This is a post that I've wanted to make for quite some time but finally got around to starting it yesterday.
First, why do we make feather sticks, curls and shavings? Aside from looking cool in front of our bushcraft buddies, the real goal is to create dry flammable material that we can use to get a fire going. In a lot of areas, this may not even be necessary. You'll see a lot of posts from guys that are throwing up their hands and asking why don't you just gather twigs like they do. The fact is that in some areas, twigs are not a feasible kindling material when the weather is bad. In the middle of summer, most of us can just look for pencil lead sized sticks, throw them in a haphazard pile, and light them up with our Bic lighters.
However, when it's been raining for days or even weeks, lighting these little pieces can be like trying to ignite a plate of cooked spaghetti. On the other hand, no matter how much rain, snow, or moisture is in the air, there are always larger pieces of wood that are dry inside. If processed properly, small shavings from this material will light up readily with a flame, hot spark, or even an ember.
Why do we want them to curl? When wood shavings curl over, it packs more of the dry material into a smaller area, concentrating it and allowing ignition in multiple places along the same sliver of wood. Curls are not necessary, but they make things a lot easier. Picture a wad of steel wool vs a single strand of wire and you're on the right track.
What about feather sticks? Why would I want the curls to stay on the stick? There are several benefits to this. Just like a curl packs more flammable material into a smaller area, a feather stick holds those curls together into a tighter group. This can make them easier to light, and more importantly easier to manage. Rather than picking up a pile of shavings off the wet ground or trying to direct them into a hat, bag or container, they stay on the stick in a nice little package, ready to be lit as is or pulled off and used as shavings when you're ready. Anyone that has ever had their firesteel in position only to have gust of wind come and scatter their tinder knows the value of this.
The problem is, making effective curls and feather sticks takes a fair amount of skill, practice and focus. There was recently a popular thread where someone asked Why Do My Feather Sticks Suck?. There were a ton of replies and a lot of great advice was given. There were a lot of points about knife thickness, grind styles, being familiar with a particular blade, holding the knife just so, and a lot more. This is all good advice and valid if you're making them in the classic style epitomized by Mors Kochanski in this video.
I put this video here in case someone hasn't seen it, but most of us are already aware of this classic technique and watching this is not necessary to understand the rest of the post.
My problem with this is that while this is a technique that can be mastered with lots of practice, it still takes quite a bit of finesse. When your cold, it's raining, or the sun is going down, you need a fire now. You may not have the dexterity or mindset that it takes to do the patient, focused strokes that are required to get usable curls or feathers that will take a spark in less than ideal conditions.
What we need is a method for producing a lot of kindling, in a short amount of time, while minimizing the need for fine motor skills.
Some of you may have already seen the method I am about to present, or even use it on a regular basis. I am not the first person to use the technique that I am about to show you, but I did discover it independently through experimentation and have been using it successfully for quite some time to make usable kindling with knives and machetes from 3 inches to 12 inches. Your blade can be 3mm thick or 1/4 inch slab of steel and as long as it is reasonably sharp, this will work for you. For me, it actually seems to work better with larger blades, where they can be a hindrance using the classic method.
Alright, now that the why is out of the way, let's get to the how.
First, you are going to need a work station. This can be any piece of wood with a reasonably flat surface that is at a level that you are comfortable working at. I personally prefer it to be just a little bit lower than my waist, but this is not at all critical. Proper work stations can be found in almost any environment, whether you are using a downed tree, stump, or a large chunk of wood that you set up on a rock.
This downed hemlock trunk is going to be my work station for this demonstration.
Nice flat area free from obstructions.
Using the classic technique, we would need to hold the knife in one hand and the piece of wood in the other. We need to stabilize both of them and make sure that we are keeping our blade angle consistent in our hands. For this method, we are going to be letting the wood hold our knife.
Stick your knife point into your work station. A few raps on the end will drive it deep enough to keep it stable.
The edge should be facing away from you and the knife should be tilted toward your body. This tilt is important and the biggest factor that will determine the amount of curl you will get. A more vertical knife will give you flatter shavings, where a more extreme tilt will produce tighter spirals. Both are useful materials for different stages of fire, but I'm going with a happy medium for this demonstration.
I am left handed so the photos will be backwards for most of you, but you will take the wood in your dominant hand and hold the handle of the knife with your non-dominant hand. This will stabilize the knife and keep it from pulling out of the wood. It will also allow you to adjust the angle of the blade forward or back so that you can make different levels of curliness on the same piece which has advantages.
One important point is that you want to make sure that you are using long pieces of wood as this will make it easier, give you longer curls, and keep your hand well away from the blade.
The basic idea here is that the knife is going to remain stationary and we are going to pull the wood back along the edge to create our shavings.
I like to make the first couple of cuts deep and relatively straight, giving me a durable shaving to act as back stop for the other curls to collect against. If you lay the edge along a flat spot of the wood, you will get a wide shaving, if you attack a corner, you will get a thin one. For this demonstration I'm using both Western Red Cedar (soft wood) and Big Leaf Maple (hard wood).
Deep first stroke to get started.
Leaving the wood in contact with the edge the entire time, draw it back to create the shaving and then move it forward to reset. Make a few strokes in the same position and then rotate your wood holding wrist slightly to give the edge a new face to work on as you pull back. Alternate between flats and corners and as long as your knife is at a decent angle with the handle leaning in your direction, you should start to see something like this happening.
Start out slow to get a feel for the technique, but once you have the hang of it you can pick up speed and create a usable collection of curls very quickly.
Tilting the blade further back and attacking the corners will give you tiny tight curls that are just begging to take spark.
Even with this Ontario machete and relatively hard wood, you can make a very fine little bundle of curls in just a few seconds.