Using a bow drill to make a friction fire has been the skill I’ve taught and demo’d more than any other over the last ten years. (It’s the trick at the magic show that everyone wants to see performed.) It’s also the most widely taught method of friction fire – some might call it ‘easiest’, but I prefer the term ‘most efficient’. It’s not ‘easy’ (if it was, we’d all still be using bow drills instead of Bics), but with practice, it doesn’t have to be hard either. It’s not magic. Hell, it’s not even rocket science. It’s just plain science. Physics, mostly. And some effort. With practice, you’ll be able to bust a coal in about 30 seconds to a minute.
Check out this Bow Drill Demo video – Bust a Coal in 39 Seconds:
Check out the Bow Drill Demo video above. As we move through the content below, return to this video in order to see the details discussed below in action.
A Bow Drill Kit consists of 4 main pieces (5 if you count the string separately). They are:
- Bow – The part that gives this technique its name. It’s a stick with a loose string attached at both ends. Moves in a lateral motion to create rotary motion in the spindle. A simple machine. Hence the efficiency. Use a synthetic string when first beginning.
- Handhold/Socket – This is the piece that rests on top of the spindle, holding it in place and vertical.
- Fireboard/Hearth – A flattish piece of wood that includes a socket to receive the spindle and (most often) a notch to collect the dust, where the coal will form.
- Spindle – A rounded piece of wood that is set into the fireboard and spun by the lateral motion of the bow/string. Where the spindle meets the fireboard is where the action happens.
Buy or, ideally, make one yourself (see below). We’re going to tackle the how-to (technique) first, as it’s helpful to know what you’re going for before making a kit. (In Gone Feral’s workshops, we start participants off with pre-made practice kits to learn the technique, before carving their own. What’s the use of making something if you have no idea how it’s supposed to be used?)
Basic Form & Technique
There’s not really a ‘one right way’ to use a bow drill. (Regardless of how you figure out how to use it, if you make a fire, you win.) Look at old illustrations or photos of indigenous people using bow drills and you’ll see a variety of body postures, kit components, techniques, and so on. And how quickly you can make a fire has mainly been a product of the modern ‘survival’ trend. Videos of modern-day hunter-gatherers indicate that they’re not really concerned about how quickly they can get that coal. Only ‘if’.
But if you’re interested in speed and efficiency (or want to get into Competitive Bow Drilling), here are the things that, over the last ten years, I’ve found set people up for success.
- The Basics – You are going to be kneeling on one knee for this operation and applying downward pressure with your upper bodyweight.. Hold the bow in your dominant hand. For the sake of explanation, we’re going to assume you’re right-handed. (We don’t like left-handed people.) So the bow is held by your right hand. The handhold goes in your non-dominant hand (i.e. left). Kneel on your dominant (right) knee. Non-dominant (left) foot goes on the fireboard.Notch Toward or Away? – Most programs will teach you to orient the notch in the fireboard toward yourself. Because 9 times out of 10 when I’m making a bow drill fire, I’m teaching or demonstrating for a group or crowd, I’ve gotten in the habit of orienting the notch away from myself, simply so that onlookers have a better view of the coal forming. That’s it. No special juju with pointing the notch away. In reality, it doesn’t matter which direction it points.Leaves, not Tinder, under the notch. I place a few leaves (or a scrap of bark or cardboard) under my notch in order to catch the coal (for easy transport into the tinder bundle later). A lot of old images (and other programs) show bow-drillers to put tinder material under the notch. I’ve never gotten into that habit. Since you’re stepping on the fireboard, the tinder will be compressed, limiting the oxygen throughout, meaning it won’t catch fire that way anyway. The leaves simply offer an easy way to pick the coal up (rather than picking it up on your knife blade as an afterthought).
- Setting Up – (All numbers refer to the photo montage below.) For me, it goes like this. I kneel down on my right knee. Left foot is on the fireboard. Bow in the right hand. I take up the spindle in my left hand (#1). Top of the spindle goes in-between the string and stick of the bow (#2). I twist the top of the spindle towards myself (#3), dipping back under the string to catch a loop of the string (#4). Twist upright (#5). You should have one single wrap of the string around the spindle. (This is the part that most folks find the most difficult in the entire process of using the bow drill.) As long as you get one wrap around the spindle, you’re good. Doesn’t have to be the technique described.
- Setting Up, Part 2 – Maintaining my hold on the bow with the right hand, I grasp the spindle with the same hand in order to free my left (#6). Right hand sets the bottom of the spindle in the socket on the fireboard. My left hand takes up the handhold and sets it on top of the spindle. Apply enough pressure to hold the spindle/bow in place. Only now can you let go of the spindle/bow with your right hand. The socket/left hand holds them in place. (If you let go of the spindle before the handhold is there, the spindle will often untwist and ‘shoot out’.)
- Right Angles – Throughout this process, I encourage you to think in right angles. Both knees should be at 90-degrees. Your left (non-dominant) arm should be ‘straight’. Your right (dominant) leg should be kicked-out, at 90-degrees to your bent left leg/knee. See photo below.
- Left Arm – Move it to the outside of your left knee. Straighten it as much as possible (but don’t lock it out). Hug it tightly to the outside of your knee. Did I mention keeping it straight? Keeping this arm straight allows you to incorporate your upper body weight into applying downward pressure, not just upper body strength. A bent arm will mostly isolate downward pressure to the bicep/tricep of the arm, as opposed to the ‘strength’ of half your body weight, without trying, when using a straight arm.
- Left Foot – I’m going to guess that you need to slide your foot farther forward. When I setup my left foot on the fireboard, it tends to locate itself with the spindle/socket at about the midpoint of my arch. (A lot of folks will want their toes or ball of the foot on the board.) It may feel a little wobbly, so you can add a ‘shim’ beneath the toe or heel to level out your foot, if necessary. The reasoning for the mid-arch orientation is not about the foot, it’s about the shin. By sliding your foot forward to the midpoint, your shin moves against your lower left arm. I want you to find the position where your vertical shin meets your vertical arm. LOCK them together. They are now one unit. I mean it. Lock. Your lower leg will provide strength and stability to maintaining an absolutely-vertical left arm (AND SPINDLE). Wobbly spindles don’t make fire. Vertical ones do. The leg will eliminate the weakness of the wrist. Just lock ’em.
