How to Start a Fire by Friction

Knowing how to start a fire has been essential for survival basically since the beginning of time. In today’s day and age, most people skip to using a lighter or matches. Sometimes even that can become a challenge. If you aren’t great at that already, check out our other blog which will teach you the basics. We recommend becoming familiar with this method first before learning how to start a fire by friction. 

How to start a fire by friction
Flint and Steel

Once you have mastered starting a fire with matches and lighters, it’s time to start a fire using an old fashioned flint and steel. While it may be a challenge, you will learn valuable skills in the process.

Now you’re ready to learn how to start a fire by friction. 

Choosing the Right Wood

Before starting, it’s important to note that you can’t just choose any piece of wood you see lying around. For the best results, find some wood that has died on a tree or plant. This kind of wood will already have most of the moisture out of it, making it a better option for starting a fire. You’ll want a soft, non-resinous wood. How do you know if you have chosen the right wood? Taking your thumbnail, press it against the wood. If the wood can be easily dented without crumbling, you are good to go. 

Here are some different types of wood that can be found in Mobile: 

  • Willows: Coastal Plain Willow
    • Strong and easy to carve into (tools won’t be as likely to break)
    • Mostly found in drainage ditches, along creeks or in any moist places where sun is shining
  • Palmetto: Cabbage Palmetto
    • Produces many dead branches 
      • Great for making your tools as well
    • Strong 
    • Produces stingy fiber 
      • Use this for tinder to start your fire
    • Make sure the wood is dry before using 
  • Yucca stalk: 
    • Choose a straight, thick stalk that has dried out 
      • Possibly stalk from the year before
      • You can whittle it into a straighter stick if necessary
    • Not as strong as the other two woods, but will still work well

Making Your Tools

Now that you’ve chosen your wood, it’s time to start making your tools. The items you’ll need are a spindle, a bearing block, a bow and a fireboard. Perfecting your tool-making skills will boost your confidence and make your practice sessions go more smoothly. Once you’ve mastered that, you’ll be able to get a fire going in no time even with imperfect tools. 

The Spindle

The Spindle

Once you have your wood, find the straightest piece that you see. Otherwise, it will stick inside of the fireboard as you try to spin it. The thinner the spindle, the easier it will be to use it. 

If you can’t find a straight piece, there are two ways to make a stick straighter. 

1.) Whittle the parts that are curved until it looks right. If you need guidance, take your shoelace and pull it tight. Hold it up next to your stick and plot a line through the stick and shave off the excess.

2.) Whittle the stick while turning it a little after every cut. Flip the stick so that the other end is pointing away from you and begin to whittle again. Keep referring to your straight line to see your progress

The lower, wider end of your spindle will go against the fireboard. This end should be rounded and blunt. The upper end will go into the bearing block. That end needs to have a narrow, smooth point that will turn easily in the block.

Tip: For an easier grip, score the spindle with the point of your knife. Also, if you wash the spindle in plain water, let it dry in the sun. This will make the wood rougher, helping it to grind into dust a little easier and also to make it easier for the bow string to grip. 

The Bearing Block

How to start a fire by friction
Bearing Block

The next step is to make the bearing block. Any wood will work, but oak or another hardwood lasts well and works into a smooth surface inside the socket hole. 

1.) Cut a piece of a branch about 1 ½ to 2 inches in diameter and 3 inches long. Then cut a hole that will hold the upper end of the spindle. Lay the block on the ground and steady it so you don’t cut yourself. 

2.) Put the upper end of the spindle on the block. (This is how it will be when the block is holding it)

3.) Using the point of your knife, mark the spindle at 12 o’clock, 6 o’clock, 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock. Make marks between those marks. (This will be your guide for how wide to make the hole.)

4.) Move the spindle and press the knife deeper into the cuts around the circle.

5.) Pry out a flake of wood in the shape of the hole. Continue until the whole is deep enough. About 1 inch deep. It may take some time, but it will hold the spindle better. Once the hole is started, sprinkle some sand and spin it a stick back and forth to make it smoother. 

*Tip: Lubricate the hole in the bearing block to reduce friction. A small piece of greenery will work. You can also use the graphite from a pencil, sunscreen, lip balm, insect repellent, oil from your skin (rub the spindle on your nose, forehead or ears). 

The Bow


For your bow, any wood should work, but willow works really well.

1.) Find a piece of wood that is about as long as your arm and is shaped as much like a bow as possible. 

2.) Cut a notch at each end to keep the cord that you’ll tie from slipping. 

3.) If your bow is too stiff, whittle a little out of the inside of the curve (not the outside). 

The Bow String

For your bow string, you can either use natural materials or have some already with you. 

Natural materials

  • Dog Bane, also known as Indian Hemp, is a good choice. Fibers from the Yucca leaf are the most durable within the Mobile area. 

Your own materials. Sometimes the best materials are already with you. 

