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Bow Drill Fire Making Kits – Directions, Tips, Tricks, Pitfalls & Advice

Making traditional fire by friction, or “rubbing two sticks together” is real, and it’s more than a fun project: it’s also the most reliable way to start a fire once you learn how.  How can an ancient way of starting fire be the most reliable if it is difficult? Well, it’s only difficult if you haven’t learned how.  Once you learn, then it becomes the most reliable method because the coal you create is durable in cold, rainy, and windy conditions. Further, you can’t “run out” of fire lighting material if you know how to make traditional fire by friction.  Once you use up your matches, lighter, fire steel, or other ignition source, you need to know traditional fire by friction.

There are also another couple dozen known methods of starting traditional fire by friction, but I highly recommend the bow-drill method of fire-by-friction for everyone in cold climates.  I have seen archeological evidence of its use throughout the northern latitudes, and it seems to be the best technology for cold, wet climates where wood with high combustion temperatures dominate the landscape.  But it is a waste of time to learn this method if you can’t light a fire with manufactured materials, nor keep a fire going once you’ve created a coal using friction.  So go to my previous blog post and review the best way to make and maintain fire before you continue here.

Lighting Fire using the Bow Drill Method

I almost made my own bow-drill demonstration video since there were (and are) so many out there that teach bad form, until I came across a bow-drill demonstration video made by the Maine Primitive Skills School, and have since seen many others that have subsequently done a good job.  Although I don’t care for the word “primitive” since it can be offensive to indigenous peoples, the bow-drill video above is excellent, as are many of their other videos.

Correct Bow Drill Form, Tips, Tricks, Pitfalls & Advice

Most important in this video, and with bow drilling in general, is to develop Ad-Blog-Survivalexcellent form.  Big guys can power through bad form under good weather conditions, but bad form gets even them in trouble when weather and wood conditions are poor.  So, watch the video, and note the most important things you’ll have to remember, including:

  1. Carve an artistic-looking kit, because the more artistic it looks, the more perfect it is, and the less perfect is, the harder it will be to start your fire.
  2. Don’t use a bowed bow; find a fairly straight stick because if you put the spindle into the rope correctly, it will ride on the outside of the rope, so your bow doesn’t need to be bent much. Besides, if your bow is bent too much, you won’t be able to hold your spindle in the rope while holding your bow all with the same hand – something that will free your other hand up to arrange other things and grab your hand-hold.
  3. Raise your kit off the ground using pieces of bark and other insulation, because the ground will cool your kit and kill your coal.
  4. Check out the picture of the bow drill kit below to view an easy way to tie your rope onto your bow, and make your rope as taut as you can. If you can get your spindle into the rope easily, it’s nowhere near tight enough.
  5. Speaking of getting the spindle into the rope, just jam your bow into your belly, start the spindle into the rope, then let go of the bow and crab both ends of the spindle to crank it into the rope. Then hold the spindle in the rope bow all with the same hand in order to free your other hand up to grab your hand-hold.
  6. Position yourself so that your body blocks the wind.
  7. Turn your bow around if necessary to position the correct end of the spindle onto the hearth, and so that the top side of the spindle is the one you want to keep lubricated for your hand-hold.
  8. Speaking of lubricating the hand-hold, don’t use oils for that because oils will burn off when hot. The best are pine-family needles, especially fir tree needles. They work like a charm.
  9. Position the foot you put on the hearth (bottom board) perfectly, so that your arm holding the “hand-hold” is firmly locked into your shin. For big people who can’t get their arm around the outside of their leg, try putting firmly up against the inside of your leg.
  10. Raise yourself up as straight as you can, so that your arm is as straight as possible, because if you lean over and bend your arm, you’re going to need a lot of strength to push down, whereas if your arm is straight, the body weight you put on your arm will be all you need.

