I have always been amazed by this whole concept. The Fire Piston is in a league of fire starting all to itself. It’s a form of friction fire making–sorta kinda. This specific phenomenon is a very sophisticated process known as compression ignition. It is way different from all other methods. I like to say that a fire piston literally squeezes the heat out of the air, and that’s essentially what it does in lay terms. But my simple explanation may not hold up as well to science. For me, it is close enough.
Other amazing facts about the fire piston really are facts. It was invented in the prehistoric jungles of South East Asia, although the exact origin is less certain. There is a case to be had that it was first utilized as constructed from sections of bamboo. There is also good evidence that the device provided the inspiration for the ignition source that led to the completed the development of the Diesel Engine. There was a brief window of time when the Fire Piston, also then called called the Slam Fire in Europe during this time, when the device was the high-tech standard for starting fire. The advent of matches displaced it after about thirty years of popularity.
The Fire Piston then fell into near obscurity until it was brought back to life by recent interest in alternative fire starting methods, although it remains a relatively unknown method. For me, the combined fascination regarding its history, the sophisticated physics behind its operation, and the mystery and unlikeliness of how this interesting device came to be invented, perhaps millennia ago, carries the day.
I have only found one drawback to using the fire piston; they don’t work so well. I have made a dozen or more fire pistons from various materials including a chrome wind-chime, PVC, wood, an aluminum arrow and a pencil, brass pipe, and other stuff. While every one of these have produced live embers at least once–they have not proved consistent reliability in doing so.
I have refused to purchase anything to facilitate using alternative fire starting methods. That would defeat the whole intent for me. If it cannot be fashioned out of easily available materials and a pocket knife, it is not viable fore me. But one of my sweet daughters gifted me a commercially made fire piston she found on eBay for my last birthday. It came complete with all the stuff to make fire. I have not found it to be any more reliable than those of my own make. However, I continue to learn, and maybe one day I will discover some trick of technique that makes these devices work more consistently. I truly hope so.
Please note. This is a link to an update to using the commercial fire piston my daughter gave me. It works well! Update
The first one of these I ever made was while sitting in my easy chair late one night using materials I was able to reach without getting up. The main parts were a hollow piece of aluminum arrow that had already been re-purposed for something else and a pencil. It took about fifteen minute to build the thing. Within a few minute after completion I had a live ember. Wow! Piece a cake! Unfortunately, this satisfying event proved to be the exception rather than the rule. But I do still like it if only for its coolness.
You can see a few video clips of my quest for fire-piston fire at the following link. Yes, I did get fire, but it took a while trying several of my homemade slam fires. Check it out. The Amazing Fire Piston