Primitive Fire Starting: the Bow Drill

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Introduction: Primitive Fire Starting: the Bow Drill

Great Outdoors Contest

Second Prize in the
Great Outdoors Contest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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53 Comments

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

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 http://www.survivalseverything.com if anyone wants to check it out

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.

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

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.