Making Curls and Feather Sticks The Easy Way

Discussion in 'Edged Tools' started by NWPrimate, Apr 17, 2016.

  1. NWPrimate

    NWPrimate Supporter Supporter

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    [​IMG]

    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.

    [video=youtube;TdbwJJkPGXA]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdbwJJkPGXA[/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.

    [​IMG]

    Nice flat area free from obstructions.

    [​IMG]

    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.

    [​IMG]

    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.

    [​IMG]

    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.

    [​IMG]

    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.

    [​IMG]

    Even with this Ontario machete and relatively hard wood, you can make a very fine little bundle of curls in just a few seconds.

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]
     
    Last edited: Apr 17, 2016
  2. NWPrimate

    NWPrimate Supporter Supporter

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    ...continued

    What about needing a thin blade profile or specific type of edge?

    I haven't found this to be nearly as important as the sharpness of the edge. It doesn't need to be shaving sharp, but as long as it will cut paper, it will make beautiful curls. Flat grinds, convexed edges, fat saber grinds, it doesn't matter with this method as long as your knife is field sharp. I could have used a Mora for this demonstration and it would work beautifully but I went with thicker blades to illustrate this.

    Tiny curls on hard wood with a 10 inch long, 1/4 inch thick blade.

    [​IMG]

    Blade thickness for reference.

    [​IMG]

    You may want to make different types of curls for different applications.

    Thin ones are perfect for taking a spark from a fire steel.

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    Thicker ones can be made to throw on top once you have a decent flame.

    [​IMG]

    You can also take bigger bites for shaping a piece of wood, or creating larger pieces of kindling for the next step of your fire.

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    In my experience I have found this to be a superior method. It allows me to make a large volume of great curls in a very short amount of time.

    This quick video demonstrates the basic technique, showing different knives, woods, speeds, and styles of curls.



    What about waste? I see curls flying off the stick!

    Who cares! This is quick and dirty method for creating a lot of tinder/kindling in a short amount of time. With the conventional method, each feather can take several seconds and it sucks when they get cut off the stick. With this method, you can replace any losses 5 fold in a second or two of vigorous stroking. If it's dry or you have set up a surface like a garbage bag to catch the fallen shavings, they are still viable and can be used to get your fire going. If the ground is wet and they get soaked, you can toss them on once you have an established fire to make sure that you're not leaving a mess on the ground.

    I also believe this to be a safer technique than the classic way of doing it. The knife is stationary and as long as you have it sufficiently into the log and stabilized with your off-hand, it will not slip. This is also great for the less than ideal scenario where you need to process kindling after dark. It is not without risk though, as a blade in a fixed position can give you a serious cut if you are careless and run into it. Pay attention to what you are doing, do not leave the knife unattended in the wood, and let any other campers know that it is there if they are nearby.

    Another benefit of this technique is that you can use it outside of fire making. If you are shaping a piece of wood for a long time, your hand can get pretty fatigued making the same strokes over and over in the conventional fashion. I have found that letting the wood hold my knife for a while gives those hand muscles a rest but still allows me to make progress. You won't have as much control, but if you're removing a lot of material it can be a welcome break. I used this technique extensively in my Fatwood Walking Stick project and it allowed me to work on it longer than I would have otherwise.

    If you've never tried this, I would like to encourage you to experiment with this technique. Others may have used this only with bigger knives, but stick with the conventional method for smaller ones. If that's the case, try it with your favorite small blade and see what you think.

    I think I remember someone saying something about filling up my hat with shavings? Does this count?

    [​IMG]

    Go out and give it a try and let me know how it works for you.

    Edited to fix video after forum software upgrade.
     
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2016
  3. DavidJAFO

    DavidJAFO Keeper of the Clubhouse swear jar Supporter

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    hello,
    Awesome demo NMPrimate. I've use my crook knife to make my fire sticks wood curls, just as effective.
    Regards
    David
     
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  4. Mudman

    Mudman Guide

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    Great detail and photos, thanks for sharing!
     
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  5. rattleweed

    rattleweed Scout

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    Great video, using long sticks, looks very safe with really big knives.
     
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  6. Badey

    Badey Bushmaster Bushclass I Bushclass II

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    Very thorough, and informative! Thanks for putting this together!
     
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  7. Scratchthejeepguy

    Scratchthejeepguy Guide Bushclass II

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    I had seen this technique before, but never actually tried it. Thanks for taking the time to make the tutorial. I'll give it a shot next time I'm out!
     
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  8. LookSee

    LookSee Tracker

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    Thank you for making the time to put this great visual and descriptive resource together.
     
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  9. hamanky

    hamanky Scout

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    Thanks for taking the time for all to tips and techniques you've shared it's appreciated. You do nice videos.
     
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  10. I dream in green

    I dream in green Scout

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    Great post, pics & video... Thanks for taking the time to do this !!
     
