Not every fire starts with a match or a Bic lighter. One of the common stone-age techniques for fire starting is still practiced today by survival enthusiasts. The bow drill is my go-to friction fire method because it works with such a wide range of materials. It can also work in damp conditions that would prevent other friction fire methods from working.
This is essentially “rubbing two sticks together,” although you have a few other pieces working hard to provide you with certain mechanical advantages. In its simplest sense, you’re grinding a wooden drill against a wooden board, grinding off dust and heating that dust to its ignition temperature – where it begins to glow and combust on its own. There’s a remarkable sense of accomplishment when you succeed at this age-old skill, and it all starts with materials.
Gather Your Materials
There are eight items you’ll need to make a bow drill fire. First, you’ll need a tool to carve the wooden pieces and some tinder to burn. You’ll also need a wooden drill and board, a bit beefier than you’d use for other friction techniques. And specialized for bow drill, you’ll need a handhold (socket) with lubrication, as well as a bow with sturdy cord. Each item is important, and when one piece is off, the whole kit suffers.
Find A Bow Stick If you’ve got a pile of firewood sticks, you’ve got a pile of potential bows. Your bow should be branch or limb about as long as your arm and about as thick as your thumb. It can be cut from living or dead wood, as long as it’s flexible. It should also be curved a little, to give your drill some breathing room. And for something different, rib bones from larger animals can make very durable bows.
Cut The Cord The rope or cordage you choose for a bow drill string is a critical part of your kit.You may be able to get away with shoe laces, twine, a strip of leather or handmade bark cord for a few minutes – but they’re not going to last. Choose the strongest material you can get. These cords also need traction to grip the drill, so rougher textures and thicker diameters are usually best. Get a thin rope, and ditch the 550 cord. Skinny slippery strings just don’t have enough traction. Choose a line that is at least 3/16 of an inch in diameter, all the way up to 1/2 of an inch in diameter.
Get A Handhold As long as it is denser than the wood you are using for a drill, you can really get creative with the handhold. Choose a piece of hardwood, and antler chunk, a big game animal’s ankle bone, or stone with a hole in it. The handhold is like a mechanical bearing, allowing the drill to spin freely. It should fit comfortably in your hand and have a suitable hole in it. Some handholds are ready to use (like a beach cobble with a round hole in it), while others require you to drill out your own hole. Choose a piece that’s big enough to keep fingers out of the way of the spinning drill.
Grab Some Lubricant This is the material that really makes the handhold effective. You can use a wide range of oily, waxy, soapy, greasy or resinous substances for bow drill lubricant. Slippery choices include animal fat, vegetable oil, Vaseline, bar soap shavings, pine pitch and crushed evergreen leaves. Wipe or grind this into the handhold socket, and mash it with your drill. Your lubricant is only used in the hand hold and at the top of the drill – where it will limit friction. Make sure it doesn’t drip down into the fireboard below, as it will halt your friction until it burns off.
Get Some Drills Your drill is the dowel of wood that spins against the fire board. The finished product should be perfectly smooth and straight, like a chunk of broom handle. Choose softwoods for this part. Willow, cedar, aspen, basswood, paw paw, dead yucca flower stalks and many other woody plant parts can make an excellent drill.
Get Fire Board Material This can be the hardest piece to get in the wild. It’s a relatively flat plank of wood. Your fire board should be softwood, like the drill. It can be the same species or just something similar. The tree woods mentioned for the drill will be good choices for a board.
Build Your Kit
You can construct your kit pieces in any order you like, so long as all eight materials combine correctly to yield a bow drill fire kit. However, your bow and handhold will need to be ready before you can drill a hole in the fire board and carve the notch in the side.
Make A Bow Ideally, your wooden bow should have a fork on one end to tie off your rope, but if that’s not an option – just carve a notch in each end of the bow.Notches can be made by carving or sawing, but a “U” shaped notch is usually best. Don’t ever cut more than a third of the way through the bow for notching, or it will likely break.
Trim off any knots or branches from the bow, and tie a strong piece of cord at each end of the bow, allowing just enough room for the cord to wrap around the drill. You want the string to be tight enough to cause the bow to bend when you wrap the cord around the drill. If it’s too easy to load the drill onto the string, your rope isn’t tight enough.
Construct A Handhold If your handhold lacks a smooth natural hole, you’ll have to carve or drill one.Use a drill, if you have one, or spin the tip of your knife like a drill. When using wooden handhold blocks, your drilled hole doesn’t have to be perfect. The wooden drill will abrade away some of the wood and the surfaces will mate. Your handhold can be lubricated as soon as the hole is ready.
Carve The Drill Make your drill from a split piece of wood or a straight section of a dead tree branch. The drill should be perfectly straight, smooth, with a dull point on one and end a sharp point on the other. You’ll want it to be between 3/4 inch and one inch in diameter, and eight to ten inches long. It should have a dull point on the bottom end (against the board) and a sharp point at the top (to go into the handhold). You can carve your drill with a knife, or abrade it into shape on a rough stone.
