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Bow Drill Friction Fire beginners guide.

Posted by Leigh Robinson on

Always look for the quickest and most efficient way to make a bow drill set. Aim to spend the least amount of calories and only the absolute minimum amount of time and effort necessary to complete the task.

This is how I make a bow drill set in pine woods. It is very quick and straight forward. Bow Drill sets comprise of Hearth Board, Spindle, Bearing Block, Bow and Cordage.

Bow Drill Set

I use starter cord for cordage. Starter cord is inelastic and very hard wearing. So I can reuse it many times. Shoe laces are good. They wear out after a few uses though. Paracord isn’t very good. It stretches and eventually breaks. You can double it over, giving additional strength. Natural cordage can be used and completes the skill set.

1. Look for dead standing wood.

Dead standing tree

I look for the tip of a tree that has blown over, is off the ground, perfectly straight so I have a ready made spindle and tapers out wide enough so I can cut a hearth from it too.

2. Check the decay.

Test wood decay

Cut a slice into the inner bark. Is the bark green and alive? Does it feel moist, cold? If you are unsure, put your lips to it. Your looking for dry and dead. And if you can scratch your nail into it, that is a good sign. Take time to choose your materials. If they are unviable you have to start all over again. This is why you don’t spend hours making a beautiful bow drill set with poor materials.

3. Cut out the hearth and spindle.

Make complete bow drill set from same tree

Getting the hearth and spindle from the same tree is a great way to ensure a similar level of decay and performance. Mixing woods adds more variables and potentially more challenges. Bow Drill is all about reducing variables to increase the probability of success.

I cut the spindle out and make it almost the length of my shin and a little over an inch thick. I like spindles long as when I’m drilling, the spindle wears down quickly. If you don’t get an ember first time, you will need to re-trim the spindle. I’ve been caught out with spindles worn short and had to go find a new spindle.

I cut the hearth board out. I like them about 12 inches long and a couple inches wide. Anything bigger will require more prep work.

Often you can get a bow out of the same tree. 3 feet long, straight, but has flex in it. The flex helps with tension on the cord. If you use a solid wood that is bent, it is very hard to keep the correct tension. Many schools teach solid bows and it is not the best way.

4. Prepare the hearth board.

Preparing the Hearth Board for Bow Drill

Make it about an inch thick and all sides perfectly flat. You will see the quality of the wood. If it is shaving well and dry throughout.

5. Prepare the spindle.

Carving the Spindle for Bow Drill

Remove the bark. Make the thinner end like a worn pencil tip. Pointed but not sharp. Make the other end bevelled. Check it is straight and true.

6. Cut a depression in the board for the spindle.

Check the socket spins

Make sure the spindle spins freely in the depression.

7. Prepare the bearing block.

Prepare the bearing block

Use greenwood ideally. Find a green branch that you can barely get your hand around. Cut it a hands width and split it. Then cut a depression in it that will take the pointed end of your spindle.

8. Prepare your bow.

Make the Bow

Tie cord off one end. Cut notch in other end. Bend it slightly and tie off.

9. Burn in your socket.

Get Bow Drilling

Lock your wrist at the shin. Start with slow, full length bowing. The set will give you feedback on any issues.

10. Check your socket.

Burn the set in

Get a good burned in socket. The set should smoke whilst bowing. Keep going so you have a deep socket to work with. A shallow socket will make your set pop out when trying to produce an ember.

11. Cut your notch.

Cut the notch

Saw into the hearth and stop just before centre. Cut 1/8 out. In this pic the wood is quite punky and a little crumbly. I have cut less than 1/8 in the hope that the end doesn’t snap under pressure. I have also gone right to centre. This can produce a nipple effect on the spindle but is still capable of producing an ember.

12. Get Bowing!

Put something under the notch to catch the ember. A slither of dry wood is great. Get bowing. Start slowly with long, full bows. When it starts to smoke, speed up and apply downward pressure on the bearing block. When it is putting out lots of smoke, stop bowing. Do not take the spindle out. This will remove all heat from the set. If the smoke continues you have an ember. You may be able to see it glow. If the smoke stops, start bowing again.

13. Success! Now relax!

Create the ember

When you have the ember allow it to coalesce. Allowing the ember to burn will make it bigger and the dust sticks together making a bigger coal. Tapping the hearth board with your knife will free the ember. Remove the hearth board gently.

14. Transfer the ember to your tinder bundle.

Transfer it to the tinder bundle

Making tinder bundles is a skill in itself. I make mine as I am collecting the bow drill materials. Have the tinder bundle ready before you start bowing. Transfer the ember gently to the tinder bundle. In this pic I am only using a small tinder bundle as I am practicing and not needing the fire.

15. Blow to flame.

Blow to flame

Fold over the tinder bundle and blow through the tinder. Keep going until you get a flame.

16. Make fire!

Complete Bow Drill Friction Fire

Congratulations! You have graduated into a small group of people able to make fire by friction.

It is tradition to burn your first successful bow drill set. Place it in the fire and let it burn. This sacrifice is to give thanks that you have been able to create fire and show your appreciation to a skill that has existed for thousands of years.

Many people keep their first set. They go on a course, get a working set and become dependant on it. Unable to make another set. When we burn our sets it is to show that the skill is in the mind, not in the tools.

This how-to guide is very basic. There are lots of variables that can challenge success. To master the bow drill I recommend reading as much as you can, watching as many videos as possible and learning from other people who can do it well. Being taught one-to-one by someone who is skilled will accelerate your skills very quickly as they can correct bad habits and advise on any problems.

Beware, there are many articles, videos and Bushcraft schools teaching bow drill badly! Doing the bow drill well is not exhausting or tiring. The mechanics do the work. But it does take practice and perseverance to master the skill.

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