Survival Skills: Can You Really Light a Fire With a Bow and Drill?

The bow-and-drill method of making fire by friction has been around for a very long time. And while experts make it look easy on TV, there’s a little more to it than just grinding some sticks together. But it really does work, and it works around the globe with components made from a wide range of materials.

How Does Friction Fire Occur?

A friction fire happens when one wooden surface is rubbed, ground or spun against another wooden surface. This action is typically done quickly, under significant pressure and in a “back and forth” manner. Both surfaces are consumed with this act of friction, creating wood dust–along with heat–which can form a small, red hot coal. This little ember is typically dropped into a nest of tinder and blown into flame.

Why Is It So Difficult For Most Beginners?

Making a friction fire can be easier for some people than others. Athleticism, flexibility, tenacity and a host of other attributes can lead someone to success. Injury, weakness, poor stamina, clumsiness, and many other problems can limit your success. Human error aside, your choice of materials for the friction fire equipment is the one area where your success will be determined before you even start spinning the drill. The wood pieces need to be dead and dry, but not rotten. The drill and board need to be soft woods, without a lot of pitch or slippery sap in them.

Bow Drill Components

Bow: The bow is usually a sturdy branch or limb about two-feet long and about an inch in diameter. It can be made from almost any green or dead wood. It could be slightly curved or perfectly straight, as long as it is flexible. Another popular bow is a slightly flexible rib bone from a large animal.

Cord: You’ll need a length of strong cord eight inches longer than the bow. This could be nylon cord, a shoe lace, twine, a strip of leather or handmade bark cord, depending on your situation. Thicker cord will be stronger, last longer and grip the drill better than thinner cords. I prefer a 3/16- to 3/8-inch braided nylon rope for my bow drill strings.

Handhold: This is a piece of hardwood, bone or stone that fits comfortably in your hand, and has a suitable hole in it already, or can be drilled out to create a socket hole. The perfect handhold is a rock with a smoothly ground hole, often found on beaches.

Lubricant: Any greasy, oily, or slippery substance such as animal fat, vegetable oil, pine pitch or crushed evergreen leaves should be suitable. Before each drilling attempt, apply a little lubricant where the hand hold and drill top meet. This is necessary to limit friction at the top of the drill. Be careful not to get any lubricant on the fireboard.

Drill: The drill spins against the fireboard, generating dust and creating friction and heat. The drill is a smooth cylinder of wood, about 3/4 to one inch in diameter, and six to nine inches long, with a dull point on one end and a sharp point on the other. The dull point goes into the fireboard, while the sharp tip goes up into the handhold block. The drill should be as straight as possible and a soft wood like aspen, willow, yucca stalks or any other soft, fast growing, non-resinous wood.

Fireboard: The fireboard is a flat or nearly flat board of suitable wood about 1/2- to ¾-inch thick, at least two inches wide and at least eight inches long. Use the same kind of wood for both the board and drill. My favorite in the East is basswood.

How To Prepare The Equipment

****Once the bow, drill, handhold and fireboard have been made, carve a pilot hole on the edge of the topside of the fireboard.

Wrap the bowstring around your drill once. It should be very tight. Hold the drill top with the handhold, place the drill bottom in the fireboard pilot hole, and start moving the bow back and forth. The drill should start to spin and burn in the pilot hole. This mates the surfaces of the drill and fire board together. If the hand hold heats up, smokes or feels rough during this first drilling, use a little more lubricant.

Once the hole has been burned into the surface of the fireboard, the only remaining step is to carve or saw a notch in the side of the board to collect the dust from the drilling. This dust is important and needs somewhere to go, because it’s going to become your red hot ember.

Carve a notch in the side of the board with a sharp knife. It should be about a 45-degree angle and the point of it should be just shy of the center of the hole you’re drilling in. The notch should be as smooth as possible, so that the ember can be removed in one piece later.
How to Make Fire**

It’s go time. Start off drilling slowly, progressively spinning the drill faster and faster while pushing down hard on the handhold block. Your notch in the fireboard should begin to fill with dark brown dust, as the smoke billows out. Keep drilling until the notch is overflowing, then drill at your fastest speed yet, to create a high-temperature spike to light the dust. No flames will appear, but the dust pile will continue smoking and glow red if you gently blow on the dust. Drop this newly formed ember into your tinder, and blow gently into the flame.

For pointers on technique, there’s a video I did with my buddy Hueston that you can check out.


Carry them! That’s actually two words, but just do it. I don’t care if you’re a bow drill champ, or not. There’s no reason to die out there because you couldn’t make a bow drill fire like you thought you could. Modern methods of making fire can be used in a variety weather conditions and environments, and even if you are injured. Try cranking out a bow drill with a broken arm. It’s not going to work very well. Take matches and lighters with you!

Let us know in the comments if you’ve tried bow-and-drill fire making, or if you have any questions.