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HomeSurvivalFireFlint and Steel

Knife & Stone Fire Starting

by Allan "Bow" Beauchamp

Fire starting in the northern bush can be a real task, especially with the weather extremes that challenge us so often. I enjoy being out in the bush on cold winter nights. I often travel on snowshoes, and just wander all night long.

There are many ways to start a fire without the assistance of matches. I have been working on many of these different fire starting techniques for many years, and have seen advantages and disadvantages for each technique.

Each fire starting method also has many variations. These variations could offer the bush traveler something that could be used in any area.

One method alone will not do everything in every situation everywhere, and like I always say in my articles, we always need to have "options." Personally, I prefer to rely on skills that are the most practical and functional.

Since I spend a lot of time in the bush, I am not much of a "fair weather fella." If I talk about sleeping in -45F in the snow and starting a fire in a primitive manner, I mean just that. By doing this, I have found that it helps my "options" list. Some things you may read about that are suppose to work in these elements can fall very short on performance. This means that I am constantly trying new techniques, and am always working on the old ones to help me find more and better "options."

I had found that the knife and stone to be the one way of starting a fire that I revert to more often than most of the others. It is very simple, requires minimal gear, which I most often have with me anyway, and works well in most environments that I have found myself venturing out into.

When I speak of knife and stone fire starting, I mean just that. I always have my knife with me in the bush, and finding stones in upper Canada is not a big deal.

When I selected my knife, I tried to find characteristics that would work for me. Selecting a good knife will make all the difference in the world with your fire starting capabilities. I selected a knife that had a high carbon count (older knifes seem to have more of these blades than the newer style of blades do).

Most stones that I find in my area are not actual "flint." They fall into the category of "chert," and in this area, you are most likely to spot white quartz. If you read my article on Two Stone Fire Starting in Volume 6, Issue 2 in wilderness Way magazine, you will remember that the hand strikers were also made of flint. The stones that I have found around here are harder than steel, which is why my knife and stone method works well for me.

As I mentioned earlier, each area requires its own unique skills and materials, so it is up to the individual to explore the best tools and methods for them.


Photo 1

In Photo 1, all of the components needed to use the knife and stone method are shown: a knife, white quartz stone straight from the ground, and tree fungus. Each piece has its own purpose. The stone is harder than steel, so that when it impacts with the knife, the knife's softer blade sends off a spark. By impacting the two components, the small spark is caught in the fungus, which will hold the heat very well, and allows it to develop into coal. Simple enough!

Photo 2

Photo 2 shows the pieces in my hand in position before the actual striking of the spark. The quartz stone rests in my palm. I try to find a comfortable position for the rock so it sits easily.
Smaller pieces of rock are break-aways from bigger pieces; hence, they have at least one sharp comer. If you do not have a small sharp comer, your sparks will not be as good as they could be for sparking. Why? It is because the sharp comer of the rock impacts with the knife sending a small shaving of spark off.

I have, from time to time, used rounded stones that I have found on lakeshores. By striking them with the tip of my knife, I have gotten sparks, but they are not as strong.

Using a sharp edge is the best. How do you know it is sharp? Run the stone's edge along your forearm slowly; and if it feels like it would cut you if you put to much pressure on it, you have a good sharp edge.

So, hold the small stone in your hand, and find an edge that is sharp. This edge must be positioned where the knife-edge will intersect with the rock. The back edge of the knife will be impacted against the stone's sharp edge, and cause shavings of metal from the back of the knife blade to fly off into a spark. Hold the stone in one hand loosely; then grab the knife along its spine with the sharp edge facing your hand.

When you cradle the quartz stone (or flint) in your hand, try to get the sharp edge on the "horizontal plane." Then, move the angle of the sharp edge of the stone less than ninety degrees, so that it seems that the stone's edge will shave a piece of knife off.

This technique does have some disadvantages, but I feel for the advantages the practical gains learned far outweigh the latter of the two. The disadvantage is that the knife blade has the sharp side facing towards your inner hand. This could cause a nasty cut should your grip slip, because of cold or wetness. If this poses a real concern for you, try using a Nicholson brand me. It will allow the same availability of sparking, but in a safer manner. However, you have to remember, to carry the me with you in the bush! Practical?

Now, you are ready to add the other component. Taking your knife  or the file) in your hand, use the thumb of your hand. Place it on one side of the spine and your two first fingers on the backside. The knife should be held in such a manner to display the back edge of the knife facing away from you, and the sharp edge facing towards your inner hand. Ensure the knife's sharp edge is away from the palm of your hand. Slide the knife so that your fingers grip it about mid way along the blade. I have found that this works very well for me.

The stone's edge should be in the palm of one hand, with the edge less than ninety degrees, and the knife held vertically in the other hand. Practice this method gently at first, getting a feel for the knife and sparks. Try a vertical stroke from the knife's back edge, impacting and creating a spark as it glances against the sharp edge of the stone, doing a slow follow through each time.

Using a vertical motion, we want to just glance the blade's back against the sharp edge. Not much impact is needed here, so do not try to hit them together too hard; just let it flow. You will see that one time you will get sparks and the next time you will not. Stay with it. Try learning something from each try until you feel comfortable.

Practice this for a while until you have it fine tuned. You will know you are ready for the next step when you can hold it comfortable and use good follow through strokes that will make a spark each time. Soon you will feel that you are ready for the next step -- the sparking stage.


