Fire Starters: Pine Kindling, Shingles, & Inner Tubes (Rubber)
“Take What You Have and Make What You Want” --Charlton
As I grew up in southern woods some decades back, I patterned one of my life's practices after Mother’s favorite proverb: “Take what you have, and make what you want.” My siblings and I learned quickly to use every resource we could find to do our part to help our family survive times that demanded a great amount of creativity. One skill we all grasped without much difficulty was fire starting. We learned from trial and error to find the best-burning kindling and hard wood, preferably pine and oak, to make a good fire to warm the house, cook food, boil water, and perform other necessities. Although there were fire starters we merely tried, and some we gathered from reading, the ones we often used were pine kindling, pieces of old shingles, and strips of old rubber inner tubing salvaged from Daddy’s car tires.
Reading about Fire Starting
One day while at school in one of my elementary reading classes during the fall of the '60's, our teacher guided us students through reading stories to learn Native American lore. One particular story was about two Native American boys who were working hard to make a fire by rubbing sticks together. I do not remember all of the details, but these boys were apparently a distance from home, maybe lost in the woods, and needed either warmth or food. However, they were successful after putting forth rigorous effort. I tried this at home several times, but the closest I got to a stick fire was warmth caused by the friction. I counted that as a step toward making a fire, but not a success.
Another time our teacher introduced an additional Native American story about a Hopi mother teaching her daughter values and ways of their people. As the girl listened to her mother and helped her with the chores around the adobe home, she began to twist straw to make a fire. At times, when the girl erred, the mom would say, “That is not the Hopi way.” [My personal experience of braiding straw worked well enough for longer burning.]
Our teacher asked, “Why did the child twist the straw?”
I quickly raised my hand and answered with confidence, “Because she wanted the straw to burn slower and last longer.”
I felt so proud and smart because no one else knew the answer, I had hoped. I did not realize at the time that I was probably the hillbilly of the class and should have known because of so many crude experiences surrounding my family's way of life. That method was essential to ensuring a successful fire for anyone who needed a quick start. I had certainly seen Mother use it many times when making a simple outdoor fire to burn discarded junk. A garbage truck had never rolled where I lived.
I learned to value fat pine that Mom and Daddy taught us children to cut with an axe from the core of old pine stumps in the woods. We children rarely pulled up a whole stump, except an occasional small one, but the men always uprooted the stumps to retrieve all of the fat pine. The best pine kindling seemed to be that of once large trees that were several years cut to ensure proper curing. The older the trees were before cutting, the better the chance of getting plenty of kindling when it was harvested. Their stumps often produced the best, and most, kindling because they were huge, dry, seasoned, and likely rich in resin, which earned them the name fat wood. The smaller pine stumps were not a waste; they usually had a nice enough core of fat wood buried deeply into the ground like the larger stumps. Searching pine stumps for fat pine a few years after loggers had cut a grove of pine for paper wood was like coming upon the mother lode of a gold mine.
Poor pine kindling, less resinous, was sometimes found in trunks and limbs, although they sometimes produced richer kindling. The poorer was not as colorful and brilliant when flaming, and it burned slower, but showed promise. When prospecting for pine kindling, we never knew how rich or poor it would be until we harvested it, but we usually kept all that we found. Both were useful.
Cutting pine trees usually took place during the cooler months when the sap was in the roots. We thought that this ensured plenty of resin when the stumps dried and the outer parts rotted leaving a fat core just right for combustible burning. The felled logs, very scarce, provided good-burning pine wood, but nothing like the fat core of the roots. Most of the logs were hauled off to the mill and sold as paper wood.
The scent of the good pine was similar to store-bought pine oil, but more natural and pleasant like the fragrance of freshly cut pine tops at Christmastime. When the fat kinding was blazing, the fire was often reddish-orange and yellow like the wood itself. I could not think of anything nicer than a happy fireplace in the dead-cold winter, except a cozy patchwork quilt and a good book. Having all three was the better choice.
Uncle and Daddy would use timber and bow saws to fell oak trees, divide them into short logs, split some with axes and wedges driven with a sledgehammer, and leave some whole—the smaller ones for front logs and the larger ones for backlogs for the fireplace. Daddy called the big ones “back sticks.” He always placed a back stick of green oak at the rear of the fireplace on the dog irons for long-time burning. Fresh, green oak was flame retardant until the fire burned out the sap and eventually started eating the dried wood. Once the logs started blazing and died down to a perfect red-hot heat source, the house got warmer, and it was not an uncommon treat for the family to enjoy ash-parched peanuts and baked potatoes, hickory nuts, black walnuts, or sweet ribbon cane by the warm, friendly fire.
Whenever I made a fire using pine chips, I first crisscrossed small, dry twigs at the pit of the fireplace. Next, I placed the resin-rich pine chips, fillet cut, among this stack and piled on a few pieces of dry wood. A few sticks of split oak upgraded the promise of a medium fire. If a long-burning fire was needed, larger oak logs were added. Last, I lit the kindling and watched with excitement as the fat pine burst into hot yellow and crimson flames that gave our small front room a sunny-yellow glow that took away the gray, rainy gloom of a cold, winter’s day. After sufficient exposure to the climbing fire, the oak began to burn, and the roaring flames settled down to a toasty, peaceful fire. The time would soon come to stack on more wood and enjoy a rocking chair slumber at the fireside.