- Lungs/Lift Up – Pay attention to your upper body posture. Without changing the rest, ‘lift up’ your torso. Open your lungs. Allow them to breathe, don’t crush them down. Using a bow drill might feel like work (or a cardio workout), so you’ll want to allow your lungs as much oxygen as possible.
- Right Hand – Take up that bow, prepared to strike up the symphony. I like to hold it at the end, where the string meets the stick. Not in the middle. Holding the end will put you more in-line with the lateral motion. Fewer variables.
- Pressure/Speed Balance – Like riding a bicycle, balance on a bow drill is easier to maintain if you’re moving. Begin by sliding the bow forward and back. For now, the amount of pressure you exert on the handhold/spindle should be just enough to keep the spindle in place on the fireboard. Just run the bow back and forth, not worrying about a coal. Feel what it’s like for the spindle to turn. Too much pressure and the spindle won’t turn (or the string will slip). Not enough pressure and the spindle will pop out of the fireboard/string.
Tips & Tricks
- Start Slowly – No matter how much effort/pressure/speed you put into the bow drill, you simply cannot make fire until you’ve: created enough (saw) dust AND achieved a near-combustion temperature. It’s physics, man! (These are 2 of the 3 requirements to make fire as we know it, the 3rd being oxygen. Those 3 make up the holy trinity of fire-making known as the Fire Triangle. Two of which you’re creating through friction. Hopefully oxygen is not in short supply, or you’ve got some more pressing issues to deal with than making a fire.) The point is: START SLOWLY. Run that bow back and forth at a comfortable, slow speed. (Not so slowly that you’ll fall asleep – we’re not practicing the Slow Drill here.) But don’t let your excitement make you speed up. You’re looking to warm-up the notch/spindle and to create dust. Just find a comfortable cruising speed.
- Full Length – Be sure to use the full length of your bow. Every time you stop to change directions, your notch/spindle are cooling. Using the full length of the bow means that the spindle turns more times before you stop. Equals fewer back-and-forths before heating up and reaching combustion temperature.
- Focus on the Vertical – Wobbly spindles create a dished-out socket in the fireboard and limit friction/heat. Stable but non-vertical spindles (i.e. you’re leaning at a consistent 15-degree angle) often lead to spindles popping out of the socket. (Although there are times we need to angle a spindle, see TROUBLESHOOTING below.) Establish a slow speed, then focus on isolating and locking the left wrist-shin combo in order to maintain an absolutely-vertical spindle, as it rotates in both directions. It may help to have a friend observe from the side or record some video of yourself, as what we see from our perspective above is not always accurate in the 3D.
If you haven’t already put the above techniques to practice (and are actually serious about becoming accomplished with the bow drill), I’d suggest stepping away from reading, pick up a kit, and start practicing. Get this feeling into your body before you actually attempt a coal.
And be sure to revisit the above video to see these words in action.
Going for a Coal
You’ve found your form and are comfortable with running your kit. Now it’s time to make a coal. Remembering and using the above techniques, here is the process I use to make a fire with a bow drill.
- Get Cruising – Setup as above and start running your kit slowly back and forth.
- Pressure – The amount of downward pressure you apply is directly related to the tightness of your bow string. I like a tight string and more pressure, but the opposite of both could also be used. Lean hard, without applying excessive force. You shouldn’t see the string slide around the spindle without it moving. If the string does slip, back-off with your pressure or tighten your string. (For more, see TROUBLESHOOTING, below.)
- 3 Steps:
- Cruising Speed – I ‘warm-up’ my socket, with slow speed and appropriate pressure, as above. Usually 10-20 seconds. You should begin seeing wisps of smoke. Smoke is indicative of temperature. Seeing smoke means your kit is warmed up and you can approach the dust-generation phase as heat continues to build.
- Minimal Increase of Speed + Pressure – Both must increase together. I’ll increase a little pressure and speed (as well as string tension, see below) at this point, but still maintain a comfortable pace. The goal at this point (you’ve already achieved temperature), is to create fuel – you want to fill that notch with dust. 10-90 seconds to achieve. As the dust flows into the notch (and heat continues to build, with the ever-present oxygen), the color of the dust should change. Whereas it may have begun as light brown, it should change to dark brown, then black. Black is what you want (although I’ve achieved plenty of coals with dark brown dust). You may be getting tired at this point. Keep going. (Or have a friend join. See ADVANCED, below.) Fill that notch with dust. Smoke is pouring. The dust may even begin rolling out of the notch.
- Go For It – Once you’ve filled your notch with black dust and smoke is pouring out, you’re ready to bust it out. My strategy is ten good, fast strokes with everything you’ve got. It may help to have someone give you a ‘GO’, a friend or coach, and then you just explode. Kick it up. Give it everything you’ve got for ten good, full strokes, fully-back-and-forth. As the coach, I count them out loud: “One–, Two–, Three–….Gimme five more…” If you’ve hit the temperature and already created enough dust, blasting it like this with speed (and a slight increase in pressure, WHILE maintaining good, vertical form) will light up your dust into a coal. Give it all you’ve got. Light it up. Leave it on the fireboard.
- What if I don’t see a coal? – The majority of coals aren’t actually formed while they’re still in the notch. You’ve just blasted your way through everything above. STOP. You’re breathing heavily. Carefully, VERY CAREFULLY, lift your bow-spindle-handhold combo out of the fireboard and set them aside. Keep your left foot on the fireboard. The only piece that matters now is that fireboard (presumably with the coal-to-be in the notch). You want to coax that coal out of the notch (if it hasn’t already rolled out). Use a twig, pine needle, or the tip of a knife to GENTLY separate the coal from the fireboard. Lift the fireboard and move it, too, to the side.
- Give it Time – You’re breathing heavily. Excited. Your first impending bow drill coal. BACK OFF. One of the biggest Killers of Coals is the overexcited bow-driller. Panting. Excitement. Shaking. You’ve just created enough Heat and Fuel to create Fire. Oxygen needs Time. Let the O2 get to your heat/fuel combo. The ideal day is a very slight breeze. On a still day, fan it with your hand. On a windy day, protect it with your body. The key to whether you’re on the path is: Is the pile of dust ‘smoking’/’breathing’ on its own? If it continues to smoke healthily (if that’s a thing), rather than have the smoke dissipate in a few seconds, you’re on the right track. The smoke should be thick, even if whispy. As you fan/protect it, you’ll notice the dark brown/black dust grower darker. And darker. Growing denser at one location. It may almost look wet. Give that a little more O2. Look closely. Give it a gentle blow. Did it just glow red?
