Bow drilling 1


I’ve written about fire by friction previously in this post in 2013 and it’s not a bad post by any means.  But I wrote this article last year for The Bushcraft Journal and started from scratch, so there are many similarities between the two but also a few differences that reflect how I’ve been continually refining my own technique and approach to bow drilling. As I say, this one was published in The Bushcraft Journal issue 14 in April 2018.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

The last method of ignition I’m going to write about is fire by friction.  It’s probably the most iconic skill within bushcraft and one that still gives me enormous satisfaction whenever I create an ember, and even greater satisfaction when I see the look on people’s faces the first time they create one!

Here I’m going to discuss one particular method of creating fire by friction, the bow drill.  And at the very start I want to let you know that this doesn’t actually create a flame, rather it creates an ember which we then put into a tinder bundle and then blow into a flame (as I wrote about in the last issue of The Bushcraft Journal).

Trying to understand when and where fire by friction originated is troublesome.  In fact it’s likely that different methods of fire by friction were developed at different time periods in different parts of the world.  The component parts are largely made from wood and were either burnt or would have decomposed, so much is based on speculation.  With that said, there is some evidence that bow drills were being used in Mehrgarh (near the Indus Valley) around 6,000 years ago.  There is also archeological evidence for their use in what is now Iran about 5,000 years ago.

My own hypothesis is that, at least for bow drilling, the creation of fire was a by-product, an accident.  I suspect that people were drilling holes into shells and wooden objects to make other things, for example joints for all manner of items and even jewelry.  We know that this technique was used in ancient Egypt to make holes in beads, in fact, using a bow drill to drill holes was commonplace in China right up until the start of the 20th century.  And somewhere along the line someone created an ember and the technique developed from there.

Making a bow drill set

There are a few component parts to a bow drill set which I’ll describe below.  It is imperative that the materials you use to make the spindle and hearth board are sourced from standing dead wood.  This means, of course, that you will also need to work on your tree identification skills; identifying a tree in leaf is relatively straightforward; identifying it in bud is trickier, but now you need to be able to identify a tree when it’s dead, raising your IDing game up a notch.

The bow

Fairly obviously, we need a bow.  I tend to use green hazel, but anything that produces a long flexible stem will work, such as ash, sweet chestnut, willow, birch etc.  I tend to go with a bow that, when curved, goes from my hand to the centre of my chest (although not everyone uses a curved bow I find it makes the spindle spin smoother).  I use a stem that is about the thickness of my thumb.  If it’s any bigger diameter it can get heavy and therefore more cumbersome to use.

Try to find a hazel stem that is knot free and the right diameter and then prune it responsibly.  Often I’ll strip off the bark, and whilst it will help the wood dry out quicker, is largely for aesthetics.

To get the curve I kneel down and put the stem in front of my knee.  If the stem has a natural curve, make use of it.  If I hold the stem at either end and pull, there’s a good chance it’ll snap.  So instead I start at the thickest end of the stem and place my hands either side of my knee and gently pull back.  We’re not trying to actually put a bend in, just to loosen the fibres.  Work all the way along the stem.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Next up I carve a chevron into either end of the bow with the arrow pointing to the end.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

I tie a timber hitch on the thin end and then the start of a taut line hitch on the other.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

I kneel onto the stem to get the bend and then pull on the taut line hitch and finish it off with 2 half hitches.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Whilst this is good to go immediately, as the stem dries out it ‘forms’, that is, it retains this shape.

Of course in a survival situation making and using natural cordage might be your only option, indeed it’s a fantastic challenge to set yourself to develop your bushcraft skill set.  But when you are first learning 3mm paracord is often a good bet for the string.  I tend to use a 4mm cord that I get online from a chandlers, it provides a little more grip around the spindle and is that much more robust.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Bearing block

The bearing block is the thing you hold in your hand and allows you to apply downward pressure to the spindle.  More often than not I use a piece of wood that fits comfortably in my hand.  I’ve found that holly, hornbeam and hazel all work well.  I prefer to use well seasoned wood for the bearing block and will often put a leaf or spit into the hole to provide some lubrication and reduce friction.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

I’ve also fitted a limpet shell into a piece of wood and this worked really well, reducing the friction.  Being fortunate to live near the coast, I often walk Willow, our dog, along the beach; I always keep my eye open for a pebble with a hole worn in the right place, again reducing the amount of friction between the bearing block and the spindle.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Ember pan

This is a sliver of wood or bark that sits under the hearth board on the floor.  Its purpose is to catch the powder formed by your spindleing, keep it in one place and to stop any moisture in the ground getting to it.  I find that an ember pan also makes it easier to move the ember into the tinder bundle.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Before I go on to talk about the spindle and hearth board, it’s worth pointing out that there are different approaches to sourcing the materials.  I’m aware of two different ways when it comes to bow drilling:

  • Make your hearth board and spindle from the same piece of wood,
  • Make your hearth board and spindle from different woods.

Spindle and hearth board from same material

Here you need to source a piece of standing dead wood that is thick enough to split into half and then split one of those pieces into quarters.  You can make the split either with a knife or an axe; which you use will be determined by the diameter of the wood.  Conversely, if you only have a knife, the length of the blade will determine the diameter of the wood!

