Archive | Bushcraft

The making of char cloth tinder

There are many ways to light a fire and some of the basic deliver the most satisfaction. So have you ever tried to light a fire from a simple spark using a piece of flint and a steel? This should not be confused with a firesteel, one of those ferro or ferrocerium rods. When a firesteel is scraped properly it provides a shower of bright, white and extremely hot sparks to ignite a tinder bundle. Chipping away at a piece of flint with a steel by contrast creates paler sparks that are a cooler orange and far more sensitive to the tinder used.

Why do I need char cloth? To ignite a fire with a dull or pale spark, you will need a very dry tinder. With a very hot spark (e.g. firesteel), you may be able to light tinder that is damp, all be it not obviously so. With a piece of flint struck with a steel, the tinder will not ignite if the tinder is even slightly damp. This is why you need a very dry tinder called char cloth.

Materials prepared for making char cloth

Materials prepared for making char cloth

Char cloth is made from a cotton fabric, pretty much any 100% cotton fabric will do the job nicely. I make char cloth using, pieces of old denim jeans (no I don’t have any of that stretchy lycra stuff in my Levis), handkerchiefs that are passed their best and in this example (above) the remains of a Judo jacket (my sons).

Char cloth is made in a similar way to making charcoal – the material is heated to drive out all the moisture whilst not allowing it to combust! For char cloth, use a small tin can (e.g. a black treacle tin) that has a tight fitting lid – a small hole is pierced in the lid (more on this later). The cotton fabric is cut into strips, sufficient to fill the tin but still let enough air circulate around it – don’t over fill the tin.

Cotton cloth charring on the campfire

Cotton cloth charring on the campfire

The cotton material is placed loosely in the tin, I find that it’s best not to overfill. It’s ok if you do, it’s just that the charring process will take longer and some pieces may not be fully charred. The lid is then firmly pushed down to create a good seal and the tin containing the cotton placed on a heat source. Yes, that saying “which comes first the chicken or the egg” comes to mind! A fire is the obvious choice, but any heat source will do, a gas stove for instance. I wouldn’t recommend doing this in your kitchen on a cooker – not good at all.

So what is happening here? The heat is drying out the cotton – yes even though the fabric may feel dry to the touch, it really does have a moisture content that would fail you for your fire lighting. Thinking about the fire-triangle for a moment, the need for heat, fuel and oxygen. Placing the cotton in a tin with a tiny hole in the top means that the moisture driven off by the heat, escapes through the small hole. Because the small hole has steam flowing out, the oxygen flow is significantly reduced or hopefully eliminated, hence your cotton cloth does not combust in the tin!

Stopping combustion of the charred cloth

Stopping combustion of the charred cloth

Now don’t go away and forget about your char cloth in the making. As soon as it is completely dry, the flow of steam will cease, oxygen will enter the tin and your lovely char cloth will ignite leaving you with a tin of ash! Keep an eye on proceedings – a small tin like this will take somewhere between 20-30 minutes. As soon as the steam appears to have stopped, block the hole with a pointed stick and carefully take it of the heat and leave it to cool.

What happens if you don’t wait for it to cool? Yes, I have done this, in the interests of science of course. Using some fireproof gauntlets, I carefully removed the lid when still very hot, and not too surprisingly, the charred cloth burst into flames!

Not-quite fully charred cloth

Not-quite fully charred cloth

And what happens if you remove your tin from the heat to soon? Here is an example, the cloth is not fully charred, some of the cotton is brown rather than deep black. No, need to worry, just pop it all back in the tin and repeat the process – it’ll more often than not be fine. Of course, you could try the partially charred cloth to see what happens – it’s unlikely to work, but good to appreciate what happens if not fully charred.

Char cloth ready for fire lighting

Char cloth ready for fire lighting

This is what you are looking for, a jet-black, fully charred cloth. The fabric should be brittle and easily fall apart. A word of warning, you fab char cloth will now be soaking up the ambient moisture in the air – so I suggest you store it in an air-tight container ready for use!

