Australian friction-fire woods 1

At the Global Bushcraft Symposium 2022 in the UK, Gordon Dedman presented a variety of types of Australian friction-fire wood, which are well suited for friction-fire lighting methods and tinder. The signature friction-fire method, which was exclusively used for many thousands of years in Australia, was and is the hand drill. Bow drills were only introduced very recently by bushcraft enthusiasts from the West.

For hand drill hearth boards and spindles, typically the same species of wood, if possible even from the same tree or shrub, should be used. The best wood for hand- and bow drill methods is a medium hard wood, which leaves a clear imprint when scratched with the thumbnail.

Coastal hibiscus wood for friction fire lighting

The best available Australian friction firewood is Coastal hibiscus (Hibiscus tiliaceus) and there are many other common names for it. The wood is uniformly dense, and lightweight,  but still strong. Besides fire lighting, it was also used in former times as a replacement for bottle corks, fishing net floats, and others. The bark was and is used for strings and ropes.  Next to Hibiscus tiliaceus there are about 100 other species of the genus Hibiscus native to Australia and all of them have suitable friction fire-lighting woods.

Grass trees wood for friction fire lighting

Grass trees (Xanthorrhoea spp.) comprise around 30 different species in Australia and all of them develop long, straight flower spikes, which was already discussed in the post about ‘Spear shafts’ in Australia, which is linked here. In this post, it was mentioned that these shafts are used for hearth boards and spindles for friction fire methods and old flower stalks and fruits for tinder.

What has to be added is, that grass tree spike wood is exceptionally light and stringy and loses its strength immediately after contact with water. Therefore, when using a grass tree spindle for a bow drill, the bearing at the holding block should never be wetted. Means: Don’t spit into the bearing hole for lubrication, as this will disintegrate the spindle point within the bearing.

There is one more necessity due to this light wood: friction at the contact area has NOT to be increased by increasing pressure, but by increasing the speed of turns. So, the bow has to be used in a very fast stroking action, and for hand drills, it needs very high rubbing speed; making it a bad choice for hand drills.

As grass tree hearth boards and spindles are wearing quickly, it is necessary to cut away the charred sides of the drilled hole in the hearth board after burning-in, to reduce sidewall friction.

And just for interest purposes: Grass tree wood emits a distinctive smell from its smoke. More than any other Australian friction firewood.

Red-flowered Kurrajong wood for friction fire lighting

Another Australian friction firewood is from Red-flowered Kurrajong trees (Brachychiton megaphyllus). These Kurrajong trees are easily recognized, when all other plants are shedding their leaves and the red Kurrajong flowers stand out in all these yellowish-brown areas. Also, the pods with edible seeds are very conspicuous. Big black split-open pods with seeds reminding one of yellow corn inside. Kurrajong wood is hard and difficult to drill with. It will need a higher pressure for lighting a friction fire, but the sticks will also be holding up longer for future use.

Yellow Kapok wood for friction fire lighting

Yellow Kapok (Cochlospermum fraseri) is very easy to spot in nature due to its unique fruits, which are filled with dense, white fibers. That’s also a good primary tinder in a ‘bird’s nest’. It furthermore has large, yellow, edible flowers which taste very pleasantly like butter.

After cutting shoots from Yellow Kapok, the wood should be dried for about ten days, and the wood contains lots of knots. It is not as easy to use for friction fire lighting as the woods mentioned before, as it is harder than other woods, and therefore needs both force on the block and speedy twisting.

Hyptis weed stems for hand drills

Australians call this invasive species also ‘Horehound’ (Hyptis suaveolens). This is either an annual or perennial weed emanating a minty aroma, which is growing up to 2 meters high. Its stems are straight, square, and quite strong when dry, but have got knobs, which should be smoothened before use. It also has a relatively large pit inside the stem.

Lighting a fire with a Hyptis spindle is relatively the most difficult job compared with other Australian friction firewood types. It needs pressure, speed, and hard skin on the hand palms. But it is readily available in all northern parts of Australia.