    Bow Drill Fire Workshop Participant Using Excellent Form

    Bow Drill Fire Workshop Participant Using Correct Bow-Drill Form

  11. Hold your bow at the very end, covering the area where the rope is tied on, whereas if you hold it toward the middle, it will be super wobbly.
  12. Take care to hold your hand-hold flat. It may feel like it’s flat, but have an outside observer look from the side and re-position your hand so that it’s flat.
  13. Start with little pressure to get going, then push down to create dust until the dust fills your 1/8 pie notch, described in the next section. Once the dust touches the bottom of your spindle, take a break to breathe, but always keeping the spindle in position so that it stays hot, then go for it with less pressure and more speed.
  14. This is where most people create a coal but don’t think they did. If you have black dust, you created a coal, but it went out. To keep it from going out, a delicate balance between air and shelter must be maintained, so just barely “tilt” the spindle out of the notch so that air can get to the dust, but not so much that you cool the dust down too quickly.  I like to keep the spindle tilted in the notch and blow air toward the dust.
  15. Carefully transfer your coal with a knife into your ready tinder, so that the coal stays together. Blow it into flame, holding the tinder above face level so that the smoke goes away from you, and again, it is a delicate balance between air and fuel. Cup the tinder so that the coal gets constant new fuel, but constantly blow into it from about 8 inches away (reduces breathy water vapor if you aren’t too close) until it flames up.

Beginner Bow Drill Skills: Start With A Pre-Fab Kit

I highly recommend making your first bow drill kit with materials purchased form a lumber store so that you can concentrate on learning good form before progressing to making fire from all-natural materials.  We have the following pre-fab kits available for sale at events, classes and workshops, but we don’t ship items, so to make your own, follow these directions:

Chris Chisholm with a display of Bow Drill Kit Pieces

Chris Chisholm with a display of Bow Drill Kit Pieces: Splitting a 12″ piece of Cedar Decking with his Mora Knife to make a spindle blank and bottom board hearth; two finished cylindrical spindles; three bottom board hearths that have been drilled at least once each; two hand holds made from 2×3 green fir; jute cordage with pieces unspun at various stages, resting on an old piece of cedar fencing with pine pitch glob that burns like a candle; and 5 sizes of bows with synthetic string, including one he’s using to bonk his knife.

  • For Your Hearth: Buy one dry piece of 1/2 inch cedar fencing, and cut a foot-long piece for your hearth.  You will be able to make multiple drilling notches, and I recommend the 1/2 inch because for your first fire, you won’t have to drill very far to build up dust in the notch you make.
  • For Your Spindle: Buy one dry piece of cedar decking which is usually 3/4 inches thick by 3 inches wide. Cut it off a one-foot length, and you should be able to split that into 3 spindle blanks.  Carve the best looking spindle blank into a perfect cylinder, then carve both ends into points.
  • For Your Hand-Hold: Buy one green piece of 2×3 green douglas fir, and cut a piece to fit your hand, usually about 3.5-4.0 inches long. Drill a hole half-way through the very center, and carve it into a smooth, conical shape.
  • For Your Bow: Find the lightest stick you can’t easily break, and cut it to be as long as your arm from armpit-to-palm. Smooth off any bumps that would get in the way of the rope or your hand.
  • For Your String: Buy some 1/4 inch diamond-braided nylon rope.
  • For Your Tinder: Buy some jute string which any lumber or hardware store should have. Jute is a natural plant fiber that is known for making burlap sacks, and it is highly flammable. Cut about 20-30, four-inch (10 cm) pieces of the jute, and unspin them into individual strands, and then unspin those so that you can see the original plant fibers. Separate those fibers and fluff them up to create a big bird-nest-looking tinder bundle.  There are a hundred other things you can use as tinder, and the best natural mix is something that flames up well (like dead grass or many inner barks) blended with a “coal extender” that doesn’t flame well but keeps your coal alive, like “downy” material such as cattail down, cottonwood seed, thistle down and other wind-dispersed flowering plant seeds.
  • For Your Knee-Plate, Coal Catch Plate & Tinder:  Find pieces of soft bark you can use to raise your hearth off the ground, as a coal catch-plate, and also to put under your back knee when you are drilling.  If you have a dry piece of plywood, put everything, including yourself, on it.

