Of the three most common friction methods of starting a fire with sticks, fire plow is the simplest, but not necessarily the easiest.
In survival situations, I would use this method only under very specific circumstances, otherwise, I would try to construct a bow and make a bow drill fire.
The two survival situations in which I would use a fire plow would be if I was somewhere with a very dry climate or if I didn’t have a knife or reliable blade. You can properly construct the materials necessary for a fire plow with only a sharp stone’s edge, if you have to.
Since using the fire plow technique is literally as simple as rubbing two sticks together, many people have the false sense that they could easily construct a fire this way should the need arise. It may be a simple method to learn, but it is a real challenge to execute, particularly in tense survival situations.
So please, practice. Practice in comfortable circumstances so that you’ll be confident if you ever have to use it when you’re fighting for survival. You’ll see just how tough this process is.
If making fire with sticks was easy, the Bic company probably wouldn’t have sold 30 BILLION lighters (Seriously, look it up!) over the last 50 years.
Step 1: Gather materials for your fire
Like with any friction fire, success or failure will come down to the materials you collect as much as it will come down to your mastery of the method. This is particularly true with the fire plow method.
Let’s see if you can guess the essential attribute your materials must have to make a successful fire. Fill in the blanks to get a hint:
Back in my drinking days I always ordered my martinis extra _____. I hate shirts and coats that are ____ clean only. There are few things worse than ____ meatloaf. As a kid I drank water directly from our creek and was so sick I threw up until I had the ____ heaves.
Can anyone guess it? That’s right. Dry. From your tinder bundle to your fuel, all components of your fire have to be as dry as possible.
Everyone knows that, of course, but you’d be amazed at how much difference a little moisture makes. Take some extra time to find the driest materials you can and you’ll be putting yourself in a much better position to succeed.
Your tinder bundle, or tender nest, is probably the most critical part of your fire-starting process. The tinder bundle is what turns all of your hard work from tiny, black, dust embers to a full-on flame. Even in a survival situation, make sure to take the time to get this part right.
To put it differently, the tinder bundle is like the womb in which the fire is conceived and the millions of tiny, black, dust embers are like the…the…
I actually don’t think we need any analogies. Basically, a tinder bundle consists of the most flammable things you can find, loosely bundled together in the shape of a bird’s nest. It can consist of anything that will catch a spark and hold it long enough to light your kindling.
Dried grass, pine needles, strings of paper, strips of tree bark, sawdust, extremely thin wood shavings, clothing lint or thinly-cut paper. Even greasy potato chips could do the trick, although, in a survival situation, I’d probably eat the chips and look for tinder elsewhere.
Once you’ve collected about two full handfuls of tinder, form it into a loose nest with the smallest pieces like lint or sawdust in the middle of the nest with the larger pieces forming the framework.
Make sure you have a thumb-sized imprint in the center. This is where you’ll place your millions of tiny, dust embers.
Even novice fire starters are familiar with what kindling is, but when you’re starting a fire from scratch in the wilderness, you are not looking for wood the size of the kindling they sell in these neat little bundles around Christmas time.
That stuff is great if you have matches and an endless supply of parking tickets or other paper to help set your fire. Out in the elements, you are looking for something much thinner to help get your fire to the next step. Think of something about the width of a pencil.
You can also collect larger pieces of kindling than that, but tinder bundles are very fragile. Feed that bundle with the smaller pieces first so as not to smother it.
As far as which trees produce the best kindling, I’d say the dry ones. There are better trees than others, with pine and softwood trees like cedar being two of the preferred species, but in the end it will be the size and the dryness of the wood that matter the most.
Feathering your kindling is a great way to enhance its flammability. This technique involves shaving long strips from the top of the kindling down towards the bottom of the kindling without detaching them. Feathering increases the surface area of the stick, which gives it far more opportunity to catch fire.
Make sure to collect enough kindling, almost as much as you can carry. It will probably take several tries to get this right, and you don’t want to be running back and forth for more kindling.
Your fuel will be the larger logs that sustain a good long burn to keep you warm and toasty. Again, the key is not to get ahead of yourself and go too big. Stay behind yourself or maybe even with yourself and think small, I guess. You can collect larger logs, but don’t add them to the fire too quickly.
Your best bet is to get a variety of branches and logs for your fuel, starting with pieces just bigger than your kindling, which you will add first, all the way up to the thicker logs like the ones that are always crackling on those Yule log fires they used to show on TV for Christmas.
Again, collect a pile of kindling at the outset so you’re not scrambling for more later. Especially if you’re stranded somewhere in a survival situation, you don’t want to leave the safety of your fire during the middle of the night to collect more wood. More is better, so pile it up nearby.