- Nailed it! – Once you get that slightly glowing coal, carefully transfer the entire dust/coal into your tinder bundle and continue from there.
Tinder Bundles & Blowing the Coal to Flame
For a complete coverage on making tinder bundles and materials to use, check out our blog How to Make the Perfect Tinder Bundle (COMING SOON).
To create a flame from your coal, transfer the coal into the center of your tinder bundle.
- Orient yourself so the wind is at your back (blowing over your shoulder, into the coal/bundle)
- Take a deep breath and hold it
- Purse your lips into the smallest hole you can manage
- Carefully, begin to gently let out (blow) that breath into the coal/bundle. Take as long as you can to release that breath.
As with making a coal from friction and dust, the tinder simply cannot combust until it has reached its combustion point/temperature. The only heat source you have is that coal. So your goal now is to transfer the heat from that itty-bitty coal into the surrounding tinder so that it can reach combustion.
Typically it takes a few of these deep breaths/blows to heat up the tinder. You’re looking for increased, thicker smoke, especially beginning to flow out of the far side of the tinder bundle.
Blow a little harder. This part simply requires experience and attention. Don’t focus just on the coal, but on the whole bundle. Blow a little harder. Transfer that heat. You’ll see the fibers glowing. Hit it a little harder.
Don’t be afraid to breathe. When you’ve expended your air supply. Pull away and give the bundle a moment. (That Overexcited Bow Driller needs to calm down.) The bundle needs time to ‘breathe’ on its own. You’ve just blasted it. Give it a moment. You’ll notice a rhythm with the smoke billowing, then softening. Take a breath and blow again.
When you blow, as the tinder heats and glows, you may start to hear a billowing ‘whoosh’ sound. Blow harder. I mean hard. Give it all you’ve got. But don’t be afraid to let the bundle breathe.
A few good blows and the bundle will ignite.
Making a Kit
There are multiple variations on every part of the kit. I’m going to provide some overview, as well as general and specific thoughts on each component of your bow drill kit. I’ll also make some suggestions on making a high-success ‘practice kit’ using commercially-available materials.
Overview, re: Materials: The biggest question I receive is: What woods do I use? (Or, maybe) Will any wood make fire? When it comes to materials, the material selection is most important for the spindle and the fireboard (between which, the action happens). The composition of the bow is basically irrelevant, as long as it holds the string taut. The handhold simply needs to minimize friction; doesn’t even need to be wood.
When it comes to the spindle and fireboard, I recommend selecting a wood that is a fine-grained, softer hardwood. Let’s break that down:
- Hardwood – The term ‘hardwood’ actually has nothing to do with the hardness of the wood. ‘Hardwood’ is actually synonymous with ‘deciduous’ – i.e. a tree that loses its leaves in the winter. Trees like oak, maple, ash, hickory, sassafras, walnut, basswood, and so on. ‘Softwoods’ are the same as ‘evergreen’. (Evergreen meaning that they maintain their foliage throughout the year – both ‘coniferous’ (cone-bearing, like cedar, pine, spruce, fir, etc.) as well as broad-leafed evergreen trees (like rhododendron and kinnikinik), that maintain their leaves throughout the year). So you want to focus on the hardwoods – the trees that lose their leaves in the winter.
- Softer – By ‘softer’ hardwood, I’m referring to the actual relative hardness/softness of the wood. ‘Softer’ hardwoods include cottonwood, aspen, willow, the poplars, sassafras, and others. ‘Harder’ hardwoods would be the oaks, maples, ashes, and many more. It’s not that they can’t make friction fire, but their actual hardness makes fire-making much more difficult – and not recommended for the beginner, or survivalist.
- Fine-grained – Take a look at the end-grain on oak. Then the end grain on poplar, cottonwood, or even maple. Oak is ridiculously coarse-grained/porous (you can actually blow air/bubbles through the lignin in oak!). But the other woods mentioned here are, relatively speaking, much more fine-gained. You want fine-grained – you might say ‘smooth’.
When all of those come together, you want a fine-grained, softer hardwood. My preference, here in the American West, is for Cottonwood, with the related Aspen and Willow being seconds, especially based on altitude). If I’m procuring from store-bought materials, my go-to is poplar.
A Noted Exception: Most ‘survival schools’ you might attend will teach you to use and make your kit from cedar, whether or not it grows in your area. Most buy it from the local commercial home center. One can’t argue with cedar. I often start beginning students off with cedar, too. But cedar doesn’t grow here in Colorado (not to be confused with the local juniper, oft-times referred to as ‘cedar’). Cedar, a family of coniferous (an evergreen) tree is a noted exception to the above rule of ‘fine-grained, softer hardwoods’. Most coniferous trees (pine, spruce, fir) don’t make great kits because they are highly resinous. Resin, although flammable, is poor for creating fire through friction. Cedar somehow defies this Common Law of Coniferous Trees. It is a fantastic, high-success-rate material for bow drill. So, by all means, make a kit (spindle & fireboard) from cedar for practice. But I strongly encourage you to eventually explore alternative materials, especially what is available in your area. ‘Will any wood make fire?’ Don’t ask me. I have no idea. There are somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 species of tree (‘wood’) worldwide. I haven’t used them all. Carve a kit and try it out.
- Fireboard – Making the fireboard is a good part to start with, as it provides opportunities for basic knife skills, splitting, wood selection, and sets you up for moving on to the spindle.
