Fire plow wood types from the warm beaches of Hawaii to the misty coastal forests of Oregon. And you ask; which ones work best for the fire plow method of starting a fire?
Fire plow wood types
The fire plow is a Polynesian fire making technique. This primitive fire skill developed in part, due to the native woods available on the islands of Oceania. Wood such as Hau traditionally used in Hawaii are not found as a native plant on the US mainland. However, there are still many local woods that have similar qualities that can be used in Haus place.
Hau, (Hibiscus tiliaceus) is the native Hawaiian species used for the base stick or base board. Hau is lighter in weight more similar to Balsa wood when compared too our native woods such as Cottonwood growing on the mainland.
In New Zealand the Maoris peopled used Kaikomako, (Pennantia corymbosaa), a small deciduous forest tree as the stick or plow. I understand that Kaikaomako can be used for both the stick and the board. Though having not used these two woods together myself and I am unable to verify it. If you have used Kaikomako for your whole kit, please tell us about your experience in the comment section below.
Alternative fire plow wood
Cottonwood or (Populus species), have enough in common with Hau to make Cottonwood an reasonable alternative wood for Hau. But not the best option as you'll find out.
What is the fire plow method?
The fire plow in my personal experience is the simplest and most basic way to make a fire by friction. It's an exciting way to make fire because of its true simplicity.
The fire plow is the primitive Polynesian technique of fire making. And though peoples of Oceania, specifically a Samoan King I know, make it look easy. Believe me when I say, it is not. Unless you grew up getting strong the Maori Way.
Here is useful information on the Maori fire plow and wood used.
How the fire plow works
The plows simplicity comes from the fact that you only need two pieces for your fire kit. Unlike the bow drill, which is a bit more complicated, yet also a highly effective system has more parts and pieces.
The two pieces of wood required for your kit is the plow itself. And the fireboard. The fireboard used is made of softwood to be successful. In the traditional Hawaiian method, the plough or blade itself is made from a harder wood than Hau. Called Olema.
The harder plow/blade wood, (Olema) is pushed (In short strokes), beginning at about the boards middle and pushed towards the end of the fireboard away from you. A V-groove of sorts is created by this process in the fireboard by the shape of the plow head.
Push the plow one direction
You don't push the plough in both directions. Only one direction. And that is away from you, on the fireboard. Friction through pressure creates heat by using upper body strength rapidly pushing the plow.
This friction will create a powder or tinder dust. The tinder dust is pushed into a pile with each forward push of the plow at the end of the groove on the fireboard.
This motion is repeated in faster-faster and shorter strokes until the tinder dust begins smoking and has formed a coal. Once you have a smoking ember tap the fire board a couple of times to consolidate the dust around the ember. Then tip your hot ember into your tinder bundle and blow it into a flame.
Difficult woods at best for the fire plow method
As I mentioned before Cottonwood or any Populous species will work as an alternative fire plow wood. The similar structural qualities of Hau and Cottonwood make Cottonwood an excellent choice.
Before I made fire with Hau I learned using our Oregon Red Cedar for both the plow and the hearth board. So, you might ask; can you do that? Absolutely. At the time all I had to work with was what was in my bow drill stash at home. I did some research and discovered that Cedar would work in place of Hau.
The best alternative woods for the Fire Plow
I reached out to my good friend Joe Lau, Phyre Master, and primitive fire skills instructor par excellence. And asked what local woods he used for his demonstrations of the Fire Plow. And lucky us, Joe shared some awesome Phyre Dojo wisdom.
Fire Plow Base Woods
Although Yuccas aren't "local", they are EVERYWHERE in NJ due to landscaping choices. For demos and teaching I will only use Yuccas and Sotol. Sotol can be bought on ETSY, but you have to tell the guy exactly what you're looking for: 2ft long cylinders that are as large/wide diameters as possible.
Locally, in NJ, I have been successful with large Cattails and Velvetleaf plant stalks as Blades and Catalpa and Pawpaw woods as bases. I have also been successful with a Hickory base with a Cattail stalk. Surprisingly, I got some old BAMBOO on BAMBOO to go. I also don't experiment enough with this method... Joe Lau
Fire Plow plant stalks for blades
- Velvet Leaf
In my article The Best Bow Drill Woods I laid out the best softwoods to use. Many of our local woods can be used successfully for the fire plow method. You're only limited by the width, depth, and length of the wood. To be successful be sure to use a recommended softwood species and that both the hearth board and plow are completely dry.