Want to know how to start a fire with sticks? It’s an important skill that everyone should learn, even if you live in an urban environment. You never know when it can save your life.
While there are multiple ways to start a fire with sticks, they all rely on one important physics principle: friction. Each of the three methods we explain below use friction to generate the heated needed to set kindling aflame.
Why You Should Know How to Make a Fire with Sticks
Fire is a primal element that has played a crucial role in human survival for millennia. It provides warmth in cold environments, wards off predators, and offers a means to cook food and purify water, making it an indispensable tool for wilderness or urban survival situations.
Furthermore, fire has cultural and historical significance, deeply ingrained in human traditions and rituals. It symbolizes comfort, security, and community, fostering a sense of togetherness among people.
In emergency situations, such as being lost in the wilderness or facing a power outage, fire can be a lifeline. It offers light in the darkness, a signal for rescue, and a source of psychological comfort.
Lastly, fire-making skills are not just about practicality. They also connect us to our ancestors who relied on these techniques for their daily existence. Knowing how to make a fire is a bridge between our modern lives and the ancient knowledge that allowed our forebears to thrive.
How to Start a Fire with Sticks
To start a fire, you’ll use a process called “working up the ladder.” The idea is to use friction to create an ember (using one of the methods we describe below). You’ll use the ember to light your tinder bundle, then use the tinder bundle to light the small kindling, then use the kindling to light small sticks, then use the sticks to light bigger sticks.
As you work, you’ll blow gently to push oxygen into the fire. Remember from Science 101 that all fires need oxygen to burn the fuel (tinder/wood).
If you’re patient and nurture the fire well, it doesn’t take long to produce a roaring fire.
If you try to skip any of the steps, you’ll find it more difficult to get the fire going. (Unless, of course, you have an accelerant like gasoline, but you’re trying to do it the old fashioned way.)
Now we’ll go through the four methods to create the friction necessary to start a fire with sticks.
Method #1: The Hand Drill Method
The hand drill method is one of the oldest and most primitive techniques for starting a fire. While it’s a challenging method that requires practice and patience, it can be effective when done correctly.
- Spindle: A dry, straight stick about 18 to 24 inches long and about 1/2 to 3/4 inch in diameter. Hardwoods like oak or maple are typically better for the spindle.
- Fireboard: A flat piece of wood, about 1 inch thick, where the spindle will spin against to generate friction and heat. The fireboard should be soft wood like cedar, pine, or willow.
- Kindling: Small, dry twigs and leaves. This can include twigs, bark, pine shavings, needles, and small sticks that aren’t thicker than a pencil. Any type of wood will do.
- Tinder bundle: Dry leaves, paper, or other material that can easily catch fire. This could include old plants, bits or cured wood, wood dust, wood shavings, dandelion fluff, old stalks, coconut fibers, dried moss, or dry grass.
- Firewood: A small pile of dry, larger sticks for the early fire. Set these into a teepee shape on dry ground, protected from the wind, but with plenty of circulation. You don’t want to be running around for wood while your new fire burns away.
Step 1: Prepare the fireboard
Cut a small, shallow indentation (also known as a depression or divot) in the fireboard using a knife or sharp stone. Cut a V-shaped notch from the edge of the board to the indentation. This is where the ember will form.
Step 2: Prepare the spindle
Sharpen one end to a point and round off the other end. The pointy end will spin against the fireboard, and the rounded end will be used to apply downward pressure.
Step 3: Prepare the tinder nest
Create a small tinder bundle where the ember will be placed. Place a small piece of bark or leaf under the V-shaped notch to catch the ember when it forms.
Step 4: Drill with the spindle
Place the pointy end of the spindle into the indentation in the fireboard. Use your hands to roll the spindle back and forth, applying downward pressure.
Start slowly and then gradually increase the speed and pressure. Hold the fireboard steady with your foot or ask a partner to hold it for you. Keep the drill steady as well so it focuses on one point.
When you start to see smoke, it means you’re generating enough heat. Continue the process until you see a small ember forming in the V-shaped notch. If you pause to rest, the wood will cool and you’ll lose all of your progress.
Step 5: Transfer the ember
Once an ember forms, carefully transfer it to the tinder nest. Gently blow on the tinder nest to ignite the tinder and kindling.
Step 6: Add kindling and firewood
Once you have a flame, add your kindling and then larger pieces of firewood to build up your fire. Continue to gently blow on the fire to help it grow.
Remember that making fire with a hand drill is not easy and may take several attempts to master. It is also physically demanding, so prepare for some exertion. Always exercise caution and make sure you’re in a safe environment when practicing these techniques.
Method #2: The Fire Bow
The fire bow method (sometimes called the bow drill method) is another ancient technique to start a fire with sticks. The principle is the same as the hand drill method, but it’s somewhat easier and faster because it allows you to apply more consistent speed and pressure on the spindle.
Basically, you’ll make a bow (stick with a spring) to turn the spindle faster than you could with your palms.
