Introduction: Primitive Fire Starting: the Bow Drill

Picture of Primitive Fire Starting: the Bow Drill

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.

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. 

Step 2: The Spindle

Picture of The Spindle

The spindle will be the spinning piece of wood. It is about 3/4 of an inch in diameter, 8-12 inches long, and round. It should be made out of a piece of wood about the same hardness or harder as the fireboard. On one end, the top end, it should taper down to a point, then the point ground off slightly to dull it. On the other end, the bottom, it should be pointed also, but not tapered down, more rounded. Also ground this point off.

Step 3: The Fireboard

Picture of The Fireboard

The fireboard will be medium-hard wood about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch thick, at least twice as wide as your spindle, and as long as you want. This should be dead wood and extremely dry. On one end, make an indentation by putting the tip of your knife on the board (about one spindle away from the edge) and twisting to make a shallow hole.

Step 4: The Handhold and Bow

Picture of The Handhold and Bow

This is a piece of hardwood that can fit comfortably in your left hand (lefties reverse from now on). Carve a hole in one end like in the fireboard. You can also use a stone with a depression in it. Just make sure it's big enough to keep your fingers from going under-it gets hot down there! The bow should be a stick about as long as your arm and as thick as your thumb at the base. It should be flexible and slightly curved. Tie a strong string at the bottom using a permanent knot of your choice. Now bend the bow and tie the string at the top in an easily adjustable knot, since you will be adjusting it very often. Make sure the string is slack enough for your spindle to be twisted in it, but tight enough for it not to slip around it.

Step 5: Drilling It In

Picture of Drilling It In

In this step, you will drill the holes in the handhold and the fireboard so that the spindle won't slip out. Begin by putting your left foot  to the left  of the notch you carved out in your fireboard. Put your right knee down a comfortable distance behind your left foot. Now twist the spindle in this way: hold the bow under your right arm, pinned against your side, so that both hands are free. The thick end should be the one pinned under your arm, and the string should be on top, over the bow. Put the spindle in so that the bottom end, the one that is more rounded and will be in the fireboard, is on the right. Make sure that the string is resting on the middle of the spindle. Now reverse your hands so that you're grabbing the left of the spindle with your right hand and the right with your left. Twist the spindle clockwise, pulling it up slightly, so that the string twists with it. You can release the bow with your arm, as long as the spindle stays in place. So, to check: The spindle is twisted in the bowstring, on the outside. It should be up and down in the notch of the fireboard, and the wood part of the bow is on the right of the spindle. Put the handhold on the top of the spindle, the notch on the tip, and hold it with your left hand. Make sure to steady your wrist on your left shin. Hold the end of the bow with your right hand, and start drilling slowly, moving the bow toward you and then away from you. Don't worry about speed right now, just work on getting the motion down. Push down with your left hand, not too hard, but just hard enough so that the spindle doesn't pop out. If it does, carve the notches deeper in the fireboard and the handhold. Now start to drill faster, and push down harder, remembering to use the entire bowstring and to keep your bowing arm straight. Keep going, until you see smoke, and even then keep going until you can't.

Step 6: The Air Notch

Picture of The Air Notch

When it's all drilled in, take the spindle out and let it untwist. Wait for it to cool down, and then rub the tip of the top, the one that was and will be in the handhold, in some grease or oil or soap to minimize friction in the socket. If you're in the wilderness and without grease, rub it in your hair and on the sides of your nose. Just remember not to get them mixed up from now on, or else the socket in the fireboard will get grease in it, and that will get rid of valuable friction. Now, carve a triangular notch in the socket in the fireboard. This is where the coal will form. It should go almost to the middle, but not quite, and should be a little less than 1/8 of a pie. Just experiment, because if it's too small, the coal won't have enough oxygen, but if it's to big, the spindle will fly out, and believe me, it hurts. Carve it out a little on the bottom, just for a little extra oxygen. Put bark or a thin piece of wood underneath it to catch the coal.

