THE FIRE PISTON: ANCIENT FIRE MAKING MACHINE
Copyright ©1996 by W.R. Knapp
I was but a young lad when my father, who'd always taken a keen interest in primitive technology, first told me of the firepiston. He had seen it in a documentary about stone-age natives from jungle islands somewhere in the Pacific. What he described sounded amazing - a tube of wood that could instantly create a hot coal with just a quick push of a plunger-and it had been used for ages.
I tried for many years to find out more about this device. I talked with universities, searched libraries, contacted The National Geographic Society, and even the Smithsonian without success. Finally a query posed to George Hedgepeth of Great Lakes Primitives provided a splendid lead which in turn led to a number of good sources of information on this topic.
In this article I will attempt to bring all of the information from these sources together with the hope that it will be a convenient reference for those who wish to pursue this subject further. We will look at the history of firepiston technology and explore sources that describe how to build or buy one of your own.
How does it work?
Air gets very hot when it is compressed under high pressure. A classic example would be the heat that is created when one uses a bicycle pump. But when the air is compressed in a firepiston it is done so quickly and efficiently that it can reach a temperature in excess of 800 degrees Fahrenheit. This is hot enough to ignite the tinder that is placed in the end of the piston which has been hollowed out to accept it.
Ancient examples of the tube itself are of hardwood, bamboo, or even horn. It is closed on one end, very smooth inside and accurately bored. Equal care is taken in the creation of the associated piston. A "gasket" of wound thread, fiber, or sometimes leather insures a proper seal for successfully creating the compression. This gasket is "greased" to help with the seal and to allow free travel of the piston. Those pacific natives I told you about earlier believed that the firepiston wouldn't work unless it was greased with dog fat. The natives of the Philippines say to use the grease of a wild pig from the jungle. But if you don't have time for a wild pig hunt, or the money to lipo-suction Fido , shortening has been shown to work. You might also want to try a combination of bacon fat mixed with a little candle wax, which is what outdoorsman John Rowlands used on his firepiston.
An article by Richard Jamison in a 1994 issue of Woodsmoke contains a nice description of how to operate a firepiston:
"...the cylinder is held firmly in the fist of the left hand: a small piece of tinder...is placed in a cavity on the point of the piston, which is just entered into the mouth of the bore; with a sudden stroke of the right hand the piston is forced up the bore, from which it rebounds slightly back with the elasticity of the compressed air, and on being plucked out, which it must be instantly, the tinder is found to be lighted."
As you can probably see, this ancient firemaking machine is utilizing the Diesel principle.
By 1865 European explorers had reached the jungles of Indonesia where they found firepiston use well established and widespread. Areas of distribution included Burma, the Malay Peninsula, French Indo-China and Borneo. From some of these areas it made its way to the East Island Archipelagos and the Philippines.
One thing I'd often pondered was the discovery by essentially stone-age people of a technology with such meticulous conditions for successful operation. I finally decided that it could have been an accidental discovery somehow connected to blow gun manufacture. The Woodsmoke article came to the same conclusion adding that perhaps during the process of boring or gauging them, there may have been compression of air that ignited material in the bore or perhaps on the rod. Reference was also made to the fact that oriental blow guns often occur in the same areas where the firepiston is found. In addition, speculation was made that perhaps when making blow guns of bamboo they would use a rod to pop out the nodes between the sections and that the discovery was accidentally made during this operation. In any event, the discovery was made. The distribution of firepistons was so widespread by the time of those first European explorers that it indicates knowledge of the necessary technology for ages. It continues to be used in some areas right up to the present as witnessed by U.S. Navy survival instructor Mel DeWeese.
In the 1970's, Mr. DeWeese and some others landed in a remote jungle village of the Philippines in a helicopter. The natives were quite interested in this event and all came out to see what was going on. They were dressed "in loin cloths and carrying bows and arrows." But despite this primitive aspect one of their number casually pulled out a firepiston and used it to light a cigarette. Mr. DeWeese was instantly intrigued and set about trying to find something the native might want to trade for it. Communication was hindered by the fact that neither could understand the others language. Finally, after much gesturing, the deal was cinched to the satisfaction of both parties when the native agreed to give it to him for a Zippo lighter and (here's the part I like) two pieces of Hubba Bubba bubble gum. What's important about Mel DeWeeses acquisition is that it has been studied and seen in action by many people and has provided a working pattern for those struggling to make a functional copy. Also it's a testament to the durability of the device. After all these years and countless "lights" it still works.
Often times in history the same discoveries or inventions are made independently of one another. The firepiston is an example of this. Both the Asian and the European discoveries were accidental, although by different means. The European version was discovered in the early 1800's in connection with the manufacture of air guns in France. It was noticed that when they were discharged in the dark the air guns gave off a light. Later tinder was ignited using the heat generated by charging the airgun. It didn't take too long before the discovery was used to make brass firepistons to show off the effect which in turn led to domestic use as fire starters. In England the effect was used to make what has been termed a "fire syringe." It was slightly different however as the air was compressed through a small aperture to heat things up. But the regular firepiston was also well known.