- You’re aiming for a flattish, long board. When beginning, aim for something in perfect rectangular cross-section. If you’re not concerned with ‘wildcrafting’, go to your local home improvement center and buy a 1″ x 2″ (x 8′) cedar fence batten. Located in the fencing material section. They’re the long strips you see covering the gaps between pickets in many cedar fences. It’ll come eight feet long. Cut off a one foot (12 inch) length. Despite being ” a 1 x 2 ” (sold as one inch thick by two inches wide), it will actually come as 3/4″ thick by 1.5″ wide. That’s pretty perfect for a fireboard.If you’re carving a kit from the land, select a limb/log of a wood species as noted above (fine-grained, softer hardwood) and cut a section to about 10-12″ long. Then baton/split (see our blog How to Use a Knife) a fire’board’ that is rectangular in cross-section. When beginning, I recommend that you really focus on getting that perfect rectangular-cross-sectioned fireboard. Later, you can improvise and experiment with less than desirable equipment. Split that log in half. Then half again. Now you have a quarter of the log/limb. Carve or split the rounded sides so that you have a flattish, rectangular board of about 3/4″ x 1.5″. Thicker boards result in deeper sockets (where the spindle burns/drills in). Deeper sockets result in increased side-friction, which not only doesn’t contribute to your coal, but also saps the energy you put in, meaning a loss of total efficiency. Thinner boards simply mean that you burn through a board before it’s actually convenient to re-carve a socket/notch. I’ve found that 3/4″ thick is really about the ideal. So buy/split/carve that fireboard to ~3/4″ x 1.5″ x 12″.
- Overview: You want a long, thin cylindrical object. If you’re buying your material, go to the local home improvement center, to the aisle with the dowels. Avoid the pine and oak dowels. You are looking for a 7/8″ hardwood dowel. (Interestingly, despite lableling pine and oak for what they are, the third option is typically labeled ‘hardwood’. Based on how this material works and looks, I’m guessing that it is some type of poplar, though I don’t know for sure. The important part is that it suits our ‘fine-grained, softer hardwood’ need.) It will come 36″ long. Buy the whole think and cut off a 8 to 9″ length for your spindle. See below for how to carve the tips.
- Size: Let’s talk about diameter and length. Some of this is personal preference, but I find it mostly relates back to being proportionate to the person using the kit. Think about your body position. If the spindle you’re using is too short, you’ll need to crunch over farther. If it’s too long, you’ll likely be wobbling more. To find a decent starting length for yourself, do the hang-ten-dude: Stretch your thumb and pinky out as far as they’ll go in either direction. Measure that distance. For most adults, it’s probably somewhere between 7″ and 10″. That’s the spindle length you want.When it comes to the diameter of the spindle, my preference (generally speaking, as variations on wood species may affect this) is between 3/4″ and 1″. (Hence the 7/8″ wood dowel, above.) You’ll hear a lot of folks say to make it the diameter of your thumb. That’s fine too – remains relatively true to our ‘body proportion’ measurement. All other things being equal, he crux is: The larger the surface area, the more friction you will have. Smaller surface area = less friction. I’ve definitely seen a lot of narrower spindles (approaching 1/2″), typically being used by smaller folks. You could stray to a larger diameter than 7/8″, but I see a lot of larger spindles just not working. So as you go down this path, experiment with different diameters to see what works best for you.
- 3 Easy Steps to Carve the Perfect Spindle: Carving a spindle is a great introductory knife carving activity. Take your time on your first one. Given practice you’ll be able to bang one of these out in a minute or two. After years of teaching bow drill, I’ve developed a 3-step process to make the carving straight forward, again minimizing variables. (Universally, when students set off on their own to carve a piece of wood into a round object, I see them time and again end up with some sort of strange bulbousy toothpick sort of thing. It’s just weird. And usually ends up on the firewood pile.) I encourage you to stick hard to these three steps, at least for your first few spindles. I’m also going to encourage you to draw on your spindle as you begin.Again select a log/limb and cut it to the length of your desired spindle (let’s say 9″). Ideally you want to avoid the pith (center) of the log/limb as well as any knots. The diameter of your starting limb will likely need to be at least 2.5″ in diameter. A straight grained piece of wood will split straighter than a wavy one and carve more predictably. Nice, tight grain from wood that’s dried but not decomposing is what you’re looking for.
- Step 1: Square – Draw a + across the end of the limb, dividing it into wuarters. Baton/split along those lines. Select one of the resulting quarters. You should have two ‘flat’ sides and an arc of the outer limb. Draw two additional lines opposite the flat edges, making a square on the end of the limb. Baton along those lines as well. Often the splitting will ‘run out’ the side so you’ll end up with a piece that’s wider at the bottom than the top. Time to put those carving skills to use. You want to carve, not split. Take your time and focus on getting nice, flat planes. Four of them, of equal width, at 90-degrees to each other. (That’s called a square.) You’re carving a ‘square dowel’.
- Step 2: Octagon – Now it starts to get fun. Take up your pen/pencil and carefully draw four equal lines, nicking the corners at 45-degrees. But leave equal widths along each flat edge as well. It should look like a stop sign. Transfer those lines down the length of the square dowel using this old carpenter’s trick: Set your pen on the end of the line and then lock your finger in place against the side of the square. Keeping the pen and finger locked together, drag the pen down the length of the wood. It will create a line parallel to the edge, the same distance from the corner as the end of the angled line. Repeat that 7 more times, with the rest of the lines. The lines strattling the corners now show you exactly what you want to carve away – and what you don’t. Set the end of the square dowel against something solid (stump/log) and carefully carve away each corner, keeping the new plane flat and not going past the lines. I like to carve the bottom half or so, turning the square to get all 4 stides, then flip it end-for-end to carve the other end. Take your time and make it a perfect ‘octagon dowel’.
- Step 3: Sixteen-agon – I’m sure there’s a word for it, but Step 3 is to make your octagon into a 16-sided object. It should be obvious at this point. And no, you don’t need to draw on it anymore. Just carefully turn the octagon, carving subtle shavings off each corner. Pay close attention to which ones you’ve carved; it can become difficult to see but if you keep going around and around, for some reason it just keeps getting smaller.For the purpose of making a bow drill spindle/fire, a 7/8″ sixteenagon is pretty much round, in fact probably better. The argument could be made that having slight facets to the spindle can help the string grip the spindle better. Too round and smooth and it promotes slipping.
- Carving the Tips: The shape of the tips will change as you use your kit, and you’ll occasionally want to recarve them. But here’s how to start. Your spindle should be fairly uniform thickness throughout its length, but if one end is slightly thicker, I recommend making that the bottom of the spindle.
- Bottom – You want to carve a 45-degree cone into one end of the spindle. Based on the diameter, you should only need to come back about 1/2″ from the edge to carve that. No more. I make one pass around the tip of the spindle with my knife, carving-off flakes of wood. After one pass, you’ll have a beveled edge, but likely still have a flat spot on the bottom of the spindle. Make a second pass, to bring that flat spot to a point, but DO NOT move farther up the length of the spindle. Simply recarve over the area you’ve already carved. A second pass should be all you need. Touch it up if necessary. Focus on having the point of the cone in the center of the spindle.
