As we move into wood heating season again I’m once again reminded on the fact that I really need to spend some time working on my fire making skills. I use a propane torch to get the fire going in my wood stove in the morning and I’m surprised some mornings at how much I have to hit my pile of wood to get the fire to take. Some mornings it is a few seconds and other mornings it is an embarrassingly long time. This of course mildly concerns me because if I ever really needed a fire and had something less than a propane torch, I could be in trouble. As I try to diagnose what I’m doing wrong I think I need to look at the following areas.
Dry Wood While the wood you burn should always be well seasoned (dry), you can get away with wood not as dry as it could be after the fire is already going. When you have a bed of coals a two or three inches deep you can throw just about any piece of wood on the fire and it will first cook off the water as steam and then it will burn. But when you are first trying to start a fire you need really dry wood. I still cannot tell if a piece of wood is well seasoned or not, I know if it is green but I have trouble judging if it is seasoned or just almost seasoned.
Structure You can’t just dump out a pile of wood and expect to do well. For some reason in my mind I have the “tepee” as the way to build a fire. However that really doesn’t work that well in my wood stove because the firebox isn’t really that high. The “log Cabin” method is working better.
Tinder & Kindling I believe this is where my biggest problem is, I trying to build a fire with material that is too big. I would use my hatchet and shave off a few bits of wood, but I don’t think it was anywhere near enough. Also I need some pencil sized kindling as the next step in the fire catching and I was more in the 1″ to 1-1/2″ size that I was trying to use as kindling. I haven’t found a good way to split wood up fine enough to be kindling, I’m too afraid I’ll take off part of my finger or thumb. I’ll have to work on that or just go out into the woods behind my house and get some dry sticks. It would be good to have a bucket of this available.
Left Over Charcoal If you can dig around in the ashes and find some charcoal that will really help in getting your fire going. Part of the burning process requires all of the volatiles to be driven out of the wood. While these burn it does take some heat to get this started. However the charcoal is almost pure carbon and will start burning quite easily. Not from just a match but they will start adding to the heat of your fire fairly soon after you get it started.
Draft Draft is the air moving into your firebox and up your chimney which keeps the smoke out of your house. A good draft will work wonders for your fire and it will increase the oxygen your fire gets. I have close to 40′ of chimney going up through the center of my house so I usually have a great draft. However sometimes I get the smoke rolling our of the wood stove when I first start the fire. Currently I am perplexed as to why this happens. If you house is very airtight (as mine is) would will need a combustion air supply for your fire. Some people will have this air supply come right into the firebox. In my situation I have the wood stove in the basement and about 15′ away is a combustion air supply for my hot water heater. This is basically a flexible 4″ hose to the outside that ends close to the floor near the hot water heater. This “make-up air” supply is especially important if you have a bathroom vent fan running as it is possible to get your chimney going backwards due to exhaust fans which fills your house with smoke.
Banking The Fire Of course if I would learn better fire management so there are still some hot coals in the morning that I can stir up from the ashes that will make fire starting much easier. We like the house cooler for sleeping so I need to learn the art of banking the fire so the core stays hot for the next morning.
Conclusion Fire making is a skill that we all should have and I would venture a guess that we can all improve on. It is one of my goals this winter to do so and a personal challenge to be able to do it with one match and then then no matches. Next year I’ll work on primitive fire making skills outside.
I am going to try and give some guidance to those out there that do not have a basic set of tools. In this post I am talking about fixing and maintaining mechanical things, everything from your car to a lawn mower to a washing machine. First and foremost you need a set of screw drivers, some pliers and an adjustable wrench. This will let you do some very basic repairs and maintenance such as tightening loose screws, changing some filters and things like this.
My recommendation for buying these things are:
Screwdrivers – You need at least three sized of both slotted and Phillips. You can often get a package of 15-20 screwdrivers of different sizes and lengths for about $20 and this is the best value. Make sure it has Phillips sizes 0, 1, and 2. I don’t think you need the larger sets as you will get a bunch of items you will not use. In time you will find that you need special screwdrivers such as square or torx, but you can then buy them as needed. At this point I would avoid the driver with the interchangeable bits as it doesn’t work as well as a plain old screwdriver. You can add it in the future as you build your tool collection and it is a way to have the more specialized tools by just buying the bits.