What killed the firepiston in England and Europe? It would seem that just as it was ready to take the market by a storm, the invention of the wooden kitchen match stole its thunder and relegated it to attics and museums.
Primitive re-enactors and firepistons
During a conversation with Bob Perkins of BPS Engineering, we discussed the plausibility of primitive re-enactors employing firepistons for demonstration and general use at rendevoux. The point was made that in 1807 a patent was given for a firepiston in England. Also, as previously discussed, its use was well known in England and Europe. Magazine articles of the early 1800's also described how to make them. It is not far fetched to think that immigrants from Europe, or someone who had visited there, could have brought the technology or the device to America. It seems to me that those re-enacting the period of the early 1800's should be able to use firepistons since the technology was available to the people of that time. Whether one used the brass models or those of wood or bone would have to be researched so as to insure that they would be in keeping with the era.
Making the Firepiston
One thing I have to mention right from the start is that almost every source I contacted or read described how much care is necessary in making a working firepiston. Also, it is said that there's some technique to working it. John Rowlands warns that "it takes patience and practice and not to be disappointed if your first firepiston doesn't work." Other sources also speak of the need for practice. On the other hand there are those who say that if care is taken in the manufacture, and easily ignited tinder is used, it shouldn't be a problem. With that said, lets look at a couple of sources that tell how to make firepistons.
The John Rowlands Firepiston
The book Cache Lake Country by John J. Rowlands (1947) was the first place I found written reference to firepistons after hearing of them from my father. He had a copy of the book but I later found a copy for myself through a used book service. This book is a tremendous store of woodcraft and outdoor knowledge written by a man who spent a lifetime in the unspoiled beauty of the Canadian wilderness.
John made the tube for his firepiston out of a short piece of quarter-inch brass pipe. He said the secret of making it was to have a small, smooth bore with one end closed. Then there must be what he calls "packing" on one end of the piston. This must mean what we've been referring to as the "gasket." He hollowed out the end of the plunger to a depth of no more than one-eighth of an inch and that's where the tinder was inserted. His plunger was made out of a large nail with the end cut off square. He then put a groove around the circumference of the nail as close to the end as possible which served as a place for winding on the thread for the gasket. He made sure the body of the nail was very smooth and then he greased the gasket with the bacon fat and candle wax mixture we discussed earlier. A wooden handle was fastened to the other end of the piston for a grip. I suppose one could either solder the end in the tube or make a threaded plug for it, taking care to adhere to the dimensions specified in the drawing.
John indicated that the speed and force of the thrust had a lot to do with making it work right. He suggested putting the end against a tree or wall and then giving the handle a quick shove. He used charred cotton rag or finely shredded bark and stressed that they must be absolutely dry.
John Rowlands Firepiston (after Henry B. Kane)
A Traditional Firepiston
Here's a drawing for a traditional wooden firepiston. The cylinder is 4" to 6" long and 3/4" to 1" in diameter. Make the inside diameter around 1/2". Follow the drawing for making the piston. The walls of the bore must be perfectly straight and polished smooth.
The Cache Lake Country (1947) John J. Rowlands; W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., New York, NY
You could get a few more details about John Rowlands firepiston but in addition, if you're interested in woodlore and living off the land, you should check this one out. I am not aware that it's still in print but libraries or old book stores may be able to point you toward a copy. Beautiful drawings throughout. If you love the wilderness get a copy of this book.
Bushcraft (1972) Richard H. Graves; Schocken Books, New York
Scant reference to the firepiston, but a great deal on finding and making various kinds of tinder which you could then use in one. Also survival skills in general.
Where to buy one
Steve Leung has been making fire pistons for many years now and is known throughout the primitive skills world as "Mr. Firepiston." He was the first (and for a long time the only) person I found with firepistons on the web years ago when I was trying to find them for sale. Many who now sell firepistons learned how to make them from Steve's kits and generous advice over the years. He has many satisfied customers worldwide.
Steve makes his beautiful firepistons from many types of exotic woods and materials including everything from bamboo to water buffalo horn, and the finish and functionality are superb. He even makes them out of plexiglass so that you can see the flash of light that ignites the tinder! I have one of his beautiful firepistons made of water buffalo horn and it lights the tinder every time without fail. The bore is straight and polished to a glass finish and unlike some pistons, Steve's work great using tinder fungus (Inonotus Obliquus) so you aren't stuck with only using charcloth to get a light.
You can see samples of Steve's pistons at http://www.firepiston.com/ and if you would like to buy one he can be reached at email@example.com. See the "internet" section below to learn about more of Steve's firepistons and to find out how you can watch "movies" of his firepistons in action.
This page was last updated on 07 March 2012.
Copyright © 1998 & 2012 by Wyatt R. Knapp