There are many ancient techniques that can be used to start a fire. The most well known would be the friction based methods like a hand drill, or bow drill, as well as the percussion based methods like striking flint and steel.

Another most unusual traditional method is the fire piston.

It’s a device that is believed to have been in widespread use in southern Asia many hundreds of years ago, and even briefly emerged in Europe around the early 1800’s as a domestic kitchen fire starting tool. It makes use of a thermodynamic principle known as adiabatic heating, which occurs when the pressure of a gas is rapidly increased by something like a piston within a cylinder. The temperature rise is enough to ignite a small piece of tinder, and that tinder is then used to start a fire.

Traditional fire pistons were made from wood or bone, but in this project I’m going to show you how to make your own version out of brass and aluminum, using a benchtop lathe and mill. The design is simple, robust, and works exceptionally well. The central cylinder is sized to fit comfortably into your pocket, and it has a removable end cap to permit cleaning of the bore. The piston is drilled out to provide a cavity for storing your tinder, and as a fun and useful addition, the end has a compass insert to get you back to camp after you’ve been out searching for firewood! Of course you also need to have some tinder to make it work, so I also take you through the process of generating your own char cloth tinder, from scrap cotton.


This is a perfect intermediate lathe project, with plenty of standard turning as well as boring, threading and a little bit of precision drilling. And of course at the end of the project you will have an impressive survival tool, that you will keep and use for life. Plans are available for download in both Imperial and metric units, and be sure to send through pictures of your version when you’re finished!

Fire Piston Plans Inch

Fire Piston Plans Metric