Part 1 of this article covers the fire making tools made by Darrel Aune, his fire pistons,and fire steels.
This article, the first dual authorship from Outdoors1 and Schwert, will attempt to show some of Darrel Aune’s wide range of work. We met at a local pub and over pints of microbrews planned out this article. The table littered with knives, ulus, fire steels and pistons, chaga, and char, cameras and pints amazed the local populace but not nearly as much as the authors were amazed by the diversity of Darrel’s tools and his obvious talent.
We decided to break up the tools into two piles, Outdoors1 would do the primary work on Darrel’s firepistons, awls, drawknives, knife and DVD ; Schwert would cover the ulus and fire steels. After we began work on this article it became apparent that we would have even split the artice into two parts to adequately cover the selection of tools we had.
Part 1 of this article will look at three fire pistons and 3 forged fire steels, along with Darrel’s Fire Piston DVD.
Part 2 covers a pair of nearly matching and quite unique ulus, a pair of mini drawknives, two awls, and one knife all made by Darrel Aune.
Darrel is likely a unique individual in that he makes forged knives and tools, fire steels, and wood fire pistons. His primitive interests are quite diverse and his skill at turning these interests into moderately priced and authentic items is quite impressive.
Each of us will add additional supporting comments to the tools they do not primarily cover. We hope this combined effort not only shows some of Darrel’s fine work, but adds some technique differences in using these fine tools. We will identify the authorship of each section as we go. So with that, we begin with an introduction of how we each found Darrel Aune.
Schwert Back in 2005 I was searching on eBay for a fire piston. I found a couple offerings that looked pretty good in the photo. These were being sold by their maker, a fellow named Darrel Aune. His descriptions and additional pieces included with the sale convinced me this fellow was more than just your usual eBayer. I bid and won a firepiston. It arrived in a few days and I was instantly amazed by the craftsmanship that went into the device and started working to get proficient with the device.
Over the course of a couple weeks my piston started to get harder and harder to use, I sent Darrel a note asking about this and his immediate response was to ask me to return the piston. I sent it to him and in just a few days it returned in perfect working order.
However this came back in a nearly “endless box”, he included a bundle of natural tinder materials plus a complete additional fire piston. The O-ring firepiston (that will appear below) sent as a bonus simply made my jaw drop.
I was simply blown away by this sort of customer service. Not only had he corrected the fault with the original piston, added the additonal piston and tinder materials, but he also added a very neat bone fire pick to my original piston.
The additional tinder would have been a perfect bit of bonus materials, but by adding all the additional pieces I knew I had found someone who really cared about his customers.
Outdoors1 I found out about Darrel Aune’s work from Schwert, who had posted pictures of some truly beautiful fire pistons on one of the forums I frequent. These pictures sent me on my own fire piston quest, which I have already written about for Outdoors Magazine (see article). While working on that article, Schwert and I got together and I had a chance to see Darrel’s work firsthand. I was fascinated by the attention to detail - the little things that Darrel added to the fire pistons to make them special. I knew at that moment that I would wind up getting one of Darrel’s fire pistons, eventually.
Later, I ran into Darrel at another forum dedicated to primitive skills. It seemed to me that Darrel was always making something new and interesting, and I found his work truly inspiring. The pictures were also excellent. This was when I found out about Darrel’s metal working, particularly his fire steels. As time went by, I visited Darrel’s website and saw more pictures of his work, particularly his knives. What has most impressed me about Darrel’s work is the imagination he shows. Practical tools to be sure, but made with an artists eye for design.
Darrel’s Fire pistons
Outdoors1 As you can see from the photographs, Darrel makes fire pistons in a variety of styles. I believe the ones he is selling at the moment are a compact model, a standard model, and a combination model the combines the fire piston with a fire drill. As you can see from the photo below, all three of these models are made from cocobolo, an attractive and durable tropical hardwood. Darrel ships every piston with a maintenance kit. The kit includes a supply of fire starting material (chaga fungus [Inonotus obliquus]), replacement seals, and a supply of lubricant.
Compact piston The compact is the smallest and lightest of the three pistons reviewed. It is approximately 4 3/8 inches long and 1 1/8 inches in diameter ( 12 cm long by 3 cm in diameter. This size can fit fairly well in a pocket, or comfortably in a bag or pouch. The piston and cylinder are lathe turned from tropical cocobolo hardwood. This wood is hard and dense as well as attractive. The body tapers to a rounded point, and a grasping groove is cut near the neck of the piston. This shape fits well in the hand, like a good knife. Turned rings on the body of the tool and the piston provide a decorative element without interfering with the function. The seal on this model is approximately 1/2 inch (1.25 cm) long, and is made of wound cotton cord lubricated with petroleum jelly. As the seal wears down, it can easily be rewound with cotton cord provided in the maintenance kit. Darrel also includes a full color pamphlet with instructions for using the fire piston and replacing the seals.
