Whether you’ve never attempted to make fire with a hand drill, or have a fair amount of experience with it, becoming proficient with the techniques below will profoundly increase your success. To the tune of less than 90 seconds to a coal.
I’ve broken down the hand drill into something that might resemble a Mr. Miyagi wax-on, wax-off approach. While it may appear that these exercises have nothing to do with making a hand drill fire (sort of like the parallels between waxing a car and learning karate), I urge you to grow comfortable with each of these BEFORE you attempt to make your first coal/fire with a hand drill. Practice these techniques one at a time, without going for fire.
And if you’ve already tried hand drill (with or without success), I’d ask that you “empty your cup”. When someone comes to learn hand drill privately with me who has tried it, they tend to bring with them everything that hasn’t worked before. Why keep doing what hasn’t worked? I ask that you empty your cup, study the nuance of the tips below, and pick up the hand drill as if you never have before.
Following these tips can lead you to making your first hand drill fire the very first time you try. Just like I did.
Here is how I learned.
The Hand Drill
If you’ve never seen the hand drill in action, check out my demo here. It’s my favorite technique because of its simplicity (notice I didn’t say ‘ease’). A spindle and a fireboard. THAT’S IT. It also (in my opinion) relies more on finesse than strength. You can do this!
Tip #1: Clamp & Stand
Clamp your fireboard to a tabletop at about waist height. It will prevent your fireboard from moving around and limit the number of variables that you’re trying to contend with (like kneeling and stepping on the fireboard). You’ll be able to focus solely on the hand/arm motions. Standing allows your lungs to be more fully open and for you to engage your body/core as necessary. It also sets you up for Tip #2.
Tip #2: Arms Fully Extended
Ultimately, you’ll want to work toward sitting or kneeling to use a hand drill. But that brings you closer to the kit and the arms can be bent at the shoulder, elbow, and wrist. That’s a lot of planes to operate in. I have students stand away from their clamped kit so that their arms must be fully extended in order to reach the spindle. You can focus on a more lateral motion (with nearly stiff arms), rather than having all the extra joints bending too.
Tip #3: Flat Hands
We are using a lateral ‘reciprocating’ motion (hands) to create a rotary motion (spindle). But because our spindle tends to be less than 1/2″ in diameter a lot of folks struggle with their palms rubbing together. I see a lot of students compensate, initially, by bending the hands and fingers backwards into something rather…nonhuman. Our bodies just aren’t made to bend that way. Instead, I’d urge you to focus on keeping perfectly flat hands. The fingers are fully extended, directly in line with the palmar area of the hand. (The thumbs may naturally point back a bit – mine don’t like to get involved.) You could practice this one by sliding your hands along each other without the spindle involved. How flat/stiff can you keep your hands?
Tip #4: Use the Full Length of Both Hands
I see a tendency for folks to only use a small portion of their hands, primarily the knuckle area. That results in short, brisk strokes, which gets us mostly nowhere – maybe tired (with some smoke) at best. It also isolates stress on the hands to only one area – more likely to lead to hot spots or blisters. And every time we stop to change direction, the socket is cooling. Taking longer strokes will automatically lessen how often you’re stopping. It’s just plain more efficient. We’re already limited by the length of our hands (maybe 6-7″ for the average adult) — use every inch! I like to begin by placing my hands on opposite sides of the spindle so that the fingertips of one hand contact the spindle and the fleshy ‘butt’ of the other hand is opposite. It gets you the longest ‘stroke’ possible before stopping to change directions.
Tip #5: Go SLOWLY!
I give a lot of credit to the person who jumps on hand (or bow) drill and just F’ing goes for it. They kill it – and burn themselves out within about 20 seconds. The alternative: Patient Slowness. It’s Physics, man. Everything (wood, in this case) has a combustion point (temperature). IT CANNOT IGNITE BEFORE IT REACHES THAT TEMPERATURE. Period. End of story. No matter how badly you want it or how fast you twirl that spindle, you CANNOT create a coal (fire) until you have brought your kit up to (or near) combustion temperature (and also filled the notch with dust from the fireboard). So begin slowly and conserve your energy. Find your comfortable ‘groove’ where you could cruise almost indefinitely. It should be slow. You’re aiming to ‘warm up’ your kit (during which you’ll see smoke) and can then bear down a bit to grind out the dust (while continuing to build temperature).
Once you grow comfortable with this one, observe folks who don’t understand combustion/fire. It’s stunning how hard people will try while the pieces to create fire are not even in place.
Tip #6: Inward Pressure = Downward Pressure
Later on, it’s beneficial to develop a technique known as ‘floating’, where your hands remain at the top of the spindle without sliding down. (Once you do, it’s hard not to float!) Early on, don’t worry about it – you’ll just notice a tendency for your hands to work their way down the spindle as you spin it – and you’ll need to routinely stop as your hands reach the bottom and reset at the top. (Again, as noted in Tip #4, we lose efficiency when we stop, hence the benefit of floating – i.e. not stopping to reset.)
But one thing you can do immediately to slow your sliding down (and resetting) is to NOT PRESS DOWN. You only need to keep enough down pressure on the spindle to keep it from lifting out of the socket. That’s about the weight of your hands. That’s all. But here’s the crazy thing. For some reason, increasing your INWARD pressure (between your hands and the spindle, not your hands themselves), translates as DOWNWARD pressure. It’s crazy. But it works. Keep just enough weight on the spindle to prevent lifting it up (check out our later post for how you can Float Back Up a spindle, still applying the necessary downward pressure but moving upward) and squeeze in as you twirl the spindle.
Tip #7: Get VERTICAL
It helps to have a partner (or video camera) for this one. There’s a tendency for us to focus on the socket and not the spindle. And without realizing it, we start to ‘wobble’ the spindle, or run it at a strange angle to the fireboard. Once you’re getting the hang of the above tips, focus (almost) solely on keeping your spindle totally vertical. I mean TOTALLY. In all directions. It may look vertical (not left or right) to you, but maybe you’re tipping it away from you without realizing it. (Key the partner’s observations, or the video footage.)
Tip #8: Stop Early & Often (to Avoid Blisters)
Especially the first few times you practice hand drill, you’ll notice ‘hot spots’ developing on your hands, likely around the knuckles. STOP. Give it a rest. After how long? Maybe 10 or 15 minutes. Even the next day, your hands may be too tender to continue. If you keep going, those hot spots can develop into significant blisters, eventually rupture (potentially infection), and take weeks to heal before you could pickup the hand drill again. Particularly if you are interested in learning the hand drill as a reliable primitive survival technique – you don’t have weeks to heal before making a fire. You have to take care of your hands.
Practice in short spurts. A few minutes, a few times a day. That will build in time and, I don’t have the science behind this but, your hands will ‘remember’ what they’ve done before (sort of like returning to a workout after a few months off). You won’t have the same likelihood of blisters – your hands just know what’s coming and how to handle it.
But early on, just stop early. Before you wear your hands out.
Just try it out. Nothing like experience as a teacher. Check out our full video course in The Pack if you want to learn more, where we also host regular live webinars to help you on your way, personally. Or drop us an email with questions.