Bow drilling Pt 2

Part 2 of my articles on bow drilling for The Bushcraft Journal.  This one was published in Issue 15.  You can read the first part here.

Posture and technique

In the last issue of The Bushcraft Journal I described how to make a bow drill set, this time it’s all about consistently producing embers.

Thanks to my stepdaughter Kimberly Smith (usually found running our bushcraft birthday parties) for helping out with this one.  I actually wrote the article back in January but hadn’t gotten around to the photos.  Kimberly and I were doing some bow drill practice in mid April, the bluebells were in full bloom, the sun was shining and so we decided to take some shots, so I’m in the first few and Kimberly in the later ones.
bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Everything that I’m going to describe in this article is what works for me.  But we’re all different with different body shapes, different length limbs, aches and pains and a host of other factors.  So if you’re doing things differently and getting results, don’t start making wholesale changes, but if you’re just starting out, recognise these pointers as just that, more guidelines than a prescriptive set of instructions.  Bow drilling is as much a feeling as it is a cognitive exercise, in fact not thinking about it is often an advantage!  So follow the guidelines, but at some point you’ll need to feel it for yourself.  How will you know?  Because it will become much easier!

When you approach bow drilling a couple of things are important.  First up you need to be in the right frame of mind.  It’s really important that you’re calm and relaxed.  Your mind needs to be calm so that you can focus on the task ahead and your body needs to be relaxed so that you can work with minimum effort.  When you’re practicing, there will be times when you don’t feel particularly calm or relaxed; when that happens stop and go for a walk, make a cup of tea, or whatever you like really, until you’re feeling ready to try again.

Secondly, don’t worry or stress when things aren’t going as well as you’d like.  It’s inevitable that you’ll hit obstacles, but persevere.  You need to stick at bow drilling and not give up.  With that said, if you keep doing the same thing and getting the same result, you probably need to step back and think about what you’re doing and what might need changing (see Fault Finding towards the end of this article).

When I’m teaching bow drilling to people who have never done it before I make the first session about getting posture and technique right.  Because if your posture and technique are right (assuming you have materials that will work), then the inevitable outcome is an ember.  But if your focus is on getting an ember, it’s in the wrong place, it’s likely that you will miss the subtleties that come into play.  And of course, when you have your posture and technique right, you’re practicing the right thing; it takes much longer to unlearn a skill that’s wrong than it does to learn it correctly in the first place.

I know people that can consistently create embers but use a ‘brute force’ approach.  This approach, however, can fall over if you need to use natural cordage instead of paracord in that you might find your natural cordage snaps.  As you try creating an ember from ‘denser’ wood, the brute force approach becomes less effective whilst good technique and posture will see you through, so put your effort into getting these right.

Getting started

Whilst I’m not trying to compare bow drilling with Team GB Cycling, there is something similar to ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ going on in that there are many factors that have to be right to get an ember, and a few small changes can add up to have big impacts.  Understanding what all those small things are can take time, but it’s worth it in the end.

The first thing to do is to bed in your set.  And the first thing to bed in your set is to create a small hole in the hearth board for your spindle to sit in.  I hold the spindle on the hearth board about a hands width from the end and so that the edge of the spindle is about 7 or 8mm from the side.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Put the tip of your knife in the centre of the drill and make a hole.  I tend to hold the knife so that my index finger is running along the spine of the knife, as shown in the photo.  Do this with the hearth board on the ground and not in your hand, you can even put your foot on the hearth board so that your other hand is nowhere near the knife.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Similarly make a hole in the centre of the bearing block, again on the floor, although you may not be able to hold it with your foot this time.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Before you start bowing, try to find level ground.  If you are on ground that slopes upwards you’re likely to sit back on your heal; if you are facing downhill, you are likely to lean too far forward.  If the hearth board rocks from side to side the powder is likely to disperse across the ember pan and won’t clump.