O-ring piston The o-ring fire piston is somewhat larger than the compact model, about 4 7/8 inches long and 1 1/8 inches in diameter (12.5 cm long, 3 cm in diameter). The body has been turned in a cylinder shape with decorative rings at the top and bottom, and on the piston. This piston seal is provided by a rubber o-ring. Current models in this size have a tinder holder in the top of the piston - a very handy accessory. As with the other models, instructions and maintenance kit were included.
Drill piston The drill piston is the largest of the three fire pistons in the review. It approximately 5 1/2 inches long and 1 1/8 inches in diameter (14 cm long, 3 cm in diameter). The body of the tool has been turned to a tapered cylinder, with a grasping groove just below the top of the cylinder. A hole is bored into the bottom to hold a plug when using the tool as a fire drill. On Randy’s fire piston, this hole is fitted with a plug and a nice little bone ember pick. The seal on this fire piston is a wound string gasket. As with the other fire pistons, decorative rings have been turned into the body of the tool and onto the piston. Like the other fire pistons, this one also includes a maintenance kit and instructions. The unique aspect of the drill piston is its potential fur use as a fire drill as well and a fire piston. The drill piston kit includes a small hearth board with holes pre-located, and several lengths of mullein stalk to use as disposable plugs.
Using the Fire Piston
Starting a fire with a fire piston is pretty straight forward. First, lube piston seal and insert some chaga or other tinder into the piston
Insert the piston into the cylinder and compress the piston quicky. Remove the ember.
Now transfer the ember to a suitable tinder bundle, and blow it into flame
Using the drill piston
This was my first time using a fire drill, and I found the process pretty simple. First you will need a bow and a handhold. You will need a short length of string ( 25 inches or .6 meter) and a curved branch to make the bow, and finally a small length of straight wood for handhold. Tie the ends of the string to your curved branch to make a bow - but make sure to leave enough slack in the cord to wrap it around the drill piston body. I used an old cedar arrow shaft for my handhold, but any short, straight length of wood of the correct size would be fine. Next, remove the piston from the cylinder, and cut a small section of the mullein- I found that about 1 ½ inches (3.5-4 cm) works pretty well. Trim one end down until it fits into the hole in the drill piston.
Now, you are ready to assemble the parts. Put the handhold into the fire piston body and the mullein plug into the bottom. Wrap the cord around the piston once, and place the whole thing on the hearth board. Hold down the hearth board with your offside foot, and grasp the handhold in your non-dominant hand. You may want to try the other side, if that is more comfortable. Apply some downward pressure on the handhold, and saw with the bow. The cylinder and the mullein plug should turn on the hearth. Keep sawing until you see dust forming around the hole and in the notch in the hearth. After a few rapid turns, you should see smoke, and after a few more, an ember should form. Perseverance is the key.
A few caveats : starting a fire from an ember can be a bit tricky for those who have not done it before, or for those like me who do not practice frequently enough. Two points to bear in mind. First, you need to have enough material to catch the small ember and produce good sized coal. Too small a piece and the coal will burn out before you can produce flame. Something about the size of a large cherry (perhaps 2 cc) works well for me. The material can be any good tinder - chaga, char cloth, or punkwood, or other suitable natural material. The second point is that you will need a suitably sized ball of tinder to blow into flame. Too small a bundle, and again, your coal will burn out before you get flames. A ball about twice the size of your fist seems to work well.
There are two tools that I often use to make fire starting easier. The first is a small tube that I use to focus my breath onto the coal. Mine is made from bamboo and is about 4 inches (10 cm) long, and a bit less than ½ inch (1 cm) on the outside. A hollow twig or reed, a small bone, a straw, or even the shell of a stick style pen (or byro) would work. It is amazing how well these little tubes can coax a coal into flame, or restart a stalled fire. Although the idea is likely ancient, my knowledge of it comes from author J.A. (Joe) Bigley. Joe describes the technique in his book (Aboman’s Guide to Survival and Self-Reliance : Practical Skills for Interesting Times available from Amazon.com). Joe also described the technique in an article in Backwoodsman Magazine (www.Backwoodsmanmag.com). Another desirable tool is a base to place your tinder in or on. I sometimes use the top of a small coffee can - it is simple and efficient.
I have also used a tinder box from Emil Banks (EBPrimitives on Ebay). I discussed this tool in my previous fire piston article, and you can read a detailed description of it there. In summary, you load the tinder box up with tinder and put a bit of coal extender near the hole in the side. Transfer the ember from your fire piston into the hole, blow and you have fire. Cap it up when you are done. Clever and convenient.
