Succeeding with Fire Plough in the UK

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For the last 6 months I’ve been spending a lot of time with the fire plough (fire plow.) The fire plough is one of the “simplest” friction methods : rubbing two pieces of wood together and maybe one of the earliest attempted friction methods by our ancestors. Though it has got a reputation in the UK as being difficult! Although the Polynesians make it look very easy - see “Wow, that guys is fast” post. I’ve spent many an hour over last few years giving it a go ; and then ditching it, to only go back a few months later – last year I declared to myself “it’s impossible!” But I knew a few had succeeded, so this year during lockdown, I decided to give it another good go.

I do think there was some divine intervention :) In June, I decided for some unknown reason to try some Poplar which I had tried in the past and couldn’t get past the polishing – this time, within a couple of attempts the magic happened! There was a smoking ember!! (and lots of whooping :) )

I’ve spent the last 6 months experimenting and refining my technique and I am now trying to disseminate my learnings to encourage more people to give the fire plough a go and hopefully more people will succeed! (I still have lots to learn myself) The Fire Plough is possible in the UK with native UK woods and can be effective once you have practiced and refined the technique :) I hope someone finds the below useful, this is just what I have found works for me. People may find a slightly different technique works better for them, as I experimented and refined my technique to suit me. Experimentation is key!

Components: The blade – the stick I push up and down. The base\hearth board - the wood I push the blade up and down on :)

Woods: Wood choice is important. I find wood needs to be dead and very dry, not punky, not green. I find green wood needs at least 2 weeks of drying. Combinations in order of my preference:

Lime (Tilia) as the blade and base – I have found this to be the best combination for me so far. I've found Willow is also a good blade on Lime. I recommend Lime for learning.

Hazel or Poplar as the blade and Poplar as base –my first success was Hazel on Poplar and later I also found success with Poplar on Poplar. Poplar isn’t that widespread in UK - Native Black Poplar is sadly now rare. I’m lucky to have a few Cottonwood and Black Poplar hybrids growing behind my house (Cottonwood is from same family.) I also recommend Poplar for learning if you can find some.

Willow on Ivy – another good combo but Ivy can be a bit finickity as it can suck in moisture but very dry Ivy can produce a really good strong ember.I find the blade can drag on the board so I find I need to give it some welly and not as consistent as the above 2.

Willow on Willow – it works but needs some TLC as it is very soft and I don’t recommend for learning. The trick with willow is to build up dust pile using a low angle then rest up then go for it! It doesn't always work for me as consistently as Tilia and Poplar.

These are just my preferences - as with all methods everyone has their preferences. I’ve not had success with Sycamore or Clematis for the base which others suggest. I've only tried woods native to the UK so far.

Blade – I prefer my blade to be at least 30cm long and 15mm in diameter. I carve the end flat on opposite sides so it is about 10mm wide cuboid. I prefer the blade end to be flat so it pushes the dust forward. If it’s pointed I find it’ll push the dust to the side more. I tend to flip the blade over so I use opposite sides which stops the blade getting too long. It's best to be straight so you are ploughing in a straight line!

Base board – I prefer the board to be at least 5 cm wide, carve a flat base and flat on top. I don't carve a perfect board. I sometimes just split a log in half – use the flat base as the bottom and then just shave the top flat where I want to plough. Or with a big heavy log just carve a flat bit on top. Sometimes I use a shortish board (I use a heavy log or rock to anchor it) or a long board (I kneel ontop to anchor it) I find it best if the board is not moving around.

Here is one 60sec video showing some tips:

Body Position – I found my posture to be very important and this may differ person to person – I’m not a heavyweight (11.5 stone\75kg) – I kneel back and use my body weight to push forward and down onto the blade to push down as hard as I can.

Hand grip – I've found the "Polynesian" overhand grip to work the best (see clips) and combined with the above position I find I can apply good pressure and speed without tiring too quickly. It just takes a bit of practice.

Technique - this is where I needed to practice (a lot!) Yes it can be frustrating like learning any method, and may take lots of hours of practice. I press down and start moving the blade up and down in a straight line to burn in a groove. Starting a fresh groove can be difficult (but not always) Once I am through the polishing it gets easier :) If I am having issues with polishing, I rough up the wood, use a steeper angle of the blade , push down as hard as I can and as fast as I can. Once a groove is burnt in, I can relax a little! Generally my groove is about 7 to 10cm long – with practice I now start and stop just about in same place. At the end of the board I use my knife or axe to bring up curls and use them as the stop, so dust accumulates in one place. At first you may have mis-strokes and smash into the pile – it just takes practice!

