Posts filed under fire

Considering Biochar Burning Methods Conversion v.s. Context

A common mistake in design and assessment is to focus on one or two narrow parameters at the expense of everything else.  For instance, elevating one factor so high in priority that outlandish expense is gone to in order to achieve it without considering cost/benefit ratio.  No doubt in some cases prioritizing something that highly is the correct thing to do, but a common trap is to fail to consider design or assessment of a system in context.  As I was finishing up writing this blog post, I received this comment on my video about burning brush in open piles to make biochar.

“Looks more like a video on how not to do it. Cone pits or trenches are much more efficient and produce far less ash. Even a proper 55 gallon oil drum burn does better in my experience, although thats more for scrap pallet wood. ”

This comment seems to highlight the mistake of putting a single parameter, in this case conversion efficiency, above all other considerations, and in their context presumably and not mine, which they clearly don't understand.  You can read my reply to that comment on youtube, or watch this follow up video about considering context in comparing charring methods, which that commenter obviously missed (I hope lol) but everything important I have to say about it is also in this rather lengthy article; the purpose of which is to elaborate on why I use open burn methods and possibly more importantly, to simply discuss the importance of context, resources and cost/benefit when defining priorities and making decisions.



Using simple methods of production, I have been able to accumulate hundreds of gallons of char and should have hundreds more by the end of the burn season.  The intimidation or time and materials required in the building of a retort or TLUD burner, or even a stand alone cone kiln, hold many people back from getting started with biochar.  Building those can be intimidating or otherwise hard to pull off.  There are also claims about charcoal quality from the various systems, which may have people holding out to produce "real" biochar and not just charcoal.  But, there doesn't seem to be any consensus on that, and there is plenty of evidence that just about any charcoal is effective to a degree, whether it is hard or soft, burned hot, or burned cool.  That is not to say that some types are not more effective, or that such has not already been proven.  I'm not really up on the latest, or up on that discussion at all really.  While some systems are undoubtedly more conversion efficient than others, there are other considerations and many of the possible draw backs of open burns are basically eclipsed by the great ease, minimal processing and speed of open burn systems.

A TLUD system, for instance, requires chips or other small, somewhat homogenous fuel sizes, which is only great if you have easy access to that kind of fuelstock.  If you have easy access to an industrial strength chipper, maybe that makes it a viable option as well, but to purchase and own such a thing is a great expense and would not make sense for most people.  I'm pretty sure it would have a higher conversion efficiency than the trench or pile approaches I use, that is higher charcoal produced for the amount of wood put in, but that has to be weighed against having to chip the stuff.  This is what I'm talking about with the focus on one aspect.  Conversion efficiency, i.e. WOOD/CHARCOAL ratio, has to be weighed against many other factors in order to make a rational decision.

One of those factors is labor and the input of other resources.  Even with the large amount of wood my land produces (and the neighbors' land if I were to expand operations), I couldn't justify buying, or even renting a chipper until I hit an economy-of-scale tipping point.  So, lets say I hit that point and rent a chipper for 700.00 for a week or whatever it costs.  Then I have to have metal TLUD kilns to burn it in.  On that scale I'd be burning through 55 gallon drums pretty fast and probably burning 4 to 6 of them at a time to produce 100 gallons of charcoal in a run.  Contrast that against open piles which require a shovel and a hose, no fuel, no cost and less handling and transportation in many cases, and the TLUD starts to lose points, even if there is a significant conversion loss to ash in the open burns.  Lets say that loss is as high as 20%, which i really have no idea.  But say it is.  I still have to think hard about adopting that expensive system, especially if I start thinking about building larger, more robust burners that will produce 100 gallons in a single run and not burn out quickly.  I could go on, but it's energy, financial expense and time v.s. conversion efficiency.  And the truth is that I still don't know how efficient or inefficient the open burns are.  My impression from the beginning is that they are actually surprisingly efficient, but there is an obvious loss to ash, and probably considerably more in the open piles than the open trenches.

Retort systems use some quantity of wood to heat an inner chamber of charcoal.  A simple retort would be a drum full of wood that is sealed off except for a pipe coming out the top, which terminates under the barrel.  If you build a fire under that barrel, it heats the wood inside, releasing gasses in the sealed drum that travel through the pipe and back into the fire underneath.  The gasses are flammable (wood-gas), so the wood in the drum helps burn itself as the gasses are flared off underneath.  That's one of the first ways I learned to make charcoal for smithing many years ago.  One obvious consideration for a retort is that the system requires fuel to be consumed to make the charcoal, which is an inherent inefficiency.  That inefficiency can be reduced to an extent by design and should probably always be more refined than a simple drum with a fire underneath it, but the consumption of fuel is inherent to the method and has to be considered in a fair assessment.

In comparing retorts to open burns, there are a couple of possible advantages to retorts.  One would be that it produces a harder charcoal, which some people claim is better.  I just don't know if that is true or not and I've seen the opposite claim as well.  Certainly, if you are producing charcoal for industrial use, heating or cooking, you want a hard, dense, long burning charcoal produced in a low oxygen environment.  Another possible advantage to retorts would be that since the wood that is being charred is mostly sealed up, with just small holes in the container for the gasses to escape as it's heated, it can't really over burn.  So, if you had the system dialed, hopefully you could load it, fire it off, walk away and come back to finished extinguished charcoal.
If the charcoal from a retort really is more effective as a soil amendment, then a careful comparison would have to take that into account as a possible counterbalance to the fuel consumed in it’s own production, especially when comparing to an open burn which also has some inherent loss to ash, no matter how well it is run.

A clear disadvantage to a retort is that dry fuel is going to be much better performing.  It rained yesterday, but I could still go out and mix my dead and green material together and fire it off, or burn a trench and not only get away with burning my now damp wood, but burning some green stuff with it as well.  I do not have storage or drying facilities for the large quantities of wood I’m dealing with to burn dry wood in a retort or TLUD.  To burn dry wood I would either have to build a large dedicated shed area also requiring that I handle the wood more, or a large vegetation free area, probably even a screened room, to be able to burn in the summer when it’s very dry.

There is a lot of information I don’t have and a lot of information out there that I have not availed myself of.  But in a big picture context, I’m not focused on any single factor and my personal context drives my choices.  What I know is that I can produce very large quantities of charcoal with NO MONEY INPUT AT ALL, or building or rebuilding anything, just a shovel and a hose, and in the case of open piles I don’t even need the shovel.  I can do that with minimal processing of the fuel and no careful storage.  It is fast and requires almost no size reduction of the stock, though I prefer to burn trimmed poles and limbs for ease of handling, storage and they function much better in the pit that twiggy stuff does.  I trim out the larger, easier limbs for the pit and burn the really brushy stuff in piles, though there is overlap in this spectrum for sure, I find the two methods VERY complementary to each other.  They are simple and low input, and with the quantities of wood I have to deal with, I would probably get less wood actually burned in a small retort or TLUD system, while scaling up to a large TLUD or retort would probably get expensive.
Again, there is information I don’t have here and I’m not suggesting my way is better, just that it seems better in my context, especially since I can get it done.  Even if someone was able to prove to me that retort produced char is twice as effective, I would still have to consider whether I could pull off charring the quantities of wood I have available, or consider just letting half of it rot and charring less, while also weighing in the added financial outlay and work of setting the system up, as well as the drying and storage of wood.  And lets examine that effectiveness of different char types thing next, because that gets interesting. 

My positive results using biochar have not been uniformly phenomenal, but they have been almost uniformly obvious.  The most phenomenal was my leek bed this year with what I estimated to be 400% to 600% higher productivity at 10% char, all of it open burned or scrounged up from firepits and woodstoves.  That is 4 to 6 times the production all other things being equal, so the char is effective.  The question at this point is just about quantities and level of effectiveness of different chars, rather than if they are effective at all.  If retort char were more effective, it would have to be quite a bit more effective to start tilting me in it’s direction when looking at the other considerations I’ve already brought up.  BUT, check this out. 

