Feathersticks are extremely useful under certain circumstances. Yet many people who enjoy bushcraft, survival skills and outdoor life are not particularly well practised in the skill of making them.
Many books, particularly those involved with survival training, contain images of what are often referred to as “fuzz-sticks”. These are little more than twigs with a few short, shallow knife cuts made around them.
On the other hand, feathersticks – when made properly – provide a very certain way of establishing a fire in otherwise potentially difficult circumstances.
The circumstances in which feathersticks are invaluable come under a couple of categories:
First, you may be in a situation where all the available fuel in the woods is wet. It may have been raining for days; even dead, standing wood will be wet on the outside. Small fuel such as dead twigs still attached to trees will also be wet or even soaked.
The second circumstance under which feathersticks are particularly useful is when there are no small sticks available in the area and, therefore, there is no small fuel to start your fire. This could be a situation where you are within an environment that has a limited variety of tree species. It could also be a situation where you are above the tree line but firewood is has been transported there. A prime example of this would be in a cabin in the mountains in winter, with a supply of logs in the woodshed.
A situation much closer to home in which there may be no small fuel – and is much more likely to be encountered by many – is where you are camping in a popular spot where all the small fuel that was immediately available has been used. I have stayed on many Scout sites where this is certainly the case.
Another example of lack of small fuel I’ve encountered is when making canoe journeys in popular areas – such as the Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada – where you are restricted to particular camping sites. Even though these sites can be quite remote, they often have a scarcity of the small fuel that everybody will grab first for lighting the fires. Many of the people travelling in these areas do not have basic bushcraft skills; few people have any real skill in the use of cutting tools and so are unable to produce smaller fuel from the larger pieces of wood that often remain unmolested in the camping area.
These situations are examples of where you can apply your bushcraft skills and have a plentiful source of all the useful sizes of firewood as a result, whereas an unskilled individual would struggle to find fuel.
In these circumstances feathersticks really come into their own.
Feathersticks: What We Are Aiming To Produce…
The primary purpose of a featherstick is to provide you with your initial fuel. Most commonly this means producing what is generally referred to as kindling. That said, you might also produce feathersticks of a high enough quality, with fine enough feathers at the base of the featherstick, that you may drop a spark directly onto the featherstick to ignite it. Thus, the featherstick can also provide you with what is commonly called tinder.
Your feathersticks should also inherently provide the next size of fuel up from your finest kindling. The body of the featherstick, as opposed to the feathers themselves, provides this fuel. Therefore the body – that is the stick – should be fine enough that the flaming feathers will ignite the neck of the stick and so ignite the whole featherstick.
The shavings we are looking for on our feathersticks should be long and fine. You should be aiming to produce a dense bundle of such high quality feathers.
You might ask why we don’t just produce a pile of shavings? Surely it is easier to shave wood off a stick, then pile it up and ignite it that way? While it’s true shavings can be used in the ignition of a fire – and certainly if you cut off shavings from your feathersticks by accident when you are producing them, you should use them – there are multiple advantages to keeping the shavings attached to the stick itself.
First, in keeping the shavings attached to the stick we keep them off the ground. This is true both initially when we are creating the stick. While you produce subsequent curls they all remain on the stick and up off the ground (or the snow).
The second advantage is the shavings can be moved around in bulk and we will not lose any. When you are moving or storing the sticks, they are all together. When you come to light your fire, the sticks can be can be organised easily and quickly.
The third advantage is that once you light your feathersticks, the burning shavings can still be manipulated while they are alight simply because they are attached to a stick which you can get hold of at the end and move them around.
Finally, a key advantage in having the feathers attached to the stick is that it allows more oxygen in amongst the feathers and the overall fire lay is not too dense. This is particularly important at the start of the fire before it becomes established. A further point – following on from our previous point about being able to manipulate the feathersticks while there are alight – is that should we need to allow still more oxygen into the initial beginnings of the fire, we can lift up individual feather sticks in just the same way as we can lift up bundles of twigs in the typical small-stick fire lay.
By contrast, a pile of shavings, particularly short shavings as opposed to long curly shavings, is relatively difficult to light compared to good feathersticks. It is also very difficult to manipulate in any useful way.