Step 7: Tinder

Picture of Tinder
Tinder is the dry, fine, fluffy material that catches the coal and allows you to blow it into flame. When you find the right material, you should put it near your body- in between the first two layers of your clothes, so that it can dry out and therefore catch easier. You should fluff it out by rubbing it in between your hands so that it stays together in a clump. You should then collect the ultra fine material that then falls out and put it in the hole you make with your thumb to put the coal in. Here's some good materials:
(Note: the following information is copied from the book Outdoor Survival Skills by Larry Dean Olsen.)
  • Cliffrose (Cowania)- Outer bark from trunk and larger limbs.
  • Cottonwood (Populus)- Inner cambium layer on old dead trees.
  • Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)- Outer bark from trunk of larger plants.
  • Juniper (Juniperus)- Outer bark from trunk of mature trees.
  • Yucca (Yucca)- Fibers from pounded dead  leaves or ready-made at the base of dead plants.
  • Nettle (Urtica)- Fibers from pounded dead stalks.
  • Milkweed (Asclepias)- Fibers from pounded dead stalks; also silk from pods.
  • Dogbane (Apocynum)- Fibers from pounded dead stalks.
  • Thistle (Cirsium)- Down from tops.
  • Cattail (Typha)- Down from seed heads.
  • Various grasses: Dead leaf blades, partially decomposed, lying at base of plants.
Feel free to research these. I am always open to suggestions about plants not on this list.

Step 8: Put It All Together

Picture of Put It All Together

It was a lot of work, but now we will succeed. Drill it exactly like you did in step 5, only now it has a notch, so put a piece of bark or a thin piece of wood underneath to catch the coal. Proper form is imperative. Keep a straight back and bowing arm, and keep the bow flat and level. Again, start slowly, and remember that the important thing is not speed, but using the whole bowstring. Apply more and more weight on the handhold, increasing weight in relation to speed. Keep going until your arm aches and feels like it will fall off, and then do 10 more strokes. It is better to take the spindle off itself then to let it launch out, but what happens, happens. Look at the black dust in the notch that has formed while you were bowing. If it continues to smoke, that means that you may have a coal. Poke it out with your knife tip or a toothpick sized twig. Fan it with your hand. If it holds together in a clump and continues to smoke, keep fanning it. If it is a true coal, it will eventually start glowing red. Remove the fireboard from the bark and sprinkle extra powder, which will have built up around the notch, on the coal to keep it going. Now put your tinder bundle on the coal, and in a quick motion turn it over to get the coal in it. Softly bunch the bundle around the coal, hold it above your head and blow it, softly at first, into flame. Remember, long, sustained breaths are better than short ones. When it bursts into flame, don't be afraid of burning your fingers. Put it in your fire lay (teepee, lean-to, etc.) and let it catch on the kindling.

Step 9: Practice

Picture of Practice

This activity involves a lot of practice. One recommended way to learn this is to actually use bad wood. Use oak or some other hardwood, and practice every spare minute you get. Doing this will force you to perfect your form, although you won't get a coal. Practice with bad wood for a whole summer, or even a whole year. Then, when you feel ready, switch to cottonwood, or some other good wood, and you may be surprised. I once practiced 6 hours, 5 days a week, sometimes 7, for an entire summer. Later, I went to a camp where they gave me cedar and yucca, and I got a fire on my first try. So don't get discouraged, I can't remember how many bows I broke in frustration. Just pick up the spindle, blow the dust out of the socket, and try again. Good luck.


quangh16 made it! (author)2016-12-10

how to trap wild chicken? view here :

parisusa (author)2016-06-04

I am so grateful for electricity and matches. I find survival techniques interesting but I doubt I could survive myself, sadly.

