The Bow Drill Fire Kit
The easiest way to make fire by friction (that is, by "rubbing two
sticks together") is the bow drill fire. Another method is the hand
drill fire, which is harder to learn, but has the advantage of
not requiring cordage, and therefore being easier if you had to start
completely from scratch using only naturally occuring materials.
For beginners to friction fire, I would recommend starting with
the bow drill fire. The easiest way of all to get started is to purchase
drill firemaking kit, which is what I did. My kit came from
J. Elpel's website and cost US$28. I learned how to use it from the excellent Fire Volume 1 DVD.
Firemaking without using modern equipment is a two-step
process. The first step is to make a glowing hot ember,
or "coal". The second step is to place the coal into a tinder bundle
and blow it until
you get an actual flame.
The bow drill fire requires four basic parts: The bow, the drill,
the fireboard (also called the hearth or base board), and the handpiece.
It is also very useful to have a fifth part, some kind of flat board
(cardboard or wood work fine) to place under the fireboard to catch
the wood dust as it forms into a coal. An overview of the assembled
bow drill is shown below. Note that the pointed end of the drill
upward, with the blunt end at the bottom doing the drilling.
You also need a tinder bundle (see below).
drill firemaking kit assembled and ready to go.
Note the correct body position, as shown in the picture
above. There is a proper body position for the bow drill, and you
will find it much easier if you adopt it. For a right-handed position,
kneel on your right knee, with your left foot supporting the unused
end of the fireboard and holding it firmly in position. Your right
hand holds the bow and your left hand holds the handpiece at the
top of the drill spindle, with your left forearm braced on your left
thigh close to your knee. A left-handed position is all that with
left and right sides exchanged.
Note also the correct orientation for the bowstring. It is wrapped
around the drill spindle so that the drill is on the outside of the
string. That is, if you drew a straight line along the bowsting
(not including the bit that wraps around the drill itself), the string
is between the bow and the drill. This prevents the string from cutting
into itself while you are drilling. Also note that the string is
wrapped around the drill so that the upper
bow towards the end you are holding. This makes it easier to control
This is the bow that was shipped with the kit. It has had some use,
and before long the cord will need replacing. If you want to
make your own, construction of the bow is not difficult.
The wood type is not important, as long as it has a bit of
spring in it.
The upper drill is the one shipped with the kit, after use. Note
that the blunt end (on the right of the photo) is the lower end,
that does the drilling.
This is a close-up of the fireboard, showing the end with holes
where I have made fires. The original fireboard as shipped
with the kit had one hole burned in, with the notch already
cut. I have been able to get about three fires from each
hole before drilling almost all the way through the board.
This is the handpiece. It is a good idea to smear some vaseline (or
animal fat if in a real survival situation) into the hole and onto
the poined end of the drill, to reduce friction. You want plenty
of friction (which is what causes the heat) at the lower end of
the drill, and as little as possible at the top.
This is oakum tinder, also purchased from Thomas
J. Elpel's website. One pound is enough for hundreds of fires if you are
stingy with how much you use.
This is a small tinder bundle, made from oakum tinder. Some people
call this a "bird's nest" as it looks a lot like a small bird's nest.
I like to see how small I can make the tinder bundles and still get a fire. Normally you would make it a lot bigger than this (more like an actual bird's nest).
For today's fire I made a new hole in the fireboard, as the old holes
are almost worn through. Start with a knife or other sharp object
to make a pilot hole. Then you start drilling (with the bow drill
set up as if you were trying to make fire), until you
get some smoke and the hole is a bit charred. You are
not trying to get fire at this stage, just to burn in the
The hole after it has been burned in (on the right of the picture).
The Swiss Army Knife saw as used to cut the notch is also shown.
Cut the notch almost
to the centre of the hole. After the notch is cut, you are ready
had some wood powder left over from a previous attempt (where the
hole was too old, almost going right throught he board, so I had
to stop). I put that in the notch because the coal forms faster if
there is already some powder there. The proper term for the wood
powder is "punk".