Make The Fire Board The first part of board construction is often the hardest part, you’ll have to split or carve it to resemble a piece of flat lumber. You’ll want it to be roughly one inch thick and at least twice the width of the drill. It needs to be thick enough that it doesn’t drill through too fast, but not so thick that it requires you to cut a very tall notch. The board can be any length, as long as it is long enough to step on.You can make the board wide enough to hold a row of holes and notches on both sides.
Break In The Pieces Once your pieces are made, it’s time to bring the separate pieces together. Start by drilling a shallow depression into the top of your fire board. Place this hole carefully, if it’s too far into the board, you’ll have to carve a huge deep notch. To get the placement just right, plan it out so that when the drill burns down completely into the wood, there is a space of 1/2 inch between the edge of the hole and the edge of the board.
With the pilot hole drilled, load your drill onto the bow string. Step on the board, moving the inside arch of your foot right next to the pilot hole in the fire board. Place the handhold on top of the drill. Move the bow to turn the drill and burn in a hole in the fire board. Once you’ve burned the pilot hole into the surface of the fire board, you’ll need to cut, carve or saw a notch in the side of the board to collect the dust. Your notch should be at a 45 degree angle (approximately a 1/8 slice of the circle), extending out the side of the board. Make the notch smooth, so that the coal doesn’t hang up.
Use The Bow Drill Fire Kit
Set your fire board on the ground and place a dead leaf, thin shaving of wood or scrap of bark under the notch where the coal will form. For right handed users, put your left foot on the board with the arch of your foot right next to the hole you’ll be drilling into. Add lube to your handhold and load the drill onto the string.
Put the dull end of the drill in the fire hole in your board and set the handhold on the pointy top of the drill. Start moving the bow back and forth, paying close attention to smooth operation. Keep the bow level, perpendicular to the drill. Try to keep the string in the middle of the drill. Start off moving the bow slowly and increase the speed as you go. Once you are drilling at a “medium” speed, push down a little harder on the hand hold.
If you are pushing down hard enough, and drilling with enough speed, smoke should begin to appear. This pushing down and spinning produces the heat and dust for coals. As you drill, if the kit is smoking you should be grinding off wood dust. Once you notice that the notch is full of dust, drill more quickly. Keep drilling quickly while also pushing down hard on the hand hold. You’ll know things are getting close when you are making plenty of smoke and the dust is dark chocolate brown or almost black.
When your notch is filled with dust all the way to the top and your smoke strong and thick – drill even faster. Increase your speed and make several more run with the bow. It’s this burst of speed that will often ignite the dust pile into a coal.Take your drill out of the hole and see if your dust is smoldering on its own or you see any glowing.
If the dust does not form a coal, leave it in the notch, catch your breath and try again. Once you have a glowing dust pile that is smoking on its own, you have a coal! Be careful with it, as a light breeze will blow it apart and a drop of rain or sweat will extinguish it. Place the coal in your tinder, and blow it into flame.
Don’t expect this to work the first time, or every time. You’ll need to practice this unusual skill to build up strength and muscle memory over time, just like any other complex skill.
Tweeks and Trouble Shooting
Because there are so many parts to a bow drill set, there are plenty of pieces that can fail. These are some of the most common blunders you can make, and ways to rectify the problems.
- Very often, a beginner’s cord will ride wildly up and down the drill. The solution to this is to take longer, more level strokes with the bow – keeping the bow level with the ground and keeping the cord in the middle of the drill.
- When a drill keeps popping out of the kit, the holes in either the fire board or the handhold are too shallow – or you are holding the handhold crooked. Check your wrist position as you drill to make sure your handhold isn’t turned funny, and if that doesn’t help, make one or both of your kit holes deeper.
- If the bow feels weird or you’re just having trouble holding it steady, try a lighter one. Your chosen bow may be overly heavy or too long.
- When there’s more smoke coming from your handhold than the fire board, or the handhold gets too hot, apply more lubricant.
- If the cord starts slipping around the drill (the bow moves but the drill doesn’t turn), your cord is probably too loose. Cords will stretch as you use them, and it may not have been tied tight enough in the first place. Tighten up the cord and try it again. If your string is still slipping, it’s possible that you are pushing down too hard on the drill and handhold block. Back off with your downward pressure to determine whether that was a problem.
- When you saw your ember glowing and burning, but you couldn’t blow it into flame in the tinder bundle, it’s very likely that you had a crappy tinder bundle. Make a better bundle, packed with dry fluffy materials and try again. Blow on it like you a whistling, with a tight jet of air.
- One final issue is moisture. Keep your kit as dry as possible. Dampness can conduct away heat and prevent the dust from getting hot enough to form a coal.