Getting your posture right is important, so I’m going to give some pointers on how to position yourself, but remember, as I said at the beginning, everyone’s body is different so you’ll need to adjust things so that they’re comfortable for you; you should never feel as if you’re in an unnatural or uncomfortable position.  What I describe here is for a right-handed person, so if you’re a lefty, swap everything around.

Kneel down so that your right knee is on the ground.  Put the ball of your left foot on the hearth board close in to the hole you’ve made.

Aim to get the bottom part of your left leg more or less vertical.  As odd as it might seem, you can affect the angle of your left leg by moving your right knee backwards or forwards.

Now is the tricky bit, fitting the spindle into the bow!  I hold the bow by the string in my left hand but on the right hand side of my body.

Hold the spindle in your right hand and put the bottom of the spindle through.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Bring the bottom of the spindle over the string and grasp the end of the bow between your right arm and shoulder.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Twist the spindle so that the string has a single loop around it.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

The spindle should be on the outside of the string with the pointed end uppermost.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Put the spindle in the depression you’ve made in the hearth board, making sure that your foot is still nice and close to the hole.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Hold the bearing block in your left hand so that the hole is in the centre of your palm and place it on top of your spindle.  Bring your left arm around the outside of your left leg so that your left wrist is tucked into your left shin.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Try to keep your upper body fairly upright and bend slightly from the waist.  Doing this means that you can then lean onto the bearing block and use your body weight to get the downward pressure on the bearing block and thus not having to use your bicep; it’s easier using body weight than muscle power.  The other advantage this gives is that your diaphragm is open, making it easier to breathe, a good thing in my book!

Onto bowing; try to bow from the shoulder and not the elbow.  If the movement comes from the elbow, a bit like a boxer jabbing, then the bowing won’t be fluid and the string can rise up the spindle.  By getting the movement from your shoulder (think of a soldier marching and how their arms swing, this is basically what you’re after) you’ll get a more fluid motion, and of course shoulder muscles are stronger than biceps and will make life easier.  Make sure that you use the whole length of the string.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Take it easy, all you’re doing is bedding in, there’s no rush.  Keep bowing until you have a hole that is more or less the same diameter as the spindle.  You should have ground away some powder by now and by looking at it you will get an idea if the hearth board and spindle are likely to work (see ‘Powder’ in the ‘Fault Finding’ section below).  At this point we need to cut a notch into the hearth board.  I know there are people who cut the notch first and then start drilling, but I prefer to do it this way around as it allows me to position the notch in relation to the hole with greater accuracy.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Aim for a notch that is about 45%, or an 1/8th of the hole.  The tip of many bushcraft knives are about 45%.  Once you’ve done this a few times you’ll be able to judge pretty accurately.  Otherwise, draw marks onto your hearth board.  I tend to use my knife to carve the notch, although some people prefer to use a saw; I find that using a saw can be less accurate.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

I push the knife into one corner of where the notch will go, then cut into the other corner and then cut into the middle.  Then I turn the board and repeat on the other side of the notch.  This is why I suggested that you create your hole a hand’s width from the edge, it gives you something to hold onto.

The notch needs to go to the centre of the hole and have clean sides.  If the notch goes past the centre of the hole a nipple will form on the end of the spindle.  If the notch is off centre then the powder will form around the edge of the notch.  If the notch isn’t cleanly carved then the powder won’t drop down into the notch easily.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Once you’ve carved your notch, re-point the top of the spindle and then get back into your bow drilling posture.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Creating the ember

Creating an ember is a two stage process.  First up is filling the notch with powder and the second stage is to create heat, which in turn will cause the powder to coalesce, that is, to form an ember.  For the first stage, bow steadily.  You don’t have to go particularly quickly here, in fact what you’re looking for is a fluid, consistent bowing motion.  Quite quickly you should see powder forming and dropping down into the notch.  Once the notch is full you are likely to be seeing some smoke as well.  At this point you can slightly ease off on the downward pressure and pick up the pace on the bowing for 10 – 15 seconds.  This will create the heat required to cause that powder to coalesce.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Anyone who tells you that ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ has clearly never learnt fire by friction, because there will be many instances when that is exactly what happens, but just pick yourself up and try again.

