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Fire Starting with the Bow Drill

On this article we will show the primitive fire starting technique 'bow drill'. Starting a fire with the use of friction is arguably the most common fire starting technique covered in bushcraft / survival documentation. By forcing the drill to rotate on the hearth board, the friction between the two surfaces converts kinetic energy into thermal energy. This motion creates heat while building a small pile of wood dust which will hopefully turn into a coal.

You will need some basic knowledge of your regional trees. Specifically it is helpful to know which trees are considered hardwoods or softwoods. You can experiment with different types of drills and hearth boards / base boards. In the end I believe each individual makes a preferred system with time.

Preparing the Bow and Drill

You will need the following:

    * Hand piece, Bearing block, Socket
    * Drill or spindle
    * Bow - you will need cord or leather
    * Hearth board , Base board or Fire board

Bearing Block or Hand Piece

The bearing block or hand piece is used to hold the spindle in place while we rotate the spindle in a rapid back and forth motion (drill). Ideally the block would be a low friction material with a smooth surface. We want the heat created by the sliding friction to be on the hearth board. The block must be thick enough to protect the hand from the heat.

We usually build a bearing block from a hardwood tree branch by starting a depression in the wood with our knife.

The bearing block can be made of materials such as bone, wood, sea shells, stone or steel. Some knives now have a bearing block hole built on the knife handle.

Below we show a few examples we have used to successfully start a fire.

For the following sequence, we used a hand piece made of oak. We lubricate the block with oil from our face to lower friction.

Spindle or Drill

The spindle hardness is a matter of choice. At the beginning of our training with the bow-drill, we used hardwoods for the spindle such as Oak or Cherry. Later, we began to experiment with softwood spindles such as Poplar (cotton wood), Willow, Cedar and Mule fat. Spindle length we use are usually eight to sixteen inches. Half inch diameter is a good place to start but again, please experiment with different sizes and wood types.

There are several ways to lower the friction :

* Lubrication - Facial oil if nothing else is available. Mark the end that will be going into the hand piece. Attempting to start a fire with the lubricated end would be very frustrating.

* Minimize friction by sharpening one end of the spindle. The sharp end goes into the bearing block.

The spindle on the left was made out of oak. The diameter on the drill was a bit over sized causing binding. On the right we have a Mule-fat (Baccharis salicifolia).

Base board / Fire board / Hearth board

The base board should be cut from a soft wood. Poplar/cottonwoods and Saguaro ribs are two examples. I prefer the thickness of the board to be around an inch to a quarter of an inch. I have had instances where making the board too thick caused binding. There are times that a thinner baseboard will help us get a coal faster.

The board on the left was made out of Poplar tree and the one on the right was a Saguaro cactus rib.

This tulip fallen poplar tree was a perfect choice for a hearth board. Look for fallen trees that are not touching the ground if possible. This helps slow down wood decay of while allowing it to slowly dry. If you have ever seasoned wood for the fireplace you understand that freshly cut wood has a high moisture content. Seasoned wood hearth boards will improve our chances of getting a coal.

One way to test the wood if in doubt is to cut the bark from a fallen tree and run your thumbnail with the grain. What I find is you will leave a mark with softer woods.

Now we are ready to prepare the board for drilling. The first step proper drill location within the board. Place the drill on the board about a half inch back from the edge and mark the point. Using the knife we create a small depression for the drill. We then drill for about 30 second to clearly mark the diameter of the drill on the board.

In order for the wood dust created by the drilling to shape into a coal, we need a properly cut notch on the hearth / fireboard.

Use the diameter of the spindle / drill to guide you. Using the same method we make use of the knife to start the hole in the fireboard. Remembering we will need space for the notch. We drill long enough to clearly mark the diameter of the spindle on the board.

We cut a notch in the shape of a 'V' on the side of the fire board so the wood dust can drop, this is what forms the coal. We usually make the notch about say 60° (degrees). Most people prefer to make the notch to the center of the board, we find that not going all the way to the center works best. (Its a matter of preference)

We use the same bark from the Poplar tree to catch the ember as we drill (ember pan). This helps to move the ember to our tinder nest and also keeps the ember off the cold/damp ground.


Most people use a stiff bow. I prefer a bow with a little flex to it. This is yet another point of argument with the bow drill. We teach use whatever gets the job done and helps you survive. We used a willow branch as the bow.

Twist the spindle into the bow string (parachute cord). The bearing block is in one hand and the bow in the other. We place the arm against the shin for support. Some people place the hand piece in the center of their chest.

We make sure to support the arm with the bearing block against your shin. Pointing the bow slightly down we drill at a steady pace. Once the board starts to smoke, we speed up.

If you look closely you can see the wood dust the drilling created. The 'V' notch cut into the hearth board allows the material to drop down and create the hot coal. Remember: Once you see smoke, we do not stop! We continue to drill for a while longer.

A few tips at this point:

1) Be careful as you stop and pull the drill away from the board.

2) We tend to tap the hearth board with our knife to help separate the coal from the board. After all your work, it would be horrible to break the coal into small pieces.

We place the coal in the middle of the tinder nest and start blowing on to the coal. Slowly the coal spreads and if done properly the tinder will ignite. Vary your speed until you figure out what best works for you. The conditions and tinder material will vary and so will your technique.

In the following video we ignite a nest while using the bow and drill.

We practiced with different woods, notch sizes and drilling speed. The wind was blowing pretty hard so we had to protected the coal inside the nest. When blowing on the coal, a steady slower air supply seems to work best. Good luck and enjoy!

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