Now it is time to start drilling. You
begin slowly, perhaps one second per complete stroke back and forth
with the bow. Press down with the handpiece, but not too hard at
first. As you drill, wood dust (punk) will fall into the notch, and
you will start to see smoke. You need to heat it all up to something
like 800 degrees before it will ignite, so take your time here.
I like to count as it all seems to happen faster when I count.
After counting to about 30, maybe 50, there should be a fair bit
of smoke. At this point, go really hard and fast for a bit longer,
maybe another 20 or 30 counts, although you may need more. When there
has been a lot of smoke, for a while, stop drilling and take the
drill away. Blow gently on the pile of wood dust. If it keeps smoking
after you have stopped drilling, you have a coal! If
it goes out, you need to keep drilling. It is easier in hot, dry
weather than in cold, damp weather.
Once you get a
coal, there is no hurry, it will smoulder away for quite a while
before it goes out, so you can take your time. (When I was taking
this photo series the camera batteries ran out just as I got the
coal. I had time to go back into the house and change the batteries
before placing the coal into the tinder bundle).
Here is the smouldering ember, or "coal", which has formed from
wood powder and got hot enough to stay lit. Blow gently on the
coal to make it spread, then let it rest for a few-several seconds.
Do that a few times until the coal has spread almost right through
the pile of dust.
Then you carefully
lift the fireboard away, and transfer the coal (a small
stick is helpful) into the tinder bundle.
Here you can see the glowing coal in the tinder bundle. I was gently blowing on the
coal to make it glow more as I took the photo.
Wrap the coal up inside the tinder bundle. Hold the tinder bundle
between your fingers, alternately blowing air through it and
then letting it rest for a few-several seconds.
The tinder bundle should suddenly burst into flame (be careful of
your fingers), and now you have fire!
Three Days at the River With Nothing But Out Bare Hands, Thomas J. Elpel (DVD). One of the skills demonstrated in this excellent DVD is how to make a bow drill fire.
The sales pitch goes "No knife. No matches. No food, sleeping bags or other gear. Join Thomas J. Elpel and 13 year-old daughter Felicia for this extraordinary primitive camping experience in southwest Montana. In the cottonwoods along the Jefferson River they demonstrate all the skills required to meet their basic needs, starting with nothing but their bare hands."
This DVD is the first of four volumes in the Art of Nothing Wilderness Survival Series by Thomas J. Elpel. I have all four and they are all excellent. He brings a different guest along with him in each one. In this first volume his daughter Felicia demonstrates many skills (e.g. how to make a bow drill fire) and makes it look like anyone could do this kind of stuff, even normal suburban people who weren't raised by Indians or wild coyotes..
Purchase from Wilderness Awareness School (US) $24.00 US
Fire Vol 1: Rediscovering The Old Ways Series (DVD). This is definitely the best video I have seen on how to make bow drill and hand drill fires. He also covers flint and steel fire starting and how to set up your fire so that it will light the first time (e.g. with one match).
When I first started trying to make friction fires, I didn't have much clue — and it wasn't until I saw this video that I finally got it right. (I didn't have the benefit of survival.org.au to help me though).
Purchase Wilderness Awareness School (US) $26.95 US
Primitive Technology: A Book of Earth Skills, by David Wescott. Awesome book. From a reader's review, “This is, in my humble opinion, the BEST single source for Primitive Skills out there - PERIOD. If you've ever looked through a scientific journal or periodical, that is the basic layout for this book: a compendium of articles, each one detailing a different tool, task, method, or application of a primitive skill. It isn't a high-cut book you need a PhD to understand. You can take this out in the backyard and follow right along, and succeed!” I would agree completely.
Click here to purchase from Australia $33.99 AUD
Purchase Wilderness Awareness School (US) US$24.95
Overview of Firemaking
The Hand Drill Fire Kit
Bow Drill and Hand Drill Firemaking Woods
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