Char cloth ignited by a spark

Char cloth ignited by a spark

Time to test the char cloth using a small piece of flint struck with a steel. With a super-dry piece of charred cloth, you should be able to drop a spark and ignite the cloth with comparative ease. Now of course this does rather depend on how much practice you have given to using the flint and steel.

If that has sparked your interest in fire lighting, then you may like to learn more fire lighting methods, on either my Art of Fire (both modern and primitive methods of fire lighting) or Bushcraft 101 (fire lighting along with other essential wilderness living skills) courses.

Fire Lighting and wilderness living skills on Bushcraft 101

Whittling with one hand

Have you ever injured your dominant hand badly enough that you had to learn how to use your other hand? I have been unfortunate enough to do this not once but twice, although the second was a shoulder injury, it still meant I couldn’t use my dominant hand. Seeking the positive, there was a benefit to me, in that I am now able to demonstrate carving techniques using either my left or dominant right hand. Being ambidextrous also helps those who are left-handed, because I can show them how to carve the way they would prefer, which means they don’t have to transpose the movements.

If you haven’t had such bad luck, well that’s great news and I hope it stays that way. But ponder for a moment how you would whittle a stick if you could only use one hand. There are many people in this position and not wanting to exclude anyone from my courses, I recently helped someone enjoy a day of Bushcraft who had initially rejected the idea because of his life-long injury.

One-handed whittling using the aid / board that holds the wood firmly

One-handed whittling using the aid / board that holds the wood firmly

So how do you carve a stick or whittle a spoon if you can’t hold it with one hand while carving with the other? Clearly you need something to hold it firmly, but in such a way that it is easy to adjust the piece of wood. I had a chat with my friend Jon Mac at Spoon Carving First Steps and he suggested a wooden board with a couple of holes drilled and a piece of rope passed through (see pictures). The idea is to clamp the piece of wood / stick in place with the rope by holding the rope tight using your foot. He had heard of this idea but not seen it in action – so it was time to try it out!

Making the board – cut a piece of wooden plank, long enough to be slightly taller that the height of your knee from the ground when sitting (my example was 600mm and 150mm wide). Drill a couple of holes to pass a rope through – tie the ends together and dangle them over the top, so it hangs down.

Using the board – lean the wooden board against your leg and put the heal of your foot (other leg) through the loop that dangles down. Place the stick under the loop and then apply pressure with your foot to hold it in place. To adjust the position of the stick, reduce the pressure and more the wood, then reapply pressure!

One-handed whittling aid - holds wood firmly whilst carving

One-handed whittling aid – holds wood firmly whilst carving

It took a few goes to be comfortable with it, trying out different positions to see which worked best. But as you can see, I whittled a piece of hazel stick successfully. Happy with the aid to one-handed whittling, it was now just a matter of seeing how my budding student got on with this aid. Well the great news is that it worked a treat. He tried different ways of using it and quickly found a position which meant he could whittle sticks successfully and carve one quicker than other attendees who had both hands available to them. This is what he had to say afterwards:

I was quite gobsmacked as to the best of my recollection no one has ever made such a concerted effort to adapt to my needs before, and to support my inclusion

Thank you to Jon Mac at Spoon Carving First Steps (please do take a look at his website to see his beautiful photography and wonderfully carved spoons and kuksa / wooden cups!

Enrichment for Princess Risborough School

David has been providing Bushcraft enrichment at Princess Risborough School – once per week all students have an enrichment session. These sessions provide an opportunity for students to broaden their knowledge, acquire new skills and above all, have fun learning something new. As part of this programme, David was invited to provide Bushcraft sessions for year 5 (rising 12 years).

For our first week, we started with fire lighting skills, covering a few different methods and lighting a fire on the school playing field (we all found that fun!). Students practised leave-no-trace, which meant there was no evidence left of our campfire, just as well given where it was! The following week saw us erecting shelters and building on previous skills: lighting a storm-kettle to boil water.

Lunchtime whittling at Princess Risborough School - Bushcraft enrichment

Lunchtime whittling at Princess Risborough School – Bushcraft enrichment

Each week we spend an hour learning something new whilst building up a little more experience with previous skills – this week students were learning to safely use knives and were practising by whittling hazel sticks. It was good to see their care and attention to the task.