I used 33% in one test bed, and 25% in another., both two feet deep.  Both of those sections also have 50% char in the top 4 to 6 inches of the bed!  Is that crazy?  Well, I can tell you it takes a crazy amount of charcoal!  But damn are those beds nice.  Only long term observation will convince me if they work better or worse than beds with less, or even more char, but there is an obvious advantage in weeding, soil crusting and therefore maintenance. 

I’ve been gardening here and elsewhere for a long time, and one of the great problems of gardening is soil crusting.  Why it isn’t discussed more I have no worldly clue.  No soil I've ever worked with is completely immune to it and most are very susceptible.  If you disturb soil and water it, the problem of soil crusting manifests it’s flat and ugly visage.  It impedes water penetration, but causes more rapid evaporation.  Water a crusty bed and a lot of the water can run off instead of soaking in, and then you’ll lose the water that does make it into the soil more quickly unless you cultivate to create a “dust mulch” as soon as you can, or cover the whole soil surface with something.  In those two test beds with 50% char in the top 6 inches, soil crusting is no longer an issue, period.  The soil is very loose, which makes weeding easy.  Water penetrates, period.  No matter what the history of the bed, weather, vegetation cover etc and so on, water penetrates every time.  EVERY TIME I WATER! Chunks of charcoal migrate to the top of the bed and cover at least 50% of the surface as a mulch.   Don’t forget, that is a MULCH THAT DOESN’T EVER ROT!  I can add surface amendments for nutrition, like compost or coffee grounds, but gone is the need to either cultivate or cover the soil surface with mulch after watering.  GOOOONE!!!  Wow, I freaking love those beds.  Though they are just two small sections of two small beds, I have a sinking, unhappy, I’m-wasting-my-time feeling when I have to plant in any other beds.  Just today I was out planting tomatoes in my 10% and 5% char beds and it was fairly lumpy, crusted over and generally unpleasant to work with.   I’m going on a tangent, but I have a point in the context of this article, which is that at application levels of 25% to 50%, the quality of the char may become somewhat irrelevant if the goal is as much about high charcoal content for physical effects as it is about the reasons that biochar is probably more usually applied for, like nutrient holding.

To tie this up, my guess is that a majority of people reading this will be best off at least just starting with open burn methods, unless you have access to chips, in which case you might consider building a TLUD.  At the very least it gets you off the ground and running immediately.  There will be more wood to char later.  It is fast and you can do it all over your property or even on other people’s properties, rather than always transporting all of your wood to a single location or transporting burners.  I’ve already heard from a number of people that they busted a move with the trenches or open burn piles and are now producing char instead of ashes, or instead of accumulating wood waiting for the day when they get some device together that they thought they needed.   David the Good's recent comment was "Open burns really are the way to go. I thought about biochar for a long time and looked at all kinds of systems that I really didn't feel like building... then started making big fires and spraying them with the hose. Now I have lots of char." 

I’ve said it over and over again, the primary problem of biochar that needs solving for the masses is accessibility.  The idea that you have to make the proper kind of char, the proper way, or that there is a material difference between “biochar” and charcoal in every context is unsupportable.  The best biochar is the biochar you get made and buried in the ground, just like the best camera is the one you have with you.  We can always view things in ideals like super high production, beauty, convenience and so on, but that view approach minimizes the importance of context.  If anyone interprets this article as being negative against, or disregarding other methods of biochar production, you aren’t reading carefully enough.  I could definitely see adopting other methods than open burns in the future, but only when and where they make sense.  I am just as much not trying to sell you in particular on open burns v.s. other methods.  I’m just imploring everyone to think in context and consider, costs, benefits and resources in making these decisions.

We can apply this type of thinking to life, problem solving and decisions in general, and we should.  We may not always have all of the information, or the best information, or be able to foresee everything that we need to foresee to make the perfect decision, but that is not what problem solving is about.  Good problem solving, design and understanding are a journey not a destination.  For all I know someone will read this article, drop some new knowledge or information on me that affects my thinking and ultimately changes the way that I produce biochar.  That would be great.  Better is better and that’s where I’m always trying to head.  But that also doesn’t mean that I’m going to put large amounts of resources into research and experimentation to refine the process and my approach to it to within a gnats ass of perfect efficiency, because the time and energy and thought space to do so is also part of my context and my personal cost v.s. benefit equation.  So, at this point, I’m fairly content to just hang here with what I’m doing and refine it in small ways as I can until I have some reason to stretch out in other directions, or someone wanders along and drops some game changing knowledge on me.





Pet Lime Kiln Update, 10 Burns, 30 Gallons and Where to Go From Here

Here is my 100th video on youtube, an update on the last lime kiln I built.  It looks as though the main thing to address in this design is erosion of the edge.  I am thinking that a rim of cob-like material (probably just clay and sand) might do the trick.  That begs the question of why not just build the entire thing out of cob or similar material in the first place?  Well, that is certainly a possibility.  I don't think it would have the same insulative value, but that may not matter in the end.  It is impossible to know without testing the idea.  There are some advantages to the pet kiln under various circumstances though.  It is fast to build and can be built up all at once.  A similar cob structure would need either support or drying time between layers.  Less clay is required, which could be important sometimes.  My intuition is that the insulation value of thousands of tiny holes and grass stems is significant, but again, I can't know without testing that proposition.  Of course a similar list could probably be generated for the benefits of cob.  not need to make it one or the other.  The more tools we have in our box, the more we can adapt to varying needs and circumstances.

I may pursue some ideas I have with the pet kiln concept, but I have quite a few other lime burning projects I'd like to try as well, including scaling up to a bigger more sophisiticated set up.  I may even test the feasibility of burning lime for sale, but honestly, my interest is more in testing the proposition to assess the feasibility of lime burning as a cottage industry for other people to pursue, or the feasibility of producing moderately large quantities on site for projects, rather than for the actual money I'd make.  Curiosity is a curse and a blessing.

Also posted below, a recent video of my just walking around the homestead talking about stuff.  I could do that for days.

Posted on June 11, 2016 and filed under fire, Lime, materials.

Splitting Wood by Hand, #5, Just Splitting Some Wood.

This is #5 in my wood splitting video series, but it's being released out of order.  After shooting the footage for segments3 and 4 on technique and strategy, and trying to explain it all, the gears in my brain really started turning.  I feel like I can do a much better job of explaining and demonstrating those things now.  Having put it all into language in my head I also feel like I have a better personal understanding too and can probably further refine my technique.  So the technique and strategy videos will be re-shot this year, although I'm putting a few bullet points and a teaser below.  Also below are a list of other wood splitting videos worth watching.

I also have better slow motion capabilities now, which I can use to make a study of the mechanics of splitting.  Some of the important stuff that I'll be talking about in the technique video is presented in this segment as subtitles.  I'll make blog posts with photos explaining segments 3 and 4, but this video stands on it's own more or less, and it is intended for visual learning anyway.

I just spent a couple of hours looking for a few decent wood splitting videos to link in this one, and I can tell you, my stuff is top shelf compared to the vast majority of what's out there.  Hopefully people will actually see it.  I'm still ranking low in the search engines.  Comments, likes and shares anywhere help me reach more people.  I'm very excited to make the next two videos and get deeper into the details that matter and which could really help people increase their splitting effectiveness!  The previously released videos, along with this one, are in my firewood playlist.


Some notes and bullet points.

You'll notice that I don't favor using a splitting block for the most part.  Splitting on the ground requires a tool with a pretty obtuse edge for strength, but it has some benefits as follows.

*We don't have to move the wood to the block, especially important with big rounds.

