For anyone who spends a fair amount of time in the fields and forests, you should have a basic level of competency in a number of skills. One of the most important is your ability to use a sharp knife in a variety of ways.
Many experienced and hardcore outdoor adventurers will pack more than one knife. A full tang fixed blade securely fastened to their belt and a folding knife. As the saying goes, “one is none, two is one”. This gives you a significant advantage, so if you break or lose one, you still have another that can still be used. No matter what, a knife should always be one of your essentials when you hit the trail.
However, not all knives are equal to all tasks. For example, while it’s certainly possible to perform a chore such as food prep or gathering wood for a fire with a machete, many other tasks are simply made easier with a smaller blade. On the other hand, clearing a path is definitely easier with a large knife than with a small one. I’m sure you get the picture.
In this article, we are going to cover two basic tasks that relate to processing wood for a fire.
This technique must be one of the most heated debates in online survival forums in vehemence and vitriol. The debate always boils down to whether one should use their knife to baton firewood. Some take the position that it’s a great method for splitting wood down to size and others take an affirmative stance that it’s a great way to abuse your knife.
However, this technique has been used throughout the ages and there is little risk of damage to your knife if you do things properly with a good quality knife.
Now I know what you’re thinking, a good ax or hatchet is definitely the proper tool for splitting wood to prepare a fire. Agreed! However, you must always think outside the box and improvise. What if you forgot to bring an ax or hatchet or you are somewhat unsettled in swinging an ax, or worried about the risk of injury from a miss.
The process of batoning with a knife is simple and requires nothing more than a good quality knife and a thick branch to serve as your hammer or mallet. Yes, this does take practice, but after a few tries, you will get the hang of it.
By far the best knife for baton work is a full tang fixed blade knife. These knives are specifically built to handle abuse and if beating your knife with a wooden baton isn’t abuse, we don’t know what is.
For firewood, select a piece of wood that is smaller in diameter than the length of your knife. As for your hammer, you want a branch that’s thick and strong to absorb the impact. Also, it must be something you’ll be able to swing easily with one hand.
Next, take the piece of wood you intend to split and stand it up vertically. If you find that the ground happens to be soft, place it on a rock or other hard surface instead. Now that you have the piece of wood securely in place, place your knife’s edge across the top of the wood, right in the middle. It’s important to make sure that the tip of your knife extends beyond the edge of the wood.
Now, using the piece of wood you selected as your hammer, firmly tap the blade down into the wood striking the spine with your hammer. Once the spine is even with the wood, continue hammering by hitting the exposed tip of the blade while maintaining a firm grip on the handle of your knife. This will serve to drive your knife down through the wood splitting it.
A good rule of thumb is to have something you can use as a small wedge in the event the blade becomes stuck.
Now if you find yourself outdoors and the weather has been less than favorable, batoning is still a great way to start a fire. This is a great way to expose the dry inner part of your firewood making it easier to burn.
Splitting wood using a great quality knife is safer than using an ax or hatchet because the object you’re swinging (i.e. the piece of wood you selected as a hammer) can’t cut you if you miss. However, if you are using a poor quality knife, you are asking for trouble.
This is another simple and effective method to process firewood. In fact, it may be one of utmost importance in some situations. A feather stick also known as a “fuzz stick” is simply a piece of wood that has been shaved in such a way that the thin bits are still attached to the stick.
When weather conditions are less than ideal (i.e. rain, snow, sleet) this stick is an essential tool when you need to build a fire.
Now keeping the “feathers - the thin bits attached to the stick”, isn’t absolutely necessary, but doing so provides a few but very important benefits. First, it keeps them off the ground, where they can become damp rain, snow or sleet. Second, the clump allows for air to circulate between the shavings, giving it the essential oxygen needed to the budding flame. It also has the advantage of having them all attached which in turn gives you the ability to move the bundle as an entire unit.
Always keep your knife sharp. Although this sounds absurd, you’re always more likely to sustain an injury using a dull knife than a sharp one. The more pressure you need to make a cut, such as one when using a dull edge, the greater the risk that the knife will slip from the material and find a finger or other part of your body to slice or penetrate.
Start with a stick that is approximately 2 to 3 inches thick and as straight as you can find. Make sure the stick is dry, ideally deadwood that’s well-seasoned and about a foot or so in length.
Once you found the ideal piece of wood, baton it into quarters. This will provide you with a good working surface, as opposed to the rough outer part of your stick. Now, prop one of the quarters up vertically and hold it at the top with your non-dominant hand. You’ll immediately notice that the stick is shaped such that there is a sharp pointy side. That is where you will be working with your knife.
Pay attention to direction - always cut away from your body and from others. When you are working with your knife, always think about where the blade will go because if it goes astray, you risk cutting yourself or others near you. So always ask yourself, is anyone, including yourself in the way?
Share the pointy side with your knife leveling the surface. You will need to do this several times, but don’t become concerned if the shavings don’t stay attached. Remember the purpose in this step is to create a surface that is flat, approximately ¼ of an inch across. Once completed, you are on your way to begin making your feathering stick.
Now, start shaving the flat surface, stopping an inch or two from the end of the stick. As you go along, rotate the stick just slightly and make more flat surfaces to whittle. Do not, turn the stick completely and work on all sides. You’ll immediately find that this leads to frustration. So, to avoid the urge of throwing the stick away, stick to basically one half of the wood.
Your goal is to carve the thinnest possible feathers, because those will light the easiest. Don’t get frustrated, this is not a skill you will pick up overnight. Practice makes perfect. This takes considerable time and patience.
To use the feather stick, place it at the base of your fire. Lay and light your feather stick with a cigarette lighter, match or other similar device. The curled chips of wood should light readily, spreading the flame throughout the bundle. Don’t forget to add small pieces of kindling slowly so as not to smother the flame.
No matter where your adventures take you, always stay vigilant and safe!