Pliers – I recommend a pair of needle nose, linesmen and arc or grove joint pliers. Again you can often get these in a set but the sets will usually include a set of slip joint pliers (which I consider useless) and pair if diagonal cutters (which you don’t need unless you are doing a lot of electrical work). A pair or two of locking pliers, commonly called vise grips, are also very handy. You should plan on spending $10-$20 per item, the bigger it is the more it costs. I want to caution against trying to go cheap on the arc or grove joint pliers, commonly called channellocks. The cheaper ones will slip out of joint when you are putting pressure on them which can damage what you are working on, or worse your hand.
Adjustable Wrench – This is commonly called a Crescent Wrench and is used for turning nuts and bolts. I recommend the 10″ size if you are buying one and a small 4″-6″ one if you want to get two or find a good deal on a set.
These tools will only let you do the most basic of repairs. To really take something apart to work on it you will need a set of sockets and combination wrenches. Most of the stuff I’ve worked on that has been made anytime in the last 25 years has been a combination of standard (inch) and metric sizes, so you will need both. If you can afford it spend $125-$200 and get a set that includes 1/4″, 3/8″ & 1/2″ drive sockets and ratchets. This will give you a large range of sizes so you can select the appropriate size for the work you are doing. If you cannot buy all three drive sizes as a large set, start with the 3/8″, then 1/2″ and finally 1/4″. Over time you can add specialty sockets as you need them for specific jobs.
Tools are an investment that everyone should consider. Good hand tools never wear out, there are many of my hand tools that I have had my whole adult life. The biggest problem is losing them, so make sure you get a tool box to store them in as well.
Using a hand file is a skill that anyone can learn with just a little guidance and some practice. The key points are:
Get a handle for your file.
The file should only be in contact with the workpiece during the forward cutting stroke.
Get a file card to clean the file.
Protect it like any edged tool.
A file has the advantage over a grinder for the beginner of not removing a lot of material quickly. Taking a right angle grinder to a shovel will quickly reshape the edge and reshape it badly if your hand is not steady. Also a file will not heat up the tool like a grinder will. Heating the tool metal can affect the temper of the metal and actually soften the metal making the edge not last as long.
A file works well for sharpening and cleaning up the edge of a tool. If you don’t wait too long you can clean up the edge of a yard/garden tool in just a few minutes, sometimes in less time than it takes to get out and plug in a grinder. I like the tactile feedback you get through your hands from the file. The only thing you feel using a grinder is a buzz. With a file you can actually feel when the metal has smoothed out or if there is still a bump, dent or burr. A file is not what you use to put the edge on something that must be very sharp like a knife or wood chisel.
The file only cuts on the forward stroke (assuming the handle is toward you) and you should lift it off of the work piece on the return stroke. I am right handed so I hold the file handle in my right hand and hold the other end of the file between the thumb and first finger of my left hand. The direction you file should be from the edge toward the back of the tool. Another way to describe the filing direction is to have the edge of the tool pointing toward you have file away from you.
Until you are an experienced metal worker I recommend following the original bevel or angle of the edge on the tool. How different angles are used on different tools is a topic for another, much longer, discussion. Don’t worry about matching the angle exactly, the beauty of using a file is you will not be removing metal fast enough to drastically change the edge angle of a shovel or hoe.
If the item being filed is not held securely you can get chatter, which is the piece being filed vibrating which can cause your file to skip or jump. A vise mounted securely to a workbench is ideal. With something like a hoe or shovel you can often times put some weight on the handle while is on the ground and do a quick clean up on the edge.
I urge you to buy a 8″-12″ fine toothed file and have a go at sharpening the edges your digging tools (shovel, hoe, pick…). You will be surprised at how much better they work.
There is a very good book on making basic tools from such things as re-bar as well as coil & leaf springs. It is written for rural Africa so I’m not sure how many people will kill and skin a goat to make their bellows, but the other steps in being able to get up and running without much external support.
The book is titled “Basic blacksmithing” by David Harries and Bernhard Heer. A pdf is currently available here. I’m not sure of the copyright status of this book, but I was able to find a pdf several places on the internet so it may be pseudo public domain. The sub-title is “An introduction to toolmaking with locally available materials” and really is a book that starts with the basic blacksmith techniques and tells you how to use metals that can be scrounged from a junk yard.
Some items the book teaches you to make are:
Hot and Cold Sets
Axe, Hoe & Knife Making
Remember “It’s not the tools that make the Blacksmith, it’s the Blacksmith that makes the tools”.