Scarfing a Fire Spindle

by Mike Richardson



In a mock or real survival situation, I can never find a straight dry, stick longer than 4 inches here in Alaska to make a hand or bow drill spindle. I usually find shorter dry, straight sticks. I cut my sticks green and let them dry for practice. Lots of green, straight stuff in the 12 to 24 inch range. Mostly alder, willow and elderberry are all good fire spindle material. Out in the wild, the dead dry stuff is only straight for a few inches.

So, how do you join a short dry piece to a longer green, straight stick, with just a knife or a sharp rock? It puzzled me for a long time. I wanted something that could be done in the Alaskan bush, with a minimum of tools or none. It had to be simple and very reliable. Then I remembered the scarf joint. The scarf joint is a classic wood working method to increase the length of lumber in boat building and other wood working trades. The joint is usually glued or riveted. It is basically two long mirror image wedges lapped together. The ratio of length to width of joint is 8 to1 up to 12 to 1. It can be made in regular boards, ply wood or even round doweling. I made a scarf joint on two broken arrow shafts. I had bound them together with a thin strong cord using a whipping type of knot. I did not use glue. The two arrow shafts lined themselves up as I wrapped the cord around. When I finished, the joint was stronger in both axis than the rest of the arrow. Awesome . . . . but wait, it gets better. You could pull it apart and put it back together a dozen times, like a socket. The wrapping stayed together when I pulled the shaft out.

You can see in my pictures the green elderberry being scarfed to a short, dry piece of alder. It can be easily removed when it gets too short and another piece with a similar scarf put into the socket. I cut the scarfs with my pocket knife, but you could use a stone flake or grind the scarfs with a coarse flat rock. I like using thumb loops on a hand drill.The loops are a bowline on a coil. Loops let you use a shorter drill, plus it's just easier to use a hand drill. I make the thumb loops long, then tie a marlin spike hitch (truckers hitch) to shorten to the right length. I then put it into a notch at the top of the green spindle. Also, notice I'm using my shoes to spin the drill. The toes pointing towards me, while spinning the drill on the balls of the soles.

Even though I'm a big tough Alaskan plumber, who works with his hands every day, it just hurts too much bare handed. I do have some scar tissue on my palms if that makes a difference to those purists out there. I've showed six different guys, who have never even done a bow drill, this method. Each person was able to twirl up an ember the first time. So, go out there and give it a try!



Scarfing Applications & Other Tips


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Mike Richardson resides in Anchorage, Alaska.

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