Fire from Scratch
Teenager Piero Delvalle is an old hand at mastering an ancient technique
By Christopher Nyerges 03/11/2010
Agroup of us were gathered at a campsite in the Arroyo Seco while Piero Delvalle knelt on the ground with assorted pieces of wood that he’d collected in the forest. Delvalle was explaining how to use the traditional bow and drill to make fire the old-fashioned way.
“I know that Native Americans made fire this way for centuries,” explains Delvalle, “but I just do it because I like the challenge.”
Delvalle learned about this method three years ago, when his uncle took him to a survival school. It took some 15 practice sessions, stretched over six months, before he was minimally proficient with this method. He believes that everyone should be interested in not just primitive fire-making, but all the survival skills, because “you just might need this stuff if you ever have a real emergency.”
The 15-year-old 10th-grader lives with his family in Palmdale but spends most weekends in the Pasadena area, learning survival skills and often teaching his specialty of making fire with the bow and drill.
“My sister, who’s two years older than me, used to be able to do this quicker than me,” Delvalle says with a sheepish smile. “But I continued to practice and work out and have pretty much mastered this skill.”
Delvalle then explains each component of his fire-making kit: the bow, the drill, the hearth and the bearing block or stone.
The bow is the part that looks like a little archery bow, used to spin the wooden drill. Delvalle says that wood selection is not critical for the bow. Any wood that is about 18 inches long and as thick as a thumb is suitable. For the cord, he prefers military paracord, but adds that it is not difficult to find discarded rope or cordage in the wild. Delvalle also knows how to make a quick twined cord from the fiber of the yucca leaves, though he concedes that a yucca cord does not last long when subjected to the tension required to make fire.
The drill and hearth (the flat bottom piece) are the critical components, Delvalle says, since it is the contact point of these two parts that causes the heat, which produces a coal. Delvalle uses willow or mule fat for his drill, and he prefers willow or ash for his hearth.
For the top bearing piece — used to press down on the drill while spinning it — Delvalle uses a rock with a natural hole in it that he found at the beach. He has also used a piece of dense oak wood with a small hole carved in it.
Delvalle describes the process for coaxing a coal from these pieces of wood to the students gathered around him. Kneeling, he places his left foot on the hearth to secure it. He then twists the bow string around the vertical drill and places the drill into a small hole that he’s carved in the hearth. With his left hand, Delvalle holds the drill in place by pressing the stone onto its top. With his right hand, he begins to slowly stroke the bow, gradually increasing his speed.
We all watch in amazement as smoke begins to appear within about 15 seconds. Delvalle leans into it a little more and increases his speed. A pile of black dust appears in the notch that he carved onto the side of the hearth. Smoke is everywhere. Within a minute, Delvalle stops and tells everyone to look.
“Look how that black dust is still smoking,” a smiling Delvalle declares. It’s just black dust, but Delvalle begins to gently blow on it, and within a few more seconds, everyone sees a glowing coal.
“Wow,” says one woman. “You did it!”
“Not yet,” responds Delvalle. “There’s no flame yet.”
Delvalle carefully picks up the tiny ember and places it into a wad of dried mugwort leaves that he’s shaped into a bird’s nest. He blows and blows and smoke pours out. He adds a thick layer of pine needles to the outside and continues to blow. Suddenly, flames appear and everyone cheers.
Though Delvalle was using some carefully crafted components that he carried with him, he feels he’d have no problem going into the forest, finding the appropriate wood parts and making a fire from scratch.
“It would probably take me about two hours, depending on the conditions,” says Delvalle.
Delvalle hand makes bow and drill kits for friends. He sells them for $22. Write to him at 38755 Desert Flower Drive, Palmdale, CA 93551.
Nyerges is the author of “Self-Sufficient Home” and other books, the editor of Wilderness Way magazine and a teacher of survival skills. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, Calif., 90041, or christophernyerges.com.