Materials of the San Francisco Bay Region

by Dick Baugh



The objective of this report is to list and describe the fire-by-friction materials that are found near San Francisco Bay, California. This is to fill a gap which is found in almost all the outdoor survival and primitive living skills books which I have read. They mention their favorite fire-by-friction material or materials, none of which are native to the area where I live. My hope is that other "fire making enthusiasts" in different parts of the world would also write similar articles describing the fire-by-friction materials of their home territory. This article is not intended to be a reference for plant identification, although several reference books have relied on my own experiences with using these materials. The opinions are obviously subjective and reflect my own prejudices and skill.

Selection of suitable materials is a matter of observing nuances. First, the wood must be dry. Second, just because one piece of wood from a particular species worked once is no indication that it will always work. Another parameter to consider is the degree to which the wood is decayed. Sometimes a small amount of fungal attack makes subtle changes in the ability to twirl up an ember. Heartwood very often works better than sapwood. Selection of woods is very critical. The material must be capable of being ground into a very fine powder. Any tendency for the powder being ground off to feel coarse or gritty is a signal that you are wasting your time and should reject that wood and find something else. Equally important is the ability of the wood to maintain its structural integrity at high temperature (up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit) before the char is ground off. This is discussed in great detail in Bulletin of Primitive Technology #4.



California Incense Cedar
Calocedrus decurrens makes the best hearth boards. A very soft, light wood which takes very little effort to twirl up an ember. Use a board or split piece with the annual rings perpendicular to the surface (quarter sawn). It also smells good. Incense cedar is native to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and is only seen in the San Francisco Bay region as a horticultural plant. It is, however, such a superior wood for hearth boards that it should be mentioned. The oldest, least dense heartwood is easiest to ignite with a hand drill.

I have never been successful in creating an ember with an incense cedar spindle twirled on an incense cedar hearth board. The char ground off is always coarse and gritty. My only explanation, albeit not very scientific, is that the wood is so soft that cedar on cedar wears away so quickly that the ignition temperature is never reached. I would appreciate comments from anyone who has had experience with this material.

The common Elderberry of the San Francisco Bay region is Sambucus mexicana. It is seen along roadsides in the hills. Elderberry (Sambucus sp.) makes excellent spindles, especially for a hand spun fire drill. Select shoots that are about 1/2 inch in diameter and fairly straight. Second or third year growth is best because the wood will be the correct thickness. Elderberry spindles work so well because they have a soft pith core of from 3/16 to 3/8 inch diameter. As a consequence when twirling the drill your muscle power is a rapid rise in temperature. Avoid first year stems which have too much pith and only a thin wood section. Cut elderberry shoots while they are green, heat them in an oven (250 degrees) and straighten them while still damp. Then leave them in the oven a few hours until they are perfectly dry. These "non-abo" techniques can only be justified in that I need to prepare a large number of spindles at a time for the classes that I help teach. The slower alternative in preparing spindles is to straighten them with heat while they are green, tie them in bundles of 2, 3 or 7 and leave them in a warm dry place. Elderberry wood which is larger in diameter is also good for hearth boards although fairly dense. As a consequence of its greater density it requires more "horsepower" from a hand-spun drill to reach ignition temperature. That is a non-problem for a bow drill.

California Buckeye

California Buckeye (Aeschulus californica) works well for hearth boards and bow drill spindles. I have seldom seen shoots which were long enough for hand drill spindles. There is a great variation in its hardness, depending on whether or not it was cut green or allowed to decay slightly. The less dense wood ignites more easily.









Mule Fat
Mule Fat (Baccharis viminea) forms long straight stems in stream beds in California through to Arizona. The soft woody stems are excellent for spindles and hearth boards. There seems to be a large variation in the density of the wood, meaning that some samples require more work than others to twirl up an ember with a hand drill. The only two times I have ever started a hand drill fire starting from essentially nothing, have been with mule fat spindles and hearth boards.








Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). The heartwood works well for hearth boards. It is a relatively low density wood so little effort is required but I don't use it very often.

Cattail (Typha latifolia) bloom spikes were used in prehistoric times in Eastern Oregon for hand spun spindles in conjunction with clematis hearth boards. Jean Auel, author of "Clan of the Cave Bear," etc. learned her stone age survival skills from Jim Riggs in Eastern Oregon. Hence Ayla, the heroine of Auel's books, used cattail bloom spikes plus clematis to start her fires. I haven't had any success with cattail spindles but I know a lot of people who have.

Typha leaves are also usable for cordage for making a bow drill. Cut the leaves at dirt level, ideally while they are still green and scrape off the slimy stuff that accumulates at the base of the leaves. Split them into long strips and then let them dry. Moisten and then twine them into a two-ply cord about as thick as a pencil. The finer you split the leaves the stronger the cord will be. This is not very strong cordage but will suffice for making a few bow drill fires before it breaks.

Mare's Tail
Conyza canadensis, a common weed makes excellent spindles for hand spun fires. It is a member of the sunflower family (compositae) frequently found near freeway on ramps. It forms straight, tapered shoots with relatively soft woody stems which are easy to straighten with heat. The combination of a mare's tail spindle and an incense cedar hearth board for me takes the least effort for a hand drill fire.

Box Elder
Acer negundo is a streamside tree in the maple family. The wood is white, medium hard and very reliable for bow drill spindles and hearth boards and spindles.

Populus sp. are found near water. They are excellent for spindles and hearth boards.







Salix sp. are almost always found near a source of moisture, whether it is a stream or natural seepage. My experience with willow wood has been a complete failure. It seems to disintegrate before it reaches ignition temperature but not so fast! Norm Kidder learned from Pegg Matthewson who read it in a book that local Indians used cattail stems for spindles and willow root for hearth boards. Norm tells me that this combination works well. Tree roots are another source of materials which should not be overlooked.


So, you have twirled up a glowing ember. Now what? Gather some tinder. Materials which I have successfully used are:

The husk from Soaproot (Chlorogalum pomeridiadum) is excellent.

Dry pounded grass. It's ubiquitous.

Dry shredded Cattail leaves (Typha sp.)

Rotten inner bark from Cottonwood (Populus sp.)

Nettle fiber (Urtica sp.)

Milkweed fiber (Asclepias sp.)

Dogbane fiber (Apocynum cannabinum)

Redwood bark (Sequoia sempervirens)

Powdered gall from oak trees (Quercus sp.) is useful if you don't have good tinder. It can be sprinkled on a glowing ember and gently fanned to obtain a very large ember. The shavings or dry pine needles are also fanned into a fire. Powdered dry rotten wood can be used the same way as powdered oak gall.


The socket for a bow drill can be made either from a pitch saturated knot from a downed rotten Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga taxifolia) or very hard wood such as Greasewood (Adenostoma fasciculatum).



This article was first published in The Bulletin of Primitive Technology (Fall 1994, #8)
E-mail your comments to "Richard A. Baugh" at
E-mail questions answered about fire-by-friction.

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