Auxiliary pieces for friction fire lighting

For catching the ember from either hand- or bow drill actions, normally either a hard, dry leaf will be set underneath the notch or a piece of bark. Predominantly paperbark (Melaleuca quinquenervia, commonly known as the broad-leaved paperbark) can be used due to its wide availability and pleasant haptic grip.

For hand drills, a green piece of hardwood is necessary as a holding block, which in Australia could be any type of Acacia species.

Processing grass for Tinder

For tinder, commonly various species of dry grasses, especially spear grass, are used. As most of the time these grasses are quite coarse, they have to be processed through vigorous rubbing and twisting between both hands. This sounds easy, but it is hard and painful work, as there are often thorny blades and other stingy particles inside the grass bundle. This work demands hard skin on the hands. Rubbing grass bundles between both hands and twisting it around is not recommended for office warriors with soft hand skin. Gordon mentioned, that hands which have not buffed up grass for two weeks, are getting too soft.

After sufficiently buffing up the grass bundle, a depression should be formed inside, which is sprinkled with another tinder. Tinder’s – other than grasses – used in Australia are very varied:

  • Fibrous husks of various species of Livistona palms,
  • Stringy bark of various Eucalyptus “Stringy barks”,
  • Paperbarks (Melaleuca sp.),
  • Dead, buffed-up leaves of Matt Rush (Lomandra longifolia) and
  • Various fluffy seed pods such as Cumbungi (Typha sp.) and Kapok’s.
  • Also, powdered kangaroo droppings are used.

Pandanus husks for transporting fire

For transporting glowing coals from one place to another, screw-palm (Pandanus sp., P. tectorius, P. spiralis, …) fibers are utilized. They have a thick layer of deposits on the fiber surface, which is composed of lignin, hemicellulose, wax, and pectin which protects cellulose fibers in the core and keeps the fibers glowing for a long time.

Lessons learned from Gordon about Australian friction firewood

  • The best wood for friction fire lighting is from Hibiscus species, especially Coastal Hibiscus.
  • Grass tree spikes, Kurrajong, and Kapok wood are also widely available.
  • If nothing else can be found, there is still Hyptis weed for fire drills.
  • Grass has to be properly buffed up before being used in tinder bundles.

Global Bushcraft Symposium 2022 (GBS2022) and Gordon Dedman

GBS2022 was held from 27th-31st July 2022 at a location at Llyn Tegid (Bala Lake), within Snowdonia National Park, in North Wales, UK.

Gordon Dedman is the founder of Bushcraft Survival Australia (BSA), an outdoor bushcraft survival school dedicated to teaching genuine and authentic modern and traditional outdoor living skills through carefully designed educational courses.

He is a former member of the Australian Army 1st Commando Regiment and is presently a survival instructor in NORFORCE, an Australian Army Reserve Regional Force Surveillance Unit (RFSU). NORFORCE conducts patrols in the remote areas of Northern Australia, working closely with Aboriginal communities.

Gordon is also a Combat Survival SERE instructor (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape) and regularly instructs on RAAF Combat Survival Training School Courses in North Queensland.

He has trained at and completed numerous Survival and Bushcraft courses and certifications worldwide at leading schools run by Paul Kirtley (Frontier Bushcraft UK), Ray Mears (Woodlore Bushcraft UK), Dave Canterbury (Pathfinder School USA), Lofty Wiseman (Trueways Survival UK), Richard Hungerford (Bushlore Australia QLD) and Bob Cooper (Bob Cooper Outback Survival WA).

Gordon also works seasonally as an outdoor guide in the Northern Territory, taking clients on camping expeditions into Kakadu and Arnhemland.

A full bio of Gordon Dedman can be found here.

There are also videos on Gordon’s YouTube channel in various parts of Australia doing friction-fire and using various Tinder, which can be found at this link.

Gordon reviewed this post on August 12, 2022, suggested some changes that were included, and had no further objections.

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