Feather Sticks = “Inner Beauty”!
In harsh wet, rainy, snowy, or humid conditions, you may find that all of your potential fire-making materials and fuels are completely soaking wet, making starting that much-needed fire a real challenge. But in most cases this will not be an issue for the savvy bushcrafter or wilderness survivalist because… wood that is soaking wet on the outside is often not soaking wet on the inside. As long as you didn’t pull your wood out of a river bed, off of the rain soaked ground or harvest it from a live tree, then your prospective fire-starting materials can be completely soaked on the outside and it won’t be a problem for you because we are going to show you how to get to that beautiful dry wood on the inside!
So when everything you can get your hands on for fire fuel is absolutely soaked, what’s one to do?
One of the easiest and best ways to do get dry fire starting materials from wet wood is to make “feather sticks” or “fuzz sticks”. A feather stick is nothing more than a larger piece of wood that you skillfully use your knife to shave paper-thin, long, curly shavings of wood from the inside of your fuel log that are dry and will ignite easily with a fire starter like a butane lighter, match, ferro rod, etc. While the outside of your piece of wood may be absolutely soaked, typically the inside will not be. Thus the importance of processing down a larger wet stick or branch with your knife into fine dry shavings, which accomplishes two things:
1) It allows you to get to that dry wood on the inside
2) It allows you to process your fuel materials down into much smaller and finer kindling and even tinder once you get really skilled with producing ultra-thin shavings that will ignite from even a tiny spark from a ferro rod.
The smaller, less intense, and shorter duration your heat source (fire starter) is, the more “forgiving” (thinner, longer, curlier) your tinder will need to be in terms of size, thickness, airflow, etc. As I have indicated countless times throughout E2S (and will continue to do so for purposes of reinforcement!), starting a fire is all about proper proportions/ratio of your “Fire Triangle” ingredients: Heat/Fuel/Oxygen. Moisture kills both heat and your oxygen supply, so it’s absolutely critical that you get your hands on some dry fuel if you want to start a fire.
Feather Stick Making Teaches You Terrific Survival & Bushcraft Skills!
Practicing feather stick making is a terrific relaxing way to spend some leisure time around a campfire or just in your backyard. Plus it teaches you several terrific survival and bushcraft skills.
Once you learn to make beautiful, long, curly, paper-thing shavings from a piece of wood, you’d never be without a source of dry kindling or tinder ever again. This is a HUGE asset in terms of your ability to start a fire in rainy, snowy, or even humid conditions.
The second bushcraft/survival skill it teaches you is how to be more precise and delicate with your knife. This is a tremendous asset in terms of bushcraft and survival knife skills. Contrary to what many bushcraft and wilderness survival skills enthusiasts would have you think, using your bushcraft or survival knife is not always about brute tasks. There are lots of bushcraft knife tasks that require precision and finesse. Processing game, cleaning fish, precise cuts for primitive traps, pot cranes, and all sorts of other woodcraft projects all require finesse and a level of precise control.
Getting really good at making feather sticks goes a long way in teaching you how to use your knife with precision and finesse. It’s not as easy as it looks to produce paper-thin, long, curly shavings with a knife. At least not at first. As with most things, it takes a little practice.
Feather Stick Quality
Now there are some “standards” when it comes to feather stick making and, from a practical bushcraft and survival standpoint, these standards are valuable to a certain point, but only to a certain point. There are some absolutely impressive feather stick makers out there that take feather stick making to a level that they are almost a work of art, but these types of feather sticks are more about impressive knife skills and less about feather sticks as a practical survival or bushcraft tool. As impressive as these feather sticks may be and the skill required to make them, these kinds of feather sticks are WELL beyond the skill level needed in terms what is required for fire starting in a bushcraft or survival situation.
I have no personal interest in being a feather stick “snob” or “elitist”, but when it comes to feather sticks, there are a few characteristics that we are looking to achieve that will separate the good feather sticks (effective) from bad (ineffective). While I can appreciate the skill it takes to make the incredible feather sticks shown above, I’m more interested in a level of feather stick making proficiency that can save my/your life.
