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Bow Drill: How to Carve the ‘Perfect’ Notch

The intent is there.  The passion.  The energy.  The motivation.

And yet you still don’t get a coal.

All-too-often, I see folks carving a notch in their fireboard that is, quite frankly, inadequate to bust a coal.

Here’s how to get it right.


Note:  If you’re just starting out with the Bow Drill, check out our detailed, 10,000-word article on ‘How to Make Fire with a Bow Drill‘:

How to Make Fire with a Bow Drill


The ‘Perfect’ Notch

Goes without saying that ‘perfection’ is elusive.  However, we can aim for it and make our falling-short all the better.

When it comes to the ideal notch in your fireboard, you’re looking for three things.

  1. A decent kit, carved from appropriate materials, with a socket burned-in.
  2. A 45-degree notch (“V” not “U”), on the centerline of your socket, just shy of center.
  3. Clean, dustless, fiberless, vertical sides.

That’s it.  But if you want the deets, read on.

Kit and Socket

You’ll get tired of hearing me say this, but when we’re making a friction-fire kit, we’re looking for fine-grained, softer hardwoods.  Points to note:

  • The terms ‘hardwood’ and ‘softwood’ have nothing to do with the wood’s actual hardness.  ‘Hardwood’ is synonymous with ‘deciduous’ (a tree that loses it’s leaves in winter), e.g. oak, maple, walnut, poplar, cottonwood…  ‘Softwood’ is a tree that does not lose its leaves/needles.  A ‘softwood’ is ‘evergreen’.  We typically equate ‘softwood’ with ‘coniferous’ (cone-bearing), although that’s not entirely correct.  A rhododendron is as example of an evergreen, broad-leafed ‘softwood’ that is not coniferous.So when I say a softer hardwood, I’m speaking of things like Cottonwood, Aspen, Willow, the Poplars, Sassafras, etc.  Not Oak, Maple, Ash, etc.  Note:  True Cedar is a known, and popular, exception to this rule.  Cedar is a softwood/coniferous tree that provides a high-success-rate kit to the beginner, unlike its other highly-resinous relatives, the Pines, Spruces, and Firs.
  • For the sake of this article, we’re assuming you have a carefully carved kit including a bow/string (synthetic/high tensile-strength), adequately-greased/low-friction handhold, and appropriately-carved spindle and rectangular-cross-sectioned fireboard.

The Sacred 45-Degrees

The ideal notch is a 45-degree wedge.  Period.  (One-eighth of a pizza pie.)

OK, maybe it’s 5-degrees less or 10-degrees greater.  But the single greatest thing you can do to improve your bow drill success-rate is to learn what 45-degrees looks like.  Perfect it, within a degree or two.  Aim small, miss small.

You should be removing (presumably, carving) a 45-degree wedge (notch) into the edge of your fireboard.  Less, and the notch may be too narrow to allow adequate sawdust to enter the notch.  Greater, and the extra ambient oxygen may cool the dust too rapidly to efficiently make a coal.

Carefully center the notch on the centerline of the socket you’ve previously burnt-in using your spindle.

The apex of the notch should fall just shy of the exact center of the burnt-in socket.  Carving the notch too wide or too far into the socket will remove a greater portion of the circumferential ‘ring’ around the socket, amplifying the chances that the spindle will slip out of the socket along the undermined notched area.

Mark out the “V” of your notch-to-be prior to carving.  Then attack the corner edges of the fireboard, not the flat face-edge (see below).  The corners will maximize the force you’re applying, isolating pressure.  It’s OK to ‘pop out’ chips, but avoid ‘scooping’ out the bottom of your notch.  You want a “V”.  Not a “U”.

Point of fact:  Just carve a 45-degree notch, centered, just shy of the center of the socket.  That’s it.

If you like to geek-out about friction fire, you may want to read ‘The Problem with Bow Drill…is Not What You Think‘:

The Problem with Bow Drill…is Not What You Think

Clean, Vertical Sides

Once you’ve carved your notch, step back and look.  Set down your knife.  Examine the notch from all angles.  You’re about 90% there.

Typically, I find that the vertical side walls of my V-notch are a bit curved.  My secret:  prosciutto.

Carefully slice off the thinnest (most prosciutto-like) layers of wood that you can manage.  You’re looking to get perfectly flat, vertical sides to your notch.

You may also (especially dependent on wood choice) notice that there are small ‘hairy’ wood fibers along the edges and sides of your notch.  You will absolutely want to remove them.  Otherwise, they’ll act as deterents and catch the dust before or during it falls into the notch.  At best, those hairy fibers can make it difficult to remove a fully-formed coal from your notch.  At worst, they can prevent the dust from entering the notch to begin with.  And no dust means no coal.


So really, it’s simple.  All you need to do is have:

  1. A decent kit, carved from appropriate materials, with a socket burned-in.
  2. A 45-degree notch, on the centerline of your socket, just shy of center.
  3. Clean, dustless, fiberless, vertical sides.


Go bust some coals.


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