Later, I would get the poking iron and stab at the half-burned logs. I didn't quite know why, but daddy did it, and I enjoyed seeing the hot coals popping and shooting like red stars when I struck them. The logs cast much heat once the burning started. They produced cleaner fire—often with tongues of blue and yellow—and lasted longer because they were green. As I grew older, I reasoned that Daddy poked the logs to knock away some of the coals that were nearly burned through to expose fresher dry wood ready to be fired. Standing proudly, I spread my fingers before the fire and smiled at my finished work.
The second fire starter I learned to use was pieces of shingles that my brothers managed to retrieve from an old abandoned house in the woods. I stacked the wood about the same way I did for the pine fire and placed about four pieces of shingles, the size of a man’s hand, among the first stack of dry twigs and wood. Usually, the first few pieces were enough, but, if not, I would add more and a few narrow wedges of oak. The pieces began burning rapidly as soon as I touched them with fire. They produced stacks of black smoke and a smell resembling hot asphalt, but they soon disappeared into ashes and left the wood burning and crackling nicely. To keep a fire going, more wood had to be added before it began to burn out. To get good and fast burning, green oak had to be heated by intense flames a longer period of time than dry oak. Dry oak burned well and greedily, but Daddy always preferred the long-burning green oak because it would not disappear as fast or need to be cut so often. Because of the unpleasant smell of the burning shingles and the tarring smoke, this was not the best choice for inside fire starting.
Rubber Inner Tube
My third fire starter began with strips of old inner tubing from daddy’s car tires after they were exhausted of patching and ready for other uses, but mostly for building fires. We used Mom’s patchwork quilt cutting scissors to cut the black rubber tube into strips about an inch wide and probably six inches long. These measurements were never exact and did not need to be. Because the strips were flimsy, I could not hold them in my hand while they were burning, and, at the same time, lay them among the sticks. They always had to be laid before lighting, unlike the pine chips and shingles. So, it was a must for me to first place a few pieces among the bottom sticks of the usual stack. I twisted a piece of brown paper sack, lit it on one end, and set the strips afire. They grew into slow, but steady, snacking flames that were not as gay as the burning pine; nevertheless, flames were sure. More wood was added, my smoky fire was started, and soon it burned out to cleaner flames and lighter smoke. That was good enough. Burning rubber was not as beautiful, fragrant, and colorful as pine, but it got the job done.
Other Fire Starters
I learned from textbooks and teachers that a fire could be started many other ways, one being the use of striking together flint and steel. Although this was an old method, we never had it where I lived. Reading experiences led me to try making fires with a magnifier that I bought for a nickel at the ten cents store in town seven miles away. I held the glass at an angle that allowed the sun to somehow penetrate it and burn some dry leaves that I had heaped. Suddenly smoke ascended, and Bingo! This was great for outdoor fires, but necessity never called for it where I lived. Matches were easier. In addition to this method, it was not a difficult task to light knots of straw, a pile of leaves mixed with small twigs, or a few pine cones, and watch them burn slowly under dry wood that was soon ablaze. Your methods of fire starting may be different from all of mine, and that is acceptable, because “There is more than one way to skin a cat,” Mom always said. All in all, it was truly amazing to have observed and experience how urgency brought about creativity.
I learned more sophistication at school, and in our general budding society, as the years passed by. I did not know it at the time, but I was gradually being taken away from the old ways of life and ushered into the use of newer technology and other ways of doing things. Many country homeowners closed their fireplaces and installed gas heaters and stoves to replace the wood burners. Many changes were not quickly welcomed by the elders, especially, but we all eventually put behind us the old ways of fire starting.
Growing up in a country setting with few resources afforded my siblings and me many opportunities to learn the crude, but very useful, ways of life. Certainly, the lessons of fire starting were ones that I could never forget. Starting a fire with fat pine was the most useful method at the time. This was followed by the use of shingles that was not as good, but effective enough to get the job done. Using rubber tubing, which came later, was another method of fire starting that ranked alongside shingles; nevertheless, it also proved to be quite useful around home.
As I gradually transitioned into a new time with new changes, I learned more but never forgot those simple fire-starting methods that helped to make life more comfortable and enjoyable while growing up in my neck of the woods. The crude lessons learned about survival in a simple, rural setting were valuable and useful in the life of a country girl who was taught to take what she had to make what she wanted.
Caution: It is not advisable to use pieces of inner tubing or shingles as inside fire starters. They emit a very sickening smell, and the smoke from them is very heavy and sooty. It should not be inhaled. In cases of necessity, these easy-to-burn items should be used for outside fires. It is better to use the all-natural fat wood for inside and outside uses when possible. Some fire builders do not like to use fatwood inside because it, too, produces much oily smoke that leaves much gunky residue in heaters and chimneys. However, if you clean your wood-burning systems as needed, and they breathe well--draw off the smoke and send it up the chimney-- you should not have a problem with burning fatwood inside to start a fire. Fireplaces, heaters, pipes, and chimneys should be maintenanced as needed to avoid hazards. Also, remember to protect your family, home, and air space by practicing "Safety First!"