Friction Fire Lighting - How to make a Bow Drill Set.
Updated: Apr 1
There are a number of primitive methods that woodsmen have been using for centuries. What distinguishes this method is that you will be using an ember to ignite tinder materials. You can see my demonstration of 'The Bow Drill Technique' using my bow drill set here.
You will use your bow-drill kit to create an ember, a smouldering coal to add to a bird's nest of combustible material. The ember is a critical component of the bow-drill kit because you cannot make fire without it.
To create fire you require three elements:
'The Fire Triangle'
HEAT + OXYGEN + FUEL.
It is crucial that you ensure these three elements happen - and in the correct order - so that you get the desired output.
A Bow Drill Set is made up of the following:
1. Hearth Board
3. Bearing Block
When used correctly these components work as a simple machine that removes material and causes a fine dust to accumulate. The dust is then heated by the drill's friction at which point oxygen in the surrounding air will allow ignition. Choosing the correct components, using the right form, and understanding when and how much pressure and speed to apply are the key inputs to this process.
1. HEARTH BOARD
The Hearth Board should be made from the same softwood as the spindle. Although I used Pine for my Hearth and Hazel for the Spindle which worked well (to my relief). A good rule of thumb is to use wood that you can make a imprint in with your finger nail. The wood should be dry but not in a state of decay. I always look for the lower branches of trees often hanging dead and have been able to dry out above ground. Select a limb or piece of wood larger than what you need so that you can split it down to make a flat board with these dimensions - your finished Hearth Board needs to be as long as your forearm in length and the thickness of your thumb.
Careful construction of the hearth board and the notch, which must be made correctly in order to achieve a collection of material for a coal while gathering enough oxygen for ignition.
Make a small divot in a spot on the hearth. Where you make this initial starting point is dependent on whether you are left or right handed, as part of the board will be under your foot - see here. Just make sure that divot is not too close to the end as that may cause the board to split or break under pressure. A good starting point would be about 2'' from the end closest to your dominant hand. You do not need to make the divot very deep; it only needs to guide the spindle during the burning process.
Make the spindle from a softwood so that when you push down on it your fingernail leaves an impression. Pine, Hazel and Willow are all good woods to use. The spindle only needs to be about the same diameter as your thumb and the length from your outstretched thumb to pinky. Since you will be carving both ends, it is ok to leave it a little longer.
The spindle needs to be as straight and round as possible. Use the back of your knife to carefully shave out any crooks or bends in the wood until straight. Now prepare the ends - one end of the drill should like a worn eraser on a pencil; slightly rounded but still flat. This end will be the placed on the hearth board to create maximum surface area and friction. You want all the friction between the spindle and the hearth to be in this spot. The top of the spindle needs to be shaped like the led side of a pencil; pointed shape but slightly dull. Make sure there is very little friction at the top of the spindle so that you can push and pull the bow easily.
3. BEARING BLOCK
A key ingredient of the set but the most complicated to start. It should be made from the hardest wood available, such as oak or beech. Softwoods will wear away quickly. If the wood is too soft the spindle will rub on the angled areas below the point. This is called shouldering out, and it will leave you exhausted and inhibit the set from running smoothly.
Select a sapling that is about 3'' in diameter and cut out a 4''-5'' piece on the widest end. Then split one third off the sapling using your knife. Use your knife to create a small divot on the flat side of this block, right in the middle. The divot needs to be large enough to accept the point of the spindle. A free spinning drill will be easy to operate. If you are having problems with your setup, the spinning drill is the first place to check.
NOTE - the bearing block is the most difficult item to produce, and it controls everything. In general, any hard, natural material makes a good block as long as a divot can be carved into it. Rocks, bones, and antlers will all work.
4. THE BOW
The bow can be made form any branch and does not need to be necessarily bent like a bow, but it needs to be fairly stiff so that it does not break under strain. It should be about 3' long and 1/2'' in diameter. The longer the bow, the fewer number of stroked it will take to rotate the spindle.
Making the bow is as simple as tying a string/paracord to a branch. There are many complicated notches and holes you can create to string the bow, but I have found that a simple fork on one end of the stick and a stake notch on the other end to tie it off with a straight lashing and a clove hitch works best. The string does not need to be so tight that it causes the bow to bend in order to load the spindle, but the string cannot be too loose that the drill slips under downward pressure.
6. WELCOME MAT.
A place for your coal to flow onto once it is created in the notch. The welcome mat can be a small silver bark, a leaf or a thin piece of wood that is about two times as wide as the notch. This piece will go under the hearth board to catch the coal.
7. BIRDS NEST
The ember that you ignite with your bow an drill will be used to ignite a birds nest, a key part of your fire lay. The birds nest must be made up of coarse, medium and fine materials. Most of the materials you gather to make the hearth and spindle can be used when assembling the birds nest. Materials with a natural accelerant or highly combustible birch bark.
If you come across a birds nest in the wild, take a look at how it is constructed. When building their nests, birds place fine material in the middle or centre and add progressively coarser material as they work their way to the outside.
BURNING THE HOLE AND MAKING THE NOTCH.
Now that the components of your bow drill are ready, it is time to get started. First load the spindle onto the bow. Place the spindle on the divot on the hearth board. Set yourself up with the correct form: Make sure your wrist is locked into your shin in order to prevent the spindle from moving side to side. Make sure there is no obstruction that will interfere with the full movement of the bow. Lean forward to push steady downward pressure on the spindle with the bearing block. Your chest should be over your knee. Begin to apply enough downward pressure with the bearing block to hold the drill in the divot as you slowly rotate the spindle. It is important that you move slowly because this step will marry the drill to the divot for when you begin to create the coal. If you use the entire bow with steady strokes, downward pressure will create enough friction to begin burning the wood. Find a nice steady rhythm to get going. Stop once the wood has burned around the spindle and things are running smoothly because using too much material now reduces what you have to make a coal.
Next you need to make a notch from the centre of the freshly burned divot hole to the edge of the hearth board. The notch must be made correctly in order to achieve a collections of material for a coal while gathering enough oxygen for ignition. You always want the notch to the front of the board facing away from you because this will allow you to easily view the process when operating the drill. Take care that your notch areas is not too narrow, which will cause it to clog up, prevent overspill and limit oxygen to the ember. Alternatively, make sure the burned divot hole is not too big because dust needs to be compact and the oxygen controlled. A proper notch should be in a V cut in which the bottom of the V goes approximately 1/8 the size of your burned divot circle into the blackened area. The angles of the V should be between 30-45 degrees.
Now you are ready to begin making fire with sticks! Watch my youtube video 'The Bow Drill Technique' to see how it is done.
Let me know how you get on by leaving a comment on this post.
All the best,