More, More, More (Fire Spindles)

(I’ll soon be adding some pix to help with these, but I want to get as much informatio9n out now while it is still usable for summer spindle finding.)

Mullein is a common standard for hand drill fire making. The dead stems last into late winter as long as they are not too fragile. They are often strong enough to be used with a bow as well.

Yucca is the standard out West. There are over a hundred varieties growing there. Local to me here in the West Tennessee delta, there are only a couple of native varieties. I never know which are native or which started out as decorative transplants. I see them growing in the wilds now and then, but even then I wonder if they are growing on an old house-place. I do see them growing at the heads of driveways and what-not. Most people who grow them growing as ornamentals don’t like to keep the ugly dead flower stems, so they are often available from those each year. I have used these out West to good purpose making hand drill fire. I can tell you that I have not had as good luck using them here in the south. It may be the difference in the type of Yucca plants or it may have more to do with the generally drier conditions there versus here.

I have made fire with yucca at times when living in neighboring Arkansas with essentially the same climate as Tennessee. I was younger and had more stamina then. But given the choice of stems that I have learned that work better since then–I can’t imagine a scenario when I would choose yucca over the other available stems. I am not sure I could even do it with yucca now. On the other hand, if I was using a bow and spindle, one plus provided by  yucca is that it will stand up under the greater pressure required to support the bow drill rigors.

Stag-horn Sumac is easily identified by the clusters of red berries that are shaped like clusters of grapes standing upright or horizontally rather than downward. The berry clusters can be steeped in water and strained to remove debris and then sweetened to produce a pink-lemonade like beverage. The leaves are long and slender and aligned across from one another along the branches. The leaves are among the most flamboyant of fall colors among shrub-height vegetation and are among those first to change. They remain deep red until they fall. The main limbs offer sections straight enough to make spindles for hand drill fire making. The spindles are also rigid enough to use with a bow. Harvest sections and allow them to dry for fire making, or find a dead branch for immediate use.


A better picture is called for here, but this broad view has merit in that it shows at least four different varieties of summer vegetation in one concentrated area that may be used for hand drill fire making. The red Tree shaped clusters of berries and the telltale rows of slender leaves make for easy identification when it comes to Stag-horn Sumac. Anyone who lives in the south has seen these growing virtually everywhere.

Additionally, although hard to tell much about at this far away view, a Box Elder fills the upper right quadrant of the picture. The middle horizontal section at medium range is full of a mix of Goldenrod and Ragweed,which often coexist. In the left foreground, Johnson Grass is gaining width and height. with the exception of Ragweed, all of these have a place in hand drill fire making. Even Ragweed can be used as a tool, but i’ll address that method later. Johnson Grass is not ideal, but in some cases, it gets big and rigid when dry in late Fall to be used for hand drill spindles. Box Elder makes great fire-boards. Stag-horn Sumac can be used dry for both parts of spindle and hearth-board fire making methods.

Cottonwood seedlings grow straight and can be used when dead and dry for spindles, but they are seldom found naturally dry. Spindles can also be shaped from split sections of fallen dead limbs or trees when sufficiently dry. Dead Cottonwood sections from fallen trees are among the best for use as hearth-boards for hand drill and bow drill friction fire. These trees are easily identifiable from the broad, uniquely shaped leaves, and spiny fruit balls that eventually break apart and disperse as fluffy airborne seeds. When dry, these balls of fluff can assist in making fire as part of other flammables in a tinder bundle, although I have not found them to be much good by themselves. The mature trees often grow in groves straight and tall with a white or light gray bark that can resemble birch bark, though it is less prone to peel off as neatly into usable sections.

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Cottonwoods tend to grow in groves. Seedling grow very straight and are densely propagated from fruit from the mature trees. Here, immature seedlings are seen in the foreground. A mature tree grows next to a dead tree still standing. The outer bark has peeled away as the dead tree decomposes. Lying on the ground in their midst is a section of a fallen dead tree trunk.

The dead wood can be used as spindles when split and shaped. Flat sections of the dead tree trunk are ideal for use as hearth-boards which can be easily indented and burned-in with a custom fit to each spindle and then notched to make them ready to make fire. Very dry, but hard pieces that have begun to lightly decompose while not yet crumbly are called punk wood. This can sometimes can make embers without notching. I have found that a notch, or at least a hollow next to the spindle socket is desirable as it both allows the forming ember to breath and to provide a place for it to go as more char is produced. For several reasons, Cottonwood is my favorite for fire boards, although many other trees work equally well.

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Box Elder is a softwood type of maple that thrives in wet low lying areas in the South East USA.



Sycamore is another good wood for making hearth-boards. Poplar, especially Tulip Poplar are very good for this as well. All of these are widely available where I live in West Tennessee.


Poplar Tulip

Cedar, all types of Cedars of which I am aware, can make fire–but only if it is long dead and very dry. The pieces must be dry enough to be mostly free of resins. This may take a few seasons–depending upon the humidity in the area where it is found. At least this is my experience. I have heard some people who say Red Cedar is great for fire making and those who say not to even attempt using it. The issue of seasoning may explain this wide divergence in views. I am guessing this to be true of most Cedar-like evergreen. This is becomes fairly intuitive as you evaluate various specimens of dead Cedar; those still containing lots of natural resins are quite heavy and dense when compared to the much lighter and more brittle pieces that have been long-dry.


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