*We don't have to pick up pieces and set them on (or back on) the stump.

*We don't have to set the tool down to pick up wood

*We have better mechanical advantage (more speed can be generated if target is lower)

*It is safer, since the work is closer to the ground.

*Less interruption to the work flow.

I've come to think that the equation Mass+Speed= Inertia/Momentum/Power is a core principal here.  I believe that any energy transfer to the target after contact is negligable compared the energy embodied before impact.  By having a low target and tightening the radius of the swing into a shorter arc at the end of the stroke, you can generate a tremendous amount of speed which equates to stored energy.  I know there is more involved than just that, but I suspect that things like the shape of the head, angle of attack and any twisting or manipulation of the head is really secondary to that equation.  Even if twisting, the head, at the moment of impact to open the split, you are still using mostly that stored energy, you're just sending it off in a different direction.  Aim and Strategy are of course also extremely important.  But, assuming you know where to strike and can hit the target, being able to embody a great deal of energy in the maul or ax head will most certainly serve you well, even if you don't need it all the time.

These video stills helped me understand my technique better and will no doubt lead to further refinement.  They are evenly spaced and shot at 24 frames per second, so covering just 9/24ths of a second.  Notice how much faster the maul head travels from frames 4 to 6, due to a tightening of the radius of the swing. It is hardly visible in frame 6, too fast for the camera to catch. 

After frame 5, the arc revolves around my fixed wrist position.  Between frames 5 and 9, my wrists move very little, but the head moves 4 feet or more.  I'm not pushing the head through the wood, I'm whipping it on the end of this long handle to throw it through the wood.  The force generated by this technique can be very powerful.  It's about taking the mass you have to work with and accelerating it very fast using simple leverage.

Also, note that because of that tighter radius, the angle of attack is significantly toward me.  If the round were up on a block, that could put the mauls edge pointing dangerously at my ankles or feet... not to mention that I would have less time and distance in which to generate speed unless I'm 7 feet tall.  A low block is an option, but requires moving each round onto the block.  Of course, this much momentum is often unnecessary.  Splitting blocks are great sometimes, but I've come to use them less and less for the type of splitting I'm usually doing around here.

Other youtube videos worth watching

Wood splitting videos worth checking out.  I had to sift through a load of crap to find these few gems!

*Damn, can anyone say badass?  I like the splitting horizontal pieces on the ground.  Been playing with that for smaller pieces.  

*And another bad ass!  A serious professional.

*Score one for the badass ladies.  115 pounds of hellcat!

*Delicate and graceful, but effective.  And splitting over rocks even.  Just beautiful.  this is one of the Vido Daughters.  I have communicated with them about scythes and other self reliance/tool stuff.  Lovely people, check out their youtube channel, scytheconnection for some amazing videos, and also the scythe connection website. These people are the real deal!  When they talk, people should listen.

*This guy split professionally with a relatively light and very thin axe he designed just for splitting.  Entirely different than my generally heavy handed maul approach.  Here he races a hydraulic splitter.

*Eustace Conway, subject of the book The Last American Man.  I met him when I was 19.  He blanked out a piece of wood for me with his hatchet.  I was trying to make a bowl out of it, but I only had a dull swiss army knife.  It was the first time I saw anyone use a hatchet with any proficiency, a Eureka moment for sure.  I've been in love with axes and hatchets ever since.  Anyway, his technique is interesting.  Poetry in motion!

*I like this guy's video.  His wood is easy splitting and sounds/looks frozen, which makes it even easier, but he's using a small short handled axe and he clearly knows what he's doing.  He's got the speed building rotation around the wrists thing going on too.  Also, very interested in his hit overhanging the far edge of the round technique.  I'll definitely be playing with that.

*This guy is great.  he's got a big old axe and is just totally berserk, but very effective and deadly accurate!  I'd love to see what he could do with that axe on some of the harder wood I split around here.  It's nice to use an axe when it does the job it just sort of slides on through, unlike the fat maul bits I use most of the time, but when axes jam up, the narrow bit sinks in deep and is a lot harder to pull out.   Watch beginning of part 2 as well. with the very straight, grained soft, easy splitting wood though.

Burning Shell Lime in a Primitive Straw/Clay Kiln

Tomorrow/Today is my birthday.  As I sit here at 11:58 pm, sipping tequila out of a bottle, trying to trap a loud and pesky mouse that is rolling bay nuts around the trailer and finishing up posting this project so I can move on to the next one, I want nothing more than to top the 1000 mark on my YouTube subscriptions today.  I have 959 subscribers, so only 41 to go!  If you can share this video somewhere that you think people will truly enjoy it and help me top 1000 subs by the end of the day, I will be just really happy about that.  Small victories you know.

I have two bottles of champagne.  One for reaching 1000 subs and another one for my first really mean and stupid YouTube comment!  YouTube comments are notoriously retarded.  Other YouTubers do entire episodes devoted to the stupid comments that they get, yet I have none!  I feel left out!  Clearly I need more exposure :)

This project was so fun :  I love burning lime, and now I'm thinking about how cool it would be to build something larger using a method similar to the straw kilns I show in these videos.  Something like this ancient style of coiled straw/clay Mexican granary that was the indirect inspiration for my kiln design, via friend and natural builder Michael Smith who saw these in Mexico and then innovated a straw/clay wattle wall system.

Super neat Mexican granary design utilizing straw and clay in a coiled pot type of form.  This would almost surely use much more clay than I'm using.  I'm intrigued though by the idea of using a mix more similar to the pet to build something larger, like a pigeon cote, a smoker, or maybe a bedroom...

Super neat Mexican granary design utilizing straw and clay in a coiled pot type of form.  This would almost surely use much more clay than I'm using.  I'm intrigued though by the idea of using a mix more similar to the pet to build something larger, like a pigeon cote, a smoker, or maybe a bedroom...


I made two videos.  One is the short accessible version and the other is longer and more detailed.  It also introduces two of the new series or categories I've been dreaming up which are intended to make content more navigable and allow people to find the content they want to see more easily. 

The Buildzerker! series houses the short version.  It is a series for shorter general interest versions of projects I do.  For every person out there who is ready to know how to burn and slake lime in some detail, there must be hundreds that just think it's interesting to watch, or who might be influenced in some positive way simply by seeing it happen.  Buildzerker! is a way to entertain people, while planting seeds that may someday grow.  When anyone is ready, the long version is there.  I'm very happy with this effort.  It is fast paced, visually interesting and even beautiful, while covering a subject that is truly interesting.  I tried as hard as I could to make it worth 7 minutes of almost any persons life.

BuildCult is for more detailed how to versions of projects intended to transmit more knowledge.  This one is also fast paced, but packs a ton of information into 20 minutes, while still having all of the visual interest of the simple version.

I like both of them, and am really looking forward to making more.  I feel like I'm doing what I should be doing, and that's always good.  I hope you have a great day.

The No Paper Rule, Why I Never Start Fires With Paper

It’s fire season again (the one where you get to have fires, not the other one) and I wanted to share something about the fire culture here at Turkeysong homestead.  There has been a no paper rule in place in my households for a very long time.  That is, there is no paper used to start the fire, just natural stuff.  I am very pleased with this institution and hope to never change it.  I’ll tell you why, and why I think it’s a good approach for people who are interested in self reliance, or in fire in general.


I can’t remember when I completely stopped using paper, but I know that I stopped putting any paper into the fire at all when I began to process olives a lot.  I wanted to use the ashes from the woodstove for curing olives and I didn’t want any paper ashes in there.  Paper is an industrial product, so who knows what all is in there and what is and isn’t destroyed in burning, especially if there are any inks involved, which there usually are.  Plus, burning paper smells nasty.  That is one smell that I really hate, like when someone stuffs a bunch of paper in their woodstove or throws smouldering paper plates and napkins into a campfire.  Ashes for processing olives must be very clean.  The oils in the olive, like all oils I believe, are good at picking up smells/tastes.  Well, it turns out that ashes from woodstoves in general are not very good for processing olives, because they tend to smoulder and create a lot of smokey and creosotey by-products.  But the no-paper-in-the-woodstove-ever rule stuck anyway and I like it.