Gather everything from the drill method as well as the following:
- Bow: A strong, curved stick about as long as your arm. It should be somewhat flexible but not too bendy. Opt for something with a slight C-shape.
- Bowstring: Paracord, leather strips, or strong twine. This will be used to string the bow. It should be about one and a half times the length of the bow (so you have some slack to tie the ends).
- Bearing block or socket: A flat piece of harder wood or a flat stone with an indentation for holding the spindle. This can be any block of wood you find nearby.
Step 1: Prepare the bow
Attach the bow string to either end of the bow. The string should be taut but not overly tight. Almost any kind of string will work, but it should be something sturdy. Loop the bow string around the spindle like in the following photo.
Step 2: Prepare the bearing block
Create an indentation where the rounded end of the spindle will rest. In the hand drill method, you didn’t need a bearing block because you hold the spindle with your palms. But in this method, you push down on the spindle from the top and it will spin quickly, so you need the block to protect your hands.
Step 3: Saw the spindle with the bow
Use the bearing block to hold the spindle against the fireboard. Hold the bow with your other hand. Move the bow back and forth in a sawing motion. This spins the spindle and creates friction against the fireboard. Hold the fireboard steady with your foot or ask a partner to hold it for you.
Step 4: Transfer the ember
Transfer the hot ember to your tinder bundle and then to your kindling wood like we explained in the hand drill method.
Method #3: The Fire Plow
The final method to start a fire with sticks is called the fire plow method. This method uses the same principle of friction, but in a slightly different way. The friction of the plow method is created from sliding back and forth, not from rotation.
Use a sharp rock to cut a groove down the length of your fireboard. Place the end of a stick at one end of the trough at a 45-degree angle. Push down and slide the stick quickly through the trough, back and forth. Eventually the friction will create an hot ember.
Transfer the ember to your tinder bundle and then to your kindling wood like we explained in the hand drill method.
How to Make a Fire with Sticks and Rocks
Rocks are a useful tool to help you start a fire. They can carve notches in a piece of wood and sharpen the edges of your sticks. A flat rock can even serve a bearing block.
However, rubbing rocks against pieces of wood will not provide enough friction to start a fire with sticks. The rock simply tears into the wood and all of the energy is lost before an hot ember can form.
It is possible to start a fire by striking two rocks against each other. This requires extremely dry tinder that lights easily and specific kinds of rocks called “flint.” (You can also create a spark by striking carbon steel against quartz, but that’s not something you’ll find in the woods.)
In order to make a spark with two rocks, place your tinder bundle beneath your flint. Use hard and fast downward strikes. Smashing them together won’t work. You have to scrape them quickly in the same way you would run a match over a striking pad.
Tips to Help You Start a Fire
Now that you understand the three friction fire method that will help you start a fire with sticks, here are some tips to make your work more efficient.
Start when the sun is out
You may not need a fire until the evening but it’s easier to start a fire with sticks while the sun is out. The cooler temperature of the night and evening mist can make it harder to produce that first ember. In many cases, it’s easier to start the fire during the day and maintain it until night time and then start the fire at night.
If you don’t want to start the fire during the day, at least collect all of your materials and lay them in the sun so they can get as dry as possible. Dead wood can be suitable, but only if it’s dry wood, and not rotting.
Select the right wood
Choose a hard, dry piece of wood for the spindle and a softer, but also dry, wood for the fireboard. The contrast in hardness will generate more friction, helping you create an ember more efficiently.
Ideally, your firewood should be seasoned wood that’s at least six months to a year old. Start with smaller pieces of wood for the early stages of your fire until you eventually move into sturdy wood logs.
Preparation is key
Before starting, gather all your materials—spindle, fireboard, bow, tinder, and kindling. Make sure everything is dry, as moisture significantly hampers the fire-starting process. Dry material is the difference between a quick fire and a half-hour of labor.
Carve notches properly
Ensure that the notch in your fireboard is V-shaped and leads into a small, rounded hole. This allows the ember to form and fall onto the leaf or bark placed underneath. Without this notch, you won’t be able to start a fire with sticks.
Apply consistent pressure
Whether you’re using a hand drill or bow drill, applying consistent downward pressure on the spindle is crucial for generating enough friction to create an ember.
Initially, start with slow, even strokes to create a groove in the fireboard. Gradually increase the speed and pressure to generate sufficient heat to create smoke and eventually an ember.
Use that socket or bearing block
Using a socket or bearing block can make it easier to apply steady pressure and reduce the friction on the hand that’s holding the spindle, making the process less tiring.
Observe the smoke
When you see smoke, don’t stop immediately thinking you’ve created an ember. Keep going a bit longer to ensure the ember is strong enough to be transferred to the tinder nest.
Once the ember is in the tinder nest, gently blow on it to ignite the tinder. Blow too hard, and you may extinguish the ember; too soft, and it may not ignite.
Always have a safety zone around your fire-making area, and ensure you’re far away from flammable materials and vegetation. Have water or soil handy to extinguish any accidental fires.