Wood for fire plows can be found from Hawaii’s warm beaches to Oregon’s misty coastal forests. What are the right types to use with the fire plow method? The fire plow is a Polynesian fire-making technique. This primitive fire skill developed in part, due to native woods.
Fire plow wood types
This primitive fire skill developed in part due to the native woods available on the islands of the Pacific. Wood such as Hau, traditionally used in Hawaii, is not found as a native plant on the US mainland. However, there are still many local kinds of wood that have similar qualities that can be used in the place of Hau.
Hawaiian Hau wood
Hau, (Hibiscus tiliaceus) is the native Hawaiian species used for the base stick or baseboard. Hau is lighter in weight and similar to Balsa wood when compared to our native woods, such as Cottonwood, that grow on the mainland.
The Maori use Kaikomako
In New Zealand the Maori peopled use Kaikomako, (Pennantia corymbosa), 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 tried Kaikomako for your whole kit, please tell us about your experience in the comment section below.
Cottonwood or (Populus species), has enough in common with Hau to make Cottonwood a reasonable alternative wood for Hau. But it's not the best option as you'll find out.
What is the fire plow method?
The fire plow, in my experience, is the simplest and most basic way to start a fire by friction. It's an exciting way to make fire because of the simplicity of the process.
The fire plow is the traditional Polynesian technique of making fire. While the people of Oceania, specifically a Samoan King I know, make it seem easy. However, believe me when I say it is not; unless you grew up getting strong the Maori way.
Here is useful information about the Maori fire plough and wood used.
How the fire plow works
The simplicity of the fire plow comes from the fact that you only need two parts for your fire kit. Like the hand drill technique common in America, which uses only the drill and hearth board. As opposed to the bow drill, which is a more complicated but efficient way of generating fire.
The two pieces of wood required for your kit is the plow and the fireboard. The fireboard is made of softwood. In the traditional Hawaiian method, the plough or blade itself is made from hard wood called Olema.
A plow stick also called the blade is pushed with short strokes beginning at about the board's middle. And pushed outwards towards the end of the fireboard away from you. A V-groove is created by this process caused by the shape of the plow head
Push the plow one direction
Push the plough only one direction. Friction by pressure creates heat by using your upper body strength and pushing the plow forward against fireboard.
The friction will create a powder or dust. The 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 ember. 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 onto your tinder bundle and blow it to flame.
Alternative woods for the Fire Plow
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 fireboard. At the time all I had to work with was 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 him what woods he used for his demonstration of the Fire Plow. And lucky for us, Joe shared his awesome Phyre Dojo wisdom.
Fire Plow Base Woods
Although Yuccas aren't "local", they are EVERYWHERE in New Jersey 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 plow 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 make sure the wood is completely dry.