Friction Fire - The Bow Drill, Pics and Vid

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Friction Fire - The Bow Drill, Pics and Vid

Post by Regulator » Wed Oct 26, 2011 10:49 pm

I’ve been putting together some fire sets for a class and thought I’d make a tutorial on the bow drill for anyone on ZS that’s interested. I know it’s come up here before and the best method has been argued. This method works, if you know a better way, post it up.

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I test all my sets before providing them for student use, here’s one.
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And my not so modern fire kit.
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1. Half a coconut shell. Not found locally. Works well to hold tinder and small items.
2. Char cloth
3. Jute rope for tinder
4. Birch bark
5. Oiled paper to keep my tinders dry
6. Deer leg bone spindle. Squareish and won’t round. Replaceable wood tips lashed in with sinew. Rounded rock lashed into the bearing block side.
7. Wooden spindles used to the point that they will become tips now.
8. Natural cordage used to tie tinder packs closed
9. Ok, not for fires, but a whistle I made once while sitting around a fire.
10. A small rock that serves as a whetstone.
11. Flint
12. Snuffer 12a. Snuffer with char cloth
13. Steel striker
14. Hand drill straps
15. Carry bag for kit

On to the bow drill
First you need sticks. Soft wood sticks. It’s pretty much agreed among those who make friction fires that you want a wood that you can make an indentation in with your fingernail. The sticks need to be very dry. Look for hanging dead wood with the bark weathered off. Many types of wood work well. Willow, aspen, poplar, hackberry, basswood, cottonwood are all good. Some plants work well also such as yucca, cattail and torchweed. You should avoid resinous trees as the sap will gum up the works, however, the dry, small branches of cedar will work. Cedar heartwood is to hard.

Here I’m using a basswood fire board and a cottonwood spindle. Using the same wood for both is fine and I usually do. This day, I just happened to find both in the same area.

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First you need to whittle out your fireboard. I make mine 1 1/12 by ½ inch or so as seen in the pics. There’s no real rule as long as it is wider than your spindle.

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Next you need to make your spindle. This should be 6 to 8 inches long and about as big around as your finger or about ½ inch. Longer is harder to control and shorter is harder to see your notch in use. The spindle needs to be straight. A wobble will make your life much harder. If your spindle tapers from end to end, make the larger end the bottom. You want more friction on the bottom. The bottom should be rounded roughly and the top should be pointier to help reduce the friction in your bearing block. You want it to be rounded but leave flat sides to help the cordage grip it.

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Now the easy part, the bow. Here I’m using a green limb and the outer jacket from para cord. Some people will say your bow must be dead wood so it doesn’t lose it’s springiness. This would be true if you were going to keep it with you but for a one time use, green works fine. The bow should be about 30 inches long with a slight curve for the best results. Shorter limits your stroke length and longer is unnecessary. Many types of cordage work, shoelace, leather thong, even raw animal skin. I tie the small end and just wrap the other end and hold it in my hand in use. You want the cordage to be almost tight on the bow. See the pics. Experience will quickly show you what works best.

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The bearing block. I’m using a shot glass here and recommend you use one too until you have successfully made a few fires with the bow drill. A shot glass will hold the spindle and allow you to concentrate on the other aspects of the operation. Once you have it down, try to find a rock or piece of hardwood with a hole in it and use that as your bearing block. Some joint bones and small animal skulls also work well. Anything that will control the top of the spindle will work, some things just better than others. Some people recommend lubing the bearing block, you can do this with earwax, waxy plant leaves, etc. I think it’s more important to have a smooth surface in your bearing block and adjust your pressure in use. YMMV. I use a creek rock with a hole worn into it when not using a shot glass. No pics of the shot glass.
But now is when you want to lay out your tinder. I’m not going into what and how you need for tinder. Here I’m using milkweed seeds for flash, grass and various sized sticks.

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Now you want to carve an indentation in your fireboard for the spindle to turn in. The indentation keeps your spindle from flipping away until you get it burned into the fireboard a little bit. You want the indentation to be so that the edge of the spindle will be close, but not touching the edge of your fireboard. Don’t break the tip of your knife doing this.

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Now it’s time to actually use your set. You want to put the spindle in the bow so that it is on the opposite side of the string from the bow as shown in the pic. Body positioning is important now. Hold the fireboard with your left foot if you’re right handed. Brace your left hand holding the bearing block against your left shin. Put just enough downward pressure on the bearing block to keep the spindle from flipping loose. If more pressure is needed, just lean forward slightly with your whole body as opposed to pressing down with your hand. Put the bottom of the spindle in your indentation on the fireboard, shot glass on top of the spindle and slowly and smoothly move the bow back and forth rotating the spindle.