Once you have a flame, you can drop the tinder bundle into a fire pit or wood stove. For this article, I used a pocket cooker for my fire pit. This inexpensive folding stove is made from sheet steel. A hand full of dry twigs, and a few small sticks and fir cones work fine for fuel, if they are dry.
The Pocket Cooker works fine for boiling up small quantities of water (up to about 2 liters) or similar campfire tasks. Because of its small size, it must be fed frequently to keep up a good boil. Total fuel to boil this water (1 liter) was a handful of twigs, three or four fir cones, and one or two sticks about a yard (1 meter) long and ½ inch (1 cm) in diameter. This small amount of fuel could be easily scrounged in a backyard, campground, or woodlots.
When cooking is finished, the fuel has burned down to a few sticks and small amount of ash. For safety sake, I pour water on the remains of the fire to make sure it is out. If you set the stove up on a stone and wash away the ash, there is little evidence of a fire.
Evaluation All three pistons worked well to make an ember, so I can’t say any one is really better than the others. The do however, all have particular traits that might make them best for specific uses. The compact model is the smallest and lightest. Its rounded shape fits nicely in the pocket. I think this one is the handiest, and probably the best for hiking.
The standard sized piston is larger and heavier than the compact model, it has a nice mass to it. The cylindrical shape does not fit the hand as nicely as the more ergonomic compact model, but the flat top and bottom allow the parts to stand by themselves on a flat surface. This can be an advantage when starting a fire in the field, or if you wish to display the fire piston on a desk, table, or shelf. The rubber o-ring seal is quite durable and foolproof, making this the easiest of the fire pistons to use. I think this one also gets the vote for ease of display.
The drill piston is definitely appeals most to the gadget freak. It is not as compact as the other two pistons, and perhaps not as compact as a separate piston and fire drill, but combining the two gives you the potential for two different primitive fire starting methods - sort of aboriginal “Swiss Army fire kit”. I think that is pretty cool, and it works well.
In addition to the wood models in this review, Darrel also makes fire pistons from buffalo horn. Buffalo horn is generally black ; thought there may be some swirls or inclusions of white or gray. While the horn is a bit more expensive than the cocobolo, it is a very attractive if you prefer that material. It would make a nice companion piece for a horn handled knife, such as a Valiant golok or one of the various Nepali khukuris. For those who are unfamiliar with horn, it does have a tendency to shrink or swell with changes in humidity. I have never had problems with buffalo horn handled knives here in the northwest, but it is something to be aware of.
Darrel also sells a fire piston made from clear acrylic resin. The advantage of these pistons is that the combustion is clearly visible through the walls of the piston. I have seen similar tools sold by educational companies, as a way to demonstrate the principle of the diesel piston engine. These might be a great tool for any young science minded folks in your life.
Darrel’s Fire Steels
Schwert We have 3 fine examples of traditional fire steels. Like most of his items Darrel supplies these with some extras ; in this case, a useful tin, with char cloth, a nice chunk of prepared flint, and some jute. The fire steels run from the plain C-steel to the more fanciful Seahorse and Twisted Dragon. Darrel produces a number of other fire steel designs and will likely continue his exploration into the unique and unusual. The artfulness of these pieces is certainly apparent, but what really matters is that he gets the hardness correct to easily make a shower of sparks.
I only have one other fire steel, an old C-steel that I picked up long ago. I learned my flint and steel techniques using this one and never really considered that a different steel could produce many more sparks much more easily...well Darrel’s steels do. I was simply amazed at how easily his steels showered sparks onto my char. I thought this might be due to the flint edge but comparing my old steel to Darrel’s using either my flint or his yielded the same observations...Darrel’s steels are much easier to use than my old steel.
I choose a typical Seattle day to put these steels into play. Gray, cloudy and with a nice damping rain coming down, I decided to brew up a pot of tea. I pulled out my favorite water boiler....the Kelly Kettle (see related article), some fine Keemun tea, Darrel’s flint and steel kits, and proceeded to shred up some cedar bark to make a tinder nest. I used his ulu for this task which will be covered in Part II.
I wrapped the flint supplied by Darrel with some of my char cloth, and struck the steel. I have found I generally catch the spark off his steels in the first or second strike.
Blowing this ember up in the cedar nest is quick and sure.
And tea is only a few minutes away.
My current “secret and preferred” char cloth is made using 100% cotton terry towels. These make dense pads of char that catch sparks readily and then produce long lasting embers. The towel density seems to produce char that is a bit more durable in my hands than thinner cotton materials.
