This is a worthy challenge as it tests not only your skill with an axe but also your ability to make a fire using only natural materials in cold, damp conditions.
Ok, so there was just a very light drizzle in the breeze on this late December afternoon but most natural tinders in the woods capable of lighting from a fire steel spark, were pretty cold and damp...(birch bark would probably still have lit with some preparation). But this was a training exercise! Train hard, fight easy as they say!! When everything in the woods is damp, your best bet is to fall back on standing dead wood – cutting and splitting down a larger log to take advantage of the dry wood inside. This takes more time and effort to process into all the fire making materials you'll need to create a warming blaze, but it’s more likely to succeed than fiddling about with cold, damp bark and twigs.
The axe of choice was my hatchet made by Alex Pole. It’s relatively light compared to most axes carried for general bushcrafting work. It feels light in the hand and in the pack too and the handle’s short enough to sit comfortably inside a typical daypack, even with the lid cinched down as low as possible. You could almost forget you were carrying it!
My dead standing wood of choice in these Dorset woods was spruce. Straight grained (if cut between the branch knots) it would split easily, hopefully with minimal twist and would carve predictably. Not only that, it burns with a strong, bright flame due to the high amount of resin it contains. It’s certainly not the best fuel wood if others are available but on a damp day, the above qualities should ensure me of a quick, hot fire. Oak, ash and beech logs, all the slower burning fuels would be added after.
I knew the hatchet, although relatively small was more than capable of splitting a 4” diameter straight grained log. For accuracy, (and due to the lack of a decent splitting block) I used the hatchet as a splitting wedge initially, tapping it right into the centre line of the log with another piece of dead wood as a makeshift mallet. Once buried in the log’s end grain it only took a couple of whacks to split the spruce cleanly down the middle (for safety, make sure you are looking at the cheek of the axe rather than the poll when using an axe as a splitting wedge, so the cutting edge swings away to the side of your body rather than back towards it). Each split half was again split down the middle, this time by placing axe head, cutting edge against the centre of the split section and clamping both axe handle and log together with both hands. A quick whack of log and axe against a fallen dead branch saw the half log split cleanly at the point where the axe head had been held against it. A slight twist of the half log against the axe head and the split continued all the way through leaving me with two quarters of a log.
Most hatchets or small axes are capable of producing split wood if used this way, however I wanted to continue reducing the seasoned log down to paper thin shavings, known as ‘feathering’ the wood. If I could get the shavings thin and wispy enough, they would serve as my dry tinder, hopefully catching the sparks from my fire steel to become flame. Usually this would be a job for the knife with it’s thinner (usually sharper) blade. However, even though as a chopping and splitting tool the Alex Pole hatchet has a slightly convex cutting edge for strength, it’s damn sharp so I knew with some adjustments to my usual carving angles, it would still effectively feather the seasoned wood into a cluster of fine wood shavings. A knife is also more controllable with one hand – it’s small and balanced and pretty much designed for carving and whittling. This particular hatchet head is still small and light enough to carve thin shavings but I needed to use both hands for control. Cutting your log overly long at the start is a useful tip here as it means you can clamp the wood about to be feathered, between abdomen and a tree stump and leave both hands free for controlling the axe head, a bit like a very wide, short chisel. Again, be careful here. Always double and triple check where that axe head is heading if the wood slips or breaks. I was kneeling, slightly side on and upright, never working directly over, or pushing the cutting edge towards my own legs. Cutting your log as long as possible gives more safe working room, well away from your important fleshy bits. Also important for fire lighting success, I made sure any thin shavings that became detached from the wood, landed somewhere dry so they could be added to the fire in it’s early stages. Lay down a coat to catch them.
For this particular challenge, I was happy with just the one good feather stick plus a big handful of wood shavings and some nice, thin splints. If lighting the fire meant the difference between life and death, I’d have definitely made a couple more feather sticks. Some of the thicker sections of split spruce wood became my platform on which to build the fire and the remaining kindling sat around the edges, dry and ready.
My Swedish fire steel is carried with my belt knife and so doesn’t have the original metal striker attached (the sharp spine of my knife is used to create sparks instead). Not wanting to use my knife as I felt it contravened the rules of the challenge, I looked around the woodland floor and found a convenient broken shard of flint to use as the hard, sharp edge to scrape sparks from the ferrocium rod. Again, I found the best way to hold the extra-long feather stick was clamped between abdomen and tree stump, looking down at the base of the upside down curly, cluster of wood shavings. This left both hands free to work the flint and fire steel, showering sparks down onto the feathered wood. I’d made an effort to shave the last few shavings as fine as I possibly could with the axe. You want the finest shavings sitting just where the sparks will land.
After a few showers of sparks, one of the shavings caught. Note; trying to nurture a fire in it’s infancy and operate an iPhone at the same time isn’t the best way to guarantee fire lighting success! However, somehow a short video of the burning feather stick AND fire was achieved all at once (a fine example of multi tasking). I added just enough of the spruce splints to establish a sound and satisfactory fire and enjoy it’s warmth, before pulling the sticks apart to cool, dowsing the area with water and packing up the remaining kindling in my pack to light the wood burner with that evening.
So, lessons learnt? Well, if you spend time outdoors in the winter and a campfire features regularly in your activities, get yourself a good axe and learn how to use it! Practicing with challenges like these, I know that if all I had were an axe and a fire steel, I could still make fire in the damp, winter woods. It’s important to know from hard won experience, that you can really do these things; confidence in your abilities and a positive approach = half the battle won! Regular practice with your sharp tools is also essential for safety. Lastly, keep your axe sharp and hone those axe skills!! With a not so sharp axe and a basic level of axe knowhow, I could’ve created the split kindling…but probably not the feathered tinder. If you can use an axe safely and know how to light a fire, give this challenge a go. I’d love to hear how you get on!
The axe and it's safe and efficient use, maintenance and sharpening is covered on the following workshops running in 2019…Wood Carving & Whittling Workshop - Part 2
Bows & Arrows workshop
And of course the Axe Forging workshops
All weather fire lighting in detail is covered on…
Oh...and even the groovy, little haversack has it's own workshop too...
Please follow the links for more information
Please follow the links for more information
I hope to see you there!