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  11. MiddleWolf

    MiddleWolf Guide

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    Great idea for those who may have weaker wrists as well as being a sort of miniature "curling mill" so to speak. You have earned 3 "attaboys" for this one.
     
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  12. Grizzled Grizzly

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    Thank you for this tip! Will give it a try on my next outing.
     
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  13. NWPrimate

    NWPrimate Supporter Supporter

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    A curling mill is a cool way to look at it. You bring up a great point about this being useful for someone that might not have a lot of hand or wrist strength. I hadn't thought of this but it might be easier for someone with arthritis or another issue that would limit their abilities.

    On that note, this is also useful should you ever find yourself trying to work with an injury where you only have one hand available. In that case, I would pound the knife deeper into the log if I wasn't holding onto the handle, and take it slow to avoid dislodging the knife.
     
  14. Black Feather

    Black Feather Hunter Gatherer

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    Learned a new technique today. Thank you! Gotta love bushcraftusa...

    Cheers!
     
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  15. Brahmus

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    Very cool technique, thank you for the video and sharing. I rarely have luck using my firesteel directly on shavings, I have to go to scrapings/other tinder and then add shavings on top. Knowing to angle the blade should help me with this technique and regular feather sticks. Love this site, learn new things all the time.
     
  16. JJB11B

    JJB11B Scout

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    Wow!, That is brilliant! Thank you for sharing this tip!
     
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  17. Keyser Söze

    Keyser Söze Usual Suspecto Lifetime Supporter

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    extremely nice how to pics and write up,, sharp knives ,good wood , curls., this should be a Sticky for further reference
     
    Last edited: Apr 17, 2016
  18. NWPrimate

    NWPrimate Supporter Supporter

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  19. Ragman

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    I think I remember someone saying something about filling up my hat with shavings? Does this count?

    [​IMG]

    Go out and give it a try and let me know how it works for you.[/QUOTE]
    Listen guys this is just a macro shot with a miniature hat on some stones you could throw.:)
     
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  20. Jasonacraft

    Jasonacraft Scout Bushclass I

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    Dude, you just keep blowing my mind. I ran out to the garage and did the best stick I've ever done[​IMG]
     
  21. NWPrimate

    NWPrimate Supporter Supporter

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    Great job Jason! If you were to split that stick in half or even quarters, you will probably find it even easier.
     
  22. Loogaroo

    Loogaroo Guide Bushclass I

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    Great technique. I've done this with knife and axe. Another method is to anchor the knife against the knee and pull the wood in the same manner you use. It's the "traditional" method to carve Gypsy flowers. It takes practice!
    [video=youtube;Mw_K1C6Kd5s]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mw_K1C6Kd5s[/video]
     
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  23. Gumbi

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    It could be - and then it would be even more impressive because of the quantity of super-fine shavings!
     
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  24. MrFixIt

    MrFixIt Old Jarhead LB#42 Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I

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    Awesome post brother.
     
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  25. battle.munky

    battle.munky Guide

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    Killer post. I think this should be a sticky too.
     
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  26. DogDays

    DogDays Scout

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    This is fantastic!! I have always found it easier to do feather sticks with my hatchet but I will give this a go.


    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
     
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  27. JD Miller

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    Bro ! ! !



    .
     
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  28. mab0852

    mab0852 Guide Bushclass I

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    Yep, works amazing with an axe. It's also my goto when practicing offhand fire prep. Excellent write up!!!
     
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  29. UAHiker

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    when i first read the title i thought you were going to show us using a spoon or hook knife....

    never seen this method before...seen something similar from banned member who even if you mention his initials will get you in trouble..... but awesome technique and tutorial!! thanks!!
     
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  30. NWPrimate

    NWPrimate Supporter Supporter

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    This might be obvious but I also wanted to point out that if you were in a situation where a suitable horizontal surface wasn't available, this works almost as well with the knife stuck into the side of a dead tree or stump at a 45 degree angle. I could see this being especially useful if all of the downed timber was covered in heavy snow and you needed some shavings in a hurry.

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]
     
  31. MohaveGreen

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    Great thread. Thanks a lot for taking the time to post this. Well done.
     
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  32. 2jka

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    Wow now that's a bird's nest!


    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
     
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  33. Surbush

    Surbush Tracker

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    Great instructions!!
     
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  34. Sealbilly

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    I use the knife in a stump trick when splitting river cane, I never thought of using it when making feather sticks.

    Sent from my SM-G920V using Tapatalk
     
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  35. gargamel77

    gargamel77 Scout

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    Great post:dblthumb:
     
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  36. Crazysanman

    Crazysanman Supporter Supporter Bushclass II

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    Excellent post! Thank you.


    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
     
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  37. Luchtaine

    Luchtaine MOA #22 Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I Bushclass Instructor

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    I love this post


    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
     
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  38. NWPrimate

    NWPrimate Supporter Supporter

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    Has anyone besides Jasonacraft gotten a chance to try this out yet? I was hoping to see some more photos! :)
     
  39. davidchagrin

    davidchagrin Scout

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    I gave it a shot last week after seeing this thread. I like it. Super easy. I was feathering 1" sticks in seconds. Thanks for the tip.
     