Once I have a burnt in groove and have made a stop at the end, I then push down onto the blade and start moving steadily back and forth. The angle of the blade can make a difference. Low angle: more of the blade is in contact so more friction – I find this is good for warming up the set and creating dust pile without digging deep. Tilting the blade up higher : there is less blade in contact and I find this is good for for pushing dust to the end of the groove and for “going for” the ember.

I generally start with low angle pressing down hard and going at steady pace, I may keep this up for 30secs or so then I’ll tilt the blade up still pressing down as hard as I can and I’ll then go as fast as I can for as long as I can!

Now, after lots of practice, I can usually coax an ember between 30secs and 1 minute. But it’s not always easy and has taken a lot of practice to get here and there have been many a frustrating moment! There have been many a time I couldn’t get the pile to ignite. But after regular practice, I’m more consistent.

If I find the groove getting deep then I shave the sides away as otherwise I'll just be working against myself in a deep groove (more friction at sides slowing down the blade.)

Here is a vid of my technique which I have termed the “nodding dog” technique :) (this is willow on willow )

How do you know you have an ember!? Good question -when I see smoke rising from the dust pile, it suggests an ember but the plough creates a lot of smoke so it can be tricky to know! Sometimes I stop and I think I have an ember only for the pile to stop smoking (stopped too early-not enough speed/pressure), sometimes it’s puffering away, other times there’s a faint wisp and it needs a bit of TLC (breath, hand waving) to get it going.

Transferring the ember – I find it best to let the ember sit and develop a while before transferring – helping it with a little breath etc. Sometimes I find I need to use the tip of a knife/stick to gently prise the ember off the board as it can stick to the board. I now prefer to take my tinder bundle and place it upside down on top of the ember then rotate the whole lot over so the ember is then sitting on top of the tinder bundle.

Summary: The fire plough has become my favourite method at the moment, I’ve become a bit addicted :) It can be very effective but it can also be very frustrating to learn! You don’t need to be a muscly heavyweight – I’m not. I find it works best with seasoned woods. It should work on the spot out in the wilds if you can find suitable dry wood which can be challenging in the UK :) Practice and patience helps :)

I find it very primal!

Here is a longer “how to” vid (tho I have refined my technique since this one was made)

Happy Ploughing!

 

punkrockcaveman

Full Member
Jan 28, 2017
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524
yorks
That is awesome :) thanks for such an informative post! You have inspired me to give it a go!

Edit: how do you start the groove? Do you create a cut with a knife/axe?
 
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That is awesome :) thanks for such an informative post! You have inspired me to give it a go!

Edit: how do you start the groove? Do you create a cut with a knife/axe?
thanks! I don't create a cut - I just push down with the blade on the wood - but I do sometimes use knife \ axe to carve the wood flat so there's not too many bumps . But yeah , you can use a knife to score a groove if it makes it a bit easier
 
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i had the afternoon off so i went to the beach to grab some beach hibiscus, next opportunity i'll grab some "indio desnudo" from the tree up the road (both times from fallen trees -- no need to cut down live trees for experiments...) and a cacao sapling (==had good results with both of them for bow drill)
i've been 3times (18months total) to New Zealand but never met anyone who still used this method...
 
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i had the afternoon off so i went to the beach to grab some beach hibiscus, next opportunity i'll grab some "indio desnudo" from the tree up the road (both times from fallen trees -- no need to cut down live trees for experiments...) and a cacao sapling (==had good results with both of them for bow drill)
i've been 3times (18months total) to New Zealand but never met anyone who still used this method...
Good luck ! I know of one person in NZ on Instagram who uses the fire plough - and yes I think they use hibiscus
Yeah I use wood from fallen trees/branches too.
 
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i had the afternoon off so i went to the beach to grab some beach hibiscus, next opportunity i'll grab some "indio desnudo" from the tree up the road (both times from fallen trees -- no need to cut down live trees for experiments...) and a cacao sapling (==had good results with both of them for bow drill)
i've been 3times (18months total) to New Zealand but never met anyone who still used this method...
P.s checkout Layton Robertson on Instagram for fire plough. He used mahoe wood. This is a great little clip: https://www.instagram.com/p/B9-q08Bgy8k/?igshid=ftre6yrwl10z
 

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