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How to Make and Use a Fire Plow

A fire plow is a method of starting a friction fire that uses a wood plow and a notched piece of wood to thrust the plow against. Understanding how to make a fire plow and how to use it could give you the ability to make fire when you have nothing but a knife or maybe even just a sharp rock.

With limited carving, you can create your own fire plow. To use this method of making fire will require real physical exertion and patience. However, if you need to make a fire and you have no gear, this method will work.

A Samoan man starts fire with rubbing sticks
Honolulu, Hawaii – May 27, 2016:A Samoan man demonstrates how to start fire by rubbing sticks in the village of Samoa at the Polynesian Cultural Center.

How Does Friction Fire Work

The fire plow is one of many methods of friction fire. A friction fire uses wood hardwood on softwood to drill or plow. The hardwood slowly breaks down softwood and leaves behind a growing mass of wooden dust that is heated from the friction of driving the plow or drill.

As the mass of dust grows it will also heat up and eventually will begin to smoke. You use the rubbing of the wood to dig out this dust but also to heat that small amount of processed wood dust until it becomes an ember.

Combining the ember with some dry tinder you can start a fire.

Man lighting a fire

Assemble the Parts of a Fire Plough

The fire plow is really just a couple of parts and pieces that work together. It is easily the most simple friction fire starting method to build.

To have success with the fire plow build you must first understand the difference between softwood and hardwood. When it comes to friction fire always remember “hard on soft” because that is how you make this system work.


Species like oak, maple, and hickory are all hardwoods. Oak has distinct leaves that are easy to recognize so you can easily identify the tree to harvest the wood. Oaks are also surrounded by acorns.


The easiest way to find softwood trees is to look to the coniferous families or the evergreens. Pine varieties, cedar, and fir trees are all softwoods.

If you press your nail into softwood it will leave a mark. If you do that with hardwood it will not.

Now let’s get down to business and I will tell you how to carve a proper fire plow.

fire plow

Start the Fire

Step 1.

First, gather plenty of dry tinder. You need this close by because when the ember is ready it has to go right into the tinder. Great tinder is dried materials like grasses and bark. If you are not sure about quality tinder you should read our complete guide to tinder and kindling.

Step 2.

Next, we need to get a hardwood branch that is around 1 – 1.5 inches in diameter. This hardwood stick should be easy to grip because you are going to be driving it back and forth over and over again.

Carve a blunt end on one side of your stick. That is like carving a point on the end but cutting the pointed end off and making it flatter and a little rounded.

Step 3.

Now you are going to find a good softwood plane that you will run your blunt end hardwood stick across. For this piece of the fire plow, you want a piece of softwood that is flattish on both sides.

If you really have nothing and you need to start a fire you can use a sharp rock to chip away at a piece of wood to get it better prepared for this.

The softwood should also be easy to run the blunt end across. I would go for a piece of wood that is at least 16-18 inches long. If you can hold it between or legs or under your knee for stability that will help.

Step 4.

Creating the channel in the softwood is your next step. You can use a sharp rock to chip that channel down the middle of the wood. The channel should run lengthwise down the center. You can do this with a hard rock by just rubbing it back and forth down the center of the wood. This works really well.

The hardest way to get this channel for your hardwood stick started is to use the stick itself but that will work, too.

Step 5.

Begin thrusting the blunt end back and forth, with decent pressure, across the softwood channel. After a while, you will start to see the collection of dust appear. It will begin to collect at the edge of the channel. Keep going.

You are going to keep this blunt edge going back and forth. You will first feel the heat and then you are going to see the smoke. Your dust will begin to turn dark and then black. In the daylight, it will be hard to see the ember glow but the smoke is usually a good giveaway that you have made it to the finish line.

Step 6.

Carefully, dump this ember into your pile of tinder by tipping the softwood over the ember. Lightly blow on that ember and you will see it glow and smoke. Fold some tinder around that ember and begin to blow until you see a flame begin.

You’ve done it!

survivalist male putting kindling on burning fire

Fire Building Power with a Fire Plow

There are a lot of ways of starting a fire. Nothing beats a lighter but you can get really good at using a ferrocerium rod, matches, a fresnel lens, or other methods. However, there is some real power in being able to create a fire when you have absolutely nothing.

You can use a fire plow to make a fire when you don’t even have a knife. My advice to you is to not let your first time starting a fire with a fire plow be the time you need a fire! Get out and give this some practice.

Check out our page on Fire for everything you need to know about building fires.