When you stop bowing, move the spindle out of the way and immediately wave your hand over the fledgling ember to get oxygen to it.  Whatever you do, don’t blow on the ember as you’re likely to blow the powder away, or even blow out the ember.  Place your knife down the side of the notch and carefully move the hearth board out of the way. 

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

You’ll need to consider how much wind there is.  If it’s really windy you might well have to protect your ember from being blown away (I speak from experience here) whereas if it’s a really still day, you might consider lifting the ember pan and ember up off the ground to let the air get to it.

There’s no rush at this stage, I timed an ember I’d made from birch a few years back and it burnt for 7 minutes, although the impression I have is that the less dense the hearth board, the quicker the ember burns away.  That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have your tinder bundle and materials for your fire all ready to go, because you absolutely should, but you can relax before the next stage.

Take the ember pan to your tinder bundle and gently slide the ember in, be really gentle here as you want the ember to stay in one piece.  Often I’ll use some downy flower heads as an ember extender.   And now blow your tinder bundle into flame!

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Fault finding

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

A key skill in bow drilling is recognising what’s going on and why things aren’t working.  Here’s a few common issues that are easy to deal with.

Squeaking – ‘the dulcet tone of bow drilling’!  If you are getting a lot of squeaking as you are bowing then you’re most likely wasting your time and effort.  Often squeaking is caused by the string being too loose and the spindle therefore not spinning correctly.  If I get squeaking I pinch on the string with my fingers to increase the tension.  If that doesn’t work, stop and tighten the string on the bow.  And re-point the spindle for good measure.

Powder –  you can tell a lot about what’s happening from the colour of the powder being produced.  Ideally you want the powder to be granular, like miniature grains of rice, and black.  If you’re powder is brown then you probably need to increase the amount of downward pressure applied.

If the powder is building up around the top of the hole and not dropping into the notch then your notch is off centre.  You can either live with it, which means you have to drill more than you would otherwise, or start again.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

A nipple forms on the end of the spindle – your notch goes past the centre of the hole.  Either live with it or start again.

The bottom of spindle becomes ‘polished’ –  you’re probably using too much downwards pressure, so ease off a little.

String rides up the spindle –  this is to do with  keeping the bow level.  It could be that you’re using your elbow instead of your shoulder to move the bow backwards and forwards.  Or it could be that you’re looking down at your notch to see what’s going on; avoid this as it subtly alters your posture.  Try looking at a spot a few yards in front of you.

bow drilling | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

The drill keeps pinging out – it’s likely that you are leaning either too far forward or too far back.  If you’re leaning forward, the spindle is likely to ping out backwards; if you’re leaning too far back, the spindle is likely to ping out in front of you.  So work on getting your leg upright.

Spindle becomes difficult to turn – check the top of the spindle to make sure that it still has a long taper.  At the same time check the depth of the hole in the bearing block; once it starts to get over a couple of centimetres deep, the spindle can get stuck.  Put a new hole in the bearing block.

You can see from the photos in this article just how beautiful the woodland that I get to spend so much of my time in is, practicing skills that I’m passionate about.  But I recognise that for many people bushcraft is a hobby and therefore they don’t get the same opportunities to practice bushcraft that I do.  I say this because many people have a hearth board and spindle that they’ve had success with and consequently take it home and leave it in the shed or garage to use again.  This is a good thing to do, you’ll re-enforce the muscle memory required.

The downside is that if you only practice with say, a hazel spindle and lime hearth board (and I mention these two purposefully as it’s the combination that many people start with) that have been stored in optimum conditions, then that’s all you’ll ever be able to do.  Whenever you get the opportunity, get out into the woods, find suitable materials, make yourself a set from scratch and give it a try there and then.  You’ll have the odd setback, but this will allow you to develop your bow drilling skills.

As ever, get out there and practice as often as you can, in as many different environments as you can, and in as many different weather conditions as you can!

About Gary

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

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