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As you get a feel for it you can go faster but no point in wearing yourself out. You just want to “burn in” the spindle. This is when the spindle and the fireboard rub together enough that they mate up to each others surfaces. You will feel a definite increase in friction when this happens. You will also see black dust and probably some smoke at this point. This is when you stop.

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And here’s what you should have.

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Now you need to cut a notch to allow the hot dust to collect and create your ember. This notch needs to be a ¼ inch or so wide and taper to the center of your burn in spot.

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Now find something to put under the notch you made in your fireboard to catch your ember and allow you to move it. I use a leaf most times but you can use bark, a wood shaving or whatever.

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Now’s the easy part, make fire. Put your spindle back into your bow as you did during burn in. Get situated comfortably and begin to draw the bow back and forth. No need to go like hell, just concentrate on long, smooth passes. You’ll see black dust accumulating around the spindle and then beginning to pile up around the notch you cut in the fireboard. Once you see smoke you can speed up a little but it’s not required, you’ll just get an ember a bit faster. You should be aware of the downward pressure on your bearing block, the tension on your cordage and the smoothness of your passes. This is where you develop a “feel” for it. It’s not difficult and you should not be wearing yourself out doing this. If you are, re-asses and try again. You should, and will be able to get an ember in under a minute once you get your technique down.

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Once you think your ember is there, set your bow aside and gently fan the ember a couple times to make sure it is in fact burning. If it is, you’re golden. No hurry now, give it a few seconds and then gently remove your fireboard leaving you with an ember on your ember catch. At this point you should have plenty of time to move the ember to your tinder. I’ve had embers sit and burn for minutes regularly when just set aside.

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Once your ember is in your tinder, blow it to flame just as you would any other fire making method.

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A couple things worth noting. Tension on your cordage can be adjusted while using the bow by holding your thumb and fingertips on the cordage and taking up a little slack this way. Your spindle will get smoother with use and want to slip in the cordage. You can fix this simply by shaving the sides of the spindle to make it a little squarer. You should be able to get 3 or 4 embers from every hole you make on a ½ thick fireboard.

That’s really all there is to it. Not complicated, pretty basic and an important skill that’s easily mastered. There are other ways to do it, this is just the way I do it because it works. It will work for you too.


Ok, same day, I wanted to try an experiment with wet wood. It didn’t work out exactly as I planned, but it did work. Here’s how it went.

Click for video
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Click for video
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Good luck, any questions, lemme know.
Last edited by Regulator on Thu Oct 27, 2011 6:57 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Friction Fire, The Bow Drill Pics and Vid

Post by Woods Walker » Wed Oct 26, 2011 10:52 pm

Great thread Regulator. Thanks for spending the time to do this. :D
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Re: Friction Fire, The Bow Drill Pics and Vid

Post by Dash » Wed Oct 26, 2011 10:58 pm

This is very informative and quite picture heavy. I think I'm gonna go out and try this right now. 8-)
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Re: Friction Fire - The Bow Drill, Pics and Vid

Post by Regulator » Thu Oct 27, 2011 8:36 pm

Thanks guys! It was a good excuse to play outside on a nice fall day :D

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Re: Friction Fire - The Bow Drill, Pics and Vid

Post by xxxDarksidexxx » Thu Oct 27, 2011 8:51 pm

great stuff! i may need to add a little something to this in the near future.

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Re: Friction Fire - The Bow Drill, Pics and Vid

Post by ODA 226 » Fri Oct 28, 2011 7:28 am

Great post! Thanks!
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Re: Friction Fire - The Bow Drill, Pics and Vid

Post by the_alias » Mon Oct 31, 2011 8:17 am

Excellent stuff mate!

I was struggling with this in the summer - almost got it :( I really needed to take the time to find more suitable pieces of wood to work with I think.
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Re: Friction Fire - The Bow Drill, Pics and Vid

Post by Gingerbread Man » Mon Oct 31, 2011 8:40 am

Since it's time for me to start having fires in the backyard and in the home, I'll try this out. I normally try a new and different way to start a fire and try to become proficient with each method. I've never tried making a fire bow or a friction fire. Anyway, once more into the abyss.

I do have one question, once you've made your indentation and taken the spot to embers do you need to make a move on to a fresh spot? OR do you continue to use the same spot until it's not longer useful? Just thinking out loud, it seems the carbon would add friction and create more heat more rapidly.

