time or just going in experimenting.
With the beauty of Youtube, from an educational standpoint, tons of people have posted what they have found so it’s all this massive wealth of information condensed where in an hour, you could learn, where for me it was taking decades, prior to the advent of the internet. In terms of meeting people, talking with anybody I can find, also doing this.
And so the thing is, yucca doesn’t range up this far, not even remotely, so I like to focus on cottonwood because it ranges over most of North America as does cattail, and so it’s more of a general purpose option.
And you can find it in the desert, anywhere you get near water in the desert you’ll usually find cottonwood, but it’s all over everything west of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada.
So we’re gonna do a bone drill here. So the idea here is I’m gonna spin my drill, cottonwood on cottonwood root, such that with enough spin and downward pressure, just the friction between the two will get the temperature up high enough so that with that mechanical abrasion, just the friction in there, it’ll start to smoke a little bit.
When it does that in the absence of oxygen, it’s just gonna carbon dust that’s gonna fall out into this notch, or mostly carbon. So it’ll be a very very dark color, either really dark brown or almost black. If it’s light brown and you’re doing bow drill you don’t have enough pressure or speed or both.
So the idea that’s crucial in all friction fire is we need to get ourselves into a chemistry situation known as pyrolysis where the cellulose in the wood and the absence of oxygen at that high temperature breaks down and forms hydrocarbon gas. So think methane, butane, propane.
Create those gases coming off the bottom of the drill and the inside of the hole. They will come out. One of those molecules will come out and find the oxygen in the air at the top of the dust pile, at that high temperature they both draw, there’s no choice, we’re gonna merge. And that combination produces CO2 and water and a big jump in temperature. That kicks off all the rest of them and it’s like a billiard break. The whole process starts going and those gasses get all the carbon going enough that it’s a sustainable reaction and the ember starts to grow.
Once we have that ember, roughly the size of the end of a cigarette. Once we have that ember big enough, we can move it to tinder and get a flame.
There’s never sparks off of this, off your wood. There’s never flame off your wood, and with bow drill method, once you know you have your ember, because your dust is smoking on its own, you had it 10-15 minutes ago. So there’s no event. What was depicted in Castaway with Tom Hanks, he had the right method with his fire plow, but his tinder was absurdly coarse and it was an inch away from where it was supposed to be. And so they even put sparks in the whole thing, which was stupidly bad.
For the grown-ups, there is a cult classic called “Quest for Fire”, a very early Ron Pearlman movie, and uh, Cheech and Chong, Rae Dawn Chong was a character in that movie. So there’s a friction fire hand drill scene in it and it’s absolutely 100% the real deal. Even from me just looking at them and saying “wow, they got it all right”. But it is actually right, because they didn’t even know as directors what they were gonna find so they just looked into finding that girl, and they just filmed her, and so there was no setup. They just deferred to her to do it and so it’s just the real deal.
But for the grown ups, if you decide to watch it, you may want to watch it first before you bring the kids in. So anyway. The idea here is that the bottom of my drill has a home but I need to control the top. So, I’ve got a number of options. One is I can just peck and grind at the rock. Now this might take a few hours. My first one that I did probably took about four hours. So rock is an option.
Rear leg joint bone of elk or deer. Some techs call this the stragilus, some will refer to it as talus. It ‘s the rear leg joint bone, the first one off the ground of an elk or deer. Think of it more like an ankle bone, but it has a nice hemispherical impression already in it. A lot of these require no modification because they’re smooth right from the getgo. Some of these will have some bone growth that begs for a bit of knife hacking to get that stuff out of the way to get it to cooperate with drills, but the beauty of bone is it’s easy to drill holes in so that you can add lanyards.
You do have the option of wood as a socket. You can either hockey puck it like this or just have a branch, nothing sacred about the shape. You just need something that under the palm of your hand you have a conical depression that will contain the top of the drill.
With wood sockets, you need to pay extra special attention to getting the top of the drill very pointy so there’s very little contact area up in there to add to the friction. If you don’t account for that, you’ll wind up having a lot of friction in the top and it’ll be fighting you, but still workable.
So I need to be able to spin my drill. So the beauty of bow drill method is it’s scalable. You can go down very small, or very large. Also with bow drill, you don’t even have to have a bow. If you’ve got a 4-5 foot long piece of string, two people can work together and choreograph the dance keeping the tension, and then one person manning the socket, you’re good to go.
So I need a string that’s got an appropriate diameter, and it needs to be round, no ribbons. There’s a common theme with “oh, I can get more grab with a ribbon” but a ribbon will jump up on itself and snag, consistently, it will fight you, badly. Bigger diameter is better because then it has more contact area on the drill to grab it. I want a course texture on my string. I’m just running some nylon hardware stuff here, but I could run some buckskin like my clothes here, but I have to triple ply it and it’s good for about 75 efforts before it starts breaking. But all materials have there own stress weaknesses over time.
With the synthetics you just have to be careful that it’s really snug, that it doesn’t slip. Because if it slips you’ll get them hot enough from that action that the string will start to melt. Then the whole process starts to fall apart from there. So in the spirit of that, I want to think more of octagon or ten-sided shape on my drill. I don’t want to sit here and make this really really round like a dowell. If it’s really good and round it will be smooth and it will slip really easy.