Before that I very rarely, if ever, started fires with paper anyway, and that has more to do with my real point here.  I may want to use my ashes for processing food, and eventually most of them end up in the garden, where they are an outstanding fertilizer, but the other major factor is that it’s just too easy to start a fire with paper.  I have started a lot of fires in my life.  I’ve spent a lot of time cooking over fires, both open fires and over stoves.  If you cook over open fires, unless you manage them carefully to retain a coal bed, which not infrequently can require the use of extra wood, you might have to start several a day.   I’ve also heated with wood most of my life.  Then there is the lighting of campfires and burn piles and whatever else.  There is a reason people start fires with crumpled newspaper-  It’s easy.  I remember my friend showing me his system for starting fires in the wood stove which started with a large pile of newspapers torn into strips.  I was not impressed, though it was certainly fast and effective.  Lighting fires with what is available (naturally) is an art.  And like anything, it atrophies with disuse.  Wait, back up there.  It also has to be learned in the first place.


Our first "intern" Kendra was very domesticated, but very ready to soak up whatever there was on offer here.  Walking through the night a hundred yards to the cottage was terrifying for her, even with a flashlight, but she white knuckled it and got a lot more used to it by the end of a couple weeks.  She also had to learn how to start the fire without paper.  I can tell you from experience, put the average person in front of a woodstove or fire pit with some wood, even good dry wood, and they will struggle with starting a fire.  Better have a lighter or a whole box of matches, although, you may not when they are done!  Sure, if you give them a pile of dry straw and fine twigs that are tinder dry, it might be easy enough.  But that is not how it goes generally.  We’ll get back to Kendra, but first…

Brave and beautiful Kendra in a bed of apples


I recall one of my first excursions into the woods that wasn’t like an organized backpacking type approach to camping.  My friend and I went out into some park and picked a terrible low, cold, damp camping spot in some redwoods.  I determined to get a fire started so we could cook and stay warm and all of that.  I had brought a magnesium fire starter with a zirconium striker.  I got plenty of white hot focal points of heat from that thing, but no fire.  Everything was damp to wet.  I had no idea how to find anything drier, how small to make stuff, what to collect species wise, that I should get wood that wasn’t on the ground, or take the wet bark off, let alone how to organize the stuff to get it to burn and spread the fire.  Fortunately, I also had a book of paper matches and a candle.  I used the entire candle, and all the matches to barely get a fire going by dripping the candle constantly over all this wet steaming redwood with the soggy bark still on it.  Can you say green?  I was so green.  OMG!  I knew I was lame though and had something to learn, that was obvious enough.  About 20 minutes later with the fire actually gaining a little momentum, the whole redwood grove lit up in a brilliant white light.  I had left my magnesium fire starter on the edge of the fire!  Ooops. It was a good light show anyway and now the fire was really going!  For you survivalist types that think your magnesium fire starter is an indestructable, weatherproof option, there is a mistake that is easy enough to make!


It shouldn’t take a book of matches, a candle and a magnesium fire starter to start a fire!  Or paper for that matter.  Amazing thin, crumpled, fast burning paper.  Even if it’s a little damp, it dries out as it burns.  The stuff is amazing, like someone made newspapers for starting fires.  When you stop using paper to light fires though, you find out that there is much more to building a fire with wood that is bulkier with a much lower surface area.  Take a given volume of wood, say a cube the size of a gaming die (as in singular of dice).  Put a match to that and it’s probably not even going to catch flame.  reconfigure that wood into a 1/4 inch diameter long stick and it has much more surface area and a less bulky cross section.  It may likely catch fire, now but it might no continue to burn well on it’s own.  Grind that up and make it into a thin sheet of paper and the low bulk of the material plus all that surface are makes for very easy combustion, especially when crumpled up!  There are things in nature similar to paper in their combustion properties, shredding barks and straw for instance, but they are not always common or available, or what happens to be dry at a given time.


This scenario has been repeated many times here:  Plop an intern/visitor down in front of the woodstove and say light a fire.  “Where’s the paper”.  “We don’t use paper… blah blah rationale for not using paper, blah blah, etc…”  Give them 10 or 15 minutes and the result is a frustrated person.  So, you give some pointers, basically lay out a system that can be roughly followed and let them go at it, maybe give some pointers here and there.  It always takes a while, but it’s always a revelation.  


With a stove full of crumpled newspaper you just don’t have to know that much about fire and how it works and spreads.  Not nothing for sure, you can still easily fail to get a fire kindled, but there is much less need for understanding how fire works.  Starting from scratch is a whole other deal.  Suddenly you have to think a lot more about size, shape, condition and architecture- how fire spreads and all these things that matter incredibly much when you don’t have something ridiculously combustible on hand to give a quick heat base.  Suddenly, you are intensely involved with nurturing a new life along.  It is compelling, intense and maybe in a word, engaging.


Just yesterday someone staying here was trying to start a fire in the cottage.  The wood was all damp (not by any fault of mine BTW).  And she was like, “can you start the fire?  I’m hurrying (and mumble, mumble something or other).”  I was like, sure, then I realized the truth probably was that this was just not a common scenario for her.  Tamara had pulled the no paper in the woodstove thing on her and it was not working out that great.  The wood was damp, it had to be split small or shaved and fed in a certain way at a certain rate.  Not a big deal for me.  I didn’t have to re-tool my methods much, or more importantly, my expectations of what it takes to light a fire.  That is just my life, not a new inconvenience to navigate and overcome.


By the time Kendra left, she said the most valuable thing she learned was simply how to start a fire without paper.  Not without matches by rubbing sticks together or anything super primitive and exciting like that, just how to take some wood and put a match to it and have it all work out eventually.  I was suprised at first, but that really stuck with me.   Watching so many people struggle with perfectly sound dry wood in an indoor environment and remembering some of my early experiences, I’m so glad to have the no paper rule in place.  It’s not just for other people either.  It’s for people that live here too… for me.  It keeps expectations low about what it means to start a fire.  It keeps us engaged with the fire, with the local materials, and with the process and phenomenon of fire.


One last thing.  This is a pretty strict rule.  Unless I’m in some huge hurry, I don’t start my fires indoors or out with paper.  It is occasionally tempting, but I just don’t do it.  I don’t dowse my burn piles in diesel either.  If I’m doing a lime burn, I set up the fire lay carefully before stacking the kiln and run around and spend the 15 minutes or whatever it takes to make a bundle of fine twigs and pitch wood to shove under it through the air hole to set it off.  Because if the rule isn’t strict it’s just too easy to fall off the wagon and never do it from scratch.  I’ve spent a lot of time with severe fatigue and malaise over the last 15 years or so.  I mean to the point where even basic tasks seem like big hurdles, and it’s hard to just take care of my basic needs through some days.  But, the no paper rule always holds, no matter what.  That makes it just something that I do, there is no easy option available.  If I want easy fires, I have to prepare or collect kindling ahead of time.  If I want it really easy, then I make some split pitch-wood sticks to have on hand (more on which later).  Two of those and it really is pretty damn easy to light up the woodstove or barbecue.  But it is my responsibility to make that happen.  It doesn’t just show up in the mail once a week as the local advert.


I highly recommend the no paper rule if you heat with wood, or just in general.  It will make you and those who enter your sphere more broadly adapted for all the reasons I’ve already elaborated above.  The wood you burn and the resources around you will mean a little more to you.  You’ll understand them better, and I daresay appreciate them more in some way.  It is yet another level of engagement with your environment, contributing to your general physical competence, independence and understanding.  It will also increase your survivability by extension, and I think that is generally the best way to increase it.


