Finding yourself in the woods without a matchstick or a lighter should not stop you from making fire if you possess the required knowledge, such as using a bow drill fire starter.
In a critical situation, it is essential to use everything you can get in order to survive. In this case, it means using nature itself to create the precious lifesaving fire. You will need it to keep you warm, cook and keep wild animals away. Your ability to quickly adapt will determine the success of your survival.
One of the oldest and most common primitive methods of making fire is using a bow drill, and that is the technique I will teach you in this article. It is a simple yet hard to master technique that involves hard work and patience, but once you master it, you will have acquired a skill that may one day save your life.
To use this method, you will need the following components:
- Spindle (or Drill)
- Fire Board (or Hearth Board)
- Handhold (or Socket / Bearing Block)
What Types of Wood Should You Choose
The wood type selection will depend on your location, but keep in mind that the spindle should be as hard as or harder than the fire board.
Whichever kind of wood you use, ensure it is dry and non-resinous, or else starting the fire with it will be an uphill task.
Although you can use hard woods, like oak and cherry, it will be harder and more strenuous to start the fire.
Here are some examples of soft woods you can use:
- Red Cedar
- Balsam Fir
Making the components
The length of a spindle is usually between 8 and 12 inches, with a preferable half an inch diameter (approximately as thick as your thumb).
Some people prefer a thicker spindle because it’s stronger and gives more leverage for spinning. Try both types and find your preference.
Both ends of the spindle should be carved. The top end (that goes into the handhold) should be sharp, in a pencil form, to reduce contact area and friction. The bottom end (that goes into the fire board) should be more rounded.
Don’t use hardwood to make the fire board. Remember that it has to be softer or equal in hardness to the spindle.
As a tip, try to get dead wood from a fallen tree that is not touching the ground, because that prevents a fast decay and allows the wood to dry at a slower pace. This detail will increase the chances of getting the coal required to start a fire because freshly cut wood is known to have a high amount of moisture content, which makes it difficult to burn.
The fire board piece should have the same thickness as the spindle, and be at least twice as wide as it. There are no specific requirements regarding length.
Using the spindle diameter as a guide, make an indentation mark at one end of the fire board (at least one spindle away from the edge) with a knife. Start carving it in a twisting mode until you end up with a shallow hole with the shape of the spindle.
This piece is made of hard wood (such as oak) that has a smooth surface and a low friction tendency.
Just like with the fireboard, carve an indentation with the tip of a knife to accommodate the top end of the spindle.
The most important thing is for it to hold the spindle in place as well as protect the hand from heat. The reason for using a low friction handhold is to ensure that the heat of the sliding friction remains on the fire board.
Alternatively, you can use a piece of bone or stone with a depression. Some knives also come equipped with a special hole on the handle that can be utilized as a bearing block.
You have a choice of using either a flexible or a stiff bow. Test both and see what your preference is. The most important thing is getting the job done.
The bow should be about an arm’s length and again about as thick as your thumb.
Use a strong string or paracord and tie both ends of the bow. Considering the fact that you will need to adjust the knot to be tight enough for the spindle to be twisted in it, it is best for the string to be left slightly slack.
Make a bundle of fine, fluffy and dry material that will be used to catch the coal and produce the flame.
Some good sources for tinder are cottonwood, basswood, yucca and juniper. Break the fibers by rubbing the materials between your hands. Collect the falling material and put it together like a bird’s nest.
Tip: If the tinder is not dry enough, put it in your pocket or between your clothes. Your body warmth will help in removing the moist.
How to Start a Fire with a Bow Drill
- Apply some lubrication on the handhold hole, like vaseline or sun lotion cream. If you don’t have any available, use your hair grease.
- Hold the bow with your right hand (if you are left-handed, everything will be opposite).
- Put the fire board on the ground, kneel and place the left foot on the end without the hole.
- Wrap the string around the spindle. The bow should stay on the outside, away from you.
- Adjust the string so that it feels like the spindle will pop, but not too tight as it might break the bow.
- Place the rounded end of the spindle on the fire board hole.
- Place the handhold on top of the sharper end of the spindle and hold it with your left hand.
Drilling and burning in
- Start drilling by moving the bow towards and then away from you.
- Apply pressure on the handhold but not so much that it makes the spindle pop.
- Start drilling faster until you notice smoke coming from the fire board. Continue drilling for a few moments.
- Stop drilling and use a knife to cut a V-shaped notch (about 1/8 of a circle) on the side of the board up to the drilled hole. This lets the wood dust fall to form the coal required to make fire.
- Find a thin piece of wood to catch the coal and put it under the fire board hole.
- Continue the drilling process. You will see more smoke and little pieces of coal forming on the fire board end. Don’t stop drilling until they become red.
- Sprinkle these small pieces on the tinder.
- Start blowing on the coal in the middle of the tinder. Not too gentle nor too harsh – you will have to practice and adjust. Don’t do it too close because of the moisture of your breath.
- When enough oxygen has been fed, the tinder will burst into flames.
The essence of learning this primitive way of starting a fire with a bow drill is to be able to survive in an emergency situation, even if you do not have the modern-day matchstick or lighter.
The process is a bit tedious and will require a lot of practice until you master it, but in the end, it will pay its dividends.
Every survival skill is worth knowing because it may come in handy someday.