TomA30 (author)2016-05-04

Perfect guide, I had no idea how to do this until now. I recently started a prepper site of my own to include everything I learn as I go along. Only got into prepping about a year ago but I have learnt a lot thanks to people like you. Keep up the good work :)

Oh my site is if anyone wants to check it out

swilliams79 (author)2015-03-15

great instructable!

huskerland3 (author)2014-07-29


Mr_Altitude (author)huskerland32015-01-16

Thanks much!

lbrewer42 (author)2015-01-11

Very good 'ible and thorough coverage of a lost art. A tip: use your knife to cut a small groove around the circumference of the spindle at its middle. It helps keep the bowstring riding in the center of the spindle instead of tending to want to travel up and down while you pump the bow. It also helps beginners as they can concentrate on overall form since the string is holding more uniform as they bow.

Mr_Altitude (author)lbrewer422015-01-16

Thank you. That's a very good tip, so thanks. I've had trouble with that a times. Thanks!

mugshotremoval (author)2014-06-01

How to make a fire like a boss!

You know it! Thanks!

archertom (author)2014-04-24

I once watched a survival/herbalist demonstrate this technique in the middle of his shop's carpeted floor. He had an ember glowing in short order and then had a nice fire going in his firepit on the outside of the building within about 5 minutes or less.

gardengeek (author)2014-03-21

My bow broke and then the spindle stabbed me in the foot:(

Mr_Altitude (author)gardengeek2014-03-22

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!

cvestal1 (author)2014-03-01

Need to trim those nails bud... You bout climb a tree

Mr_Altitude (author)cvestal12014-03-22

So I've been told...

Costarus (author)2014-02-06

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... :))

Mr_Altitude (author)Costarus2014-03-22

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.

turkeydance (author)2013-12-26

how about an old bird's nest for tinder/dust?

Mr_Altitude (author)turkeydance2014-03-22

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

(P.S. Sorry for replying late.)

bsg68 (author)2013-12-07

My dad uses the bow drill

ParkerMansel (author)2013-10-29

Trim them nails cheif

alanballjr (author)2013-07-19

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.

Mr_Altitude (author)alanballjr2013-07-19

It's a good thing he didn't test his theory when he was lost in the wilderness.

sway (author)Mr_Altitude2013-09-12

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

poofrabbit (author)2013-08-31

Just wanted to say congratulations on being a finalists in the Great Outdoors Contest! This was a fantastic instructable! Good luck!

Mr_Altitude (author)poofrabbit2013-09-02

Thanks, I wasn't really expecting to get this far. Keeping my fingers crossed.

auston_kim (author)2013-07-19


Mr_Altitude (author)auston_kim2013-08-10


GooberPeas (author)2013-07-19


Mr_Altitude (author)GooberPeas2013-08-10

You're welcome!

Mr_Altitude (author)2013-07-30

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 K0rn (author)2013-07-25

Looks like you put a lot of time and dedication into making a successful fire. Concise instructable that got my vote. Good job!

FANTAASTIC (author)2013-07-24

We have a "be nice" comment policy. Please be positive and constructive with your comments.

tim_n (author)2013-07-22

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 - - 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.

Mr_Altitude (author)tim_n2013-07-24

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.

rathmiron (author)2013-07-22

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.

Mr_Altitude (author)rathmiron2013-07-24

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 (author)rathmiron2013-07-22

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.

kmpres (author)2013-07-21

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 (author)kmpres2013-07-22

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 (author)kmpres2013-07-21

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! :)

solusetal (author)2013-07-22

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.

RygorMortis (author)2013-07-18

Nice survival instructable. Maybe some shoes next time though? :) cheers

Mr_Altitude (author)RygorMortis2013-07-19

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!

dalgety (author)Mr_Altitude2013-07-21

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!

lamerc (author)2013-07-21

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! :)

Mr_Altitude (author)lamerc2013-07-21

Sweet, glad I could help.

tkjtkj (author)2013-07-21

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 ..

Mr_Altitude (author)tkjtkj2013-07-21

Awesome, thanks for the suggestions. I'll definitely keep that in mind next time I'm in the backwoods.

obviousgenius (author)2013-07-21


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