For more on fire, see the fire index page

New life

Lampblack, what it is and what it's good for

lampblack header Lampblack is a form of carbon.  You can think of it as something like very, very finely divided charcoal.  Because it is so incredibly fine, a small amount covers a large area giving an intense black color.  It forms the basis of the best traditional black inks and has been used to many other ends from shoe polish to blackening gun sights.  Lamblack’s extreme opacity and complete resistance to fading are excellent characteristics for use in the arts

Lampblack can be made from burning oily or resinous materials, while collecting the resulting soot.  The pitch of pine trees and other conifers make good lamp blacks, as do oils burned with a wick.  It has also traditionally been collected from the inside of oil lamp mantles (the clear glass covering over oil lamps), thus the name.  The trick to producing it yourself is to burn the material in such a way that combustion is incomplete.  When combustion is complete, the carbon is fully burned, but if the flame is interrupted, or just plain inefficient, some of the carbon remains as soot along with other unburned chemicals.  The rising black soot can be collected on a metal plate, bowl or flat stone.

Using a large and lumpy, or long, wick will usually create a lot of soot.  Another way to create incomplete combustion is to interrupt the flame.  You may have noticed that when an object is held in a candle flame, soot results.  When the wick is trimmed or made properly and the flame is burning cleanly, the carbon will be completely burned to up at the tip of the flame and no soot results.  The truth is that it is somewhat challenging to make wicks which do NOT soot!  The modern candle wick is an exception, not the rule.  But for making lampblack, you want a whole LOT of soot, so make that flame as dirty as possible.

Flame interrupted.

A good way to make lamp black under field conditions is to make a small table like arrangement of stones.  Pitch or pitch saturated wood from pine or other conifers is burned under the top plate and the soot brushed off with a feather occasionally.  I have some picture of that somewhere, but they are like that old kind that are on paper...  Any kind of oil lamp arrangement with a plate of some kind on top will also work fine.  A tuna can with the lid left partly attached and bent down to form a ramp into the oil is an easy solution.




Lampblack is not at all easily mixed with water.  In fact, it is remarkably difficult to get the two together.  One time I was tattooing my friend Wylie’s leg (I have pictures of that somewhere too...) with pine soot and figured out that if I spilled beer into the ink, it mixed easier.  Yay for beer!  It can be mixed with plain water sometimes if a very small amount of water is used, but it can also be almost impossible and a drop of alcohol helps break the surface tension.  Lamp black is much used for tattooing around the world, being much finer than charcoal. I have two small tattoo test spots on my leg made by slicing the skin with obsidian and rubbing stuff in.  The one with charcoal is uneven, while the one with lampblack is much cleaner.  A third made with iron oxide (red ochre, a mineral pigment) is long gone, having faded away completely.

Often lampblack is somewhat oily containing compounds created by the heat destruction of the oil or pitch that are not pure carbon.  The lampblack can be purified to an extent by re-burning it in an oxygen free environment.  If put in a small sealed tin, it can be burned in a fire to clean it up a little.  My results calcining soot this way have been mixed, and I’m unsure whether it is necessary.  Another old book (quoted below) recommends packing into an open ended tube for re-burning.  I'll try that next time.

Asian inks are usually made as a solid stick by mixing lampblack with a small amount of collagen glue made from hides, sinew or especially antler.  The stick is then rubbed up with a little water on a special stone and the ink used immediately.  I hope to do almost all illustrations for paleotechnic’s publications with this type of home made ink, and other home made art materials, from here on out.  Carbon ink works great with a feather quill pen (that'll have to be another post)   What is called india Ink is originally a soot based ink as well, but in liquid form.  Since I lost the last ink stick that I made (someone probably threw it out, because it looked like a fossilized anteater turd, though it was perfectly functional), and have to make another, yet another future post may just have to cover ink making in detail!  For now, you know what lamblack is, and how to make it and you can build from there.  If you just want to blacken your gun sights, or whip up some corpse paint, it's easy to make a small amount of lamp black with a candle or chunk of pitch.  Another brick in the wall of self reliance.

asian shit

I’ll leave you with a couple of quotes from old books scrounged up by using a google books search limited to the 19th century.

Technical Repository, Volume 11  T Cadell, 1827

Black shell-lac varnish.—Shell-lac varnish may be rendered black, by mixing with it with either ivory, or lamp-black. The editor has frequently used, and always preferred the latter. It should not be used as sold in the shops, being then greasy, as the workmen call it, and will neither mix or dry, well. Sometimes the lamp-black contains particles of plaster, from the walls of the chambers in which it is made; this, of course, should be rejected.

To prepare lamp black for use.—Press a portion of it into an earthen or metallic vessel, which may be made red hot in the fire; for small quantities, a tobacco pipe, a piece of a gun-barrel, or any other metallic tube, will answer the purpose perfectly well. It is not necessary to close the vessel, but the powder should be well rammed in; place the whole in an open fire until it is red-hot throughout; this may be known by the lamp-black ceasing to flame at the exposed parts; take it from the fire, and allow it to become quite cool before you remove it from the vessel, otherwise it will burn into ashes. Lamp-black, thus prepared, will mix readily with water, will dry well in paint or varnish, and will be improved in colour.

To mix the colour with the varnish.—Rub the lampblack up with a little alcohol, spirits of turpentine, or weak varnish, taking care to make it perfectly smooth before putting it into the cup with the varnish. To give a good black colour, the quantity of lamp-black must be considerable; this, it is true, will lessen the brilliancy of the varnish in some degree, but a thin coat of seed-lac, will diminish this fault. When only a small quantity of blackvarnish is wanted, it may be made by dissolving black sealing wax in alcohol. Sealing wax being composed principally of shell-lac. But little heat should be employed, or the black colour will be precipitated.

Five Thousand Receipts in All the Useful and Domestic Arts: Constituting a Complete and Universal Practical Library, and Operative Cyclopaedia

A. Small, 1825

Lamp black may be rendered mellower by making it with black which has been kept an hour in a state of redness in a close Crucible. It then loses the matter which accompanies this kind of soot.;


The consumption of lamp black is very extensive in common painting. It serves to modify the brightness of the tones of the other colours, or to facilitate the composition of secondary colours. The oil paint applied to iron grates and railing, and the paint applied to paper snuff boxes, to those made of tin plate, and to other articles with dark grounds, consume a very large quantity of this black. Great solidity may be given to works of this kind, by covering them with several coatings of the fat turpentine, or golden varnish, which has been mixed with lamp black, washed in water, to separate the foreign bodies introduced into it by the negligence of the workmen who prepare it After the varnish is applied, the articles are dried in a stove, by exposing them to a heat somewhat greater than that employed for articles of paper...”


Suspend over a lamp a funnel of tin plate, having above it a pipe, to convey from the apartment the smoke which escapes from the lamp.  Large mushrooms, of a very black carbonaceous matter, and exceedingly light, will be formed at the summit of the cone. This carbonaceous part is carried to such a state of division as cannot be given to any other matter, by grinding it on a piece of porphyry. This black goes a great way in every kind of painting. It may be rendered drier by calcination in close vessels.

The funnel Ought to be united to the pipe, which conveys off the smoke; by means of wire, because solder would be Melted by the flame of the lamp.

Posted on February 24, 2014 and filed under adhesives, decoration and art, fire.

There's More to Fire Than Heat, Fuel and Oxygen (or, Fire Exists Within a Sphere of Changing and Interdependent Circumstances)

Fire is an interaction between Heat, Fuel and Oxygen completely dependent on proportions, conditions and physical relations. It is not a self controlling, self adjusting system created to serve us; no, that it is not. What fire really is, is a sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying expression of physical laws, chemistry and energy which can serve us without intention or harm us without malice. Fire is the product of a universe which we can understand functionally and work with; one which does not judge, reward or punish.

