(Pix to follow)
As I notice the vegetation where I walk around my property or alongside country roads with an eye tuned to weed stems usable as fire spindles for the hand drill friction method, I am struck with just such a question. I have not tried them all, but I have tried a lot of them. I do feel that I recognize the properties necessary for good fire starting stems.
First, in almost all cases, the stem needs to be dead and dry, while still structurally sound enough to endure the rigors of downward squeezing hand-drill pressure. Still, hands only spinning requires substantially less structural toughness than does bow drill spinning. Weed stems generally lend themselves better to hand drill use than to bow drill use.A few of these weed stems, such as Mullein or Yucca, will work with a bow as well. But part of the attraction of weed stems spun using hands only is that the technique involves less pressure while spinning–thereby opening up a whole range of materials that are not suitable for use with the bow drill method.
Additionally, using hands only provides a primal attraction and sense of primitive accomplishment all to itself. In my estimation, hands only is only marginally more difficult, if more difficult at all. But this is only true if the practitioner knows what materials to use and the special nuances required to make this technique work. I have often told of my own early belief that making fire using hands only was virtually impossible. It was not until much disappointment, trial, practice, and eventual proper information that taught me to realize that bow drill materials seldom crossover as successful hand-drill materials. Once mastered, hand drill fire became one of my most favored and reliable alternative methods of fire making.
At my advancing age, I now realize that this can be fleeting as well. I no longer have the stamina, hand strength and coordination required to easily do this. Youth, especially young girls not yet fully in command of their physical abilities, have similar challenges with hand drill fire making. This comment is in no way intended to be sexist or age-prejudiced. It is merely reality, much like the reality faced recently by the last remaining female United States Marine infantry-person (if that’s a word). She dropped out of training because she was simply unable to meet the standards required for men in fighting armies the world over–much more-so as required for the finest infantry in the world.
There are a gazillion varieties of yucca. Well, maybe just a hundred fifty or so. Only one or two are native where I live. I think this is an ornamental that was transplanted here. Not native. It produces a second year flower stem that, when dry, will make fire. It is also strong enough to be used with a bow to spin it.
Politically correct will not necessarily work in kill-or-be-killed scenarios. Or perhaps in making fire. I’m not saying that women, youth, seniors, or girls cannot ever make fire this way. Just that it is less likely. If this motivates someone to prove me wrong–so be it. Maybe that’s what I am trying for. More likely what I am trying for is to merely set realistic expectations. (Or is it?). No. Yes. No. Who cares? But with so many alternative ways of making fire, there is no reason to despair. As mentioned, I can barely make fire anymore using hands only. There will undoubtedly come a time when I cannot do so at all. Thus, I offer ninety-nine plus other methods.
Hard and Tough
The stems must be hard, tough, and dead dry. Some folks claim this is not necessary. My experience says that it is for hands only. It is often possible to find stems that are naturally that way for many plants that are either left over from a previous year, or that have been killed by natural phenomenon such as storms, or that have been trodden down or uprooted by foraging animals or for other unidentifiable reasons. If you were to ever find yourself in need of making an emergency fire in the wilds, those are the stems I would look for. you can of course cut them and let them dry, but it takes several days, even weeks for them to become sufficiently dry to make fire. This process can be sped up by drying them over a fire–but then you would have to already have a fire made. Since I contend that there are so many other available ways to make fire, this is a possibility. Maybe it would be a good idea to cut some of these stems if ever found in such a situation–just for additional insurance. But that’s a stretch. I would not be so keen on finding a particular species of ideal spindle stem as I would be for finding dead dry ones that look as if they would fit the bill for fire making.
The next attribute is that the stems be solid. Actually there are ways to make use of even hard dry hollow stems, but I am not ready to reveal that method at the moment. It is yet another of my One Hundred Ways. But it is not nearly as easy or useful as finding a good solid dry stem. So for now, focus on the feature of the stem being solid–meaning not
Next, the stem should be relatively straight. The straighter the better–more or less–but even a slightly irregular stem can be made to work in a pinch. that pinch requires extra effort and when you are tired, hungry, old, young, have soft hands, are doubtful, and maybe lacking any number of other ideal conditions as Murphy’s Law will almost always dictate–the difference between being very straight and not so straight may spell the difference between remaining cold and hungry or warm(er) and less hungry–which in turn can ultimately spell the difference between dead or alive. So, yeah, straight is good.
