The Bow Drill Fire Kit - Fire by Friction

The Bow Drill Fire Kit

The easiest way to make fire by friction (that is, by "rubbing two sticks together") is the bow drill fire. Another method is the hand drill fire, which is harder to learn, but has the advantage of not requiring cordage, and therefore being easier if you had to start completely from scratch using only naturally occuring materials.

For beginners to friction fire, I would recommend starting with the bow drill fire. The easiest way of all to get started is to purchase a pre-made bow drill firemaking kit, which is what I did. My kit came from Thomas J. Elpel's website and cost US$28. I learned how to use it from the excellent Fire Volume 1 DVD.

Firemaking without using modern equipment is a two-step process. The first step is to make a glowing hot ember, or "coal". The second step is to place the coal into a tinder bundle and blow it until you get an actual flame.

The bow drill fire requires four basic parts: The bow, the drill, the fireboard (also called the hearth or base board), and the handpiece. It is also very useful to have a fifth part, some kind of flat board (cardboard or wood work fine) to place under the fireboard to catch the wood dust as it forms into a coal. An overview of the assembled bow drill is shown below. Note that the pointed end of the drill goes upward, with the blunt end at the bottom doing the drilling. You also need a tinder bundle (see below).

The Bow Drill Fire Kit Bow drill firemaking kit assembled and ready to go.

Note the correct body position, as shown in the picture above. There is a proper body position for the bow drill, and you will find it much easier if you adopt it. For a right-handed position, kneel on your right knee, with your left foot supporting the unused end of the fireboard and holding it firmly in position. Your right hand holds the bow and your left hand holds the handpiece at the top of the drill spindle, with your left forearm braced on your left thigh close to your knee. A left-handed position is all that with left and right sides exchanged.

Note also the correct orientation for the bowstring. It is wrapped around the drill spindle so that the drill is on the outside of the string. That is, if you drew a straight line along the bowsting (not including the bit that wraps around the drill itself), the string is between the bow and the drill. This prevents the string from cutting into itself while you are drilling. Also note that the string is wrapped around the drill so that the upper part of the string comes off the bow towards the end you are holding. This makes it easier to control the bow.

Bow Drill Fire Kit - Bow This is the bow that was shipped with the kit. It has had some use, and before long the cord will need replacing. If you want to make your own, construction of the bow is not difficult. The wood type is not important, as long as it has a bit of spring in it.

Bow Drill Fire Kit - Drills The upper drill is the one shipped with the kit, after use. Note that the blunt end (on the right of the photo) is the lower end, that does the drilling.

Bow Drill Fire Kit - Fireboard

This is a close-up of the fireboard, showing the end with holes where I have made fires. The original fireboard as shipped with the kit had one hole burned in, with the notch already cut. I have been able to get about three fires from each hole before drilling almost all the way through the board.

Bow Drill Fire Kit - Handpiece This is the handpiece. It is a good idea to smear some vaseline (or animal fat if in a real survival situation) into the hole and onto the poined end of the drill, to reduce friction. You want plenty of friction (which is what causes the heat) at the lower end of the drill, and as little as possible at the top.

Bow Drill Fire Kit - Oakum Tinder This is oakum tinder, also purchased from Thomas J. Elpel's website. One pound is enough for hundreds of fires if you are stingy with how much you use.

Bow Drill Fire Kit - Tinder Bundle This is a small tinder bundle, made from oakum tinder. Some people call this a "bird's nest" as it looks a lot like a small bird's nest.

I like to see how small I can make the tinder bundles and still get a fire. Normally you would make it a lot bigger than this (more like an actual bird's nest).

Bow Drill Fire Kit - New Hole in Fireboard For today's fire I made a new hole in the fireboard, as the old holes are almost worn through. Start with a knife or other sharp object to make a pilot hole. Then you start drilling (with the bow drill set up as if you were trying to make fire), until you get some smoke and the hole is a bit charred. You are not trying to get fire at this stage, just to burn in the hole.

Bow Drill Fire Kit - New Hole Burned In The hole after it has been burned in (on the right of the picture). The Swiss Army Knife saw as used to cut the notch is also shown.

Bow Drill Fire Kit - Notch in Fireboard Cut the notch almost to the centre of the hole. After the notch is cut, you are ready to go.

Bow Drill Fire Kit - Notch with Wood DustI had some wood powder left over from a previous attempt (where the hole was too old, almost going right throught he board, so I had to stop). I put that in the notch because the coal forms faster if there is already some powder there. The proper term for the wood powder is "punk".

Now it is time to start drilling. You begin slowly, perhaps one second per complete stroke back and forth with the bow. Press down with the handpiece, but not too hard at first. As you drill, wood dust (punk) will fall into the notch, and you will start to see smoke. You need to heat it all up to something like 800 degrees before it will ignite, so take your time here.

I like to count as it all seems to happen faster when I count. After counting to about 30, maybe 50, there should be a fair bit of smoke. At this point, go really hard and fast for a bit longer, maybe another 20 or 30 counts, although you may need more. When there has been a lot of smoke, for a while, stop drilling and take the drill away. Blow gently on the pile of wood dust. If it keeps smoking after you have stopped drilling, you have a coal! If it goes out, you need to keep drilling. It is easier in hot, dry weather than in cold, damp weather.

Once you get a coal, there is no hurry, it will smoulder away for quite a while before it goes out, so you can take your time. (When I was taking this photo series the camera batteries ran out just as I got the coal. I had time to go back into the house and change the batteries before placing the coal into the tinder bundle).

Bow Drill Fire Kit - Coal Here is the smouldering ember, or "coal", which has formed from wood powder and got hot enough to stay lit. Blow gently on the coal to make it spread, then let it rest for a few-several seconds. Do that a few times until the coal has spread almost right through the pile of dust.

Bow Drill Fire Kit - Glowing CoalThen you carefully lift the fireboard away, and transfer the coal (a small stick is helpful) into the tinder bundle.

Here you can see the glowing coal in the tinder bundle. I was gently blowing on the coal to make it glow more as I took the photo.

Bow Drill Fire Kit - Coal in Tinder Bundle Wrap the coal up inside the tinder bundle. Hold the tinder bundle between your fingers, alternately blowing air through it and then letting it rest for a few-several seconds.

Bow Drill Fire Kit - Fire! The tinder bundle should suddenly burst into flame (be careful of your fingers), and now you have fire!

Recommended Reading

How to Make A Bow Drill Fire in Primitive Technology: A Book of Earth Skills, by David WescottPrimitive Technology: A Book of Earth Skills, by David Wescott. Awesome book. From a reader's review, “This is, in my humble opinion, the BEST single source for Primitive Skills out there - PERIOD. If you've ever looked through a scientific journal or periodical, that is the basic layout for this book: a compendium of articles, each one detailing a different tool, task, method, or application of a primitive skill. It isn't a high-cut book you need a PhD to understand. You can take this out in the backyard and follow right along, and succeed!” I would agree completely.

Purchase from Australia (Booktopia)

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See Also

Bow Drill Fire Making Videos New NEW
Overview of Firemaking

The Hand Drill Fire Kit
Bow Drill and Hand Drill Firemaking Woods
Survival and Wilderness Skills Books
Return to Firemaking
Return to Site Map

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