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Fire Plow Sets for Primitive Fire Making
Product Reviewed by Thomas J. Elpel

The fire plow may be the most primitive method of fire starting there is. You pick up one stick for a "plow" and rub it back and forth on another stick, called the "fireboard" or "hearth". The friction creates a groove in the hearth, and the hot, powdered wood worn out of the groove piles up at the end, hopefully to form a glowing coal. The coal is then transferred to a tinderbundle of dry, fluffy material and blown into flame.

The fire plow was historically used by native peoples in southeast Asia, northern Australia, throughout Polynesia and Hawaii, with limited use by some Native Americans. I first witnessed the fire plow as a teenager visiting the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii. A big Polynesian man whipped out a coal in a few seconds and blew it into flame in a tinderbundle made from the fibers of a coconut husk. I've been fascinated with this wilderness survival tool ever since!

There are three keys to successfully starting a fire with the fire plow: 1) the right materials, 2) favorable weather, and 3) good technique. You will need at least two out of the three to get a coal with the fire plow.

The Right Materials: The best materials for the fire plow tend to grow in warmer climates, which is one reason the fire plow has been used in tropical regions. I don't yet know what woods were used in Polynesia, but the best material we know of here in the USA is the flower stalk of the sotol plant (Dasylirion wheeleri) from the desert southwest. (Please see Botany in a Day for more details on identification.) Sotol works so well for the fire plow that you can get a coal even with marginal fire plow skills.

Cottonwood also works for the fire plow, but it requires well-honed techniques. Bart Blankenship, author of Earth Knack: Stone Age Skills for the 21st Century is one person who has developed proficiency with the cottonwood fire plow.

Favorable Weather: Climate was the other reason the fire plow was commonly used in warmer regions of the world. The fire plow is more sensitive to the weather than other friction fire techniques, because the heat is dispersed over the length of the groove, rather than being concentrated in a single point the way it is with a bowdrill fire set or handdrill fire set.

In cooler or damper weather it becomes more and more difficult to get a coal with the fire plow. Fortunately, the sotol fire sets work so well that you can still get a coal in cool damp weather, although beginners may need to first dry out their sets by a fire or in the oven.

Good Technique: The fire plow requires a combination of speed and pressure applied in a back-and-forth motion. Friction between the plow and hearth grinds away bits of wood powder from both surfaces to make a hot pile at the end of the groove. To generate an burning ember you need to apply enough friction to heat this pile of powder to 700 or 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Making lots of smoke is relatively easy. Getting a hot coal takes a bit more work.

The most challenging part is to rub the plow back and forth without hitting and scattering the pile of powder at the end. Fortunately, the sotol fire plow works so well that it is possible to get a coal from bits of hot powder spilling out the side or back of the groove, even if you do scatter the main pile. In other words, you can get good results even with marginal techniques. Practice with these sotol sets and you can develop your abilities to try the fire plow with more challenging materials like cottonwood later on. Additional instructions are included with the fire plow sets.

Please develop some proficiency with flint & steel, bowdrill, and handdrill fire-starting before trying the fire plow. You will probably find it surprisingly easy to start a fire with the sotol fire plow once you have experience with these other primitive fire-starting techniques.

Our sotol fire plow sets are manufactured in Arizona by Vince Pinto, and every set is tested to make sure it works. Each set includes one hearth board (a 30-inch long piece of sotol flower stalk) with a test groove, and two fire plows. The flattened plow (charred on one end) is the exterior plow used on the outside of the flower stalk. Once you've worn out the outside of the hearth board, you can split it into two equal halves and use the interior plow to generate more fires. Basically, the exterior plow is made from the outside of the stalk, while the interior plow is made from the tip of the stalk, so that each one better matches the hardness of the exterior or interior of the hearth board.

Although this is a simple device to make, the materials are somewhat scarce, hence the higher price. Tinder material is sold separately, or can be gathered by you. Sotol Fire Plow Set: $40.

Sotol Fire Plow Set $40.00 Quantity:
Earth Knack: Stone Age Skills for the 21st Century $16.00 Quantity:

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Oakum Tinder

Once you have a created a hot coal, you will need to place the glowing ember into a nest of light, dry, fibrous materials, called a tinder bundle. Good tinder bundles can be made from dead grass, sagebrush bark, or the inner bark of a dead cottonwood tree, and many other materials. Just look around for dry, fluffy materials and shape them into a nest-like form. In the mountains you can use "pine fluff", the dried flower parts of the pines which often accumulate in small piles around logs and boulders. As a curiosity, very fine steel wool can also be used. The steel fibers are so fine that they catch fire and burn, one of those things you almost have to see to believe.

We hope that you the reader will learn to make your own primitive fire sets and collect your own tinder, but to get started you may want to use our quality "oakum" tinder. Oakum is made of fibers from the jute plant. Historically, oakum has been manufactured for plumbers, heavily greased and used for packing around steel pipe fittings. The oakum we have is ungreased, plain dry fibers. A small amount of "oakum" tinder is included with our flint & steel kits. Tinder is sold separately for bowdrill, handdrill, and fire plow sets.

Make your tinder bundle into the form of a nest with a hole in the center to place the coal. Cradle the bundle in your hands, gently closing the front to wrap the coal inside. Be careful to not smother it, but only to blanket it to keep it warm. Blow with steady, even breaths between your hands and let the smoke spill out the backside until you have a flaming bundle, a ball of fire. Then place it in the fire pit and start adding small twigs and then bigger sticks.

Our oakum tinder is also helpful for group events, when a large amount of tinder is needed. We sell oakum by the pound. One pound makes about twelve average-size tinder bundles. Just measure about 10 to 12 inches of oakum, un-twist and pull-apart to obtain a suitable length. We ship the oakum in recycled plastic bags (bread bags, etc.).

1 lb. Oakum Tinder $8.00 Quantity:


Also see these related pages:
Flint & Steel Sets for Primitive Fire Making
Bowdrill and Handdrill Sets for Primitive Fire Making
Fire Pistons for Primitive Fire Making
Swedish Fire Steel Emergency Fire Starter
Fresnel Lens Card Magnifier

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