If you want to work toward learning to make gorgeous, perfect feather sticks that you could sell at craft fairs in “bouquets”, great! But I am approaching this topic here as a practical bushcraft and survival skill/tool as opposed to an art or craft. I’m more interested in keeping you alive and teaching you valuable survival and bushcraft skills than I am being impressed with your knife skills or you giving your wife a beautiful bouquet of feather sticks.
Here are a few of the generally accepted “standards” when it comes to feather sticks:
Long, Curly, and Thin
These are the main three qualities that you are looking for in your feathers, even in a bushcraft or survival standpoint. They don’t have to be perfect or gorgeous to be effective, but these three qualities actually do impact effectiveness. The reason why is because thin, long and curly shavings catch sparks and ignite better than tiny chunks like sawdust. Again, it’s all about that heat/fuel/oxygen ratio. Wood dust/powder simply does not ignite from tiny sparks nearly as well as long, thin, curly strands/shavings do. Trust me.
Try using a lighter to ignite a small pile of wood dust/sawdust. You will quickly discover that the results are not great. You may brown the top a little and produce a little bit of smoke/smoldering, but you are not likely to produce a flame or anything that would help you start a fire. Now try a little pile of long, curly paper strips. It could be the same exact amount of wood but the long curly strips of paper are going to go up like gasoline compared to the dust because of that improved access to oxygen! Makes a world of difference, right?
Feathers Still Attached To The Main Stick
Another standard in feather sticks is that, ideally, all of your feathers should remain attached to your main stick. Now to me this “standard” is a bit more about knife skill and control than it is actually critical to bushcraft or fire starting, but there are a couple of legitimate practical advantages to maintaining this standard:
One advantage to adhering to this standard is that keeping your feathers attached to the main stick makes it easier to manage your individual feathers when they are still attached to your main stick. You pick up your main stick and all of your feathers come with it. When you have a bunch of loose feathers, then you are picking them up individually and managing them is a bit more tricky. Not the end of the world, but worth mentioning.
Keeping your feathers connected to your stick also helps keep your feathers a bit more spread out improving oxygen flow. Arguably helpful, but not entirely necessary.
But ultimately, if you are making bunches of paper-thin shavings that are not attached to your stick, those will work just fine. Ideally you should catch your loose shavings in a hat, bandana, scarf, tarp or blanket to keep them off the wet ground.
Different “Grades” Of Feather Sticks
Feather Stick Technique(s):
To make your feather sticks, find a manageable sized piece of wood that is dead and dry (not rotten). You obviously want something that isn’t submerged in water or has clearly been sitting on the cold, wet ground for some period of time. Something from the lower trunk area of a tree that has gotten plenty of air circulation is ideal.
You are looking for a piece of wood at least 12” in length and not much over 24” in length, but more importantly about two to four inches in diameter if you can. And YES, this piece of wood can be completely soaking wet on the outside. Don’t worry about that.
Now take your piece of wood and get it under cover out of the rain. You obviously don’t want to produce your new dry tinder in the pouring rain. That would be pretty counterproductive, right? Wind can actually be an asset at this time since it can help dry out your feather sticks even further while you are processing them, so don’t worry too much about wind right now, but definitely don’t expose your new dry tinder to moisture (rain & snow).
Now take your log and baton it into quarters lengthwise. You should end up with four full-length quartered sections, each with a right-angled corner. Now you are ready to make your feather sticks!
As I indicated previously, paper-thin, long, and curly shavings are optimal for fire starting and when making feather sticks. The quality of your feather stick shavings (thinner, curlier, longer) will be a significant determining factor when it comes to your fire-starting results. Optimal feather sticks can be used as tinder and be ignited with just a spark. Less than optimal shavings will still make great kindling, but may not be amazing as tinder (although you may be able to compensate by increasing the heat with a series of repeated quick and intense bursts from your ferro rod). That’s why practicing your feather sticks is a terrific skill to hone while sitting around the campfire relaxing BEFORE you find yourself in a survival situation!
