Fire by Friction Part 2 1

This is Part 2 of a 2 part article on fire by friction. Fire by Friction – Part 1 covered making a fire by friction set and what materials to use, if you haven’t had a look already, it’s probably worth a few minutes of your time.  This part covers posture and creating your ember.

Fitting the spindle in the bow

This is how I fit the spindle to the bow.  I’m right handed so if you’re left handed, swap everything around:

  • Hold the bow by the string in your left hand.
  • Bring your left arm across your body so that the bow is on your right hand side.
  • Hold the spindle in your right hand.
  • Place the spindle underneath the string from the left hand side so that the bottom of the spindle is towards a 1 o’clock position.
  • Hold the centre of the spindle in place on the string and twist the bottom end of the spindle (the end pointing forwards) anti-clockwise over the string.
  • lift the top of the spindle upwards
  • The spindle should be sitting within a loop of the string on the outside of the bow.

You want the cord to feel fairly taut once the spindle is fitted. If it isn’t taut enough, the spindle will slip; if it is too taut, the spindle won’t turn. Excessive squeaking is often a symptom of cord that isn’t taut enough.


Before describing how to use the fire bow set, a few words on posture are necessary. Adopting the correct posture is key to producing an ember and can’t be overstated. The guidance below is for a right handed person, so should be reversed for a left handed person. Also, bear in mind that everyone’s body is proportioned differently, so you might need to play with this a bit until you find the ‘right’ position for you; it is important that you are comfortable when you bow.

  • Kneel down onto your right knee and place the hearth board under your left foot, ensuring that the centre of the hearth board is more or less under the ball of your foot, and that the hole in the hearth is really close to the right of your foot. By bringing your foot close to the hole, you should reduce any wobble in the spindle.

  • Make sure the lower part of your left leg is vertical.

  • Place your right knee more or less in line with your left foot and about 30 or 40cm behind it. You might need to move your right knee backwards or forwards a bit until your left lower leg is vertical.

  • Make sure that your hips are facing forward.

  • Your left arm should come around the outside of your left leg so that the inner side of your left wrist (more or less where your watch strap sits) is locked against the mid part of your left shin.

  • The centre of your chest should be directly over the centre of the spindle. This will allow sufficient pressure to be put on the bearing block.

  • Hold the bearing block so that the tip of the spindle is directly under the centre of the palm of your hand.

Fire by friction Fire by friction

Remember to keep your back upright and not crouched over. This gives 2 distinct advantages:

  1. You can straighten your left arm (although not locked at the elbow) which allows you to use your weight to push down on the bearing block, taking away the need to push with your arm muscles, and
  2. You leave your diaphragm open, so you can breathe! (Don’t underestimate how important this is)

I know people who lean forward when they are drilling and are very successful at creating embers, but I would generally advise against the type of posture shown below for the 2 reasons mentioned above.

Fire by friction

Bedding in the set

The first stage of bedding in the set is to position and create the hole.  You can see a video of me doing this at the end of Part 1 of this article.

I know some guys who will carve the notch and then drill their hole.  I prefer to do the notch first as it means I’ve got more chance of ending up with a notch correctly positioned in relation to the hole.

  • Take the prepared spindle and offer it up to the hearth board.
  • The edge of the spindle needs to sit about 1 cm from the edge of the hearth as shown on the diagram below.
  • Mark the centre of this imaginary circle with the tip of your knife.
  • Carve out a shallow hollow for the spindle to sit in using the tip of your knife.
  • Now create a small hollow in the centre of the bearing block.
  • Adopt the posture described above.
  • Fit the spindle to the bow.
  • Place the shallow tapered end of the spindle in the hearth board and place the bearing block on top of the spindle.
  • Keeping your right arm relatively straight, move it backwards and forwards from the shoulder ensuring that the bow remains parallel to the ground. Try to get a motion similar to a soldier swinging their arms when marching; shoulder muscles are much stronger than biceps so use them.
  • Use a steady motion without a great deal of speed.
  • Use the full length of the bow.
  • Continue until the spindle has marked out a shallow hole in the hearth board; depth isn’t too important, but you need a hole that is the same diameter as the spindle.
  • Put the spindle where it won’t absorb any moisture whilst the next stage is carried out.


