How To Carve Wood Using Fire

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Pablo Edronkin

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Under survival circumstances we may face the need to manufacture our own tools with whatever resource lies at hand; sometimes those resources will be manufactured materials that could be adapted for our uses, while in other occasions we may resort to what Mother Nature has to offer, and in this regard, I will comment about the basics of wood carving using fire and embers.

Wood is one of those resources that are common in nature, among with rocks and stones; however, making stone tools is rather difficult for the very untrained and thus, it is better to start learning and developing your skills - if that is your case - by working on wood, which can also be hard and difficult to carve but fortunately, there is a technique used since ancient times by the Indians of Tierra del Fuego to build large wooden structures like canoes using comparatively little effort and very simple skills, even by paleolithic standards.

These Indians used the Lenga wood; an excellent material, very durable and rather hard that is abundant in the region and widely used to make furniture, houses and other things. These Indians had no metal tools nor good flint items to work with, so the material was indeed too difficult to work until at some point during their 6.000 year occupation of the island they found out how to help themselves using burning charcoal.

They were indeed very skilled regarding fires, and so it was natural and pretty obvious that they used their knowledge to make their vessels as well as anything hollow or carved; the same technique could be adapted to make almost any kind of survival item.

The first that you need to do is to find a chunk of wood a little bit bigger than what you intend to produce. This wood should be dry and rather intact, with no cracks within it because that would put in jeopardy the whole item once you start carving. You should clean it, taking all dust, bark chunks, etc. out of its surface and let it dry a little bit more under the sun.

Cleaning a chunk of wood in order to carve it using fire.
Cleaning a chunk of wood in order to carve it using fire.

Then start a bonfire and produce a number of active - that is, burning - embers. Keep the fire alive for as long as you will be working in your manufacture. Also find yourself something that you may use to move and hold little embers in position, like a pair of small, flat pebbles, wooden sticks, etc.

Then take a couple of little, red hot embers out of the fire and place them over the surface that you intend to carve. Press them using your holding devices (those flat stones, for instance) and use your breath to increase the heat between the embers and the surface of your future wooden survival item. This should go on until the wood that you are carving catches the red glow, but - and this is very important - keep any actual flames out. The wood should enter combustion like the embers, slowly and at a comparatively low temperature; the goal is to turn chunks of wood into actual charcoal that will be easier to work with.

Hold the hot embers like this while you blow air to ignite the wood.
Hold the hot embers like this while you blow air to ignite the wood.

If the surface that you intend to hollow is rather big, you can shovel somehow larger quantities of burning embers and place them following your desired patter of hollowing. Let the red glow on your piece of wood fade and die out, and once the thing cools a little naturally (don't use water for this), start scratching the black charcoal out of it. You could use a survival knife, a sharp stone, sea shore stuff, etc. Then, you only have to repeat the process as many times as needed until the whole desired area is excavated and modelled at will.

Scratch the burnt leftovers until you see wood again at the bottom.
Scratch the burnt leftovers until you see wood again at the bottom.

This survival technique does require indeed some practice, but it is easier than most others and requires almost no other knowledge or skill. Over time you will learn how to make almost anything, from a coffee spoon to a full-sized boat or canoe.

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