Material Selection For Feathersticks
As with many things in bushcraft, the ultimate success of the application of a particular technique – at least the quality of the outcome – is to a large extent dependent upon good material selection. This is certainly true when making feathersticks.
So what materials should you look for when aiming to make good quality feathersticks?
As with any good firewood, the ideal raw material for feathersticks is dead, dry, standing wood. You want wood that is well seasoned, in good condition and not rotten or punky.
You should be looking for upright timber and, unless you have an axe, it needs to be of a particular dimension.
If you have only a knife, it should be feasible to easily baton the material. In other words, for a typical bushcraft knife, we are looking for maximum sizes of maybe 3 inches (i.e. 7 cm) in diameter.
Also, you do not want wood that is so small in diameter that persistent rain will have penetrated far into the wood. So you are looking for a minimum diameter of around 2 inches (i.e. 5 cm).
Species that work particularly well for feathersticks are pine, willow, cedar, and sweet chestnut.
In terms of the quality of the wood that we are looking for, I will re-iterate that it needs to be dead, dry and well seasoned. In my experience, people can get lazy with applying these criteria strictly and end up making sub-optimal feathersticks (i.e. they don’t work). Equally, the wood should not be too soft or punky, i.e. too rotten.
The wood you select should also be straight-grained and, preferably, knot free. To a large extent you can get a good idea of how knotty a piece of wood is just by looking at the outside bark. Because you are going for relatively small diameters, any external knots will likely carry a good way into the grain of the wood. Try to choose sections of wood that are relatively free of side branches or the remnants of them.
In the woods, you should be aiming to select an upright standing piece of wood and cut it into multiple sections to gain all the fuel that you need – including your feather sticks – to establish your fire.
Once you have selected your piece of standing timber, saw it down. Then you should cut up your selected wood into sections that are 12 to 14 inches (30 to 35 cm) long.
Now that you have these rounds – and I suggest you have at least three of this length as a minimum to produce the fuel to start your fire – you can begin to split the wood down into suitable sizes.
In the absence of an axe, the technique to use is batoning. This is a common and often used technique of basic bushcraft – one with which you should become fully familiar, if you are not already.
Stand the sawed round of wood vertically on its end on a stable surface such as a chopping block or log. Place your knife horizontally on top end of the log with the handle as close to the wood, leaving as much of the tip of the blade protruding on the far side as possible.
It may be worth creating a small wedge before you hammer the knife into the wood and potentially get it stuck. The wedge will allow you to free your knife if necessary.
Once you’re ready, hammer the blade into the end of the round until the back of the blade is flush with the top surface of the wood. Now proceed by hitting the tip of the knife with your baton while maintaining pressure on the handle so as to keep blade horizontal. The wood should split relatively easily.
For your feather sticks I would recommend quarters from wood that is relatively small – say 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter – and eighths for wood that is larger diameter than this.
After prolonged or heavy rain, the outer surface of even vertically upright wood may well be damp. Once you have batoned out the splints that you require, you should shave down the outer surface removing the bark and any damp layers of wood that lie beneath, until all you are left with is dry wood.
Techniques For Creating Fantastic Feathersticks
For those who have tried to make feathersticks in the past, the part of the process they often find most difficult or frustrating is starting the featherstick. Getting going and producing good long curls consistently is reliant upon creating a good foundation in the first place.
To create this foundation for all your curls, do not worry too much about creating good curls for the first few cuts. Rather, what you should concentrate on is creating a good even surface, which can then be shaved down into nice even curls. What you do not want is a raggedy edge or a lumpy-bumpy surface that looks like a washboard road, then try to create nice smooth shavings from it.
Start by aiming to plane the surface that exists as a result of splitting out your rounds of wood to the desired size. Start on the inside edge, that is the edge that is sharp. This inner wood will still be dry despite the heaviest of rains. Even though sections have been split out quite nicely by your batoning technique, the edge you are to work into feathers will still be uneven.
Place the split wood on a firm surface in a vertical or near vertical position. Holding it with your non-knife hand at the top, take your knife and place it below your fingers, turning the knife inwards so the edge is turned towards the wood. If you’re using a flat-bevelled knife you can achieve the angle relatively easily; turn the knife so that the bevel is flat against the wood.