By Steven Edholm

Hey all you pyros!  I wrote this a while ago.  I was going to take some relevant pictures and make it more of a tutorial, but I think it stands pretty well on it's own and video might just be a better format to explore some of the details.  So here it is in all it's theoretical, abstracted glory.

We've all heard of the three things it takes to make a fire… HEAT, FUEL and OXYGENWhile it’s true that these are essential elements of fire, it is also true that without a fourth and equally important requirement there is no fire! Understanding this fourth requirement is key to effectively starting, controlling, utilizing and maintaining fire.  It can be understood both logically, and intuitively through experience.  It is the underlying and unifying principal of fire and no more or less dependent on the other three elements than they are on each other.   And what is the secret ingredient?  Drum roll please:  The secret is simply the sphere of circumstances in which the heat fuel and oxygen exist, which allows the chain reaction to continue or vary in quality.  Put more simply, we have to put heat, air and fuel together effectively to make fire happen and continue.   And then, to expand a little further, how heat, fuel and oxygen are put together, the condition each is in, and the quantity of each affects the characteristics of the fire.  Simple?  Basically yes, but it is still something of a journey from that simple idea to effectively maintaining and managing fires for various uses.  When you factor in the many circumstances which contribute to or detract from this chain reaction and consider that we want different types of fires for different purposes it becomes less simple, but then so much more compelling!  Join me in exploring a few details of this sphere of circumstances, because it is the details, some of them minute, that make the difference in how (or even whether) a fire burns.

There is a model that is use to explain fire called the tetrahedron of fire.  It is a 3 dimensional pyramid with 3 sides and a bottom.  The three sides represent one each of heat, fuel and oxygen.  The bottom represents an uninhibited chain reaction, or the fourth element.  This fire model used to consist of only three parts, fuel, heat and oxygen, represented as a one dimensional triangle, but it was modified to represent the fact that fire does not exist without the proper relationship of the three tangible elements.  Thus, the tetrahedron roughly represents what I am trying to tell you, which again is that fire exists and varies within a sphere of changing and interdependent circumstances.  However, the tetrahedron model is so simple that it begs description and actually communicates nothing without additional information and explanation.  I suppose that the series of articles I hope to write, and of which this is the first, will partly be that explanation and information from a practical standpoint, and of use to laypeople like us.  I would like to see a fire model communicate some practical details, but my attempts to make a better model or diagram have been a fail.  I suppose that the simplicity of the tetrahedron model may sometimes be an asset as it does not describe any one of the many types of fire.  On the other hand the model is unable to communicate in any way the manner in which a fire functions and far too little about how it can be modified and controlled toward practical ends.  I find that the tetrahedron model has little practical use here beyond what I’ve already discussed.

HEAT, OXYGEN AND FUEL DOES NOT ALWAYS A FIRE MAKE:  When I was 20 something I was on top of maintaining fires at public gatherings and such.  Now I'm inclined to sit back and let some eager, enthusiastic youngster do the job…. but they often don’t, which kind of sucks.  I still often find myself raising my creaking, cold butt from the lukewarm side of some smokey waning fire to go fumble around in the dark for some firewood.  If I'm patient or stubborn enough to wait for someone else to get up to add wood to the fire or, often more importantly, make adjustments to the wood that is already in the fire, my patience is not often well rewarded.  Frequently, the poorly selected (… if selected isn't even just too strong a word to use lol) wood is added haphazardly or with an evident lack of understanding.  All too often the new wood is somewhat randomly thrown on often creating more problems than there were in the first place.  Kids today… sigh…  Adding more fuel to the fire or just blowing on it does not fix everything.  Fire is an interaction between Heat, Fuel and Oxygen completely dependent on proportions, conditions and physical relations.  It is not a self controlling, self adjusting system created to serve us; no, that it is not.  What fire really is, is a sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying expression of physical laws, chemistry and energy which can serve us without intention or harm us without malice.   Fire is the product of a universe which we can understand functionally and work with; one which does not judge, reward or punish.  Understanding a little fire theory can go a long way in enabling us to create, control and influence fire.

No, fire is not just Fuel, Heat and Oxygen, but in a very real way it is a product of specific relationships between those three elements which allows them to undergo the continuing chain reaction of combustion.  Lets look quickly at some varying conditions:

*If you have the heat of a match a foot away from some well sized and placed fuel, even with oxygen all around in the air, you do not have fire.

*let us say that you have a big round log being heated with a propane torch while surrounded by air.  Thats a lot of heat, and plenty of air, but in most circumstances the log on its own will not really flame a whole lot, it will more likely smolder and eventually go out after the heat is removed.  If we add another log or some smaller fuel, in the proper spatial relationship, our big round log will burn more quickly,  more thoroughly and longer, basically because of the interaction of the burning fuel units with each other.  They heat each other and bounce heat back and forth.

*If we have a healthy fire burning away and add a quantity of very green moisture laden wood, the fire will falter and slow down mostly due to the effect of the moisture on the factor of heat.

*Throw a bucket of water on the fire and so much heat will be removed as steam to heat the water that the fire is likely to go out completely.

*Cram the logs in a fire too close together or smother it with dirt and you will not have enough oxygen for a healthy blaze.

*Move the logs too far apart from each other and they will not contribute to a mutual build up of heat between them and are likely to smolder and each may eventually just stop flaming, begin to smolder and eventually just go out.

 All of the above examples illuminate the importance of specific relations between the three concrete elements of fire.

Fires have almost living characteristics.  Like a living body, fires that we use to our ends often need attention and feeding to achieve certain goals.  Maintaining and using fire effectively is all about details and the details that make a very functional fire can be very subtle and minute.  No one really taught me to use fire properly I learned by immersion.  The lifestyle I chose demanded that I understand combustion enough to maintain an acceptable level of functionality.  If I couldn't make a fire quickly with damp wood I wasn't going to finish cooking dinner before dark.  If I managed the fire poorly every night I was going to wake up with sore eyes and a woodsmoke hangover.  By the time Mors Kochanski introduced me to the tetrahedron of fire model I already understood it functionally, but had never put it all into place with symbology.  I ultimately can't teach anyone either.  Understanding fire functionally and not just theoretically is a personal journey.  I can maybe start the fire for someone, but their enthusiasm, action, intention and maybe most of all need to keep that fire going, are what will ultimately create a functional understanding.  Fire is fascinating to all people on some level, but most modern people do not find enough use for it to manifest a good working knowledge.   If you want to understand fire functionally and stay in practice, there is no better way than to place yourself in a position of need on a regular basis.  Start fires regularly, and start them from scratch never using paper or accelerants.

The simple but important information I've just presented above forms the foundation of a good working relationship with fire.  Whether you are starting, managing or putting out fires, you are ultimately balancing or working mostly with the following concepts:


*Conditions (wet, rotten, dry, warm etc…)

*Structure (dense, pithy, liquid, gaseous, etc…) 

*Composition (Lignin content, chemistry, growth rate, environment, species etc…)



*Spatial distribution (relation of fuel units to each other and to heat source)



*Access or lack of

*Heat generated drafts

*Air temperature

*Air density







*Placement of

I know that information is rather abstract, but you don't have to be a total dorkus like me and memorize it all or anything!  I'm just using the theory to plant seeds that can lead to a functional and intuitive understanding of fire, because that is really where it's at.  When there is an impetus to learn, and these basic ideas are presented in context, people's ability to manage a fire rises very rapidly, within minutes actually.  I've seen this happen over and over when playing fire chess with students and friends.  I hope to write more in this realm and put theory into context with either videos or more blog posts, so stay tuned.

