Mastering the art of starting a fire using friction with the bow drill method can be immensely rewarding. It can also be extremely frustrating, difficult and time consuming if proper technique and preparation aren’t followed. This guide will take you through the bow drill process as well as provide you some handy tips on the best techniques to implement when you first begin learning this primitive fire starting process.
Before you jump in head first it’s important to have all the necessary components on hand. These components comprise of a hearth board, drill/spindle, bow with some sort of string or cord, a handhold along with some dry grass and tinder. Some sort of knife or other sharp object will also come in handy as you will need to do some light wood carving. Let’s start with the preparation of these materials and how they are utilised in creating fire without the help of modern tools or fire starters.
Constructing Your Hearth Board
Your hearth board should be a length of wood approximately one inch thick and four inches wide that is long enough to give a firm platform with minimal wobble. I recommend using cedar or hazel for this when first learning as softer woods are more suitable and easier to work with. This can be purchased at any DIY or timber shop for a small cost for the purpose of practicing if you have none available on your property; though I highly recommend just venturing into the woods and finding it naturally. You’ll have to eventually. Once you have found a usable piece of wood proceed to split it about one inch from the edge leaving the hearth board at about three inches wide. The excess wood you split can then be fashioned into your spindle.
You should then make a circular notch/divot in your hearth board approximately one inch from the edge using a knife, rock or anything else harder than the piece of wood. This will be the point at where your drill will make contact with the hearth board. The notch doesn’t have to be too deep, just deep enough to provide purchase to your drill.
Next cut an angled indentation into the side of your hearth board that goes about a quarter of the way into the circular notch. This should be done by carving out an inverted ‘V’ shape in line with the circular notch you earlier made on the surface of the hearth board. Skinnier at the top and widening out as it falls toward the ground. This is done to allow any dust to escape while allowing the ember to be collected below the hearth board. Think of it as an upside down funnel that is just wide enough at the spindle hole to allow dust and debris to be cleared away and contained in the larger area below. Don’t make it too wide at the top or the spindle will slip out while being spun. This part is a little hard to visualize so I made a crude diagram and included it below for a visual aid.
The spindle is a straight, cylindrical piece of wood approximately one foot in length that the bow string is wrapped around which you then spin/drill on the hearth board to create friction, which will ultimately lead to an ember you can use to start a fire. Using the excess wood you earlier split from your hearth board you will now make your drill or spindle. The wood should be rounded off into a cylindrical shape on one end that will make contact with the hearth board. It’s important that the drill is as straight as possible to enable it to spin properly with good efficiency.
The top of the spindle should be sharpened to a slight point as this will later be in contact with a notch in your handhold. If it isn’t pointed enough there will be too much friction and the drill won’t spin as freely making your work that much harder.
The bottom end of the spindle should also initially be made into a slight point as you will be using the drill action to mate the spindle with the hearth board. This is done by using the bow and giving the drill a few spins on the hearth board notch. Once that is done the notch on your hearth board will have enlarged to a size which corresponds with the diameter of your drill. After that you should flatten out the pointed drill end.
The bow itself can be made from most live branches that have a little flexibility (not too much or the string will slip). It should be around half an inch or a thumb’s width in diameter. It is useful if one end of the bow is Y shaped as this will help in stringing it. I like to drill a hole on the other end to make it really secure, but in a survival situation you may not have a tool capable of that so simply carving out a notch and tying the string around it will suffice.
The actual string can be made from any material you have handy with enough strength. Paracord is an obvious choice, but shoelaces and even plant fibers or roots can fulfill this requirement. The string of the bow should not be tight, but not too loose either. To test this simply wrap your bow string around the spindle and make sure it is able to move from one end of the bow to the other.
Finally, you will need a handhold to apply pressure at the top of the spindle that allows it to spin easily without hurting your hand. They can be made from a wide range of materials such as shells, antlers, glass, half a hickory nut shell, hard plastic or tin (bottom of a cola can for example). A word of caution: if you do use plastic I recommend rounding off the top of the spindle so it isn’t quite as sharp. Otherwise it could possible bore through a plastic based handhold and injure your hand, which is the last thing you need in a survival situation.
Wood can be used as a handhold but isn’t ideal as it tends to overheat from the friction. It also wear down quicker than other materials and creates dust. If you do have to use a wooden handhold make your spindle even more pointed on the top to create as little drag as possible with the handhold. As mentioned earlier the top of your drill will be pressed onto the handhold so a small indentation or notch should be made in it to provide purchase. The spindle is pointed to achieve this while reducing the amount of friction.
A Word On Tinder
There are many materials which can be used as timber. Crushed cedar bark, dry leaves and grasses, shredded paper and cotton balls are all excellent choices. Finding timber that is completely dry and free of moisture will improve your odds greatly when you get that first ember.
Proper Bow Drill Technique
Now that you have assembled all the components needed to create fire using a bow drill it is time to get down to the job in hand. This is the trickiest part of the whole operation. It will take some practice and a lot of time to master, so be patient.
A base of some sort should be added below your hearth board to ensure it isn’t in contact with the damp ground and to catch the ember. A piece of bark serves this purpose well. Assuming you’re right handed you should secure the hearth board with your left foot then wrap your left arm around this leg and make sure your wrist is tight against your shin. This hand will be applying pressure to the hand hold and drill. You should then use your right hand to operate the bow (and vice versa if you’re a lefty).
It is important to add sufficient pressure to the handhold to ensure the drill doesn’t come loose from the hearth board while maintaining a vigorous sawing motion with the bow. You should notice the board first smoking and then later producing an ember if done correctly. The ember should then be transferred to the tinder whereupon you should blow firmly on it until it ignites into fire.
Best Tips & Tricks to Bow Drill Fire Starting
- Start off slowly then increase the pressure and speed gradually, then reduce pressure and speed gradually before increasing both again in this repeating pattern.
- Don’t be afraid of blowing too heavily on your tinder with the ember inside. As long as you don’t use so much force that you physically blow the ember out of the timber you’ll be fine, so the stronger the better.
- If your drill is sticking and not spinning properly then most likely your handhold needs a bit of lubrication. A little oil (even the oils from your skin) can be used to lubricate this. However, do not get it too wet as this will just cause even more binding.
- Ensure your spindle is nearly perfectly straight and the drill end is well rounded at all times.
- Be mindful of the color of the coal produced. If it’s light brown in color then you are going too slowly/not putting enough pressure on the drill. If it’s a very dark black and flaky you are going too fast/putting too much pressure on it. Ideally you want a fluffy, dark brown buildup of powder for best results.
- Take extra time to make sure all the components are well crafted, fit properly and are strong enough to take the abuse this technique inflicts.
- Get a survival knife with a bow drill spindle insert built into the handle. For example, the TOPS CUMA Tak-Ri 2 we reviewed has a spindle hole on each side of the handle allowing the knife to be used as a handhold. Or you can modify a spindle insert into an existing knife.
Be patient. It’s often a frustrating process for beginners and you may feel like you are making no headway, but with a little perseverance (and a lot of trial and error) you will have the bow drill method mastered and ready to apply those skills during any survival situation. The ability to start a fire with only the materials you find in nature is a valuable skill that everyone should practice. It could one day be the difference between life and death.