The next stage is to notch the hearth board so that the powder (and whilst we say powder, what forms in the notch should be a little fibrous) formed by drilling can drop onto the ember pan.  As with many aspects of friction fire lighting, people have their own preferred way of positioning the notch. I tend to alter which side I notch depending on the wind.  Having a slight breeze blowing onto the newly formed ember is a good thing, and so I’ll notch accordingly, whereas if it’s really windy I don’t want the wind to blow into the notch and blow the powder away.

  • Using a knife, score a cross through the centre of the hole created like the cross hairs on a sight.Fire by Friction
  • Score 2 more lines so that the bottom 2 quarters are divided into equal parts.
  • Score another 2 lines so that a wedge shape an eighth of the diameter of the hole is produced.Fire by friction
  • Remove this wedge with a knife so that a notch is created in the hearth board as shown opposite.
  • Try to make sure that the tip of the notch is almost at the centre of the hole.Fire by friction

Creating the ember

This is really a two part process; the first part is to create powder and the second to create heat.

  • Re-point the top of the spindle.
  • Adopt the posture previously described and attach the spindle to the bow.
  • Move the bow steadily from the shoulder using its full length.
  • At this stage we are looking to grind away the wood, so take it steady, you really don’t need to be bowing quickly.
  • Once the notch is nearly full with powder and you’re getting lots of smoke, pick up the speed of your bowing to create heat.
  • Stop drilling and immediately fan your hand over the ember to get some oxygen to it.
  • Use your knife to carefully move the hearth board out of the way.
  • Leave the ember where the air can get to it and get your breath back, you’ll need it for blowing the ember into a flame. I recently timed a birch ember to see how long it would stay alight at 7 minutes.

Creating a flame

Hopefully you thought to gather your tinder before starting. Make sure that it is dry and easily combustible; we often use hay. We tend to advocate creating a raft of tinder rather than a bird’s nest. Often, with a hollowed out tinder bundle, you can blow the ember straight out the other side.

  • Create a slight hollow towards to the top of the tinder bundle.
  • Line this hollow with a downy flower head; I really like rosebay willowherb for this.Place the ember into the tinder and roll the tinder around it.
  • Holding the tinder ball in 2 hands, bring it to face height and gently blow into it. Use long, slow breaths; you don’t want to get light headed because you are breathing too shallowly.
  • Lower the tinder ball to waist height on the in-breath and raise it again for the out-breath.
  • Repeat this until the tinder ignites.
  • If it is windy, use the wind to your advantage.

This video recaps on the component parts of a fire by friction set before moving onto creating an ember and blowing it into a flame in a tinder bundle.  It was filmed in March 2012 and it was 20°C!  A couple of points:

  • There’s an awful lot of squeaking going on from the set; I should have tightened the string.
  • I now use a much thinner spindle than the one in the video.
  • I was leaning too far over and should have been more upright.


Issue Potential Solution
Excessive squeaking Apply more pressure to the bearing block.Apply less pressure to the bearing block.The string needs tightening.
The bottom end of the spindle and/or the hole are getting shiny. Don’t push down on the bearing block quite so hard.
Smoke coming from the top of the bearing block The bearing block is too soft.The top of the spindle is tapered too shallowly.
Spindle wobbles Check posture, that is, the wrist is locked to the knee.Spindle is too long.
Dust forms around the hole Excessive wobble.The notch is too small.The notch is off centre.The edges of the notch are not clean.
The notch was central, but now isn’t Your spindle is probably not vertical; check that your front leg is vertical and your foot is close in to the hole.
The powder is light brown Try using less downwards pressure.
A nipple forms on the bottom end of the spindle The notch goes past the centre of the hole.  Either cut the nipple off and persevere with it or start a new hole.

If you want to join us to learn fire by friction, then take a look at our Institute for Outdoor Learning course. You can find loads of photos from this course, plus all our others, on our Facebook page.

About Gary

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

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