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  40. rsnurkle

    rsnurkle Supporter Supporter Bushclass I Bushclass II

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    Almost ran out to test the method the day I read your original post, but then remembered I had work to finish that day. Challenge accepted for the upcoming weekend.
     
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  41. gobblegobble

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    Thanks OP, this looks to be pretty helpful!
     
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  42. hicountry

    hicountry Blue Granite Bushcraft Hobbyist Supporter Bushcraft Friend

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    Excellent presentation of a time honored technique,
    Really safe and relaxing after a long day of trekking and bush whacking when you're tired and prone to making mistakes with the knife and trying to set up camp and make a fire and wind down.
    Your great videos are way too short !
     
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  43. ScrambledO

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    Really enjoyed this write up and video. Nicely done. Taught me a few things.
     
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  44. IA Woodsman

    IA Woodsman Overwatch Moderator Staff Member Super Moderator Vendor Lifetime Supporter Bushclass Instructor

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    Great technique, thanks for posting.
     
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  45. ajd

    ajd Tracker

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    Thank you very much for the great post! I tried this method with my axe (SA Wetterlings large Hunters Axe), BK4, and mora classic #2 and it worked great on all 3 (okay...we already knew the mora would work great). I've done feathers with the axe and BK4, but they were difficult to do and this was soooo simple and fast.
    Thanks again!
     
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  46. rsnurkle

    rsnurkle Supporter Supporter Bushclass I Bushclass II

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    Alright, I said the weekend but my curiosity got the better of me.

    I collected a fallen maple branch on the way home to test the method out at least a little. The branch was pretty knotty, so I didn't have much area to work with before I would hit a road bump, but...oh my, this method is very neat. It was the most comfortable way to use my teeny tiny PSK knife without a handle, and the small pile of shavings from tonight's quick test was the first time I've ever lit wood shavings with a fire steel.

    Lots of fun. I'll definitely try this again.

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  47. Luchtaine

    Luchtaine MOA #22 Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I Bushclass Instructor

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    I love how detailed this post is. I did try it this weekend and I must just suck. No matter how I tried I couldn't control the stick from letting the knife only make big deep cuts. Not giving up but so far not working for me anyway.


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  48. rsnurkle

    rsnurkle Supporter Supporter Bushclass I Bushclass II

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    Maybe NWPrimate has some better advice, but I was using a very very light grip (on both the stick and the knife) and never really forcing cuts. I erred on the side of having a few passes where the stick was basically parallel to the blade and it didn't cut the wood at all, then cut a thin slice on the next pass when I angled the stick just enough to catch the edge of the knife.

    Other things I can think of: 1) working with soft woods probably helps. My first two photos were on a maple branch, but the curls from a cedar fence post I had in the closet were the easiest and the only curls I got to light with the ferro rod. 2) Pretty sure both the knives used (Ritter Mk5 fixed PSK and a folding knife) have convex grinds, so if you were working with a scandi grind by any chance, that may have been more likely to bite deep.
     
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  49. Luchtaine

    Luchtaine MOA #22 Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I Bushclass Instructor

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    Yep, used 2 scandi knives and only had hardwoods. Birch and Walnut, both very dry. The grind wasn't an initial consideration but thinking about it now I can see your point. I had thought of wood hardness. The softest stuff I had was cottonwood but I'm saving those pieces for my bow drill.
     
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  50. NWPrimate

    NWPrimate Supporter Supporter

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    Wood could be a factor but I purposefully showed both soft and (relatively) hard woods for this reason. I couldn't say for sure what's going wrong for you without watching you do it, but my first thought is similar to what rsnurkle said... that it has to do with the angle that the blade is intersecting the wood. If you picture the edge and the wood being parallel, they will just slide across each other without making any cuts at all. If you were to angle the wood just slightly off off parallel you should get very thin shavings. If you increase the angle even more you'll get deep cuts. If you go too extreme with it, the knife will bite in too deep and get stuck. You should be able to experiment with this and get the results that you want.

    When you're first starting out, I would suggest splitting a piece down that's about the thickness of your thumb, making sure that it has corners on it. Running these corners over the edge will give you the easiest time. A round stick or perfectly flat face will be making wider shavings and cause more resistance. The same is true when carving in a conventional fashion, but most of us have muscle memory there that we're calling upon so we're less likely to exaggerate the angle and have the blade stick.

    To me, the beauty of this technique is the lack of finesse that it takes to make it work, so I think once you get the right angle, you'll have an "aha" moment. I'm not calculating any angles, I'm just starting out at an angle where it doesn't cut at all, and then increasing it slightly until it starts biting and making curls.

    Hopefully all of this made sense, but if you're still having trouble, I'll try shooting another video in hopes of clarifying it for you.
     

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