Bow and Drill Friction Fire
Fire by friction may be one of the toughest and most under appreciated primitive survival skills. Sure a lot of people talk about it and demonstrate it as I am here today, but to truly appreciate it you really have to try it! It’s tough, even when you know the proper technique and have practiced in good conditions, getting fire by friction with a bow and drill or any other method is just down right hard in most cases. However, with some knowledge, a lot of practice and a ton of patience it is a viable option for getting a fire started in the wild with little to no manmade materials. But here is the deal, if you just read this blog and watch the video below and think that you will be able to get a fire going if you ever really needed to in an emergency, your wrong, dead wrong. It simply won’t happen. Honestly, you would have a better chance of finding a fire breathing dragon and training him to start your fires for you…. Im just saying…this isn’t easy!
So here are the parts and pieces that you will need to get a bow and drill ember and turn it into flame:
The Bow And Drill Piece #1: The Bow
Usually the curved piece of wood you select should be about thumb sized diameter. I prefer to use green wood from a live tree, but dead wood will work as well. It should be just large enough to be sturdy and big enough so that you can comfortably grab it. I also carved a couple of notches about an inch from the end of the stick just to be sure the cord won’t slide around on me.
On the remaining end I put two small v shaped notches on the very end of the stick and then run the cord up over the end and then wrap it back on itself. Tying a series of half hitches to hold it in place. You want the cord to be just loose enough to very snuggly twist your spindle into once your ready to do that. The cord can be any type of cord or rope that will hold up to the high amount of friction. 550 Paracord works very well, as do many shoelaces. You can use thinner line, but I find that getting adequate pressure without having the line slip is tough to do with smaller diameter line. I prefer something about the diameter of 550 cord. If you are going to utilize natural cordage, it can be done, but just make sure you use the toughest and strongest cordage material you can find. Personally, I have seen smoke and ember dust generated with a bow using natural cordage, but have never seen a successful ember made from a bow with natural cordage. For me, the cord always breaks before the coal is formed. But I am sure it can be done with the right material.
The Bow And Drill Piece # 2: The Spindle or Drill
Spindles can be made from a variety of material, however the main characteristics you are looking for is something that is dead and dry, non resinous (pine and fir don’t work really well), softwood or medium deciduous hardwood, about thumb sized diameter, with a straight section approximately 6 to 9 inches in length and sturdy. Personally I prefer to use a good dry piece of Cedar, Juniper, Wooly Mullein or Yucca stem. However, Willow, Hazel, Aspen, Poplar and Basswood all work very well too. This is by no means an all inclusive list, when looking for a good spindle just focus on the characteristics, the specific type isn’t as important. I also tend to think that materials that have a pithy center like Wooly Mullein, tend to make a better and longer lasting ember. When preparing the spindle I carve the business end to a uniform curve, but not a point. On the other end I round off the corners a bit but leave the end flatter.
The Bow And Drill Piece # 3: The Hearth or Base Board
The characteristics you are looking for in the Hearth are similar to the spindle in some respects. Dead, dry, straight, sturdy. You need something at least a little wider that the diameter of the spindle. Generally a foot or so in length is plenty and ideally around 3/4 of an inch thick. It can be made of many of the same types of woods listed above. Text books often times say that you should consider either using the same material for the spindle and hearth. I prefer for the hearth to be slightly harder than the Spindle. One of the most important things you need to do when preparing the Hearth is to cut a V notch about 3/16 of an inch at its widest point. Ensure the notch extends into the Hearth to where the center of the Spindle will sit once you carve out the initial concave divot to set the Spindle into. The notch scrapes away the superheated Spindle material that will pile up and become the ember. Without the notch, you probably won’t get this going at all. As you can see from the picture you also want the Spindle to sit as close to the edge of the Hearth as possible, but not be hanging over the edge.
The Bow And Drill Piece # 4: The Socket
The Socket can also be a variety of materials, some primitive expert favorites are bone, antler, stone, or good solid deciduous hardwoods like Maple, Oak, Walnut, etc. When using stone as a Socket I find that a smooth sedimentary type stone is usually best. Essentially you are looking for anything that naturally has a concave divot or something that you can carve a concave divot into that will hold the spindle upright while you are working the bow back and forth. I tend to prefer a piece of cedar, juniper as they are easier to work with and they always seem to work fine. If you have a small amount of lubricant that you can put into the divot, that will help keep the friction down on the Socket end. A lubricant could be anything like Chapstick, Carmax, lip balm, suntan lotion, Vaseline, antibiotic ointment, led from a pencil, animal fat, spit, even the natural skin oils from the crease of your nose or from behind your ears will help some. As far as size and shape go basically you just need something that will fit in the palm of your hand that you can control and is large enough to have the Spindle rest neatly in the center of it.
The Bow And Drill Piece # 5 : The Catch Board
This can be any dry flat and fairly sturdy piece of wood, bark, or other material. Essentially you just need something to sit under the hearth to catch the ember.
Bow And Drill Preparation: Tinder Nest or Birds Nest
Basically you are looking for dead, dry, fibrous material that will ignite into flame easily. Dead grass, dry cedar or juniper bark, dead leaves, cattail duff, thistle duff, dry lichens goats beard, old mans beard, etc. Usually I find that a combination of several natural tinders types of times works best. Some natural tinders like cattail duff and thistle duff may ignite easily, but won’t generally burn long enough to get kindling burning, so it is best to supplement with other longer burning tinders as well. If you have a light, airy, dry manmade tinder with you, you can add that in the nest as well. A 2 x 2 gauze pad, cotton ball, section of 100% cotton tee shirt will all work well too. For this demo I used a small handful of dry Juniper bark. You want to make sure that it is ripped up into shreds (even more so than mine was) and fashioned into something that resembles a birds nest. Make sure there is enough tinder in the nest so that it will burn long enough to get your kindling ignited. To be honest I should have had twice as much as I did in the video below. Once your ember or coal is formed on the catch board you will gently dump the ember into the birds nest and blow it into flame. One tip on letting your ember form is to let it sit and burn for 30 seconds or more. Doing so allows the ember to spread to the surrounding dust and helps the ember to grow larger and more solid. If you dump the ember too quickly into the Birds Nest you may have a problem with it falling apart or blowing out before you get your tinder ignited, like I did on one of my attempts on the video below. Just let it form for a while then gently dump it in the nest and blow it to a flame. Its just that easy….lol. yea right.
Take a look at the video below to see how it all comes together in perfect conditions… Again I highly recommend a lot of practice out in the wild in varying conditions when you DON”T need a fire for your survival. Start practicing at home with materials that are perfectly dried out and in great condition. Then move to the field and use the same materials from home but in field conditions. Then gather the materials from the field that day and build it all in the field. Then if you really want a challenge try building one in wet freezing cold sleet on two foot of snow. Once you have that licked your ready to be able to consider bow and drill as readily available and realistic fire making option in an emergency situation. But unless your willing to put that kind of effort into honing this skill. I highly recommend just carrying a fire steel or bic lighter… 🙂 Don’t get me wrong I love primitive fire and the minimalist mindset. But I happen to think that fire is too important to be taken lightly in the wild. Just FYI: Even though I know how to do this and have made many bow and drill fires in field conditions I still don’t personally ever rely on this type of firecraft as a primary method. I do it for fun and to keep my skill up on it, but always try to be prepared with a man made tinder and a fire steel or Bic lighter. Hope this helps. Stay safe.
Take a look at the video below to see how I practiced building a Bow and Drill Fire
What method of fire by friction are you comfortable building a fire with? Please leave a comment in the section below!
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