Photo 3

I am using my tinder fungus piece. Photo 3. This particular piece is from the birch family This fungus is found in the area that I am in, and I use it as much as I can.

I am holding the desired position for the fungus and the stone as a combination. I cradle the stone in my palm loosely, then after selecting my fungus tinder, position it under my thumb as seen in the photograph.


This can seem very tricky the first time juggling the tinder, and holding the stone. If you find it hard, try using a bigger piece of tinder.

What you are looking to accomplished is that the piece of tinder must catch the spark for this technique to work. If it is over the edge of the stone too much, the knife's backside, when hitting the sharp edge of the stone, will simply break it off. If the tinder is back away from the stone's sharp edge too far, it will not catch any spark, no matter how good of a technique you have.

Hold the stone in your palm, and stand the knife's edge against the stone's sharp edge. Look at it. You should see the stone's sharp edge at less than ninety degrees to the knife's vertical position. Then, slide the tinder under your thumb until it just touches the knife's back side, and hold everything in place. With a glancing blow from the knife, try to lightly create the spark that you practiced earlier.

With every glance, I always check to see if a spark has caught in the tinder. There have been many times that I have thought that I had not gotten any sparks, only to see them break off with the next glancing blow from my knife and end up on the ground. Remember: Just because you do not see it, do not think that it is not there.


Photo 4

In Photo 4, you can see these three combinations held in the right position to work together: the vertical position of the knife; the tinder as dose to the knife's edge as we can get it; and the less than ninety degrees of the stone (on the horizontal plane). Notice again how I have my fingers positioned away from the blade's sharp edge.


Photo 5

Photo 5 shows the tip of the knife, and that the tinder has indeed caught the spark. This is easily seen against its brown soft exterior, and this particular tinder has a distinct smell.

Photo 6

You can see at this point the sparking process. Photo 6. The spark is trying to develop into coal for fire starting. Gently blowing on the coal, and with some patience, it will spread quite easily.

At this stage of the fire starting technique, the coal must be transferred to something that will continue its life and maintain the heat created until it is fully developed into a fire structure.


Photo 7

In Photo 7, I have collected some cattail from the swamp that I am standing beside. I harvested and made it like a small blanket. Place the tinder from the top of the stone and transfer it to the cattail blanket. This blanket of sorts has its advantages here. It will not only extend the life of the coal, but will shelter it as well.

Photo 8

Photo 8 shows this process happening. Dump the tinder fungus from the stone into the cattail blanket. It is not hard to see how quickly it transferred its heat from one coal to the blanket coal.

Photo 9

Once this step is completed, Photo 9, close the blanket of cattail around the coal. This will hold the tinder together, and assist in extending the life of the tinder fungus piece. This will allow you to initially use a very small fungus tinder coal on the stone.

When the cattail blanket is closed, any heat generated from the tinder coal, will be held in the blanket. You will not have to take a long time to realize how much heat is actually transferred. Your hands will tell you soon enough!



Photo 10

Open the cattail blanket from time to time and blow a few breaths of air onto the tinder. Photo 10. This will assist in spreading the heat on to the piece of cattail.

Photo 11

It is now becoming evident that the piece of tinder fungus coal is getting very small, and the cattail blanket is the host coal. Photo 11. This happens as the fungus coal gets used up.

Photo 12

What is evident is that most of the initial fungus tinder is consumed. Photo 12. This whole process has now developed a good coal base that will be a great fire starting tool after allowing the tinder fungus to transfer its heat to the cattail blanket.

I have, for the purpose of this article, collected some cedar bark and taken the time to form it into a "cedar nest." This will now be used to transfer the cattail blanket right into the center of the cedar blanket. It will do the exact same thing that we did initially with the fungus tinder to the cattail blanket.

However, at this stage you will see, by squeezing the cattail blanket to maintain all of its warmth, and by gently blowing on the cedar blanket, it will blow into a flame with a few good breaths and some patience.


Photo 12a

I have, for the purpose of this article, collected some cedar bark and taken the time to form it into a "cedar nest." This will now be used to transfer the cattail blanket right into the center of the cedar blanket. It will do the exact same thing that we did initially with the fungus tinder to the cattail blanket.

However, at this stage you will see, by squeezing the cattail blanket to maintain all of its warmth, and by gently blowing on the cedar blanket, it will blow into a flame with a few good breaths and some patience.


Photo 13

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned the use of fungus tinder. The side you see is the side against the tree. When you look for birch trees, and wish to find some of this tinder, you will see the black side of this fungus, which is the outer side. Photo 13 shows the yellow birch tree that I harvested this particular piece of fungus. Remember: when you remove such a big piece from the tree, it is be a good idea to collect some sap, and fill in the wound on the tree. My policy has always been: "If you use something from the earth, try to add something back to the resources."
The tinder fungus as it was harvested from the birch tree.

I use this technique for fire starting most of the time. I find it practical, in most environments, and if the available materials are not too hard to find. It has been a good fire starting technique for me, and there have not been many times when it has failed to produce a good coal to get my fire going.

Whatever useful method you choose to use, take the time to try it in all weather conditions. Then, practice, practice, practice! It will pay off.


All photos and text are Copyright Allan "Bow" Beauchamp.
This article originally appeared in Wilderness Way magazine, volume 8, issue 1