Instructables

Primitive Fire Starting: The Bow Drill

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Picture of Primitive Fire Starting: The Bow Drill
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Fire is one of man's greatest multitools. Think about it. Without it, we would have next to nothing. Tools, food, water, clothes, and warmth among other things have come from it. Well, now you can make it yourself, the way native americans once made it. I know it as the bow drill, but I've also heard it called fire bow, fire drill, fire by friction, and rubbing two sticks together. It basically works by spinning a piece of wood in a socket of another piece of wood. This creates an extremely small coal, which, with the utmost care, can be blown into flame.There are many other forms of making fire by friction, and even more beyond that which involve percussion, metals, and chemicals. However, this is, in my opinion the easiest way of fire without matches. It may involve lots of work, time, and effort before you get a good coal. So please enjoy this primitive method of fire starting.

I have won second prize in the Great Outdoors Contest! Thanks to all of you for supporting me. It's a great honor.
 
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Step 1: What wood you should use

Picture of What wood you should use
Preferably, for the fireboard, you should use a wood of medium-hardness, like cottonwood, willow, aspen, tamarack, cedar, sassafras, sycamore, and poplar, which are the very best. For the spindle, you should use either the same wood or harder wood. I find that an aspen fireboard and a yucca spindle work well. Remember, use a dead, very dry branch for the spindle and fireboard. Green wood is too wet and won't start well. It has to be the driest possible. For the handhold, use a piece of hardwood or a rock with an indent in one side that fits in your palm comfortably. The bow should be a flexible, slightly curved piece of wood about as long as your arm. Tie a piece of paracord on the bottom with a fairly permanent knot, then tie it loosely (not too much slack, but some) to the top with an easily adjustable knot. 
gardengeek1 month ago
My bow broke and then the spindle stabbed me in the foot:(
Listen to the Band (author)  gardengeek1 month ago

I'm real sorry about that, but don't let it discourage you. You don't know how many bows I've broken myself in frustration. I've cleared the forest!

cvestal11 month ago
Need to trim those nails bud... You bout climb a tree
Listen to the Band (author)  cvestal11 month ago

So I've been told...

Smartmil2 months ago

Thanks for good and useful information.

Listen to the Band (author)  Smartmil1 month ago

Of course :)

Costarus2 months ago

Pine and spruce I tried to twist even a drill! No results! Only a little glow, but is not burning :( . It's very-very dry wood of firm breeds. Well helps a handful of gunpowder... :))

Listen to the Band (author)  Costarus1 month ago

Yes, pine and spruce aren't necessarily the best woods. While it's true the sap is very flammable, it is also very sticky. The woods are also softer than you would want. Try something without needles.

Also, even a little glow can be helpful, if nurtured in the right way. Just be gentle, maybe just wave it in the wind before blowing on it, as your breath is full of moisture. And yes, gunpowder would help...

Good luck, my friend.

turkeydance3 months ago
how about an old bird's nest for tinder/dust?
Listen to the Band (author)  turkeydance1 month ago

That's a great idea, very time and energy saving, if you can find one.

(P.S. Sorry for replying late.)

bsg684 months ago
My dad uses the bow drill
ParkerMansel5 months ago
Trim them nails cheif
alanballjr9 months ago
I had a friend who said he didn't join the Boy Scouts because he said he could make a fire from scratch without matches or a lighter. We made a bet. he lost. I'm glad he didn't look at this.
Listen to the Band (author)  alanballjr9 months ago
It's a good thing he didn't test his theory when he was lost in the wilderness.
Good point. I've wanted to learn this skill for a long time, always thinking to myself "The day you need it, it will be too late". Guess I better get started on this! TY
poofrabbit7 months ago
Just wanted to say congratulations on being a finalists in the Great Outdoors Contest! This was a fantastic instructable! Good luck!
Listen to the Band (author)  poofrabbit7 months ago
Thanks, I wasn't really expecting to get this far. Keeping my fingers crossed.
auston_kim9 months ago
Awesome
Listen to the Band (author)  auston_kim8 months ago
Thanks.
GooberPeas9 months ago
Thanks!
Listen to the Band (author)  GooberPeas8 months ago
You're welcome!
GreyJay8 months ago
Something I've noticed is that the success of your coal depends a bit on where you are. When I first started bowdrill, I was living in California, where it is nice and dry. I could get a coal consistently. Now I live in Oregon, and it rains allllllll the time. Much harder here than in Cali. On a different note, have you ever used Yucca for a spindle? And if you have, what part of the plant are you supposed to use?
Listen to the Band (author)  GreyJay8 months ago
Yes, the weater and climate will have an effect on your success. Even moisture in the air will make it difficult. But, I have made a fire in Oregon this way. You usually have to do it in a dry place, like a shelter or under a tree. The cedar makes excellent wood for both fireboard and spindle. Also, I have used yucca for a spindle. It works well with an aspen fireboard. You use the stalk that comes out every year and grows flowers and then fruit. Make sure it's dead, though. The only problem I find with it is that it wears down pretty quick, after one or two coals.
Colonel K0rn9 months ago
Looks like you put a lot of time and dedication into making a successful fire. Concise instructable that got my vote. Good job!
FANTAASTIC9 months ago
We have a "be nice" comment policy. Please be positive and constructive with your comments.
tim_n9 months ago
I was always put off this method of firelighting because unless you can go into your native woods and find the gear for doing it, it's not a survival skill worth learning until you can. Two years ago I got taken out in ancient woodland, found the materials and they trained me all in about 3-4 hours. Very good experience even if I was rubbish for the first 10 attempts (in the pouring rain).