As with most other bushcraft and wilderness survival skills, there’s more than one method to achieve the desired results when it comes to feather sticks. I have shared a few videos below from some YouTubers that demonstrate a number of different techniques that can work, but there are several critical common denominators between all of these techniques that I want to bring to your attention to help you get the very best results now matter which method you end up choosing for yourself. Plus… I added a few tips of my own for you!:
HOW IT’S DONE!:
Full-Length, Long Strokes
If your desire is to produce long, curly, paper-thin shavings, then this REQUIRES long strokes with your knife along the entire piece of wood. You simply cannot get a long shaving from a short stroke. It’s impossible. So start up high and work your way down the full length of your stick or log with long, steady strokes.
This is where practice and control come in. For some strange reason, most feather stick newbies (including myself when I first started) are naturally inclined to make ridiculously short strokes with their knife. All this does is produce short, thick and less than effective “feathers”. While even these types of feathers can be somewhat helpful in a fire lighting situation or survival situation where you have a more sustained ignition source (like a Bic lighter), they are far from ideal in that they will not ignite from a ferro rod spark or other less intense or sustained heat source.
Trust me, I am not just being a condescending jerk about feather stick skills! Far from it! I am actually describing my own past personal shortcomings when it came to feather stick making when I was first learning and… my first couple of attempts were pretty pathetic!
I remember my very first time attempting a feather stick many years back and I made the same mistakes every other newbie does in the beginning and used those classic short, aggressive, choppy, “too deep too soon” strokes. After several strokes I sat back, assessed my feather stick and… I actually laughed out loud at my pathetic, embarrassingly short, stumpy little “pricks” up my piece of wood that I’m not even sure would have helped me if I had a butane lighter!! LOL!!
My Suggestion For Overcoming This Tendency:
After my first few pathetic attempts, I figured out a little trick that I started using until I got better: I would actually “warm up” by making a few passes with my proper wrist/arm/shoulder form (my third tip coming up soon, actually) with the blade flat against my piece of wood, making no shavings at all. This would help me sort of get the motions and the form down with my hand, wrist, arm and shoulder before I actually started doing any cutting.
LIGHT, Shallow Strokes!
Once I got into the motion and feel again, I slowly rolled my hand forward ever so slightly (kind of like barely accelerating a motorcycle) so that the edge of my blade just started to shave off some wood. The INSTANT my blade started grabbing the thinnest amount of wood, I immediately locked my wrist again and kept it there to maintain consistency. If I started grabbing too much wood again, I slightly “decelerated the motorcycle”. If wood was no longer shaving off, I did the reverse and ever so slightly “accelerated the motorcycle” again.
I don’t know if this trick will help you or not, but it really helped me and got me to the point that I no longer needed to even think about it and it and now I just do it naturally!
Lock Wrist, Stiff Arm, Push Through With Shoulder
I tend to hold my knife firmly in my hand, blade inward and locked at 90 degrees with my wrist. With a stiff arm and locked wrist, I then push down through my long strokes with my shoulder. This produces more consistent strokes and puts the work all into my shoulder (using the weight of my upper body to push), which is much stronger then my hands, wrist, and arm. Lock that knife in at 90 degrees with your wrist and push through the length of your wood with your shoulder. This method allows me to do much more feathering with far less fatigue in my hand, wrist and arm.
Harder woods are more difficult to make feather sticks with. Especially if your knife is not particularly sharp. Also, avoid pieces of wood with knots in them as these will act like “speed bumps” as you travel down the full length of your stick or log with those long strokes.
Almost any sharp knife will do. I learned to make feather sticks using a convex ground bushcraft knife but learned later that I could produce even better, thinner shavings with a scandi grind knife. Something about getting the feel for the angle of my knife on a continuous roll of a convex ground knife vs the sharper angle of a scandi ground knife was just easier to get the feel of for me. Most of the INCREDIBLE feather sticks you see online are actually done with specialized carving knives as opposed to bushcraft or survival knives.
It’s well worth trying several styles of knives (size, grind, grip, etc.) to get a feel for what works best for you, but there’s also something to be said for learning to produce fine feathers with ALL kinds of knife blades, sizes and styles. Once you get a feel for the process with a particulare knife, with a little additional practice you will find that it translates over to various other knife styles and even kukris, machetes, hatchets and axes!