- Top – I like to put a dual-taper on the top of my spindle. Not only does it visibly distinguish it from the bottom, but it cuts down on the surface area (friction) in contact with the handhold. You will see some folks carve their spindle ends identically. Doesn’t really affect its ability to make fire, but it makes it more likely to mix-up which end is the business end – and you don’t want to introduce grease (see below) to your fireboard.Start about 2″ back from the top end of your spindle. Make a pass, carving long, thin shavings off the spindle. You’re looking to reduce mass here. Make a second pass, about 1″ from the end, further reducing mass, but not quite making a point. Leave a blunt tip. Jump to 1/4″ to 1/2″ from the end and carve a blunt point on the very tip.You now have a bow drill spindle.Urban Bow Drill Hack: Throw the spindle on a belt sander and be done with it.
- Handhold – A handhold can be made from almost anything.
- Material – A handhold can be made from almost anything. The biggest factor to consider is minimizing friction with the spindle. So materials like antler, bone, (smooth) stone, Teflon, plastic, and so on are great choices. Most often, though, I make my handholds from wood, simply because it’s readily available. In this case, any wood will work. Ideally, choose one that is hard and dense. Even more often, mine are made from less-than-ideal woods (cottonwood, aspen), again, because it’s available.
- Comfort – It’s also preferable to have a handhold that’s comfortable to use. One that fits in your palm. Isn’t too thick. Isn’t too thin.
- Making – By far, my go-to for a handhold is to find a limb of about 3″ diameter. I cut off a 4″ length and baton it in half. Lay it on the ground and ‘drill’ a slight divot into the center with the tip of your knife. Just enough to catch the top tip of your spindle. Boom – you have a handhold.
- Bow – Basically a stick with a string attached at both ends. Varies greatly with preference and available materials.
- Selecting a stick – The ‘stick’ you use can be straight or curved, stiff of flexible. The only important factor is that it holds the string taut enough to grip and turn the string. (Theoretically, you could get rid of the stick altogether – just have two people each hold the end of the string and ‘saw’ back and forth.) It doesn’t even need to be wood. You could use the rib bone of a large animal (bison, cow, elk), or even make a miniature kit and attach the string to the thumb and pinky of your right hand. It simply need to apply tension to the string.
- Size – My bows are typically made of wood, just because it’s readily available. My preference and recommendation is for a stick about the diameter of your thumb (3/4″ to 1″). A common reference for length is from your armpit to the palm of your hand – roughly the length of your arm. Again, proportions. You could definitely go longer or shorter, but we’re limited by our ‘reach’, so a bow that’s too long is just wasted length/weight. Too short and we’re losing efficiency with needing to stop and start more often. I also see folks select a massive, curved tree branch for their bow. All that does is land you with extra mass you need to move back and forth. Again, losing efficiency.
- String – When first beginning, I highly recommend that you practice using a synthetic string. The tensile strength is so much higher that you can keep the string tighter, which means you can exert more downward pressure, resulting in faster friction fires. Higher rates of success early-on. More variables come into play once you introduce natural cordages (especially those made from plants off the land). The tricky part with synthetic cord is finding one with minimal stretch. Although paracord/P-cord/550 cord is popular in the outdoor world, I try to avoid using it in conjunction with the bow drill. It’s got a huge stretch factor, which isn’t convenient when trying to get your string tight. Sure, you can make it work. But my preference is for a 3-4mm campcord. High tensile strength. Minimal stretch. Once you’ve gotten the hang of the bow drill, check out the tips on making the jump to natural cordage in ADVANCED TECHNIQUES, below.
- Attaching the String – Folks have developed all sorts of fancy ways to attach their string to their bow: searching long and hard for the perfect “Y” at the end of a stick, carefully carving grooves into the bow (often not in-line with where the string want to go), drilling holes, fancy knots… Personally, I just like what’s quick, easy…and works. I just split (baton) each end of the stick, about an inch, centered on the stick, and in the same plane as the string. Then I wedge one end of the string into the thinner end (if there is one). I wrap the string tightly around the bow once (on the side of the string end/split closer to the center, which provides a hose/strap clamp of sorts, preventing the stick from splitting farther), and then tuck it back into the split locking the string in place.
- Setting String Tension – The amount of tension you set in your string depends on personal preference and style/technique, but is also directly related to the amount of downward pressure you will apply. Too tight (without enough pressure) and the spindle will pop out. Too loose and it will just slide around the spindle without turning it. Assuming you’re using synthetic cord (which is recommended for beginners), I like a really tight string. But I also apply a lot of pressure early, in order to maximize friction/heat at an early stage. (You could definitely go with a looser string and less pressure – plus more time – to make a fire.)To set the tension (after attaching one end of the string to the bow), I’ll wrap the string around the spindle once, pull it taut, then tuck it into the far end of the bow. (Here’s my special tip for getting it tighter: Once tucked in the split, remove the spindle and pull the string through the split another 1/2″ to 1″. Without the spindle in there, the string will still hang loose.) Wrap it around the bow (again, toward the inside of the string) once or twice, or more if you need to take up extra string, and tuck it off in the split. You’re now set to setup with your spindle as above.
Final Touches – Getting Your Kit Ready
- Burning-in: Based on the diameter of your spindle (see below) – carve a ‘divot’ in the center of your fireboard with your knife. Lay the spindle down along the center of your fireboard. Locate the middle point. ‘Drill’ a slight divot with the tip of your knife, or a stone flake, or whatever you have on hand. Setup with your kit and ‘burn-in’ the socket as follows: Using the previously suggested techniques, run the bow drill at a comfortable speed/pressure. But don’t go for fire. You’ll notice a burning smell and some smoke. Run it a few more times. Stop. Remove the spindle and look at the board. It should be slightly ‘burned-in’ to a circle. That’s the start of your socket.