Push the knife downwards so that the blade descends. As you do so, turn the knife edge in towards the wood a fraction more and you should start to take off small shavings of wood from the high points.
To reiterate, it is not important that these stay attached. You are simply levelling the surface on which you are going to work. If you have ever used a plane think of this initial action in this way.
After your first descent of the piece of wood, return the knife to the initial starting point and repeat the process, shaving off more of the remaining high points. Repeat this process until you are left with a smooth surface to work on.
Now, repeat the step as described above but this time with the intention of creating one continuous, even shaving from the beginning of the cut downwards to nearly the bottom of the stick.
The part of the bushcraft knife blade you should be using for this is the straightest part, which is close to the handle. Here you have most control and least leverage on your wrist.
Push the knife downwards, maintaining an even depth into the wood, creating a nice even curl.
Initially this is easier said than done!
Do not get too stressed about losing curls at the beginning of your learning curve. It happens to everyone.
The thing you should be concentrating on is getting a feel for how deep or how shallow the edge of the knife is shaving the wood then making small adjustments to maintain an even cut.
This takes practice but you will soon pick up a good feel for the type of wood that you are using, combined with the sharpness of the knife you are using.
It goes without saying that your knife should be as sharp as possible.
Once you have started to create a few good downward shavings, you will find that the bottom of the stick starts to become a little crowded. The common mistake made here is to finish cuts progressively higher up the stick on each descent with the knife.
The problem with this is that the curls are not then all adjacent to each other and you will find them harder to light. Also you will not achieve as thin a body of the stick because you will not have shaved off as much along the complete length.
If you need some more space at the base of the featherstick simply use the side of your knife to push the shavings down and away from the body of the stick, leaving more space behind for additional curls.
Once you have started to get a good feel for the basic downward shaving motion, you can add some variation into this. What you do not want to be doing is creating shavings all around the base of the stick. You actually want them all on one side of the stick, in a nice arc of about 180°. This is important for when you come to light your fire.
Getting Fancy With Your Feathersticks: Adding Variety To The Curls
The basic downward shaving action will create curls that are pretty much in line with the stick and at right angles to the blade of your knife.
To put curls on one side or the other of the central curls you can change the angle by raising or lowering the tip of your knife as you cut.
Start with your knife on the stick close to the handle and turn the tip of the knife upwards. Now shave downwards and slide the blade across the face of the featherstick as you descend. This will create a tightly curled shaving, which moves out towards tip of a knife.
Once you have created a few of the above with the tip up, go back to shaving down the central part of the stick with the knife held horizontally so as to create some more shavings in the middle.
Then, place the knife at the top of the stick again, this time with the tip facing downwards and the initial point of contact with the blade closer to the tip. Shave down the featherstick again, moving the handle of your knife towards the stick and cutting across the face of the feather stick as you descend.
This will create a curl that moves towards the handle of your knife and fills in where there are no curls.
Create a few of these curls then go back to the central curl, then go back to the point-up curls. And so on.
In varying the techniques like this you will create a dense and even bundle of excellent curls at the end of your feather stick.
To get the curls all at the end of your featherstick, remember that you must start and finish your curls at the same place on the stick each time.
Do not fall into the trap of starting further and further down the feather stick. Nor should you, as mentioned above, finish each curl at progressively higher points up the stick.
Either way, curls will become shorter and less curly each time, they will not sit next to each other on the stick and you will not achieve a thin enough neck that will ignite from the flames of the curls.
Practice Makes Fantastic
Practice making feathersticks when the going is good, and the technique will serve you well when things get a more tough. You should be aiming not only to be able to make feathersticks but make feathersticks quickly.
While making feathersticks may be quite a frustrating pastime at first, as with many aspects of bushcraft, the more time and effort spent to become proficient, the more likely it is that the particular technique becomes a realistic one in a situation where you really need to depend upon it.
Besides, the next time you are camping with your friends and there is little firewood around, you can impress them by producing everything you need from an unlikely piece of wood and dazzling them with your fantastic feathersticks.
Have you used feathersticks in situations where there was no other way to get your fire going? Or do you still struggle with getting good curls? Let us know in the comments below….