COMMON FEATHER STICK MAKING ISSUES:
What separates really nice, quality feather sticks from crappy feather sticks comes primarily down to two things:
- Too short of a stroke
- Too aggressive a cut (not thin enough)
That’s it. Work on both of those and you will quickly master feather sticks. Your feathers should tell you which of these two needs improving upon. Use the graphic above for a guide and you will be well on your way!
Feather Stick “Cheat”: Pencil Sharpener Shavings.
Now in the realm of bushcraft, developing the skills to make really good feather sticks is a terrific skill to teach yourself and I highly recommend you learn this skill. But in the realm of survival, I don’t necessarily believe there is such a thing as a “cheat”. If it gets the job done and helps you stay alive, then it’s perfectly acceptable to do.
That’s where this little trick comes in handy. You can get tiny pocket-sized pencil sharpeners easily and they weigh very little and take up very little room in your pack. In fact, this is a terrific item to include in a kit for someone who is less interested in learning bushcraft skills but is interested in being prepared for emergencies.
Simply take your little pencil sharpener and, instead of sharpening a pencil, “sharpen” a pencil-diameter stick to produce fine, dry shavings that will easily light with a ferro rod!
Green Wood Feather Sticks
I have also experimented with making feather sticks from green branches and made a few interesting observations that you might want to try out! First, green wood carves more easily than dry wood, so practicing your feather stick skills with a few green branches in the beginning to get a feel for the right knife angles, the stoke, etc. is perfectly acceptable! Also, while green wood feather sticks may not be the ideal choice for soaking wet or humid conditions, in more optimal conditions (sun and wind are particularly helpful) feather sticks made from green wood can actually dry out pretty quickly… especially if you did a good job of making them paper thin, long and curly!
SOME OF OUR FAVORITE FEATHER STICK VIDEOS:
Making a Feather Stick – Bushcraft Basics
The basics of feather stick making from NaturalBushcraft! Terrific video to start with!
Feather Sticks 101
This is a terrific introductory video if you are just getting started learning feather stick making!
MUST WATCH!: Feather Stick Clinic From The Great Mors Kochanski
It truly doesn’t get any better than this. This video is a feather stick clinic by the Godfather himself, Mors Kochanski. Watch, learn, and pay close attention to the details and subtleties. You won’t regret it!
Feather Sticks In The Pacific Northwest!
This terrific video has some fantastic tips for choosing the right wood for feather stick making, techniques, and more!
Clever Alternative Method/Technique For Feather Stick Making!!
This is a clever method for feather stick making that could be great for folks with a little less arm strength or want to step the safety factor a bit! Very clever technique worth checking out!
Why Your Feather Sticks SUCK!!
Perhaps you’ve tried or are trying to learn to make feather sticks but you simply aren’t getting the results you want? Well this is the video for you! Learn to make those long, curly, paper-thin curls in no time with this video! Some really great tips in this video that will help you take your feather sticks to the next level!!
More Awesome Feather Stick Tips PLUS Making Feather Sticks With A Hatchet!
This gentleman is being COMPLETELY modest about his feather stick making skills. He is producing PAPER-thin curls and making feather sticks with a hatchet! Another great watch!
Beautiful Morning, Beautiful Feather Sticks With Scrambled O!!
Lots more than just feather sticks in this video. Feather sticks, hammocking, beautiful morning, bushcraft cooking, homemade pot hanger, and so much more! Enjoy!!
E2S FAVORITE!: ADVANCED Feather Stick Making: “Shirley Temple Curl” SPIRALS!!
Alright, one last video share (trust me, I could do this all day), but I’m arguably saving the best for last with this one. In fact, this video has me inspired to try this out for myself! Notice how at the beginning of the video he ignites these with just a SINGLE strike of his ferro rod!! FEATHER STICK LEVEL EXPERT!!!
Now before you watch this video, ask yourself a question: How is he producing these tight little SPIRALS vs. the standard curls? What do you think could possibly be his “secret” to producing these? Then watch the video to find out of you are right or not!