- Carving a notch: The ideal notch is a 45-degree ‘wedge’, centered on the centerline of the socket, with the apex of the notch not quite reaching the center of the socket/circle. (See diagram.) Trace out where the notch will be before beginning to carve. I like to transfer the lines down the edge of the fireboard – they should be vertical. (Some old images, like the World War 2-era Boy Scout Manual show angled sides to the notch. My personal feeling is that this complicates the carving of the notch, making it a compound angle to carve, without any added benefit.) To actually carve the notch, I like to ‘attack’ the corners of the fireboard, not the flat face of the edge itself. Carving on the corners, isolates your pressure to a smaller area, maximizing your pressure and carving. Slice down and in on one side of the notch (on a corner) then turn the board end for end and carve in. You can now pop out the chip, knowing that the first slice you made will stop the chop from running/splitting any farther. Attack the opposite corner next. That will leave you with a slight ridge along the edge/face of the fireboard. Treat that just like a corner. Then start with the original edge and repeat. Check out this video, “Carving the Perfect Notch“, from our distance-based online study program THE PACK, for more information and a live demo of what it should look like.
- Grease Your Handhold: You’ll want to apply some sort of ‘grease’ to minimize the friction between the top of your spindle and the handhold. It’s not absolutely necessary – you can definitely make a fire without this step, but the more friction you can cut down on at the top of the spindle, means the more of your effort and energy is going to the friction at the bottom of the spindle. Common things to use to grease the handhold are beeswax, bar soap, petroleum jelly/Vaseline (including Chapstick/lip balm), and ‘nose grease’ – those oils that we humans excrete where the nose meets the cheek, on either side. Ironically, despite its stickiness you can also use resin or sap from coniferous trees. Once it warms up from the friction and sinks into the wood, it clogs the wood’s pores creating a smoother surface.
Bust a Coal
At this point, you’re all set to make a run at your first coal. There’s one more piece of advice I want to offer. It’s a little soft and sappy compared to how I usually teach. But it’s this. You’ve got to believe you can make a coal. When I first started using the bow drill, I made fire in just my 2nd or 3rd attempt. It wasn’t because I was God’s Gift to Bow Drill. It’s simply because I had no preconceived notions that it was difficult. Or that I couldn’t do it. I had never tried it before, so why would I believe I couldn’t? It’s not that it’s easy (I’ve also seen people whose overconfidence gets them nowhere). Just don’t let the challenges and frustrations and failures that you’ve seen on television let you believe that you can’t do it. Just know that it’s attainable. Know that you can. Besides, the reality is, you don’t make the fire. The wood does. You’re simply providing the energy and motion. Get those two things into your body and let the wood do the rest.
I’d suggest giving it ample time and practice before reading on. Below, I’ll provide more insight, reflections, troubleshooting, and advanced techniques. ALL of which will make much more sense once you have put some time into running your kit. Once you have bow drill into your body and your body ‘knows’ what it feels like (whether you bust a coal or not), what’s below will be worth checking out.
Until then. Go for it. Bust some coals.
I believe you can.
Here are my suggestions for carrying your practice (and success) forward, toward the end result of regularly and reliably making fire using the bow drill:
- Begin with a good kit – I don’t care whether you buy a bow drill kit or make one from commercial or wild materials. Just do your best to make sure you’re practicing with a reliable, high-success kit. Appropriate materials. Prepared well.
- Desirable conditions – We’re not all working in areas of 80-degree temps and 0% humidity. Where fire practically (and often does) light itself. But I encourage you to begin your practice on warm, sunny days with (as low as possible) humidity levels. Days when you’re comfortable and don’t need a fire. Days when your kit is dry. When you’re feeling good.
- Schedule – Take breaks. I’d strongly encourage you to practice in more-often, but-shorter practice regimens. Rather than sitting down for two hours once a month, practice your bow drill for 15 minutes a day, for a week. Your body will retain its experience and you’ll be ‘learning’ even while you’re not practicing. Don’t worry about busting coals early-on. Don’t let yourself get frustrated. Just work toward the end goal.
- Squeaky Spindle/Chatter/Turkey Call – There’s a special place in hell for people with squeaky spindles. If you’ve used the bow drill for more than an hour, or spent time in a group setting with other ‘bow-drillers’, you’ve without a doubt heard an ear-piercing squeaky spindle. If bad enough, it might even double for a turkey-call: ‘gawble-whobble-awble-awble…’ Not only is it awful to hear, it’s the opposite of what you want. It’s actually a signal that your surfaces (spindle and fireboard) are not achieving the friction you want are are, in fact, probably ‘glazed over’, meaning that they’ve become polished to the point of sliding past one another with less than desirable friction. It’s like rubbing glass on a polished table.The Fix:
- If minimal chatter/squeaky (light-sounding, or only every other stroke or so), increased downward pressure and a slightly faster stroke pace may help ‘burn through’ that glazing and return you to the friction you want. You can then return to your normal pace/pressure.
- If heavier (ear-piercingly-difficult to hear – or your camp-mates are ready to roast you), it’s best to stop and recarve the bottom tip of your spindle. You can either abrade/scrape the bottom end of the spindle on a rough surface (granite, sandstone, or the curb outside your house), or completely recarve the conical shape to the bottom of your spindle.
- You may also need to visit the surface of the socket in the fireboard. One tip is to sprinkle some fine sand (true sand, not ‘dirt’ or other organic material that will only clog the pores of the wood) into the socket. Setting up with your spindle and running your kit with the sand in there will often abrade away both surfaces. (It’s like having nature’s sandpaper between them.)
- String Sliding around Spindle – You may notice that every few strokes (or worse, every stroke) when you push/pull the bow, the string simply slides around the spindle while the spindle remains still, unspun.The Fix:
- This is typically an inbalance in the downward-pressure to string-tension ratio. The pressure is too much for the amount of tension on the string (not enough friction on the spindle to turn it). You can try backing off the downward pressure a bit OR tightening the string while retaining the same amount of pressure. (In my experience, most folks simply need to tighten their string a little bit. The pressure is probably what you want.)
- The Unpatented-Gone-Feral-Secret-String-Tensioning-Maneuver: Without even realizing it, pretty much without fail, my right hand sneaks-in a little secret juice. Using the thumb and index finger of my right hand (on the bow), I pinch the string and torque it a bit, providing a slight ‘cam’ motion to the string (a rotational-leverage motion). It instantly tightens the string even more, and allows you to adjust the tension subtly, as needed. You’ll be holding the bow (stick) itself in the meaty portion of your palm, with the last three fingers providing the stability. The thumb and index are free to go wild.[Photo of thumb/index cam maneuver]
- Spindle Popping out of Bow – This is typically the opposite of the String Sliding around Spindle issue. It’s often a product of too much tension on the string/spindle and not enough downward pressure. (So the spindle is given enough ‘room’ to slip out). Even more often, it’s likely that the spindle is not remaining absolutely vertical (typically the top tips bath toward you, pushing the bottom away). In that case, the bottom slides out of the socket, often ‘blowing-out’ the socket or ‘dishing’ it out, creating a flattish socket that is more likely to allow the spindle to pop out in the future, or at least wobble/slide back and forth in the socket as you spin the spindle.The Fix:
- Do it right the first time. (Perfectly vertical spindle. No wobble. Correct string-tension to downward-pressure ratio.)
