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Bushcraft Blog

Bow Drill Friction Fire: and the invaluable versatility of Birch

Posted by Nick Mills on

We have to admit, everyone’s been out in the woods and found they’ve forgotten something, or a part of your kit has a problem. Well today it was my turn.

In need of a brew I searched for tinder. All the available grasses were wet from overnight rain. I collected a small amount of the driest I could find. It was pitifully small but it was stuffed under my clothes in the hope of drying it a little. Birch was in abundance. I came across some deadfall that had rotted to powder inside, leaving the tubular shell of stark white, paper like bark. Birch bark is wondrous stuff and a friend to any bushcrafter. It’s amazing how the inherent tar preserves it. It’s that tar that makes it perfect for faggot making. A favourite of cold, damp days. I cut a large sheet.

I had no coal extender to hand so I knew preparation would be the key to success in transforming ember to fire. I needed something very fine to begin, then something gradually increasing in size. After rummaging around at an itchy spot under my shirt my hand emerged with the grass now dry enough to be of use. Though there was so little I knew if it just smouldered away before setting alight all would be lost.

Birch came to the rescue again. I found lightly scraping a tree with my knife showered fine dust into my hand below. I collected enough to place inside the tiny bird’s nest of grass. Some Birch trees are covered in wispy fine peelings of bark. They’re like perfect little tabs ready to be pulled along the grain to produce some of the finest tinder in the world. I collected just enough to cover the dust.

I now needed something a little bigger. Now I know Birch can heal the removal of thicker strips of bark providing you don’t cut too deep, but I’m not keen on scaring such majestic beauties when I have other options available. Sometimes you don't have to look too far either. I was able to yield shreds of Birch bark the thickness of paper from deadwood.

At this point I would normally have collected a few sticks, placed in small piles of varying graduations. Not today though. I knew my little hoard of tar rich organics would burn slow and steady once ignited. I could see enough twigs in the vicinity that were easy enough to collect once I had flame.

I pulled out my bow drill set. The Ivy hearth and Hazel spindle had served me well. So well in fact that the spindle was a bit too short. The search was on for some dry standing Hazel for a new spindle. Nothing. Not a sausage. Some lovely, straight Hazel poles, but all as green as it gets. Sometimes it feels like the forest elves want to make life harder. Either that or they want me to earn a deeper connection to the woods. For that I can’t complain.

I selected a bow stick with a healthy flex and returned to the stubby spindle. I lay everything out ready for an ember as always to avoid fumbling around at the crucial moment. The bow was strung and the freshly shaped spindle set in place.

Now, a short spindle has a mind of it’s own. Mine skittered about the hearth board like an excited squirrel. Trying to gain control I stooped lower to the ground than is usual. It was difficult to clear the bow from catching on the ground. Again and again the spindle flicked out of it’s seat and spun into the undergrowth smoking at both ends. Each time I had to re-shape the top, acutely aware it was a short thing getting shorter. I was hot and puffing. I cursed the restriction of middle-aged paunch and blamed the recent mince pies, even though I knew it wasn’t really their fault. I loosened the bow string slightly and shifted position, sitting higher over the spindle. I pushed down with increased pressure forcing it in to the socket. Smoke bellowed up from the antler bearing block making me splutter. With a final drive of downward pressure I muscled the spindle hard, down into the hearth. I leaned slightly to angle the heat towards the notch. I finally fell back from the smoke unable to sustain any more.

A moment later, still coughing, I looked at the hearth. There it was, the faintest wisp of tell tale smoke so satisfyingly drifting from black char. I had an ember.

I always feel an impulse to immediately blow the ember to coax the ember into life. I enjoy reminding myself that there is time to move slowly. In contrast to the bow drill there’s nothing rushed about the ember. There’s time to be calm and thoughtful. It likes to be left alone.

I gathered the Birch tinders. When the ember had grown strong I transferred it to the dust centred bird’s nest of grass. I covered this in the finest shreds of Birch and cocooned the whole thing in the slightly larger strips of bark. This was placed on the bark sheet and rolled into a sausage shape called a faggot. I blew into the ends; gently at first, then gradually increasing the pressure. I found I have rolled the faggot a little too tight which stifled air flow. I loosened the roll and found it responded well with the faggot completely open. The nest and ember had coalesced well. A few blows later there was a burst of flame and the Birch was alight.

We soon had a brew in hand. There is little more satisfying than cupping your hands around a warm mug of tea created from fire by friction on a cold, damp day. I smiled at the thought of Birch being so wonderful it almost feels like you’re cheating.

A short time later we were ready to head off deeper into the woods in search of a new Hazel spindle. We doused the fire, dispersed the ashes and covered all in leaf litter. We always leave no trace of our passing, except for a piece of banana on a small Birch bark platter…an offering to the forest elves.

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