A lot of times what I’ll do is just cut up a piece of wood where I’ve got four sides, a square, then Ijust bevel the corners off and I’ve got eight, and I’m good to go. And so those points between the flats bind into the string and that way the string can force it to spin.
So now we need to set up our fireboard. I’m just gonna carve a conical depression here in my board, just to let my drill find a home. What you’ll find with sagebrush is it grows inconsistent enough that the branches will grow more like someone was trying to extrude cinnamon roll dough, it grows very different than anything else and so the density of the wood is just variable all over the place. You can find spots in it that fight you, then you move over an inch and it’s just bang bang, you’ve got embers and that’s that way.
Karen: Do you always cut a new hole in your fireboard each time you make fire?
Jeff: Not always. If I’m running a soft drill on a hard board, like cottonwood on sagebrush, I’ve been able to get eight embers out of one hole, but that means I’m just eating up the bottom of my drill drill really fast, and not going into my board really fast. Whereas if you have same on same, you’re usually good for one, sometimes two embers. If your material is really soft like yucca or incense cedar, you run the risk of drilling all the way through to the dirt and you’re not there. So it requires just a little savvy of knowing when to really put the push on for going into pyrolysis and getting that right temperature. It’s just a matter of getting comfortable with your materials.
So now, I’ll setup here:
Karen: I see smoke already while he’s working hard on that drill
Jeff: Okay, so here’s my new hole. If I get my hole too close to the edge, and I don’t like this one, but I’m gonna run with it anyway, I can always turn the edge of the board back, toward the hole to set my notch. If the notch is really deep that’s okay too, I’m just trying to save cutting time. This one’s really on the edge, but let’s try it.
So, we’re pretty much ready here. So now I’ve got a piece of cedar here that I’m just shaving, I’m gonna use to catch my dust. So, right knee, offset from my left foot so that I’ve got good balance. I don’t want something like this where in the back of my mind I’m focused on balance. I want all my mental stuff going right down here. Get my foot close to the drill. It can’t burn on this unless you touch it. What you don’t want is to be out like this, you don’t want that kind of a gap. You want to get right up on it.
Critical here is that my wrist locks into my shin. This is the most common thing that my students forget. They come back, find me a year later and go “man, I could not get it to cooperate, the drill kept popping out”, and I go “show me how you’re setup” and they go, “well just like you!” and I go “no, show me”, and they go “like this!” So now we’ve got a pivot, a hinge, a hinge, yet another hinge and another hinge. Trying to control the top of this drill in terms of stopping the wobble and keeping the downward pressure requires a huge amount of muscle exertion in my arm. 20 seconds into this my arm will ache so bad, I won’t be able to keep the downward pressure.
So long stead strokes in the beginning of this. The first 90% of this is just enough spin and pressure to keep it smoking. If it smokes, it’ll make my dust. If I don’t get the fuel set up, it’s game over. I only need to hit that high temperature into the 800s for a brief brief moment and the whole thing kicks off.
Lots of dust. Okay, you do not want to touch this. It smells, yeah. Can we count to ten here?
Children: One, two….
Jeff: So I count to ten and leave my drill in, because in case I didn’t get it. I can easily have ten seconds of my smoke coming out, meaning there’s no ember, and it’s game over. If it doesn’t take the first time, all the head is still in there, the notch, the dust is set, I can just drop down and just do two or three more sweeps and almost always get it.
We are there, now there’s no rush, tons of fuel here. Also as you practice this more, you literally learn how to read the smoke, and the smoke that I make tends to come out random. But once you have an ember, the heat from it will cause the smoke to have these little tiny, it’s smaller but it’s kind of got a curl to it because of the rising air around it form the heat, and so you get these little pencil, these little thin whisps of smoke that’s very different from the smoke you generate from just doing the friction.
So, we have minutes here, there’s no rush. Now notice too that I don’t care about the breeze that’s random in here, you would care about the breeze with a lit match, it’s imperative that you have no breeze with a match. This, don’t care.
Here’s moss from the valley, I like it because it’s flammable, even if it looks this green it’s dry, so it will burn. It doesn’t require any processing, I can just put my ember right in here and go with it. But it is pretty coarse and requires a bit of finesse to get this to cooperate. So help things along with this. Anybody know what this is? It’s called cattails, common name. Genus typha, ranges over most of North America. This is this years flower head, just picked this a couple days ago, but it’s not ready.
Last years will fluff out into this, and you can see this all the time in the ditches like November through maybe May. Even last years are still sitting there like this. It’s got all these little fine, wispy, ultrafine fibers tied to the seeds just like dandelions, it propagates on the wind just like dandelions, this will smolder really good. It’s got a good fuel-air mix, it’s a good transition into my moss. But also it’s a nice strategy if you’re trying to recover from a really really tiny ember and grow it bigger, and if you grow it big enough that you can cut it up and have multiple embers.
But also if it’s really cold or high humidity, the fog set in, or it’s been raining all day, as humans we’re not good at sensing absolute humidity, so you can have things that are really damp and you don’t feel it, this can get you out of that jam.
Out in the desert, inner bark of sagebrush would be my first choice because it’s just totally goof-proof.
Karen: Oh wow, there’s a big, glowing ember in there, you can see it. Yeah, beautiful. Here comes the smoke!
Jeff: Okay, here’s Stone Age fire, welcome to Archaeology Park!