Imagine you’re hiking with some friends on a day hike on a trail you’ve never been on. The trail is well marked in places, not so much in others. At one point you stop to make a quick bathroom break and tell the others to keep going, you’ll catch up in a little while. After you’re done you amble up the trail happy to have a few minutes alone. Suddenly you realize you haven’t seen any trail markers recently and you realize you’ve wandered off the trail. You don’t panic, but you hurry ahead to where you think the trail must be. Without realizing it you’ve walked further from the trail and out of hearing range from your friends.
By Jarhead Survivor, a contributing author
You’re lost in the wilderness and sundown is an hour away. Next you realize that all you are carrying with you is a plastic water bottle half full, a small bag of GORP, and a light windbreaker jacket. It’s supposed to get down into the 40’s during the night and you’re gonna freeze your ass off. What do you do now? Most people would suffer through the night and probably be ok in the morning after freezing all night. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get a fire going and sleep next to it all night? Luckily, you read this post and remember how to build a bow drill and even practiced with it. Right? So let’s build a bow drill set and start a fire.
First, you can build a set without a knife and paracord, but it’s much easier if you have them. Even a small pocket knife would be invaluable for this task.
There are several pieces that make up the bow drill: the bow, bearing block, fire board, and spindle.
– Spindle: The spindle is the part that drills into the wood. The spindle and fire board should be made from the same material. Softwood like cedar or fir is best for this as it’s easier to get a good coal.
– Fire Board: This is the part that lays on the ground and receives the spindle.
– Bow: The bow can be made of just about anything as long as it has a slight curve to it. The cordage should be fairly rugged, but can be made from natural cordage if you don’t have anything available.
– Bearing Block: This is a piece of wood, or a rock, or a knife that can hold the top part of the spindle.
– Cordage: As mentioned earlier a good piece of paracord will make this a lot easier, but it is possible to do this with natural cordage, although you’ll need to angle the bow so the cordage doesn’t rub against itself and break.
Get It Right
Once you have all the steps down it’s actually fairly easy to get the coal needed to light your tinder. But everything as to work in harmony or you just won’t get the coal. The spindle has to be cut properly, the fireboard needs to be burned in and the notch has to be right. The bearing block needs to be lubricated and your bow must grip the spindle properly – not too loose and not too tight.
Also Read: Primitive Skills School
Once all these pieces come together you’ll need to use proper form in order to get the coal. Check out the video for more information on a bow drill and to see whether or not I can actually start a fire this way.
Has anybody else out there started a fire with a bow drill? Let’s hear about it in the comments.
Sound off below!
Great video Jarhead. Long time reader, way back to RangerMan days. I wasn’t sure how your recent transition to the new format would go, but it’s getting better and I’m enjoying the variety of articles. You were good in the video, I’ve never seen that actually done like that with no cuts in the video. I counted about 120-140 push-pulls on the bow, so I was surprised you got a spark so fast. Great job. More stuff like this!
Thanks, Jumbo! Glad to see you’re still with us and like the new format.
I don’t have a cameraman (anybody want a job?) so when I do these I have to set the camera somewhere and do it myself. There weren’t any edits on this video and I did get the coal that fast. I was using a cedar bowdrill set I made at the Maine Primitive Skills School – check out the link above for more info about that school.
Thanks for reading and thanks for sticking with us!
I applaud your firebow skill – you are much more proficient than I am! I respect and admire people who have mastered these aboriginal skills. It take a lot of dedication. IMHO, any type of firemaking with friction is hard. While I appreciate the skill it takes to whittle out a firebow, I personally could not make one in half an hour (the time limit set up in your scenario). It would take that long to find the correct wood! Take along a simple, cheap firemaking kit and save a lot of trouble: https://survivalcommonsense.com/ten-ways-reuse-empty-prescription-pill-bottlesfeed/
Thanks, Leon. I realize friction fires aren’t for everybody, but there’s a certain satisfaction knowing I could walk into the woods with just a knife and survive fairly comfortably for a week. I don’t really need the knife, but it would make things a whole lot simpler! I encourage anybody going into the woods to take a small survival kit with them.
So what is the length of your bow and spindle? That spindle looks thicker than what others use on the net. I would think thicker is better for more friction and makes a bigger coal? Have you found a sweet spot in dimensions?
Hey Pineslayer – I’d say the spindle is about the thickness of your thumb and the same for the fire board. The one I made from a fir tree was probably a little thinner. I think what’s important is the type of wood and how dry it is.
Mike – the guy who runs the MPSS – says that he’ll hang his bowdrill kit up in the sun during the day to make sure it’s as dry as it can be for when he needs it.
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Now a days a friend of mine has a portable saw mill at his house, I go over there and fill a 55 gallon barrel dump 10 gallon of kerosene in it. After I finish a container of coffee, I fill them up and sell them for $10.00 each.Remember, this stuff is like goose crap, a little goes a long way LOL LOL
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I have found that using softer wood than the drill for a fireboard works best. You will drive the spindle deeper into the board, but makes for a much easier ember. Also, if you get light brown dust and a lot of smoke, take the spindle out and let the smoke dissipate. This will expel moisture out of the spindle and fireboard. Keep doing that, getting darker and darker dust each time, until you have that fine black dust.
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