Now that you have all your materials, it’s time to start drilling:

  1. Press your pointed spindle into your hearth so that when you drill down later, the edge of the spindle will be 1 cm from the edge of your hearth.
  2. Put your spindle into your bow string, and start drilling, but stop when it starts smoking.
  3. Put your bow and spindle aside, and carve a perfect 1/8 pie notch from the edge of your hearth into the center of your notch; well, about 1 mm from the center of your notch so that you don’t accidentally go too far.
  4. Put a sprig of pine/fir needles into your conical hand-hold notch.
  5. Go for it.

Intermediate Bow Drill Skills: Carving Your Kit From Nature

While you are practicing your form on your pre-cut kit, I recommend gathering and drying materials from nature in order to make your own all-natural kit.

  • For Your Hearth: There are infinite options for good hearth wood. Score your chosen wood to size, and split it to the correct, flat thickness. The harder your wood, the thinner your hearth can be.
  • For Your Spindle: Take the remnants of your hearth-wood and carve it into a functional spindle. The harder the wood, the thinner your spindle should be.
  • For Your Hand-Hold: Choose a rock that naturally fits your hand, and find a harder rock to peck a hole into the exact center of it. Wear eye and ear protection. If you have a saw, you can grab any hard, green wood and cut it to size to use as a wooden hand-hold.
  • For Your Bow & String:  Same as above.
  • For Your Knee-Plate, Coal Catch Plate & Tinder:  Same as above.
  • For Coal Extender:  Same as above.

Advanced Bow Drill Skills: Breaking Rock & Using Natural Cordage

Making a bow-drill kit is a challenge without a good carving tool, and without strong cordage.  So you need to know where to find these things, how to “break rock” in a way that works as well as knives to carve, score and split wood.  You will also need to know how to find the strongest and most pliable plant fibers for making your string.  For instance, you can pull conifer roots, harvest willow bark, or cut vine maple branches for cordage.  Finally, you will need a bendable, springy bow, because when you put your spindle into your natural rope, the rope will break under too much pressure; when the bow is allowed to release to it’s preferred shape, the tension on your natural string should be just about perfect.

Chris Chisholm is founder and co-owner of Wolf Camp and the Conservation College. For excellent wilderness survival training including traditional fire making with Chris as lead instructor, check out these great courses:

May: Saturday Wilderness Survival Workshop in Western Washington with the Conservation College.
July: Five Day Wilderness Survival Training & Trek in Western Washington with the Conservation College.

24 comments to Bow Drill Fire Making Kits – Directions, Tips, Tricks, Pitfalls & Advice

  • […] Bow Drill Fire Making Kits – Directions, Tips, Tricks, Pitfalls & Advice    How to Cook Over a Campfire […]

  • TomF

    I am a newbie at bow drill fire making, testing techniques and practicing. I’ve gotten smoke but not quote mastered getting my ember.

    One problem I am having is my bow cord starts slipping on the spindle when I start picking up pace or have been going for a bit. I am currently using paracord. I rough the spindle a bit with the serrated part of my knife with vertical strokes to give a little something for the cord to grab. I can also grab the cord with my fingers and apply some inward pressure tightening the cord as I go.

    I am now using a stiff bow stick vs greener flexible, hold at end for stability, and the twist in of the spindle starts very tight. The cord tie does not loosen at end points and cord should be pre stretched by now. It does seem most of the slippage occurs or begins on the return stoke, so this could be a technique problem? I try to keep the cord running just above my shoe holding the fire board and shoe right next to notch bowl, everything locked in place.

    So my question is how common is the slippage problem, if beginning or occurring on the return stroke is common, and what can I change in my technique or material to overcome this?

    Later I want to try making my own cord, but need to get other skills first, like learning a musical instrument. FYI – I found the paracord near an abondone campsite so it kept with using what I could scavenge in the woods…
    Thanks for you tutorial, Tom in the Pacific NW.