Stiff is also important. The ideal spindle will be strong enough to withstand a good bit of downward pressure while being turned in the hands. This increases the friction and thereby increases the heat, which will hopefully make for a live ember. It will for sure do this–assuming that other conditions are met and that you can keep the stem spinning long enough to do so–which is often easier said than done. I have quickly gotten embers in the dead of winter with snow on the ground–once, no, twice–but I have also failed to get embers at times when I had thought it would be a sure thing.
There are variables that I simply have been unable to quantify–which may include humidity, undetectable dampness of materials, inherently high ignition temperatures of a particular spindle or a particular species–on any given day or season. I just don’t always know why something does or does not work according to my best guesses. fortunately, they do tend to work more often than not, given materials that i have come to rely on.All of these have included stiff (strong), dead, dry, straight stems with soft inner pith and harder outer bark.
Soft Inner Pith and Hard Outer Bark
Let me repeat. Stems with soft inner pith and hard outer bark tend to work best un der more conditions than others. There are a few exceptions. Yucca, at least those few varieties that grow wild in the South, is fairly uniform from outer bark to the very core. and although folks out West can start fires in a heartbeat using those varieties–I have not had the same success here in West Tennessee. I have made it work, but it is surely not my first choice. Cedar, if very brittle dry and free of moisture and resins can also work wonderfully. It is also pretty much the same inside and out–as is willow.
Same with dry Cottonwood, Poplar, and Sycamore, and Box Elder. There is something inherently conducive to making fire with spindles made from these and a few other more woody tree or tree-like spindles that makes them work. And for the most part, these all tend to be harder to come by and harder to use than good weed stems. Overall, when looking for usable spindles, weed stems tend to be far more abundant and accessible in the wilds, during, especially during the Fall and Winter. And with these, the hard outer with soft pithy inner core is my preference when using weed stems.
The texture of the outer bark is another concern in the hierarchy of usability. Rough stems take more energy and effort and time to make smooth enough to use without tearing your bands up. In an emergency–or not–these factors must be a concern. Yeah, there are some old country boys who live in the woods and eat thorns for desert who will tell you it is a sign of manhood and you need to be tough enough to make your hands blister and bleed while turning a spindle to survive if you have to. My point is that you don’t have to do that. Your hands are among your best assets for survival–second only to your good commonsense. Why would you want to muck them up and risk getting an infection or blood poisoning or at the very least rendering them unusable for a few days or weeks if you don’t have to. It is dangerous and discouraging.
I always caution my students to exercise care and to not overdo the spinning until you know firsthand what it is doing longer term to your hands. I also recommend procedures such as the use of beeswax or tree saps and what-not to help your grip and protect your hands while making hand drill fire. To that end, using the smoothest stem available is an important consideration. Scraping with a rock or pocket knife is usually a good first step to make a smooth spindle. Some stems are naturally smoother than others, without giving up other desirable features. For instance, Solidago Goldenrod stems are pretty smooth and can easily be made smoother without a lot of work. Bull Thistle stems will make fire equally well–maybe even slightly better. But if harvested too early–Bull thistles exponentially longer and more effort to make them smooth enough to use without tearing your hands up. Later on, as they naturally begin to decompose, Bull thistle thorns dry up and can be easily scraped off. this is conveniently long after Solidago stems have become compost. There is a time and season for everything under heaven. Beyond philosophy, however, smooth is desirable when choosing good fire stems.
I should have mentioned this earlier, but size also does matter. Diameter is important. important. For my methods, length can be, too. There are apparently those who make fire with a tiny little stem. I can’t. The stem needs to be half inch to an inch across to work well for me.I have done it with smaller stems but it is always way more work for me. Supposedly, the increased rpms achieved by using a smaller thickness makes up for the lower rpms achieved by a thicker spindle. Hog-wash! Or worse. I know, the physics would seem to make sense. It just does not translate to reality for me. Now, will add that some stems work better than others even when using smaller ones. My guess is that everything else being equal, thicker stems would work even that much better. But that’s just me.
Same thing with length. I guess some folks can make a fir ewith a four in ch stem. Not me.
