On 15 August 2006, by Outdoors1
Fire by compression
There are alot of ways to light a fire. When you are in a hurry, nothing beats a butane lighter, and the various firesteels are not far behind. Both are easily carried, and will light a whole bunch of fires.
But some of us prefer to do things the old fashioned way. After all, you can’t really pull out a bic lighter at a rendezvous or other period event. That path leads us to more primitive firestarting methods. I started with the very popular flint and steel, and had a bit of trouble at first. Eventually, with some good advise, I was able to make a fire with flint and steel very reliably - at least under good conditions.
Awhile back, I was doing some Internet research on primitive firestarting, and I ran across a device called a fire piston. The idea originated in southeast Asia, from what I have read, and has been in common use in the Philippines as recently as the 1970’s. It works on the same principle a diesel engine - when you compress air quickly, it gets hot. Hot enough in fact, to light an ember. The device is basically a cylinder with a tightly fitted plunger that creates an airtight seal. Put some tinder into the end of the plunger and put the parts together, push the plunger rapidly into the cylinder, pull it out and you have a coal. It sounded so easy, I wanted to give one a try.
I tried to make one myself, but had no success. After a bit of looking, I found a seller on the Internet who makes a piston at a very good price, so I picked one up. The seller goes by the handle EBPrimitives on Ebay. EBPrimitives has put together a nice little fire starting package. The fire piston itself is a mixture of modern and primitive materials, and the design is well thought out. The first picture shows the fire piston (cylinder and plunger, and accessory rod to clean the cylinder, some spare seals, a container of lube, and some of the EB Primitive fire starter biscuits. There’s also an tinder box that EBPrimitives sells separately.
Fire pistons look simple, and they are. But there are two components that are critical to proper operation. The first of these is the cylinder. The cylinder has to be perfectly round to get a good seal. While fire pistons are made using only primitive technology, it can be hard for the average person to make if they don’t happen to have a lathe. The fire piston from EBPrimitives gets around that difficulty by using a brass cylinder epoxied into a wooden case. The brass tube is perfectly round and quite durable, and the wooden case is attractive and prevents the brass tube from getting bent or dinged, which would keep it from working. The top of the brass tube is also flanged so you can get the plunger in easier.
The second critical part of the fire piston is the seal. Natural materials are traditional and work well for the seal, but any seal will eventually wear out requiring replacement. The EBPrimitives fire piston has a small synthetic seal on the end of the plunger. The seal is easily replaced, and a whole bunch of replacements were provided with my piston.
Another issue with fire pistons is storing the two parts. Since the plunger must make an airtight seal to work, the air pressure keeps pushing the plunger out of the cylinder. Not handy! The fire piston from EBPrimitives solves this problem by attaching a thread to the top of the plunger (you can just see the thread in photo 1). When you want to store the fire piston, just put the thread across the seal, and creates a small gap in the seal for the air to escape when you push the plunger down. Clever!
Starting a fire The following ar the basic steps for starting a fire by compression. The EBPrimitive piston, with its synthetic seal, requires a slightly different method to make a coal, but the basic principles are the same for any fire piston.
First disassemble the piston. Put a small amount of lube on on the seal. For the EBPrimitives fire piston, you will also need to put a bit of lube on the end of the plunger.
Now attach a small piece of the char/tinder to the end of the plunger. Traditional pistons have a cavity in the end of the plunger. With the EBPrimitived piston, just stick the char to the lube, but be careful not to get the lube on the top of the fire starter.
This step is the same for all pistons. Put the plunger into the cylinder and push it rapidly to the bottom, then quickly remove the plunger. I have found that a moderately forceful stroke is required to get a coal going. Too soft a stroke won’t work.
You should also be aware that if you leave the plunger in the cylinder too long after your strike, the coal will smother and you will have to start again. It sounds complicated, but once you get the hang of it, it’s actually pretty easy. Once you get your technique worked out, you’ll get a coal right away.
If your fire piston doesn’t work right away, you may have lost the charred material from the plunger, or you see smoke in the cylinder. Use the little cleaning rod to get any loose fire starter out of the cylinder and get fresh air in, and give it another try. EBPrimitives recommends that you replace the firestarting material after a misfire, but I’ve had good success just blowing fresh air into the cylinder and giving it another whack.
From this point, starting a fire is the same as for any other primitive technique. Transfer the small coal to some form of coal extender (more char is what I use), put it into a tinder bundle, and blow until you get a flame.
As an alternative to the traditional method, you can use one of the tinder boxes from EBPrimitives. The tinder box is a metal cylindrical box with a lid. The box is 1 ½ inches high and 2 inches in diameter and has been colored black. A cross shaped cut has been made in one side, and a wooden base is attached to the bottom.
The little tinder box is very easy to operate. First, put a piece of char or firestarter next to the cross shaped opening to extend your coal. Then fill the rest of the box with tinder. EBPrimitives recommends shredded cedar bark mulch for tinder - it works well, and in inexpensively available at garden centers. Set the filled tinderbox aside until you have a coal ready.
Now when you have a coal from your fire piston or other firestarter, push it into the cross shaped cut (a small piece of wire helps). Blow a few times into the cuts, and you will see smoke and soon flames. That’s all there is to it!
They can get going pretty good!
Start up your fire lay (not you can see why the box has a wooden base!) and then cap the tinder box up to put it out. EBPrimitives recommends using a green leaf to cover the cuts in the tinder box and help smother the flame. That wire comes in handy there, too. Cap the tinderbox up and you are done.
If you are interested in trying to make fire by compression of fire starting, I can highly recommend the EBPrimitives fire starter. It is an attractively made, and effective way to make fire once you have got your technique down.
Jeff Wagner at Wilderness solutions makes a more traditional fire piston. they are available in either horn or tropical hardwood in a variety of prices. I haven’t tried one of Jeff’s fire pistons, but I have seen one close up and it is not only traditionally made, but quite attractive. Jeff’s products can be found here http://www.firepistons.com/
Darrel Aune also makes a traditional style fire piston, along with several other primitive firestarting tools and accessories. Darrel makes his pistons out of horn or cocobolo hardwood, and they are available in several styles. One style I thought particularly interesting is a fire piston that can also be used as a fire drill. Pretty ingenious! Again, I haven’t had a chance to try Darrel’s fire piston, but I have seen them up close and they appear quite well made and attractive. You can find Darel’s goods on EBay (http://stores.ebay.com/D-B-Primitive-Forgeworks), or at his website: http://www.primalconnection.com/
Sorry, I thought I responded to this earlier. I must have hit cancel!
I do carry a butane lighter in my kit. However, I seldom use it. The fire piston and other primitive fire skills provide a way to introduce kids to traditional outdoors skills, and as I said, some us just prefer to do things the old way!