  • Boot laces. If your laces are thin, twist two of them together or try a four-stranded braided to make a thicker cord. Try a lariat braid if you need to. Another option is twisting a leather boot lace.
  • Clothing. If you don’t have any laces, tear some clothing into strips about an inch wide. Twist and then braid the strips into a good cord. A bandana will also work. It will be more durable than natural materials. 

Keeping a supply of cordage on you is always a good idea. Some people wrap it around a knife handle or their trekking poles. You can always roll up the cord and keep it in a pocket. A great cord to use is the accessory cord used by rock climbers. It’s strong and durable, easy to work with and grips the spindle easily. The diameter is about 6 or 7 mm. 

The Fireboard

How to start a fire by friction

Constructing your fireboard depends on what kind of wood you chose to use. 

Yucca Stalk: Cut two of its sides flat enough to serve as a board. 

Palmetto: The leaf stalk of a Palmetto is already flat on one of its sides. Simply stroke your knife a few times to make the other side flat also. 

Willow: You can either split a board or whittle two sides of a stick flat enough. What you choose depends on the size of your branch. 

  • Splitting: Pound your knife blade through the length of the stick using another stick as your baton. After that, shave a flat spot into the rounded side.  
    • Ideally, you’ll want a stick that’s already pretty flat and is about ½ to 1 inch thick. Make sure that it’s wider than your spindle and long enough to hold steady with your foot. 

*Tip: The longer the stick, the more fire holes you can make. Making several holes in your fireboard will grind out extra dust. Placing that dust in your fire notch will give a longer-lasting ember at a faster rate. 

Once you have your board, it’s time to make a hole and a fire notch. 

1.) Place the lower end of your spindle on the board about a ½ inch away from the edge of the fireboard

2.) Make a circle of marks with your knife around the spindle by pushing the point into the board at 12 o’clock, 6 o’clock, 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock. Make marks between these marks. These will be a guide for how wide the diameter of your notches will be.

3.) After that, move your spindle and push the point deeper around the circle.

4.) Pry our flakes of wood until you have a shallow hole. This should be deep enough to get you started

5.) Using your bearing block, spindle and bow, burn the hole deep enough to hold the spindle in the board. 

6.) Sprinkle sand into the hole for faster progress (optional).

7.) Once the hole is about ¼ inch deep, cut a V-shaped notch from the edge of the fireboard into the fire hold, stopping just short of the center or the hole. The widest part of the notch should be ¼ inch wide. 

V-shaped notch

*The notch is so important for the entire process of starting the fire. You want to make wood dust that will be heated into an ember by friction. If your notch isn’t right, the dust will scatter around the edges. The notch keeps the dust collected in a pile. The top of that pile will heat up until the glowing ember forms.*

Start a Fire by Friction

Making the Fire

Now you’ve made it to the good stuff! 

1.) Sprinkle a little sand into the hole of the fireboard. Place a leaf or piece of tree bark under the fireboard to catch any dust.

2.) Wrap the spindle in the bow string. The spindle should be outside of the bow, not inside. 

3.) Hold the top, narrower end of the spindle into the bearing block and place the lower, wider end in the hole on the fireboard. 

4.) Placing one hand on top of the bearing block and the other holding the bow, begin sawing back and forth. Keep pressure off of the bearing block and and spindle. The spindle will spin and grind dust into the notch. 

* For easier use, the person you’re with can hold the fireboard steady while you saw.

5.) Move slowly at first. You’re making dust right now…the smoke comes later. 

6.) If you start to see black dust, sprinkle more sand into the hole and continue. 

7.) Once you have enough dust to fill the entire notch, you can increase your speed and pressure. (NOW it’s time for the smoke). As friction increases, it will become harder to turn the spindle. 

8.) Once you start seeing a lot of smoke, keep sawing for about ten more seconds and stop to look at your dust pile. If you see any smoke rising from the pile, you now have a glowing ember. 

9.) Be careful to not bump the ember. This can cause it to break apart and burn out. 

10.) Take some fine tinder from Cedar bark, Palmetto fiber, dry grass or some other dry, fuzzy plant fiber. 

11.) Form the tinder into the shape of a small bird’s nest with a hole in the middle. 

12.) Place your ember into the tinder.

13.) Gently press the tinder around the ember and blow into it to make the ember grow. 

14.) Once the glowing tinder is the size of a quarter, blow long and steadily, increasing the force of air toward the end of each puff. 

15.) The tinder will now burst into a flame! Add some twigs and kindling until you have a real fire. 

*Tip: If you have a char cloth, place it under the fire notch. When the glowing ember touches the fire cloth, you’ll get an excellent ember as a result. If you don’t have one, you can make it from your first fire.*

Shutterstock Image

Keep practicing. Don’t stress yourself out too much or get frustrated. Nobody is a pro at this the first time. Pretty soon you’ll have it down to a science. At that point, all you have to do is keep that fire going, sit back and be proud of yourself learning how to start a fire by friction.  

Red Beard’s Outfitter

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