One of my favourite bearing blocks is two limpet shells inside each other - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limpet - the heat just doesn't seem to seep through and it's nicely smoothed and not worn easily.

There's evidence to suggest that bearing blocks of good quality hardwood (and rubbish wood too) were inlayed with limpet shells.

One step you didn't mention was the lubrication in the bearing block - I like to use natural wax, but have used waxy leaves such as holly or anything else green that comes to hand.

I'm not too sure about the spindle points. The top spindle point is spot on, but the one that comes in contact with the base board, I've always been taught to keep it only mildly curved because you want to maximise the friction at this point. The sharper it is, the more of your baseboard you're going to consume to get the heat.

Some of the best guys can light a fire in only a few strokes! I'm in awe of how good you can get at this.
Listen to the Band (author)  tim_n9 months ago
The bearing block is very important, and in my area I've heard that elk kneecaps work incredibly.

I did mention lubrication in step 6. You can use animal or plant oil, soap, or you can use the grease on either side of your nose and in your hair.

I agree, the bottom point of my spindle was a bit sharp in the beginning, but I do that because it helps if the depression is small, otherwise it slips out. It usually gets rounded by the first drill. If not, you may be using the wrong wood.

Like you said, it's not the most practical way of starting a fire, but it is good to know. It is incredible watching a pro do it.
rathmiron9 months ago
what a long spindle. is there a reason to have the spindle a certain length, or ist just personal preference? i tried this early summer, and for me it was holding the bow level that was the most difficult. the bowstring kept creeping up the spindle, causing it to fly of all the time.
Listen to the Band (author)  rathmiron9 months ago
Yeah, like tim_n said, it doesn't matter too much. I like longer ones because it takes longer for them to burn down, and they do burn down. Also, if the bowstring is creeping up the spindle, try to point the tip of the bow down. Keep your bowing arm straight.
tim_n rathmiron9 months ago
Spindle length doesn't matter too much. The longer spindle means you've got further for the bow string to wander. When you're not very experienced this does help, but similarly if it's too long it can be more difficult to manage (as you mentioned)

I use a variety of different spindles at different lengths.

I've seen someone do this with a very tiny set - the spindle only being an inch or so long. I've seen giant sets used by two people to move the bow and one to bear down on the block.
kmpres9 months ago
Good instructible, but I have to ask, are you seriously starting a fire barefoot? It doesn't have to be shoes, but some protection, even if it's just a towel, is better than none.
tim_n kmpres9 months ago
Easier barefoot to grip it. Also, you're not going to have something that suddenly bursts into flames, you get a tiny ember.

I'd be more worried about him slipping off the baseboard and slicing his foot with the paracord/bow.

I tend to use walking boots for the same sort of reason. Walking boots have good grip and offer a bit more protection.
lamerc kmpres9 months ago
Haven't tried it myself, but I'd imagine, as long as your foot stayed a few inches away from the friction (heat), you'd be fine. (And barefoot your foot's less likely to slip or move.)

The only problem might be splinters, so if you don't have callouses on the ball of your foot [I go barefoot every chance I get and would probably be fine], get a smooth board, rub that bit smooth on something rough, or put a bit of cloth under the ball of your foot.

It's not as if you're going to get any kind of flame coming out of there (although it would make it much easier if it would! :)
solusetal9 months ago
I'm impressed. Lots of detail though and perhaps a video would move the learning process along faster. Thanks and you have my vote; that's really back to basics and explains why the "fire keeper" was valuable in building our cultures.
RygorMortis9 months ago
Nice survival instructable. Maybe some shoes next time though? :) cheers
Listen to the Band (author)  RygorMortis9 months ago
Thanks. The reason I prefer not to wear shoes is that it helps me get a grip on the fireboard. If I wear shoes, it tends to slip around. But, to each his own. If you prefer to wear shoes, then go ahead. Cheers!
I have been starting fires with bow and drill for over 20 years, and still much prefer a bare foot on the fire board. As the OP points out, it makes a big difference in your "grip" on the fire board. A good grip on the fire board will give you more confidence in increasing pressure and using the full stroke of your bow which will increase your odds of success.

I learned this skill from Larry Dean Olsen's book, Outdoor Survival Skills. My copy is at least 25 years old. I believe it is still in print. Great book!

Great instructable!
lamerc9 months ago
Great instructable! I've understood the theory of doing this for a long time, but with the details here (specs on the bow setup, cutting the notch under the coal, proper positioning and bracing) this is the first time I feel like I could just go out and do it and expect some form of success. Thanks! :)
Listen to the Band (author)  lamerc9 months ago
Sweet, glad I could help.
tkjtkj9 months ago
Nice, logical, well-doc'd 'structable ! thanks..
BTW, the time to look for the dry wood is while you're hiking .. not after you've settled-down in camp .. and once you've found the necessary items, keep them in your ruck-eeee !!

While at it, why not take a few wads of weightless Clothes-Drier lint !!
Makes great kindling with zero burden ..
Pro

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