Al Cornell PHOTO: Christopher Nyerges (Al Cornell)

Ek Chuah!

Al Cornell masters the art of making fire with a bamboo saw

By Christopher Nyerges 08/11/2011

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Al Cornell always had an interest in survival skills. In 1967, he went to survival school in the Philippines, where he learned how to make fire with the bamboo saw, a technique in which you rub one piece of bamboo onto another.
“It’s my favorite method of making fire, because it’s the first one I learned,” Cornell said.

Over the years, Cornell has mastered most of the methods of fire-making. Retired from the Army, he now teaches them around the country at events such as Dirttime, Rabbit Stick and Winter Count.

During the Dirttime 2011 event in the San Bernardino Mountains, Cornell tutored me in the art of making fire with the bamboo saw and the arctic fire drill.

Cornell, who resides in Sedona, Ariz., and whose business card reads “Prehistoric Pyrotechnology,” also gives demonstrations at such places as the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

Part of a search and rescue group in Cottonwood, Ariz., Cornell teaches his colleagues the primitive skills as part of their survival training.

After a lively one-hour presentation to the assembled Dirttimers, Cornell and his teaching partner, Mike Campbell, (also from Cottonwood) offered tutored fire-making sessions.

I went to their camp, where they flew their flag of Ek Chuah, the name they adopted for the camp. Their flag shows the Mayan merchant god who was depicted in the Madrid Codex making fire with a hand drill. About a dozen of the “Ek Chuah” group camp together at various events and yell “Ek Chuah” when they get a fire.
My first new method was the fire saw. Cornell’s method can best be described as rubbing one piece of bamboo against another perpendicular piece secured in the ground until an ember develops.

Cornell laughed when he showed us that his bamboo was purchased at Pier One imports, since that was the best he could get. It’s best to get the widest bamboo possible, because it has the thinnest walls. The bamboo that Cornell was using was about two inches thick with a very thin wall, perhaps 1/16 inch thick. He split the bamboo lengthwise and then prepares the piece of bamboo that would serve as the base. It was flat to the ground but rolled up, so that one edge of the bamboo faces Cornell. Cornell then carefully whittled that end so that its sharpness was “just so.”

Cornell then prepared the piece that would be rubbed back and forth the base piece in a perpendicular direction. This “saw” was also split, with the open half facing up. He carefully cut a groove on the underside of the saw, where it would fit into the base piece. Then, when done, tinder was placed in the top of the bamboo, directly over the groove that would be rubbed onto the bottom piece. He held the tinder in place loosely with a strip of some bark.

“OK, now do it,” Cornell instructed. I got into position and began pressing down with the top piece. I then rubbed it back and forth onto the base piece. These were long strokes of about eight inches. I had smoke within seconds, and Cornell told me to press a bit harder and to now narrow the length of each stroke. Within 30 seconds I had an ember, and Cornell was as excited as I was. He gave me a tinder bundle. I inserted the ember into the bundle and gently blew it to get a flame.

Next, he showed me the arctic fire strap, a method where you lean over the drill, and you hold the bearing block made of birch for the drill in your mouth. Gasp! I never liked the look of this system, since there you are, pressing down with your mouth upon the drill onto the hearth, and that drill seems like it could go up your nose or through your eye.

Cornell told me my fears were unfounded, since you spin the drill from side to side with a leather cord, so that if the drill pops out, it goes to either side and not in your eye.

Cornell set me up with the small and portable kits, and once I got used to the wooden bit in my mouth, I leaned over and started drilling. I wobbled too much at first, and I was told that I moved my head back and forth too much. I tried again, steadied myself and drilled again, this time getting a coal in less than a minute.
Hooray! Or, I should say Ek Chuah!



Contact Al Cornell at alruthcornel@gmail.com.

Christopher Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” “Enter the Forest,” “How to Survive Anywhere” and “Testing Your Outdoor Survival Skills.” He has been leading wild food outings since 1974. A schedule of his classes is available from the School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, Calif., 90041, or online at christophernyerges.com.

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