    • Hi Tom. Slippage can be due to the cord, but 99% of the time it’s just that you need to tighten up the cord from the get-go, and the trick then becomes learning how to get the spindle wrapped into the cord when it’s so tight. Not something that can be easily explained in words, but basically, do it by sticking one end of the bow into your belly or hip, then start wrapping the spindle into the string, then let go of the bow entirely except that you are essentially pulling one end of the bow into your belly/waist/hip as one hand is on each end of the spindle to crank it in. If using synthetic material, use a stiff bow stick; if using natural cordage, use a flexible stick for the bow.

  • Simon Crelli

    What happens if the heat goes into the top, under the cap?

    • Hi Simon. I always use a sprig of green needles from a fir tree, or other pine family or flora that contains a lot of oils, inside the notch of my hand hold, especially if using wood that starts to heat up. The needles work way better than applying refined oils if the handhold is already hot. You also can switch handhold material to hardwood that glazes more easily, or a stone that you can peck out. Good luck!

  • Ben Barnett

    I live in central Wisconsin and am curious what the best wood is for the drill and hearth board to get the best results. Thanks!

    • Hi Ben. Land of my fathers. Avoid pine species (incl fir/spruce) due to the pitch lubricating when you want friction. Willow is probably another one to avoid due to the smoke smelling pretty intense. But a majority of other tree species work pretty well. Cedar is great if you can find any left around you, but they are rare in Wisconsin nowadays. Poplars work. Maples and oak, too, if you carve your spindle etc. thinner to create more pressure per square mm. Probably my favorite, easily available back home there is birch. For a full list of tested woods, get some back copies of the Bulletin of Primitive Technology which has had good articles over the years.

  • Ben Barnett

    I have wild growing white cedars would that work? And for maple and poplar would you use the same for the spindle as you would the hearth?

  • Ben Barnett

    Thanks a lot! I’ll let you know you helped a lot!

  • Edy The Coyote

    HELP!!!! I’m using cottonwood as my board and spindle. I’m getting smoke and the dust is fine and black. But I’m not getting an ember. Any suggestions?

    • Cottonwood and other hardwoods can be a bit of a challenge to start with, and there could be many reasons for not getting an ember, or maybe more correctly, not being able to keep alive the ember you’re getting. The problem might simply be that the particular tree or portion of tree you are using is just too challenging, like if it has super-tight growth rings. Try a different cottonwood tree or different part of the trunk, rather than branches which can be harder. Or start with some dry cedar or juniper (spindle and hearth) and see if you can get that first, or take a video of you bow drilling with the cottonwood and post the link here where I can take a look and then see if I can spot a problem with your form – usually in keeping an ember alive after drilling, through balance of providing enough air but protecting the heat at the same time.

  • Homemade Crossbow Kits | Smiling Expert

    […] Bow Drill Fire Making Kits – Directions, Tips, Tricks … – Bow Drill Fire Making Kits – Directions, Tips, Tricks, Pitfalls & Advice […]

  • […] picture was found on this website. Other resources for creating your own bow drill kit can be found here and […]

  • […] The Bow Drill Method is one of the most well known methods for starting a fire without a lighter or matches.  But on the flip side of things, it also arguably requires the most skill and energy. […]

  • Nate

    I live in SD what trees should i use

    • Hi Nate. Cottonwoods found along waterways (but dead/dry of course) are a good idea, for instance, or if you are in drier areas like the badlands then big woody sages. Both of those plants also have great inner bark for tinder. Best of luck! – Chris

  • Biggie Cheese

    Can i use my mix tape as a kindling since it’s lit?

  • Chuck Brown

    Thank you! I learned two things. I failed 4 out of 5 times to get an ember (coal) partially because of 2 errors.

    One, followed advice from youtube sites using dissimilar woods for spindle/hearth. I didn’t use the same wood for spindle/hearth. Also, I tried several tropical woods (live in Ecuador). Some have more lubricity than others, maybe natural oils…which prevents friction…heat build up. A dry low lubricity high friction medium hard (medium soft) wood is what is best.

