Winter can be the cruelest season, especially for those who are caught outdoors and unprepared. During the harsh cold, something as basic as lighting a fire could mean the difference between living and perishing. While we should all be carrying multiple pieces of fire starting gear, it is possible that a run of bad luck could leave us separated from our trusty matches and lighters. That’s where an ancestral back-up plan can save the day. Make no mistake, there is a learning curve to using a bow and drill to start a fire. But with some practice, the right materials, and the right equipment fabrication, the difficult task of friction fire building becomes an achievable goal with an invaluable reward at the end.
Friction fire building is unlike anything that modern people do, although it’s certainly easier for some people than others. Athleticism, flexibility, tenacity, and a host of other traits can lead someone toward success. Injury, weakness, poor stamina, clumsiness, and many other handicaps can limit your success. Human error aside, the materials needed for a friction fire tend to dictate success or failure before you even start spinning your drill. The wood pieces need to be dead and dry, but not rotten. The drill and board need to be soft woods. In this video, I’m using white cedar for both. When you’re ready to give it a try, just build your kit, follow the steps below, and spin that drill just like they did back in the day.
STEP 1: Build your kit
Gather some dead, dry soft-wood material to craft your board and drill. Carve a flat piece to place on the ground and use as a fire board (also commonly called a hearth). The fire board can be virtually any size, as long as it’s about an inch thick where you plan to drill.
Your drill should be as straight and smooth as a broom handle, about an inch thick, and about 8 to 10 inches long with a point on each end. Use your knife to drill a pilot hole in the board to receive the drill.
Find a sturdy branch or limb about two feet long to serve as the bow, and string it with a piece of cord. 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.
Find a block of hardwood and drill a hole in it for your handhold piece. To complete your kit, you’ll need a bundle of dried grass, pine needles, or bark fiber for your tinder, and something oily to lubricate your handhold. You could use a dab of pine sap, some animal fat, or even ear wax to make the wood surface slick.
For more details on each item, click here.
STEP 2: Burn in the kit and carve the notch
Once you’ve built your kit and carved a pilot hole in the board about one inch from the edge of the board, it’s time to “burn in.” Apply a little lubricant to your handhold. Wrap the bow string around your drill once. It should be very tight. Hold the drill top with the handhold, place the drill bottom in the fire board pilot hole, and start moving the bow back and forth to burn in a hole in the fire board. This burning mates the surfaces of the drill and fire board together. If the handhold heats up, smokes or feels rough during this first drilling, use a little more lubricant. Never put lubricant in the hole in the fire board. Once the hole has been burned into the surface of the fire board, it is time to carve or saw a notch in the side of the board, which will collect the dust from drilling. This dust is what forms an ember, and it needs somewhere to go. Carve a notch in the side of the board with a sharp knife. It should have a 45-degree angle and the point of it should be just shy of the center of the hole. It’s also helpful to place a dry leaf or thin chip of wood or bark under the notch to help transport the dust.
STEP 3: Make fire
Start by drilling slowly, and then spin the drill faster and faster while pushing down hard on the handhold block. Your notch in the fire board should begin to fill with dark brown dust as the smoke billows out. Keep drilling until the notch is overflowing, then drill even faster to cause a temperature spike, which will ignite the dust. No flames will appear, but the dust pile will continue smoking and glow orange if you gently blow on it. Drop this newly formed ember into your tinder and blow it gently into flame.