Watchful eye as students practice carving - Bushcraft enrichment

Keeping a watchful eye as students practice carving – Bushcraft enrichment

We have adopted a corner of the school sports field for our Bushcraft activities. It has the advantage of providing shelter from the wind if it gets a little blowy and yet receives the lunchtime sunshine too. Looking back at these pictures, it’s nice to see other students playing rugby while we whittle hazel sticks!

Happy carving a pointy stick - Bushcraft enrichment

Happy carving a pointy stick – Bushcraft enrichment

It’s always a pleasure teaching the students at Princess Risborough School – great to see their smiles too as they achieve new things each week. Oh, and what happens in the winter months you may well ask, we will be wearing coats and dressing up warm – just like those playing outdoor sports we will be outside enjoying nature.

Proud of their achievment - Bushcraft enrichment

Proud of their achievements, lots of wood shavings everywhere and some pointy hazel sticks on show – Bushcraft enrichment

Interested in Bushcraft enrichment for your school? Contact David for details!

Home Education Group

Following on from our fun sessions throughout the summer holidays, David has been running more Environmental Learning and Bushcraft sessions at Shortenills Environmental Centre in Chalfont St Giles. The morning sessions are with children aged up to 7 years and those in the afternoon for age 7 and above. They have proved to be very popular, with sessions regularly fully booked.

Making natures dream-catchers with home-education group

Making natures dream-catchers with home-education group

In this weeks session, the younger children made dream-catchers, with a little help from their parents who are actively involved throughout. We gathered pieces of green-hazel and bent them into hoops and then created a web of jute string and wool – the n fun began with weaving in things found in the woods: leaves, feathers, pieces of bark and more. It was lovely to seem them turning in the breeze.

We finished off with cups of nettle tea, with the kettle boiling over the campfire and nettles foraged from the edge of the woodland.

The older group were introduced to the safe use of knives. Each child was shown how to whittle a tent peg, with the younger ones receiving one-to-one instruction and supervision to ensure they had fun and successfully made their tent peg! More nettle tea followed!

Making fat lamps with home-education group

Making fat lamps with home-education group

Other weeks activities included making fat candles. We used a variety of fats, pork lard, beef dripping and vegetable. The children found interesting pieces of wood with shallow holes or crevices in which to place their candles. Then we filled them with fat and each child lit a match to light their candle.

Bread baking with home-educator group

Bread baking with home-educator group

And yes, we baked bread too. The children made the dough using string bread flour, milk powder and baking powder. With a little help, they wound the dough around the sticks and cooked them over the campfire.

David is looking forward to running more Environmental Learning and Bushcraft sessions – if you’d like to know more the by all means do get in contact – thanks!

Take a walk on the wildside

Great to be featured in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire Life Magazines in an article written by Venetia Hawkes. Venetia spent a day with me researching this article for the magazine, finding out what it’s really like to live outdoors in the wild woods. Sitting around the campfire, we spoke about how I got started and where I learnt to be a woodsman. We whittled spoons and baked bread while talking about foraging, campfires and living in the woods, a lovely day, thank you Venetia!

Berkshire Life and Buckinghamshire Life Magazine – Venetia Hawkes cooking wild garlic bannock bread

Berkshire Life and Buckinghamshire Life Magazine – Venetia Hawkes cooking wild garlic bannock bread

Escape the phones and tablets and discover the secrets of dining in the real outdoors – Venetia Hawkes did just that in Buckinghamshire woodland.

“That’s Jelly Ear”, David Willis points out a slimily unappetising looking fungus. “You can pickle it and eat it, but I wouldn’t bother,” he adds. There’s definitely no eating of bugs either. Delicate herb breads, nettle risottos, elderflower fritters – tasting like a cross between a summer hedgerow and a 1950s fairground, are the wild foods Willis favours. On his Bushcraft courses you can learn to light a fire, carve a spoon, build a shelter, cook over a camp-fire and enjoy a delicious taste of the wild.

Read the full story here at Berkshire and Buckinghamshire Life Magazines.