As I’m sure you already know, it takes practice. Being a survival skill that you may not need to use very often, many people feel that it is enough to know only the theory. The fact of the matter is this is one of the most important skills to keep on top of. The ability to produce fire at will in a survival situation cannot be overstressed.
The firesteel or sparking tool produces a hot, resilient spark when the back of the knife is forced down its length. The spark then ignites the material underneath and you have a flame. This statement is of course entirely true but as with most things there is more to it than that. The following is no more than a basic guide to what can be a very frustrating skill to learn.
Firstly, the angle that the back of the knife makes with the sparking tool should be around 30 degrees from the axis of the sparking tool. The position of the sparking tool along the back of the blade is important and should be as close to the knife’s grip as possible to give good control for the duration of the blade’s travel along the length of the sparking tool.
The contact pressure between the knife and the sparking tool should be heavy but the speed down the sparking tool should not be too quick or you will lose control of where the spark will land. Practice this until you become consistent and can produce controlled, good quality sparks in the right place every time.
Generally, the best materials to use throughout the year are silver birch bark and feathersticks made from dead standing timber. As your experience grows there are many other materials to use depending on where you are, what time of year it is and of course the conditions.
Silver Birch Bark
This is easily collected by peeling the loose curls away from the trunk; two large handfuls should do nicely.
These are made from a piece of standing deadwood (wood that is dead but not lying on the floor) about an inch in diameter and 15 inches long. Take your knife and gently shave each curl down the stick to about an inch from the bottom.
The curls should remain attached to the stick. When you have about 30 tight curls at the bottom of your stick it is complete; two or three feathersticks will be enough to start your fire. Remember to keep the hand holding the featherstick well behind the blade at all times.
If you are having problems producing your feathersticks the most likely cause is that your knife is not sharp enough. If you cannot shave the hairs from the back of your hand with a single stroke you will struggle to produce a good featherstick. Always keep your knife sharp; you are more likely to cut yourself with a blunt knife than a sharp one due to the amount of extra pressure you will need to apply, reducing the amount of positional control over the knife.
Producing the Flame
Place your tinder on a cleared, solid base and then rest the end of the sparking tool on the tinder. Position the back of the knife at the top of the sparking tool and with a firm, controlled action produce a good quality spark onto the tinder. The tinder should now have a small flame that you will need to nurture in order to take the kindling and ultimately the fuel.
You will find that the silver birch bark will take a spark really well but if you can’t find a silver birch tree you can use your feathersticks directly; to use this method your feathersticks will need to be of excellent quality and your technique very good. Once the flame has become strong, hold the kindling over the flame until it catches. The main fuel can now be added, smallest pieces first.
It is always wise to mention that you are likely to be in dense mixed woodland and the risk of fire is always present. Take five litres of water with you to pour over the hot embers and always make sure that you handle the embers to ensure they are cold before cleaning the area, leaving it exactly as you found it. In some parts of the world it is not allowed to light fires, so please check the local laws beforehand.