I also use a small Altoids Sours tin as my char maker. I drilled a hole through the lid and the body on the side of the tin. This allows me to char the towels with the holes aligned, then by turning the lid a few degrees the hole is closed up for storage. A nice way to make a small batch of char.
My Twisty Dragon and Outdoor1’s, C and Seahorse are excellent examples of a blacksmith’s art and excellent tools for anyone who enjoys the traditional flint and steel method of making fire. I can wholeheartedly recommend one of these flint and steel kits to anyone who wants to learn. I bet I could have mastered the technique much faster if I would have had one of these kits.
DVD Review—Fire Tools Vol. 1 : Fire Pistons
Outdoors1 Darrel has also taken the opportunity to make a DVD about fire pistons. The video provides a comprehensive view of fire piston construction, maintenance, and use. The video demonstrated two methods of fire piston construction. The first method uses simple hand tools and readily available materials (standard size brass tube and brass rod, hard wood dowels, common o rings). I have no doubt after watching this DVD anyone with a basic knowledge of hand tools (knife, hacksaw, drill, soldering torch) could easily construct their own fire piston. The information is all there, and Darrel demonstrates it step by step.
The second method shown is Darrel’s construction of a fire piston out of raw materials - in this case tropical hardwood. This is not a method for beginners. If however, you are an experienced woodworker with a lathe and drill press, I am sure you could watch the DVD a time or two and make your own fire pistons. For me, this section of the DVD really shows how much work goes into one of Darrel’s fire pistons, and points out what an incredible deal they are. Great information, well presented.
Darrel wraps up the DVD with an exploration of the different tinder that can be used in the fire piston. Included are how to find and prepare both the chaga fungus (Inonotus obliquus) and amadou or horse fungus (Fomes fomentarius) for use in the fire piston. Darrel also discusses other natural tinders (milkweed pods, thistle down) as well char cloth, more commonly known for its use with flint and steel.
In this DVD Darrel poses the questions "What good is a survival tool if YOU don’t know how to make it ?" and "what use is the knowledge if its not passed down to the next generation ?" The DVD answers these questions by providing the information to make the tools yourself, and then documents the tools in use for posterity. I think it fulfills its goals admirably.
I have only two small criticisms of the DVD, neither of which substantially affects its value. The first is that the quality of the video is a bit choppy, especially when viewed on a computer screen. It is noticeably better on a standard tv screen. The second criticism is that sound is a bit quiet in the outdoor sections. This is easily resolved by turning up the volume a bit. Overall the DVD is very well done, and well worth the price. It provides information not previously available in a thoughtful and entertaining manner. I highly recommend it to those interested in this fascinating primitive fire starting tool.
Darrel’s own words....
Darrel As for the paragragh about myself. Hmmm...
I am 40 (well nearly 41) years old, a husband and a father of three. I live in central Minnesota and am a full time blacksmith, bladesmith and primitive/survival tool maker and enthusiast. As long as I can remember, I have had some internal primal need to recreate and use primitive knowledge. I have been making primitive survival tools, along with many other things for 30 of my 40 years.
I spent the first 21 years of my life surrounded by concrete, steel and brick in Minneapolis. At that point, I moved to central Minnesota to an area that had lots of woods to play in and time to practice my skills. The first thing I did when I got here was to brain tan and smoke some deer hides and made a pair of knee high, plains style, lace up the front moccasins to run around with in the woods. Its really weird to look back and see how one thing has lead to another, where I am now, and where I would like to go. I have no idea why I wanted to know all this, but now all the information and skills are coming together into something much bigger than I would have ever dreamed.
This is still fun for me, and it gives me the ability to create new things and get better at what Im doing everyday. When I make something, I always start off thinking "I’m going to keep this one.." But I don’t keep anything I make because, before Im finished, Im already thinking of something different and better. It works well for everyone else because they know that they are getting the best of my ability each time that I make something. Now that need inside has grown to a stronger need to begin passing on the knowledge and skills. That is the only real useful reason for having the information, that it may be used somewhere along the way in the future, if not in my life, in my children’s or whomever may be in need or want of the information. But most of all, so that it may not be forgotten.
Darrel Aune’s Primal Connection his general website.
Darrel has two ebay stores, one for firepistons and one for his forge works.
Paleo Planet ForumWhere Darrel Aune is a frequent poster in the metalworking and other forum sections.
Version 1.0 1/05/2007 Inception
Version 1.5 1/24/2007 Intro combined
Version 1.7 2/5/2007 Article split into 2 parts
Version 2.0 2/26/2007 Fini
Version 2.1 4/4/2007 Linked to Part 2