    Two, I used a variety of cords to experiment with such as 3mm jute, 3mm cheap polypropylene cord (same fiber as ski rope) and 4mm nylon kernmantle very high quality alpine use cord. All three wore through in about 4 to 5 attempts each…a waste of cordage. I’ll try to find 3mm or 4mm cotton cord…dunno where. I live in Ecuador…sadly not Walmart land. One youtube site suggested shoe strings of all things. I tried that…utter fail and broke through after two tries of 100 pulses each. And you’d look pretty silly out in the wild with one boot tied and the other flopping around on your foot.

    In a survival situation cordage is an important item and wasting 2.5 feet which my bow uses every five fire attempts is thoughtless and wasteful. A survival situation is not an artsy craftsy frontier days hobby, it is life/death. No cord, no fire. Cord is more useful as lashing than it is for bow drills.

    Due to pitfalls/limitations of bow drill fire starting…available woods, making cordage from scratch or using a lot of cordage, frankly I don’t see the bow drill method quite as useful as I did before I started trying it. I don’t think people will have time nor inclination to make cordage from natural fiber in a survival situation, given they even HAVE available plant or animal fiber at hand and soon, rather bow drill fire making is more as a pastime hobby in a non acute situation. Nor would I think people would want to tote along a reel of cordage just to ruin with bow drills if a plane goes down in a jungle or atop a Chilean Andes mountain snow field.

    Magnesium fire sticks and piston charred cloth igniters (later used all over Africa) which ignite a piece of char cloth inside a compression chamber the size of a marking pen, using the diesel principle, to me are much more viable fire starting methods in a survival situation than bow drills, given disaster victims have these articles at hand in their kit. I also have a 10 inch $3 plastic Fresnel lens which works literally effortlessly in seconds on suitable tinder fiber and some plant stalks given direct sunshine. I give bow drills a C+ grade. I also give flint and steel a D since in a disaster situation high carbon sexy steel strikers and even flint, quartz or agate is not likely to be found at all…much less charred cotton fabric to catch the elusive sparks. Nope to that also. Excuse me fellow victim, may I please char your underwear for my flint and steel fire kit with fire I can’t make with a bow drill?

    Making a bow drill quickly using natural fiber cordage is way beyond the time frame and skill range of most disaster victims. If a fire is needed, it’s needed NOW, NOT days in the future after searching for natural fiber plants, separating the fiber, drying and preparing it then making viable cordage. Nope. Won’t work.

    I very firmly disagree with the favoring of a straight bow over the curved one. I use a stout curved one, length from armpit to finger tips, with a more acute bend toward the handle so I can tighten the cord with my fingers as it heats up and expands and stretches/loosens. A straight bow prevents this midstream tightening, resulting in midstream failures and slippage…most discouraging and produces no ember yet wears out cordage. But to each their own, I just like things that work best.

  • Chuck Brown

    By the way, lest I seem too critical and unappreciative, obviously you are doing a fantastic job of getting folks in the know of and appreciative of the back country life style, wilderness arts and skills and survival know how. I was a guide and outfitters for many years and promoter of outdoor skills, survival, an ex spec op military fella and such. A hats off attaboy to you and those who work with you. I can’t think of a more useful business than what you have.

    • Thanks for the great comments Chuck, and definitely not too critical at all so no worries. I should revise my straight vs. curved bow comment to say that it should be the most optimal curve – not too curved which is what people tend to lean toward, making it too wobbly when using, but not straight like a purchased dowel etc. Thanks again and all the best.

  • Juliette Bioche

    I am currently in Kansas and I am wondering what is best to use for nesting to blow the coal into flame any ideas?

    • Most species of tall standing dry grass leaves are great, especially if mixed with a bit of coal-extender like dry cattail fluff or other dry downy (airborne seed casing) material. Also try a mix of dry, fluffed-up inner cottonwood bark with a bit of coal extender. When testing materials in your environment, think about how to get the the greatest amount of surface area in the smallest amount of dry space, with the ideal being cotton balls. Practice by taking apart jute string which you can by in big-box hardware stores. That fires up super fast!

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