- Once the spindle begins popping out, your problems are only beginning. Each time you setup and run the kit as before, you’ll have a higher likelihood of it popping again. While it’s a slightly advanced technique/troubleshooting strategy, eventually you’ll want to try: Assuming the spindle popped out of the fireboard directly away from you, blowing out the notch-side of the spindle, oriented away, lean the handhold/top of the spindle away from yourself, which will drill the spindle into the fireboard back toward you. It’s just a matter of angles. You’re no longer vertical, but you can find the ideal angle to maximize friction on the fireboard while maintaining the spindle in the socket (without it flying out).
- Blown Socket – One edge of the socket is broken or worn – often contributing to the spindle popping out of the kit.The Fix: See above ‘Spindle Popping Out of Bow’
- Conditions – It’s always best to practice under the conditions in which you’ll want to make fire with a bow drill. Live in the Pacific Northwest? Practice in high-humidity, moist conditions, with appropriate materials. Live in the desert Southwest? Practice under those conditions. Even if it hasn’t been raining, the humidity in the air can be soaked-up by your kit to the degree that it changes its fire-making ability. It’s not that it’s impossible to make fire with a humid/wet kit, but worth noting the differences between humidity levels, kit components/wood species, your body, etc.The Fix: Practice. Under various conditions.
- Still not getting a coal? – OK, so you’ve put in several hours of practice, over a dozen or so different sessions. You’re doing everything as above: good form, great kit of appropriate materials, ideal weather conditions. You’ve thrown your kit against the wall (or a tree) at least a half dozen times and used language that would make Keith Richards blush. And you’re still not getting a coal. Heard.The Fix:
- #1 – Don’t blame it on the kit. I encourage you to revisit everything above. Have a friend review it with you and watch your form. Video yourself and view it from an outside perspective. Nitpick yourself. Really criticize and get in there. What could you do better?
- #2 – Fiber Size. You’ve got perfect form. The kit is running smoothly, without slipping or squeaking. Look at the dust being pushed into the notch. Is it longish-fibrous or fine-cumulative? Most species of woods make coals easier through fibers that are so small they’re almost invisible. They’re ‘dust’ not ‘particles’. If you’re seeing small ‘splinters’ of wood, more fibers than not, consider the species of wood and/or the part of wood or wood condition you’ve chosen. I’ve seen even ‘ideal’ woods, like cedar, produce ‘fibers’ not ‘particles’ and not produce coals (given good form and kit).
- #3 – Carve a new kit. If you’ve really, honestly, given it your best go, time and again, reviewed it and nitpicked. Judged and judged again. Given it your best, hardest, under good conditions, and you’re still not getting a coal, just carve a new kit. Maybe using the same materials. But consider changing it up. Change species. Change parts of the wood. Not all trees are created equal. Play with the thousands or millions of variables of a bow drill kit: species, part of the tree, age, condition, diameter/size of equipment, your interaction with a new kit, etc. If nothing else, it will only serve you to experiment with new kits. You will learn, regardless.
Advanced Bow Drill
Once you’ve put in ample practice and are busting coals (under ideal conditions with a primo kit) the majority of times you attempt them, here are my recommended next steps, some ‘advanced’ techniques to practice, and variations to otherwise be aware of.
- Kit Materials – Carve a new kit from different materials. Started with cedar? Move to poplar, cottonwood, or some other type of hardwood. You’ll see similarities, but also begin to notice differences: not all woods work the same. You components also don’t have to be the same species. Try a poplar spindle with a cedar fireboard. (The lingo with the in-crowd is ‘poplar on cedar’.) Some of my favorite combos are cedar on cottonwood, poplar on cedar, and cottonwood on cottonwood.
- Inclement Weather Conditions – Cool. You’ve gotten the hand of busting coals on beautiful, ideal days. But what about when it’s been raining all day? Or when you have to carve a kit under less-than-desirable conditions? I recommend a step-down approach. Slowly introduce extra variables and challenges: practice on really humid days (your perfect kit will soak up the moisture from the air and not perform like it usually does), windy days, let your kit get a little wet then practice, carve a new kit from materials that have been rained on for an hour, or four, or twenty-four. There tends to be an inversely-proportionate relationship between the importance of making a fire – and how lowsy the conditions are. Practice when it’s 40 degrees outside, then 20 degrees, then zero. Could you bust a coal with stiff hands in negative-twenty temps?
- Natural Cordage – Up until now, you’ve been practicing with synthetic cordage and, really, there’s no comparison between it and natural cordage. The tensile strength of synthetic cord is simply superior to natural cordage in every way (except that it may stretch a bit, depending on your cord choice). So when you’re ready to make the jump to natural cordages, you can’t make your bow string quite so tight – the cord won’t handle it. So some of your hard-earned skills are all but useless. (My personal strategy of a tight string and hard, early downward pressure goes right out the window.) Pop Quiz: if you can’t make the string as tight, how else could you gain as much ‘grip’ (friction) between the string and the spindle, in order to still make it turn? The answer…Multiple wraps of the string around the spindle. When you’re attaching the string to the bow, attach the first end, then make 3 wraps instead of one, before connecting it to the far end of the bow.The process of making fire with a natural cordage bow drill becomes much more about ‘string management’ than before. If you see-saw your bow as you run it back and forth, the string will wrap over itself and jam you up, sort of like a bike chain getting caught in multiple gears. You’ll come screeching to a stop. As you begin the practice of natural cordage bow drill, take it slow and focus on making sure the multiple wraps remain parallel to one another and clean as they run back and forth.