One last thought, its easy to get cocky about ones understanding of fire.  The truth is though that the factors which contribute to a given fire burning or not burning are complicated and not always easy to predict.  However well we think we know it, fire can sometimes surprise us.  Considering the often horrific consequences of uncontrolled fire, it is best to follow the precautionary principal when it comes to safety, and err on the side of caution.

Have something to add?  Did I miss something important?  Leave a comment.



Posted on January 26, 2014 and filed under fire.

Tetrahedron, Tetrashmeedron: Quest for the ultimate fire model

tetrahedron my butt header, fireBy Steven Edholm

"Ultimately, I think that where all of this analysis leads to is that..."

When I began writing the post,  There's More to Fire Than Heat, Fuel and Oxygen (or, Fire Exists Within a Sphere of Changing and Interdependent Circumstances),  I wanted a basic model to represent fire.  There is actually already a model commonly used to represent fire known as the tetrahedron of fire.  It consists of a tetrahedron of course, which is a pyramid with 3 sides and a bottom.  The three sides represent one each of HEAT, FUEL and OXYGEN.  The bottom of the pyramid represents the circumstances under which those three elements interact and is commonly referred to as a chain reaction.  The common explanation of the tetrahedron is that if you remove any one of the factors represented by the four sides, the fire ceases, which is true.  I have never felt comfortable with this common model, and indeed part of the impetus for writing that first article was to emphasize the importance, to my way of thinking, of the circumstances which allow, inhibit, and shape the character of, a fire; In other words, to draw what I feel is rightful attention to the bottom of the pyramid.  What I ended up writing instead, or before I got to my point, was the epic analysis that follows!  I decided that I better just cut it out and use it somewhere else.  Lucky you.

thanks Catawba Community College

I have a number of problems with the basic tetrahedron of fire model, but I think that many of them are due to my perspective as someone who has used fire quite a lot and would like to communicate information about starting and maintaining wood fires to other people.  I feel that from this perspective the tetrahedron model  doesn't emphasize the factors associated with an uninhibited chain reaction… or, especially, the actual means of controlling those factors to manipulate a fire into doing what it is that we want it to do.  In fact, being on the bottom with no real name, I feel that the fourth side of the tetrahedron is actually de-emphasized in the tetrahedron, although, you could see it as the foundation I suppose.  What I would like to see, is a model that demonstrates to some degree, visually as well as with a suitable name, the physical reality of fire.  I guess I feel that the tetrahedron is so abstracted and theoretical that it is not of immediate practical use to most people.  What I probably want is a model that is functional for fire users.  This model would show the interaction of the 3 elements of fire and emphasize that it is the chain reaction itself that is really the most important factor.  Yes its true that if you remove one side of the tetrahedron the fire goes out, but what of the complex interactions between the four sides which can cause a fire to burn, smolder or grow exponentially.

Fire is not a phenomenon that exists in a black and white world of burning or not burning.  Of course it can be reduced to that level of understanding, but that perspective is of limited use.  Rather, fire exists in a spectrum from the smallest smoldering spark to an inferno or even an explosion.  Even when wood is heated below the point of combustion it undergoes destruction.  Upon close scrutiny, what we really see is a spectrum with a few discreet, sensational points of especial interest, and not an all or nothing sort of situation.  In other words, the limited on/off switch simplicity of the tetrahedron model limits its usefulness in a qualitative sense.  When asked “what kind of fire” the tetrahedron simply says one that burns, or does not burn.  The other three necessary elements exist all around, but putting them together in the proper circumstances for combustion is much more rare.  I baked a pie today.  There was heat in the oven, the kitchen is largely made of fuel, and air is everywhere, yet the fire stayed in the oven.  Even the pie, in close proximity with a fairly energy dense flammable crust was just baked and not burned.  Having heat, oxygen and fuel does not necessarily mean fire.

Where's the fire?

Now were talkin'

Where did the fire go?

The tetrahedron model doesn't say much to me.  I would like to come up with a model that is more immediately accessible.  Also, I mean accessible to all people.  Something that will say more about the process and requirements of fire at a glance with less need for elaboration.  This may be an impossible task if all forms of fire are represented.  The tetrahedron is simple enough that it doesn't specify anything and therefore can include all types of fires.  A model that is more functional might limit the types of fires represented, but in the interest of communicating information that might be useful to those who use, or would like to use, fire.

My main complaints with the standard tetrahedron are as follows

The fourth side doesn't have a name that really works.  It is usually referred to as the chemical reaction or the uninhibited chain reaction.  I've racked my brain (and plied the thesaurus) and the most descriptive word I can come up with is circumstances not very immediately understandable maybe and not very sexy, but…  Perhaps it needs more than one word?  At least circumstances leaves room for attributes of various individual fires  Either way it still begs description which is un-ideal.  I think being on the bottom also contributes to the minimization of circumstances in the tetrahedron model, and that feels wrong because circumstance is really what fire is all about.  To my mind the concept of circumstances should be at the center of the discussion and of the model because the other three elements are exceedingly common and even throwing them together haphazardly will not always yield fire.

The tetrahedron model doesn't foster any kind of understanding of what our relationship with fire can be as users.  It exists more in a theoretical framework where extrapolations have to be made, or much more data added, to understand fire functionally.  In other words, its hard to look at it and recognize anything.  It doesn't foster an understanding by its nature and says almost nothing on its own.

There is not even a hint at quantity in the model.  If I add more air the chain reaction is intensified.  If I limit air the fire may be either put out or it may be minimized.  It will die out with X amount of air in one set of circumstances and not another, and the same can be said for heat as well.  The variability of fire or its reaction to partial removal or addition of one or more elements is not represented.

A much greater grasp of fire can be had by understanding the spatial distribution of fuels, which the model does not address.  This goes for both the distance between fuel units (also dependent on fuel size and qualities)  as well as the vertical and horizontal alignments.  This point is much more relevant to solid fuels.

The behavior of the elements of heat and air are also missing from the tetrahedron model.  Draft, and the build up of heat between the fuel units, are crucial factors in understanding the behavior and manipulation of fire.  It would also be nice if our model could hint at this behavior.

All of the above hint at the concept that reactions of fire are complex and interdependent.  Change one element in quantity or quality and the others change as well.  An ideal practical model would represent in some way the interdependence and interaction between the three elements.

Maybe this is all too much to ask from a fire model!  I guess I have to give the tetrahedron a couple of points here.  It is kind of neato that there is this geometric model where  A, H & F each touch both of the other two and the bottom touches all three.  But on second thought, the chain reaction (oops, I meant circumstances), being less concrete than the others should probably be set apart as different than the other three and of course you already know I'm not happy about it being placed at the bottom as I feel this minimizes its importance.  The problem I've run into in trying to improve the model though is that if you separate the three it becomes difficult or impossible to draw the connections between the other three.  That is a place where the tetrahedron works.

Another possible merit of the tetrahedron is that it’s simple enough to include all types of fires… but… its too damn simple.  It just doesn't say anything.  Without explanation it's just a pretty shape, and you can explain what it's capable of actually showing in a few seconds.

The challenge in creating a useful fire model or diagram is to make it say something, and to communicate important information easily without confusion.  Some information may have to be left in the dust, and that's fine.  I want a model that can foster as much understanding as possible while still being functional and accessible.  I've tried to work on such a model, but so far I'm not very happy with any of the results.  In fact, I haven't yet decided whether they are even an improvement at all.

Ideally the model would represent:

draft… the crucial fact that burning things and rising heat draw more air into the firesphere.

The focal areas of heat that build up between fuel bodies and how this interaction perpetuates a fire.

The effect of the relationship between fuel sizes and the distance between fuel units on combustion.

fire as a product of the interaction of the Heat, Fuel and Oxygen and the fact that this interaction is widely variable depending on the circumstances.