Step 2: Collect and construct tools
This is where the fire plow has a distinct advantage over the other friction fire methods. You’ll spend a lot less time collecting and constructing the tools necessary than you would with the hand drill or bow drill method.
With the fire plow method you just need two pieces. The hearth board, otherwise known as a fireboard, and a stick. That’s it!
Simple, right? Yes. Easy? Sure, until you get to the rubbing.
Hearth board (or fireboard or base log)
Your hearth board is going to be on the receiving end of all that rubbing. You will hate your hearth board. It will be stubborn. It will be uncooperative. Often it will yield smoke but won’t get hot enough to start a fire.
You might get so frustrated that you’ll want to throw your hearth board, which is why you should never make a hearth board in the shape of a boomerang.
But eventually, with persistence, it just might grant you fire.
You want your hearth board to be fairly hard, and of course, dry, dry, dry. One side should be relatively flat and at least three or four inches thick. Other than that, a log or board doesn’t need a whole lot of credentials to be a hearth board, although I’d suggest you only use organic sticks. (That was a joke.)
With a knife or any sharp blade or stone, carve a centered groove about half the length of the board. It doesn’t need to be particularly deep, just enough to give your plow a good start.
Plow (or “stick”)
Your plow is a not-so-fancy name for a stick. You don’t have to alter a stick too much if you are stranded without any tools, but you should create a blunted tip at the end of the stick as best you can.
This pointed tip is the end that you will be rubbing through the groove. (“Rubbing through the groove” sounds like 60s slang for something or other. My apologies.) You want this point to be narrow enough to create a lot of concentrated friction, but not so pointed that it just digs a deep trough into your hearth board.
Step 3: Arrange your fire lay
It’s really important to have everything perfectly ready before you begin the back and forth rubbing. Once you get enough tiny, dust embers, you’ll need to transfer them fairly quickly to your tinder bundle, and once that gets going, you won’t have a whole lot of time to ignite your kindling. Everything needs to be set up and ready to go.
One of the most important parts of your prep should be arranging your kindling. This arrangement is known as your fire lay.
There’s been a good amount of thought and creativity put into fire lays over the years. You can find detailed diagrams on how to build fire structures like the “log cabin,” “teepee,” “cross ditch”, “pyramid,” or “star.”
It’s fun to learn a few lays if you are so inclined, but if you just keep in mind two principles while setting up your kindling, you’ll be fine: Fires need oxygen and fires go up.
The secret, therefore, is to build a fire lay with well-spaced kindling arranged vertically above where you’ll place your tinder bundle.
If you’re in a survival situation or otherwise crunched for time, my go-to fire lay is a simple teepee, which looks exactly how it sounds.
Step 4: Plowing and praying
Now, finally, we get to the part with all the friction. You have your kindling arranged, your tinder bundle close and plenty of fuel nearby. You’re just a few more steps and a lot more sweat away from success.
- Place your hearth board on top of a dry piece of bark or something similar to catch any dust embers that might escape the trough.
- Assume a comfortable position above your hearth board.
- Prevent your hearth board from slipping by placing a foot on one end, or by sitting on it if it’s long enough.
- Put both hands on the plow. Your lower hand guides the plow back and forth while the upper hand supplies the downward pressure. Experiment with grips until you feel comfortable.
- Rub the pointed end of your plow back and forth through the groove, placing downward pressure on the stick.
- Start slowly, gradually increasing your speed and downward pressure a bit as you begin to see smoke.
- Black ember dust will begin to form at the bottom of your trough. It may stick together like tiny pieces of charcoal.
- Blow very gently on the ember dust. If it is smoking heavily or, better yet, glowing orange, it is probably ready to start your fire. If not, back to rubbing!
- Once the dust/charcoal is hot enough, add it to the center of your tinder nest.
- Lightly enclose the dust embers in the middle of the tinder bundle.
- Blow until the bundle erupts in a glorious flame.
- Transfer the burning tinder bundle to your fire lay.
- Gradually add larger and larger pieces of kindling, until you can add your fuel.
- Once your fuel is successfully burning, you can put your feet up (not too close to the fire!) and bask in your great accomplishment.
Step 5: Extinguish your fire
If you successfully made it this far and built a fire with a pretty good, lasting flame, you’re a champion. A true champion. Unless you’re in a survival situation, you should be spraying yourself and your loved ones with cheap champagne as if you just won the World Series. Enjoy this moment.
But save a little bit of that champagne, or better yet some other liquid, to dowse your fire before you leave. Don’t let even a single ember remain hot.
If you watch the news starting in June through September or later, you’re probably going to see some very dramatic videos of a huge forest fire somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere.
I don’t really understand how hard it is to light a tiny, tinder bundle when it seems so easy for an entire forest to erupt in flames, but that’s how it is.
Be extremely careful, champion.