Spindle from one material and hearth from another

I sometimes call this the ‘mix ‘n’ match’ approach.  I find that it is good for novices, it gives you a good chance of getting an ember fairly early on.  But it means that you have to be able to find 2 pieces of wood in the right condition.

The method you use is likely to be influenced by personal preference, but also by the materials that you find.  So, if you find a piece of wood big enough to make both the hearth and spindle, you probably will.  Whereas if you find a piece that’s only big enough to make a hearth board, well you’ll need to find a spindle as well.

Hearth board

The hearth board is the bit that you drill into.  Typically I use a hearth board that is around the same thickness as my middle finger.  If I’m making the hearth and spindle from the same piece of wood I split the piece of wood down the centre.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

One half will be the hearth, the other half will make two spindles.  Of course, if you’re going to make the spindle from a different piece of wood, you can make 2 hearth boards.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

I take one half and either split it again or just even it off until I have a board about middle finger thick.  From there I’ll take the sides off so I end up with something that is more or less a rectangular board shape.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

The spindle

Or often called the drill.  There’s a lot of variation with spindles, but one thing is certain, it needs to be made from standing dead wood.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

I use a spindle that is the same thickness as my middle finger.  But I know people who use thinner spindles and I know people who use thicker ones!  Bear in mind however, that:

  • The thinner the spindle, the less friction there is, so it will take less effort to spin. It will also spin more times per stroke of the bow, but the longer it will take to produce a decent amount of powder.
  • The thicker the spindle, the more friction and the harder it will be on your bowing arm. But you will produce a lot of dust.

In terms of length, I tend to use a spindle that’s around 25cm long, maybe a little longer than some people use.  I use a longer spindle because it allows me to use my body weight to create the downward pressure rather than having to use muscles.  The downside is that the spindle is prone to wobble around when you’re learning bow drilling, so you need to focus on your posture.

If I’m using a spindle and hearth from different materials, I’ll typically use hazel, ash, birch or willow, with the order listed here more or less my order of preference.  As these species often produce long, straight stems they can be straightforward to find.

If I’m making a spindle from the same piece of wood as the hearth board, I’ll split the half left over from the hearth board to make two quarters and then take off the corners from the resulting triangle.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Now I have something with six sides.  Take the corners off again and I have a twelve sided stick, which is all but round anyway.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

From here I finish off the spindle with a knife to make it round.  Make sure your spindle is straight and the same diameter all the way along.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

I put a long taper on one end of the spindle (this will be the top) and a rounded, dome shape on the other.  This is because I want as little friction at the top as possible whilst there is maximum friction at the bottom.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

If I’m using a spindle made from a hazel stem, for example, I put the dome shape on the thinner end of the spindle and the long taper on the thick end.  This is so that when the spindle wears down with use it gets thicker.  If it were to get thinner, it would no longer touch the sides of the hole in the hearth board and you wouldn’t have any friction.

Different woods to use

(From left to right – sycamore, spruce, poplar, horse chestnut, birch, alder & lime)

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

I find that hardwood and softwood aren’t useful terms to use when talking about friction fire lighting.  If you go into a timber yard and ask for softwood they’re likely to point you towards conifers and if you ask for hardwood you’ll be directed towards deciduous trees.  But in reality there are conifers that are harder than deciduous trees and, therefore, deciduous trees that are softer than conifers.  For example balsa is incredibly soft whilst western red cedar is fairly hard.  So put the timber yard definitions to the back of your mind and instead think about density.

As best as I can tell, the ease with which any particular wood will produce an ember is based on a combination of the density of the wood and the ignition point of the powder it produces.  So, whilst theoretically all wood will produce an ember, in practice I think there is a limit to what one person can achieve.  If the wood is really dense (think oak) you’re going to have to work really hard to produce any dust.  And if the powder has a high ignition point, again, you’re going to have to work hard to reach that ignition point.

As an example, oak has a density of 0.55g/cm3 and an ignition temperature of 482oC, whereas western red cedar has a density of 0.32g/cm3 and an ignition temperature of 354oC.  So the oak is denser and has a higher ignition point, and not surprisingly is much more difficult to get an ember from.

Woods that I’ve used as a hearth board, and in the order of ease that I’ve found, are: ivy, horse chestnut, lime, alder, poplar, spruce, willow, sycamore, western red cedar, birch, elder, ash, hazel and hawthorn.

If you’re not sure on your tree identification, or indeed you find yourself in an unfamiliar environment, try to push the edge of your knife into the wood.  If this proves to be tricky, there’s a good chance the wood is very dense and will be difficult to get an ember from.  It’s far from fool proof but will give you an indication as to whether it’s worth pursuing.

If you are using the mix ‘n’ match approach, you need to make sure that the spindle is denser than the hearth board.  If you have a hearth board that is denser, you will wear the spindle away without building up enough powder.  However, if the spindle is too dense, you can spindle a hole straight through the hearth board.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

I’m going to write about posture and technique in the nest issue, as well as bedding in your set and achieving an ember.  In the meantime, make your own set so you’re ready to go!

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east


About Gary

Lead Instructor at Jack Raven Bushcraft, teaching bushcraft, wilderness and survival skills to groups and individuals.


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