Instructor Corps Pro Tip: We all know (I hope) that fire needs three types of fuel to succeed: tinder, kindling, and fuelwood. Tinder is generally fine, highly flammable material that will easily catch a spark and burns up quickly. Kindling is usually small material such as twigs that will catch the initial flame from the tinder, burn for a few minutes and allow the fire to build. Fuelwood is what actually sustains the fire.
However, if you've ever camped in high-traffic areas such as our state parks, national forests, the Cohutta Wilderness, or along the Appalachian Trail, you know that you can forget about finding decent tinder or kindling. But… larger standing deadwood is usually left untouched, because most novice campers don't know how to use it properly. With one technique, you can use a single log to create your tinder, kindling and fuel alike. Enter the feather curl. Feather curls are essentially shavings or ribbons made from the inside of a split log. They allow wood to dry out and ignite more easily, and also make wood much more digestible for the fire by creating more surface area.
Your first step will be to fell your standing deadwood or salvage your dry log. Next, you’ll want to use your saw to cut it into manageable lengths. Then, use your axe, hatchet, or knife & baton to split it into pieces. Your goal is to get to the dry interior of the log. Unless a log has been submerged in standing water for an extended period of time, the interior of it will almost certainly still be dry, even if it’s soaking wet on the outside. Take one of your log pieces, get in a comfortable position where you can hold the top of it with your non-dominant hand, and lean over it. Use the belly of your knife to shave off paper-thin curls. I find that holding the knife with a fist grip at slightly more than a 90-degree angle to the wood and locking my elbow produces the best results. This allows you to use your body weight to get a steady rhythm of rocking back and forth that won’t wear out your arm.
To make tinder, you’ll want to shave off the thinnest shreds of wood that you can. Or, alternately, if your knife has a sharpened spine, you can use it to scrape off tiny pieces of almost sawdust-like wood that will catch a spark. For kindling, you’ll want to go bigger, like the curls in the photo. Once you make your curls, place them on a tarp, poncho, or other ground cloth so they don’t absorb moisture from the earth. This also makes it easier to cover and stash your material if the weather suddenly turns nasty.
For both tinder and kindling, you’ll want to use resin-rich softwoods like pine, spruce, or hemlock that are naturally more flammable than heavy hardwoods. However, hardwoods in the magnolia family, especially Tulip Poplar, will work nicely as well. Admittedly, making feather curls takes lots of practice to become skilled at. It took me months to really get to where I could reliably produce nice, pretty, Instagram-worthy curls like in the photo. Thankfully, it’s a super relaxing activity! It’s a great thing to practice while you’re sitting around camp, or even on the back porch. If you don’t use them right away, just throw them in a Ziploc bag and take them with you on your next outing.
Want to learn more useful firecraft tips in a hands-on, interactive setting? Then come to Firecraft Essentials on Saturday, October 20th from 9am-7pm! Register now at sarcraft.com/firecraft-essentials!