Click title or picture for full article.

Hand Drill - Primitive Fire Starting

hand drill fire starting

Prometheus, son of a Titan stole fire from the heavens defying Zeus and gave it back to man kind. Different stories are told as to the origins of fire. But where did fire really come from? Early signs of controlled fire date back 790,000 years ago found in Gesher Benot Ya'aqov by scientists on the banks of the Jordan River. Did we capture fire from lightning, or notice the way two rocks can create a spark? Whatever happened, fire still remains a subject of interest to many. We learn how to start a fire with matches, Ferrocerium, and to a small group the obsession turns to primitive fire skills. Fire by friction, the bug usually begins with the bow drill. Slowly, we learn about the importance of wood selection. Different types of tinder and how to properly blow a coal into that beautiful life saving flame. Now that you "mastered" the bow drill, what is our next challenge? The hand drill! Scientists depict early man crouched over spinning a stick as smoke begins to pour out of a flat piece of wood. Fire by rubbing sticks together as some say, is an art.

My journey to the hand drill began during a visit to Arizona. While at the Arizona Bushman gathering, John Campbell held a session on the hand drill. During our plant walk, we picked out Seepwillow drills, allowed them to dry in the desert heat and so began my learning process. I felt fairly comfortable with the bow drill, so I wondered where this new journey would take me. Without the aid of a bow and bearing block, we faced new challenges. I worked on it a few times once back home without much success. Living in a high humidity area and limited to the wood types near marshy lands added to the difficulty. Later that year while at Dirt Time, some of the guys were giving me tips and my curiosity came back. I was drilling away on a piece of cottonwood when Alan Halcon walks up and says, you are not putting enough pressure down! Considering the source, I pressed down with all my might using my arm strength. It was then that my first coal came to life and immediately I realized I was being watched by two legends. John McPherson and Alan Halcon. It was then that John McPherson was kind enough to explain to me that I was using only my triceps to push down, and showed me an improved stance to help me add pressure to the drill with my body weight. I was honored to be helped out by such legendary member of the primitive skills community.

So it begins....

Our knowledge of wood selection from bow drill fire starting, would be useful but there was still much to learn. However for the hand drill we must be more selective. Although I have been able to create a bow drill coal using an Oak drill, I can tell you using Cedar makes life much easier. Most people refer to the different densities of wood and a hard wood or soft wood. One common way to tell how "hard" the wood may be, is to run your fingernail across the wood once you cut it. If it makes an indentation in the wood without much effort, chances are this is a soft wood.

hand drill soft wood

What we used was what most would call a soft woods (cotton wood, elderberry, mulefat, saguaro). The wood cannot be so soft that it crumbles when we add pressure while spinning. The wood choice will depend on location. If you take a look at the region that Seepwillow scientifically known as Baccharis salicifolia is not available in most of the United States. This is part of the fun, trying to learn the wood types in your area and their density. In North Carolina, I would need to use Mullein, Cedar, Cotton Wood (Poplar). Where we pick our wood and the time of the year can affect our chances as well. Green wood, would have to be seasoned. What is the humidity at that time of the year, we want dry wood. If the wood comes from a fallen tree, how long has it been there. The wood could be punky, which could mean failed attempts and frustration. All part of the learning experience.

hand drill fire starting

Some Wood Options










hand drill mulefat spindle

Mulefat Spindle


hand drill spindle and baseboard

With experience we can begin to make our preferences in everything from wood selection to spindle diameter. However, there are plenty of people who have gone before us and we can learn from their hard learned lessons. Take the time to read and research from different sources. The diameter of the drill will work in a variety of sizes, however it is a general consensus that 3/8 - 1/4 of an inch is a good size to start with. Some people prefer smaller diameters to help focus the friction and heat to a smaller point. If the diameter is too small, it can drill through the fireboard before the coal is created. The spindle shaft should be fairly straight and free of twigs. Remember you will be spinning the spindle in between your palms. A longer spindle allows a longer spinning cycle before having to reset so a spindle of anywhere from 20 - 32 inches tends to work best for me. A long piece of Seepwillow, Elderberry, Cattail, or Mullein works well.

hand drill fire starting

Baseboard / Fireboard

hand drill fire baseboard fireboardWhether you call is a hearth, fireboard or baseboard, this is the wood we will be "drilling" into. Once we pick out the proper wood type, we baton the wood into pieces of about 1/4" in thickness. I have used thicker boards and I am able to start a fire. However, it takes longer to build the wood dust/char pile and get the needed heat. If the wood is cut properly, it should be fairly flat. This should help, when we are stepping on the board to keep it from spinning while we drill. Our next steps are to create an impression in the wood where our spindle will be drilling and add a notch. The notch allows the dust/char created to collect and provides air to access the coal as it comes to life. We use the diameter of the spindle to calculate where we will begin drilling. We place the tip of the drill about 1/4 of an inch from the side of the baseboard and push down to help us mark the wood. We use the knife to begin the impression in the wood, we then drill long enough to clearly mark the diameter of the spindle on the board.

Properly cutting the "V" notch on the board is important. The rapid spinning motion of the spindle against the soft wood of the hearth, will begin to create wood dust or char. What we want is the hot dust to form and create a coal. If properly cut, the notch will hold the dust, while allowing it to breath. Our goal is to create a notch about say 60° (degrees) in width coming from the center of the hole. For the size drill used for hand drill, usually around 1/4 of an inch.

Note: There are other options to cutting a notch such as drilling consecutive holes or pits on the baseboard or assembling a hearth out of two sticks.

hand drill fire starting baseboardhand drill fire starting baseboard

hand drill fire short stance

Drilling Technique and Positions

There are multiple positions in which drilling can be accomplished. It seems each person finds their favorite. When I first started I tried the sitting position. I found that I have a hard time getting the needed downward pressure. I moved on to the bow drill stance, and this is how I achieved success. However it was when Alan Halcon and John McPherson explained the importance of the downward pressure that I switched to a short stance. I learned this stance reading The Hand Drill by Alan Halcon.

Once settled in the stance, we commence drilling. It takes some time to get used to the new stance and muscles used to rotate the spindle with enough pressure and speed. It takes practice, so be patient. Some people cheat by using an oven to dry the wood and other forms of trickery. Be weary of some of the so called experts. Take the time to read and practice with different wood combinations. Humidity has a part in how quickly we can get a coal as much as any other area we discussed. I happen to live in an area where 80% percent humidity in summer is normal.

We place our hands on the top of the drill, our left foot on the baseboard and begin rotating the spindle in between our palms. Some people suggest using your fingers as well. We drill until we get close to the bottom of the spindle, move one hand up and then the other. We do not want the spindle to jump out.


It is important that the drill stays in the hole. If the drill is lifted, we loose heat. We are working way too hard for that friction heat to lose it this way.

As we continue to drill, we should begin to see smoke. Depending on the wood combination, humidity, and technique, it can take some time. Again, be patient.


There is a technique called hand floating. This technique can be used to warm up the wood as you begin the process of drilling. I have seen some use this technique to create a coal. I have not been able to create a coal using it, but I use it to get the hole started and warm up the fireboard/baseboard. Perhaps with time, I will be able to create a coal with this technique. Would it ever work in a higher humidity environment is the question.

It is a good idea to pace yourself. Now that we have smoke, we pick up the speed and add pressure. Just as with the bow drill, this is the time to make the coal come to life! Hang in there and you will find a sense of satisfaction. We carefully pull the drill away and we have a beautiful coal. There you have it, Fire by Friction.

hand drill fire coal


Be mindful that there is a big difference between using wood that has been seasoned (moisture reduction) by either sitting in the sun for a lengthy amount of time or put in an oven. This is not a bad idea when first beginning your learning process. However eventually you want to go out and learn to find the items as you walk in the wilderness and get a chance to experiment. if the sun is out, give it some time to dry. Humidity levels in the area play a big role. Too many people post pictures of other people using a technique and have their opinions on a particular technique. The hand drill takes time and proper conditions. That is a fact.

Special thanks to John Campbell, Alan Halcon, John McPherson


Ultimate Guide to Wilderness Living by John and Geri McPherson
The Hand Drill by Alan Halcon

Make sure to check out the references below

Creative Commons License is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.