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You are here: Home > Wilderness Survival Articles > How to Make a Bowdrill Fire
Bow Drill: Creating Fire by Friction (That means rubbing two sticks together!)
This video and article explain what materials and techniques are necessary to create fire the primitive way.
 

Bow Drill Fire from Paul Scheiter on Vimeo.
 
Philosophy of the Bowdrill
As I mentioned in the video, the ability to survive is only the surface level function of the bowdrill. To ancient cultures this technique was approached with the highest reverence because it was a method of developing a closer spiritual connection with the earth. While I respect that many people do not agree with this perspective, I have found this approach to be one of the most rewarding aspects of the primitive skills. Every time I make a fire this way, I can't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the earth and ultimately life. For some it is a powerful survival skill, for others a rewarding experience, and for me it has been an experience of finding "something greater".

FYI: Here is the symbolism of the bow drill in ancient Apache culture:

Bow and cord: the circle of life and the four directions
Hand socket: the loving hands of creation
Fireboard: the female entity
V-notch: the womb
Dust: the physical body
Coal: new life / future generations
Spindle: the male entity
Tinder: the nurturing Earth Mother

The Essentials
There are seven main components to the bowdrill which are the bow, cordage, spindle, hand socket, fire board, coal catcher, and tinder. Finding the ideal is essential when crafting your bowdrill set. I find that using bone dry wood carries a lot more significance than the type of wood you actually use. But for your reference medium density woods are best like cedar, poplar, willow, and cottonwood.

The Bow
This is the simplest component of the set and the easiest to construct. You want a sturdy stick with a slight curve that is no longer than the distance from your wrist to arm pit.

The Cordage
In the video I used 550 parachute cord but equally effective natural substitutes can be made from the bark of certain trees, plants, and animals. Here you can see the 550 cord and two natural alternatives I made: yucca plant and squirrel cordage.

The Handsocket
You'd be amazed at what you can use for a hand socket in a pinch, but ideally you want the hardest wood possible that is shaped to something palm-sized and easy to grab (that's what she said!!!). The reason a hardwood is best for this piece is because you do NOT want it to burn. Put a small notch in the handsocket and lubricate it with pine sap or grease. Earwax and oils from the face work decently if nothing else is available.

The Spindle
This piece should be about as thick as your thumb and no longer than the distance from your index finger to thumb. You can carve it either from a solid piece of wood or from a branch of the proper dimensions. In any case, it should be consistently round with a point on one side and blunt on the other. The pointed side fits in the lubricated hand socket, and the blunt side goes in the fireboard.

The Fireboard
The fireboard should be made of the same material as the spindle, or at least a similar density. I prefer to carve mine into an actual board with ninety degree corners. There are many variations on the fireboard but the most successful ones I have seen are equal in thickness to the spindle... and of course dry materials go a long way.

The V-Notch
This is critical for the formation of a healthy coal. It should be about one eighth of a pie and stop just short of the center of the pre-burned hole. Clarification: the hole is burned in until it creates a nice depression. Then you stop to carve the v-notch. Finally you go back to make the fire on the second burning.

The Coal Catcher
While this is a non-essential component, I find that it helps tremendously. The coal catcher is just a thin shaving of wood that is clamped beneath the fireboard directly under the v-notch. If you wish not to use the coal catcher, just place a small amount of tinder under the v-notch instead.

The Tinder
Good tinder is all about dry and fluffy... having said that, you can effectively use many different plants and barks that are less than ideal. After some dirt time with this skill you will learn where short cuts work and where they don't. My challenge to you: the one leaf tinder bundle! Write me if you get it.

The Frustration Begins!
For the best description on technique, look toward the end of the video at the top of this page. When you first attempt this skill you will be going through a learning curve with technique, materials, and construction of the bow drill set itself. The process can be difficult for even the most patient individuals, so my words of advice: let yourself get frustrated! Put some serious effort into this thing and when you get that first wisp of smoke you will become incredibly determined to go all the way. When I first learned this technique it was an emotional roller coaster of curiosity, focus, frustration, defeat, and then finally success. Who knows, you may even learn something about yourself in the process!

  Best always,
Paul Scheiter

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