Thanks in advance.
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Re: Friction Fire - The Bow Drill, Pics and Vid

Post by phractal » Mon Oct 31, 2011 11:35 pm

Great post. Wish I had seen it 20 years ago when I was in boy scouts.
Where'd my oh there it is go?.... Dang.

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Re: Friction Fire - The Bow Drill, Pics and Vid

Post by Regulator » Wed Nov 02, 2011 7:39 pm

Regular Guy, With cottonwood or a similar wood you can use the same hole for 3 or 4 embers generally. The only thing I would suggest would be to whittle the burnt end of the spindle a little before re-using it. This removes the slick end and allows you to get good friction again.

On other fireboards you can expect less re-use of holes. For instance, a couple nites ago I was using yucca spindle and fireboard. The fireboard was about ½ an inch thick. I got a great amber in about 10 seconds, but drilled ¾ the way through this very soft wood. Next time will require a new hole.

phractal, Never to late to learn new tricks. Once you own this skill, you will walk more confidently through the woods. Thanks for the comment.

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Re: Friction Fire - The Bow Drill, Pics and Vid

Post by phractal » Wed Nov 02, 2011 9:16 pm

I love learning new tricks. I just wish I had seen your post when I was trying to earn my fire badge. :D
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Re: Friction Fire - The Bow Drill, Pics and Vid

Post by the_alias » Fri Nov 04, 2011 4:18 am

Added to the Bushcraft sticky and Hall of Fame
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Re: Friction Fire - The Bow Drill, Pics and Vid

Post by Blackdog » Sat Nov 12, 2011 5:11 am

Not a better way, but at least a different way (and not nearly as well presented).

The egyptian fire bow. In this case a really big over sized for photo purposes rig. One of the advantages of this rig is that the requirement of getting your spindle to line tension correct is taken out of the equation and may aid the truly fumble fingered. This rig will also alllow for less than optimun cordage.

Now my main plan yesterday was to scout a new donkey trail into the mountains, but as luck would have it there was way to much fog to make that a fun day. After flapping around scaring myself silly I came back down out of the near white out and screwed around with this. What I did was chop some type of mostly dead, semi-dry willow that was handy and made this:

Again Note, the bow is a little large and exaggerated for photo purposes. The block was quicky worked from a river stone and my leatherman screwdriver. I also used the screwdriver blade to make a hole in the spindle, this is not really required as suitable knot will also work.

For your cordage you will need a piece that is about twice as long as your bow. Once you have the hole (or use a knot) in your spindle you thread the cord thru the hole and wrap the cord around the spindle. You can see from the picture the correct direction of the wrap. It doesn't have to be super tight but a little snug is better. After buning your hole in and in everything settles you may or may not have to add another wrap, I did with this over sized bow.

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At the end of this short clip you can just see the smoke start. I then shut off the camera, got serious, put another loop in the line to take a little of the slack that was developing out, locked my spindle arm into my shin correctly and went to work. Locking in is important, I guess working the wee little buttons on the camera, the giant bow and wanting to keep the clips short put me off form a bit, damn nuisance camera. The less spindle wobble the better. If nothing else you can see the wraps in action.

Right click for video.


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You can't really tell but it is quite misty out. I snagged some semi-dry grass from under a bush, walked over to the jute cord plant and got some of that and made a half assed tinder bundle. It took a bit of blowing but did spring to life after I lifted it off the ground. Holding your bundle a little over your head will help keep the smoke out of your eyes, damn camera. Where the heck is Spielberg when you need him.

Right click for video.


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Again not a better way, but a way that may have some advantages in some situations.
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Re: Friction Fire - The Bow Drill, Pics and Vid

Post by Woods Walker » Sat Nov 12, 2011 5:39 pm

Blackdog.

I have never seen it done that way. Nice video and write-up of the methodology.
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Re: Friction Fire - The Bow Drill, Pics and Vid

Post by Woods Walker » Tue Apr 29, 2014 10:48 am

Willow on Willow practice.

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I didn't have time to find dry grass or bark so used jute however did have some milkweed fluff. This was my first time putting a coal directly on milkweed fluff. Have mixed it into a tinder bundle however. It didn't really work out for me. Almost as if the fluff insulated the coal from the rest of the bundle. Maybe operator error. The job got done in spite of it.

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Got a coal fast but it went out. Guess the notch wasn't done right therefore attempted to wide it some. Naturally the corner broke off. Had to do another burn-in and V-cut. Cut a bit more out of the back side this time as well.

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The next try worked.

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Knew I had a coal cuz it started to melt my sock.

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All done.

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