- Step-down Spindle – If you’re really struggling with a particular kit (spindle material, specifically), try this: re-carve the bottom inch or so of your spindle to a narrower diameter. The cord will still ride on the spindle at its larger diameter, but the friction will be created through a ‘spindle’ of a narrower diameter. You’re effectively ‘stepping-down’ the gear ratio, gaining a mechanical advantage: You have the gripping ‘power’/surface area of the larger diameter but gaining the rotational velocity (and increasing pounds-per-square-inch) by using the narrower diameter.When carving a step-down spindle, I’ll lay it down on a solid but knife-forgiving surface (like a stump), with my knife perpendicular to it.Press down with the knife and rotate the spindle, You’ll create a groove all the way around the spindle. Rotate a few times, pressing deeper. Then carve the spindle narrower to that point.
- Notchless Fireboard – This is where you can start throwing everything you know about bow drill out the proverbial window. Until now, we’ve relied on the ideal notch in our fireboard: It’s the ‘gutter’ for the dust to collect and allows oxygen to get to it. But do you really need it? No, Virginia, there doesn’t have to be a notch in your fireboard. (We’re starting to border on that perceived magical piece…) The Notchless Fireboard generally works like this: Prepare your fireboard as usual, but instead of carving a notch, just setup and spend ample time drilling a deep socket. Make it as deep as you want, without drilling through the fireboard. Make it a little ‘bucket’. See where this is going? Now move your spindle over, carving a new divot, so that the spindle barely overlaps the first socket. Burn-in a new socket and then go for a coal. The dust will dump into the bucket of the first socket, with it acting as the notch: collecting the dust and allowing oxygen to get to it. Know that it’s a tricky (more difficult) way to bust a coal, which is why the V-notch is preferable and far more popular. (I can count on one hand the number of people I’veever seen use a Notchless Fireboard.)
- Two-stick Fireboard – This is one of my favorite techniques, because it begins to get at simplicity (especially when used with a hand drill). Instead of carving the perfectly-rectangular flat fireboard from one piece of wood, to use the Two-stick Fireboard technique just cut and tie together two pieces of same-diameter, same-species wood (~3/4″ x 12″). Instead of a divot in the traditional fireboard, nick each stick just enough to make a groove for the spindle to set in so it won’t slide around. No need to even worry about a notch. When bow-drilling, the dust will fall between the sticks, eventually forming your coal beneath the two-stick fireboard. If you’re having trouble getting the dust to fall through, you may need to widen the space a bit between the sticks. Sometimes I’ll put a little wedge between the sticks and one end. More often, I’ll tie the stifks together at one end and leave them separate at the other. I’ll set the space on the other end how I want it, then step on both sticks with my left foot, holding them in place. Doing this in bare feet lets you make subtle adjustments with the foot to that distance while you’re running the kit. (Yeah, we go there.)
- Miniature Kit/Finger Bow – How do you know when you need to get out more? (When you’ve mastered this technique.) What’s the smallest bow drill kit you could mae (and successfully use to make fire)? What if the stick of your bow was formed using your hand? Try the ‘Hang-Ten Bow’ and attach a string to your thumb and pinky. Or maybe your thumb to middle finger would be stronger. You’ll apply tension to the string by stretching/expanding your hand outwards and keeping it there. Hand strength is a plus. The size of your spindle needs to be accordingly smaller.
- XL Kit/Hunting Bow – What about going the opposite direction and making a huge kit? Like a bow drill kit using your actual 6-foot hunting bow? A 2″ spindle? Tag-team the bow. Have a third person apply their full body weight to the ‘handhold’ for downward pressure. With a bow big enough, you could theoretically make fire with a telephone pole (or whole tree).
- Camp Bow Drill – If you’re going to be in one place for a long while, or are setting up a camp you’ll return to, you can rig up a ‘handhold’ that’s a little more permanent and applies downward pressure without your assistance. The typical setup is to take a pair of sticks/limbs (it helps to have some weight) and lash them them on either side of a tree so that they cross a foot or so out from the tree. (You can also use a natural V or Y stick.) Lashing the sticks so they have a twisting motion downward is helpful but not necessary. Attach your handhold to the bottom of the sticks, where they cross. Setup your fireboard, spindle, and bow beneath and inline with the handhold. Then apply static weight (rocks, water jug) to the top of the crossed sticks. That will apply your downward pressure and be one less variable you have to manage (wobble) as you run the kit. Simply show up and run the bow back and forth. The Camp Drill takes care of the rest.
- Dual/Team Bow Drill – A final thought is on the multi-person bow drill. Most often, this comes into play when the primary bow-driller is 90% there but running out of steam. It’s helpful to have a friend with fresh energy able to come in and assist. I encourage my students to actively practice this method, as it’s a realistic skill to need under your belt if you want to have success with the bow drill in various inclement conditions. Person #1 sets-up and goes for it as usual. As they’re getting tired, Person #2 comes in, gets the timing of the speed of the bow and joins-in, mid-stroke from the opposite end of the bow. I like to have Person #1 continue holding the bow but begin to back of the strength/effort they’re putting into the bow/motion. Person #2 takes that over. Person #1 continues to focus on the downward pressure/stability of the handhold/spindle. Their bow-hand is mostly along for the ride (and it helps to gauge the feel of the kit and how to balance the spindle by feeling/knowing the motion of the bow). [As Person #2, I also like to lay my off-hand on top of Person #1’s handhold-hand. I can assist in applying downward pressure, at the possible expense of crushing their hand a little between my weight and the handhold. (Why all the screaming?)]A variation on this is one way I sometimes introduce the bow drill to beginners, whether middle school students or corporate retreat participants: I’ll put unknowing participants into groups of 4 and then give them the 4 pieces of a bow drill kit. GO! No explanation. No demo. Just figure it out. It’s pretty educational (and often entertaining) to witness the methods people figure out in order to make fire with a bow drill.
Which brings us back to my beginning comment that there’s no one ‘right way’ to make fire with a bow drill. What’s above isn’t necessarily what’s right. It’s what I’ve found to be successful for me, my students, and colleagues over 15+ years of learning, practicing, and teaching the bow drill across thousands of miles, making thousands and thousands of fires, over various climates, through all four seasons, using dozens if not hundreds of wood combinations, in adverse conditions (and not). I’d encourage you to learn from what’s above. And if you figure out some other way to make fire with a bow drill? Awesome.
It’s the making of the fire that’s the thing.
Good luck. Happy bow-drilling. And keep those friction fires burning.
If you like what you’re learning (and how I explain it), check out Gone Feral’s distance-based online study program, THE PACK: