Urban Bushcraft – Friction Fire Experiments

On courses people often ask where they can go to practice bushcraft.  For me this always needs to be clarified as to what is the goal they wish to achieve.  If the goal is to disappear off into the wilderness uninterrupted by the public, landowners or the police then that’s a whole different topic but if it’s simply to practice skills the answer could be a lot closer to home.

On our Bushcraft Fundamentals day course and Bushcraft Weekend the skill that always sparks the most interest is friction by fire.  There’s something primeval about creating fire that can reach into our very being and few methods can instil such levels of pride and elation when achieved than friction fire.  I acknowledge the list of methods is almost endless but for the purposes of this blog I’m going to focus on the bow drill or fire bow.  Prior warning though, this isn’t a how to guide giving a step-by-step process for getting an ember, it’s more an opening up of your mind to explore new possibilities.

Although I spend a lot of time in various woodlands around the country I live in a village on the outskirts of a large town near the tourist mecca of the east coast so my down time from work is well and truly urban.  With this as an environment I’m forever looking at things and thinking “I wonder if…” – it’s these thoughts that make me love the topic of Bushcraft and see me experimenting with all manner of things much to the amusement of people walking past my driveway on their way to catch a train.

Now this “I wonder…” approach leads me on to one of the other big questions I’m often asked on courses – “what woods can I use for Friction Fire?”  The answer to this can be very long or incredibly short but generally speaking it’s accepted that medium density woods, such as hazel, lime and sycamore, and like into like (i.e. the same species for drill and hearth board) will work.  Those that have even done a little experimenting will know the fun comes in pushing the boundaries and who knows even debunking some myths.  For example, it’s often stated that hard woods, such as oak, ash and hawthorn, or green woods that have been freshly cut won’t work but that simply isn’t true.  Yes, they’re harder to achieve and take no prisoners when it comes to stamina or poor technique but I can say with confidence that they are all possible – how I hear say, because amongst the instructor team we’ve done them.

So I say when you’re in an urban environment challenge yourself with other combinations and practice with anything you can find when you’re looking with that “I wonder…” mindset.  It’s this approach that led me to try freshly cut privet hedge for a drill.  It was absolutely sopping with sap but a slow approach and gradual warming up before going for the ember got a very pleasing end result.  It’s also this outlook that saw the wood from some old canvas picture frames and broken pallets repurposed into hearth boards.  And friction fire bow strings made from curtain tie backs or shoe laces…

Picture Frame Hearth Board


Picture Frame Hearth Board ‘Bedding In’


Picture Frame Hearth Board Ember


Privet Hedge Drill


Privet Hedge Ember

So I say look at Bushcraft skills wherever you happen to be, practice with whatever you can find and test yourself with new combinations.  It’s often seen as the pinnacle of skill to be able to walk into the woods with nothing but a knife and create fire but I say walk to your nearest industrial estate, burgeoning skip or the shed and see if you can do the same (but please don’t carry or use your knife in public and wait until you’re home to make the fire).  Let us know how you get on and what combinations work for you but for now I’m off to watch McGyver. 😉

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