This is largely due to my increasing age and decreasing flexibility and general desire for not crippling myself in the process of doing things. These days I cannot even contort myself into the low-profile necessary to reach work a short spindle braced against an even lower fire-board to adequately spin it and make an ember. For this reason, I much prefer a stem long enough to sit comfortably atop a log or stump or rock and still spin it. All this requires is greater length than is typically recommended by the survival books and military manuals with which I am acquainted. I suppose if I had too I could do with a shorter spindle–but not that short! Eighteen inches is a good length for me.
Some Just Won’t Work. And Others Almost Always Will
Even given all that–some stems that at first brush think might make great fire stems–just don’t. For instance, Polk stalks , as in Polk Salit, which is readly identifiable, of good size, and otherwise appears to meet most of the criteria. (As it gets bigger, and later in the season, it gets hollow, but earlier and smaller, it is very pithy and dries solid and rigid. It can be cut and dried or often found trampled underfoot by browsing or other animals. I have tried it numerous times–but I have yet to have any success with it. I don’t think Polk Stalks it will ever work. Poke is also highly edible, although care should be exercised in harvesting and preparation–as it can otherwise be toxic. (Dad told me the berries were poisonous and that they would make me very sick or kill me–when I was three years old. They obviously did not kill me, but I may have made me sick. I would not have drawn the cause-effect parallel nor did i understand the concept of death. i must have had a rebellious spirit or at least a very curious one, but I may not have even considered eating them, had it not been for the suggestion. I am not criticizing Dad. He was a great teacher, but age-appropriate context can be challenging.)
Ragweed is pretty useless for fire stems. It is noxious. It is among the most allergenic plants known to man. But it t grows straight and tall and makes thick stems. Early in the season and even later when it is dry, it can sometimes be found to be solid with a nice pulpy pith. But my experience is that the stuff just will not make fire. It has uses for survival, including shelter building (if you like to sneeze). It could maybe make a good snorkel, if you poked the joints out. It can be used for arrow shafts, spears, pungie-sticks.
I have even speculated that the Ragweed berries could be eaten. It is after-all a close relative of the highly nutritious Quinoa quasi-grain famously used as the main food-crop of the Incas and their descendants in the high Andes–and more recently–health food aficionados (I like it). The berries of Ragweed look a lot like do Quinoa. But so far, I have found no reference for this, and have neither thus far been unwilling to be the test subject.
However, try as I have, these stems will NOT make fire–except when used a as a cheater tool while using other usable spindles. This is the secret (lame though it may be) that I will reveal in another post. For now, there are more worthy plant stems that will most certainly work well for fire making.
At Least Know and Avoid Notoriously Toxic weeds
Since this post began with thoughts about which ones to avoid, there are a few that you can categorically back into by way of their characteristics lacking as outlined above. Smart Weed should be avoided because it gives a skin rash.One of my cousins was notoriously famous among family for his clever sayings and nonsensical ones would tell younger family and friends and neighbor kids that rubbing themselves down with Smart Weed would make them smart. Yes, indeed it would in the now and then archaic form. Ihave never looked up the etymology of the word,but it is still among my kin interchangeable with a special kin d of stinging painful hurt. If it were being named today, it might be called Hurt Weed.
I am told that some Fleabanes and some Nettles share those smarting qualities.One variety is called Stinging Nettle. Any obvious thorns or hairy surfaces may be a tip-off to avoid these. Of course any outdoors persons should be aware of any local poisonous plants such as Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, Poison Sumac and be able to identify and avoid them. Wild Grape Vines and Mucadine vines can be used for spindles, although not ideally. I have not to included them here, but if you do choose to try them, please make sure you do not inadvertently get hold of a a healthy specimen of Poison Ivy–which can grow quite large and may not be readily identifiable when it is leafless (one tip-off that if it is PI is that it has roots along the vine anchoring it to the host tree.
By the way, Staghorn Sumac with the clusters of red berries is not poison. It is sometimes avoided as confused with the white berried variety that’s not really sumac but which looks a bit like this stuff and confusingly but falsely bears the sumac name. I have never seen it growing in the wilds around here. Those red berries in fact make a very pleasant pink lemonade-like drink when soaked in water, stained of debris, and sweetened. If you try this–just make sure the berries are red.