Ultimately, it would actually require many diagrams and much explanation to show the more practical everyday physical realities and concepts of fire, but it would be nice if one primary and more encompassing model showed something immediately useful other than “it takes these three things to make a fire”…. and then as an afterthought, “oh yeah, they have to be uninhibited”…. and “if you take one away it stops”.  What about "if you take some of this away it slows down but doesn't stop"?… or "if you add more it goes faster"?

The quest for a better fire model may be a lost cause, and for now, I've given up.  I think my main beef with the tetrahedron is subjective, and simply that it seems to infer less importance to the things that really matter in practical fire applications; the things that I’m always trying to communicate to people as very important to working understanding of fires, and which I can see that many people have a poor grasp of.  Ultimately, I think that where all of this analysis leads to is that an actual fire makes the best model!  Imagine that!  I mean it's interactive, three dimensional and fun!  Perhaps we can only learn so much with two dimensional models, and will never understand fire by surfing the internet.  With a fire in front of us, and a little nurturing by someone competent with fire, a rapid understanding of the circumstances of combustion is possible.  And I’ve seen this over and over again when playing fire chess.  Immersion is generally the best teacher.  Put ourselves in circumstances which require competence and competence is fostered.  Hey, stop surfing and start burning!

Posted on December 8, 2013 and filed under fire.

Fire Chess: A fire learning game

firechess header One night at Glass Buttes Oregon (or day, or something in between), I was sitting by a fire with Tamara, Margaret Mathewson and Jim Riggs.  I’m sure there were other people there too, but I remember those guys for sure.  The fire, and how it was or wasn’t being managed, was a common topic in those days.  All of us were inclined to be geeky about fire, and we all used it enough to have a strong working knowledge.  We were observant and critical when someone added wood or adjusted the fire.  As fire enthusiasts, that kind of geekery was our idea of fun, but it was also serious to us.  Like if you put a bunch of chefs together and they’d be eyeing each other cooking and saying like “dude, that’s too much anchovy” and stuff like that.  It was all good humored, but this wasn’t just “lets geek out and be funny and nerdy”, it’s what we did.  And if you do something a lot and are good at it, you care, you notice details and you develop opinions.  None of us wanted to sit around in the smoke, or be cold, so the fire should be done right.  It was the focus of camp life and not to be accepted in just any old state that it happened to be found in.  Fire does not tend itself all that well, and tending is a matter in which attention to detail yields great returns in results.  Inattention, on the other hand, generally leads to discomfort, annoyance, cold food, burnt food, tearing eyes, cold butts or moving of chairs closer and farther from the fire. So anyway, we were all sitting around flicking each other crap about where the wood should be put and how, and what about that smoking end there, or Jim with his “upward focus” and me with my parallel fuels, and fire chess was born.  Someone was probably like Ok, that’s fine I guess, but If you do it this way that smoking end is dealt with.  And someone else was like hey, it’s my turn, and eventually it coalesced into a set of simple rules.  Each person gets a turn in rounds to either add a piece of fuel, or make one adjustment.  After each move everyone else analyzes the move and makes comments.  We thought that was fun for a while and used to play it occasionally when nothing else was going on and we were sitting around the fire, which was fairly often.


What I noticed though was that when new people unversed in the ways of fire tending were around, they picked up a great deal of understanding extremely fast.  So Tamara and I started using fire chess in classes, and sure enough, people went from fire losers to fire cruisers in no time.  Most people haven’t grown up around open fires and don’t understand how to manage them to desired ends.  Further, it often seems that it barely occurs to them that management of the fire beyond tossing some wood on every once in a while is worthwhile at all!  That’s Ok, we all have to start somewhere and we are what we do. One of the first campfires I had to start on my own, I used an entire candle's worth of wax, dripping and relighting to get it to finally start burning.  I had damp wood to work with, and I just did not understand how the system worked.  It was somewhat sobering just how lame I was in that capacity, and I started paying attention.  I soon put myself in the position of needing fire everyday for cooking and various other things, so I was forced to perform, but it was a gradual process.  I believe that fire chess works to quickly foster an understanding of fire starting and management for two basic reasons.

The first reason is that there are frequent and specific opportunities created for comment and feedback.  Feedback from both instructor/mentors and from other participants is frequent, but it is tied directly to actual results and occurrences second by second.  Fire reacts quickly in many cases providing dramatic lessons in a short period of time.  The results, positive or negative are visual and often immediate.

The second reason, and maybe the most important, is that participants are invested in the results.  They are paying close attention because someone might screw up their move, or make the move they are planning.  If someone does something that works well it’s noticed and commented on, which drives the point home so it sticks.  When the players turn comes they can build on what has gone before and they want to do well in the eyes of the group.

A few tips for instructors

*Start with a short discussion about the four elements of fire- heat, air, fuel and the relations and interdependence of those 3 tangible elements.  The less tangible fourth element of fire, how heat, air and fuel are in relation to one another, is what fire use and management are all about, so drive that home.  Upcoming posts should deal with that subject in depth.

*next a short discussion asking “what makes a good fire?”  This opens the mind and leads inevitably to the conclusion that there is no one good fire and that fires are managed for different uses.  Sometimes we want just smoke and no flame, and sometimes we want no smoke at all, more heat, less heat, different shapes, etc...  You can still play the game as if you want no smoke and to be comfortably warm.  The understanding gained by playing for a clean fire is the most generally useful and can ultimately foster understanding of the management of other types of fires as well.

*It’s not “all good”.  Sometime in the 60’s or 70’s criticism became uncool, everyone was doing their best and everyone got an A for effort.  The good and relevant points which began as that message are largely lost and the residue we are left with is a dogma that can hamper achievement.  Be critical.  Don’t be mean, that’s not constructive and it’s not the point.  Critical and mean are not the same hat.  If you have opinions, let them out and encourage others to do so as well (and don't use upspeaking when you do it!).  Constructive discourse requires analysis of information, formation of ideas and opinions, and expression of those opinions, along with the open consideration of the opinions of others.  It can be argued that everyone is doing their best under the circumstances, but the circumstances can change and constructive criticism can be an important part of that evolution.  Don’t be stingy with praise either.  Positive reinforcement works.

*If you are the teacher and think you know what you’re doing, stand back a little and let people learn at a comfortable pace.  You might be surprised how little prompting  is required by you.  As long as basic goals are understood and held in common, progress can be rapid even with people totally unfamiliar with fire tending.

*Start small since fires grow fast when constantly fed.

*Sized and types of fuel are as important as placement and maintenance, so have a mix of fuel types and sizes.  Dense long burning woods, dense fast burning woods, light fast burning woods, woods that throw sparks, woods that don’t throw sparks, woods that tend to smolder, woods that make long lasting coals, some bark, some leaves, etc...  Fuel type is important and having all types of wood will open windows for education.

*Mix all the woods together in a pile.  Throw in some inappropriate wood.  Nothing toxic, but a few chunks of pitch wood, some very punky wood and some green wood could be instructive.  Very few novices will notice that wood is green, but the seasoned will usually notice at first heft.

*Don't allot much time for fire chess, because it doesn't take long, and the fire will just get too large pretty fast.

What started as a natural pass time among fire nerds, developed into an effective learning tool.  Fire chess, in spite of the name and the critical element of the game, is not very competitive.  Everyone has the same goal, so cooperation is more common than competition.  If anything the competition is with the self, to understand more and function better.  For people who teach long term classes in outdoor living, you’ll find that after just a game or two of fire chess, the campfires will be managed much better for the duration of your time together.    It is also a good item to throw in a one day class about fire. Lessons learned are not limited to tending fires, but lend an understanding of the function of fire generally, including the important skills of starting them and putting them out.

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Posted on October 5, 2013 and filed under fire.