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Making Fire- The Bow and Drill

Metal Match and Magnesium Fire Starting Tool
Using the Bow and Drill

The Bow and Drill

The bow and drill method, while potentially frustrating in the beginning, is one of the simplest and quickest of primitive methods for making fire. It is also extremely rewarding once you finally figure out the mechanics of it and can make fire consistently using your own kit. Once you make fire with sticks, you will not look at fire in the same way again. With practice you can develop the skill to create a spark, the glowing ember on the edge of your fireboard, within about 10 or 15 seconds of working the bow and drill. Once the spark is created, if you do not have tinder under the fireboard, it is transferred into the tinder bundle and blown into flame. And you have created fire, making a giant leap forward in evolution!

As you build your fire kit, and practice with it, you will get a feel for the exact diameter, length and shape of each tool that feels best to you. Each piece of the kit becomes a personalised item. Start out with the recommendations which follow. As you work with your kit and become familiar with it, then begin to experiment and change it.

The Fire Kit- From top to bottom- the bow (I prefer a stick with a bend, some prefer a curved stick), the spindle (in this case a rounded piece of sandstone from a streambed with the perfect center hole for the drill end), the drill, a bundle of Juniper bark, and the fireboard.

The Bow-
The bow should be about 24 inches long and 3/4 to 1 inch or so in diameter. As noted above, you may prefer a bow with a crook, either in the center or closer to the "handle" end, or simply a curved branch. It can be made from nearly any piece of wood you find lying around that fits the size criteria. The bow is something that I do not carry with me. I usually find one when I need one, then leave it when I leave a camp.

So far, aside from making and using a piece of cordage from yucca leaves, I have used only 550 cord for my bowstring. Although it is a bit slick, and does slip on a very smooth and worn drill, 550 cord has worked well for me. It lasts a very long time, even through lots and lots of practice fires. I did work my way through a couple of pieces of 550 cord initially, but just through the sheath. At this point I am only putting stress on the cord for a maximum of 15 or 20 seconds at a time, and the cord is really holding up well. The yucca cordage also worked well, but as I had limited time and leaves to make the cordage from, I made it rather small in diameter. It worked for about 5 fires, then gave out at one of the splices in the material. Next time the splices will be further back and the cordage heavier.

The Spindle-
The best spindle, also called a socket, in my experience is the perfectly formed, natural piece of stone. When you find this perfect spindle, hold onto it. In the meantime, a spindle can be made from wood. Choose a wood that is harder than the wood you are using for your bow and drill. In the desert this might be scrub oak, mountain mahogany, or even Russian olive. It should be about an inch thick or so, and rounded with smooth corners, fitting comfortably in the palm of the hand. Make a hole in the center of one side. This hole should be large and deep enough so that the pointed end of the drill will seat in it as you apply pressure downward while moving the drill back and forth. The hole in the spindle can be lubricated with some type of oil, grease, or fat if you have it on hand. Water only increases the friction.

As an alternative spindle I once saw, in a photo, a bottle cap imbedded in a piece of wood with the cap pounded in to be concave. This concavity is where the upper end of the drill is held. I gave this a try and found it to work sufficiently, although the drill tended to slip out if I leaned off center. If the cap was made more concave, giving the drill end a deeper hole, it would have solved the problem. So if you find yourself in a survival situation and happen across a bottle cap, be sure to pick it up.

The Drill-
The drill should be about 12 to 14 inches or so in length and about 1/2 to 3/4 inch in diameter and as straight and knot- free as possible. The length will be dependent upon the length of your lower leg, and how far you bend over to apply pressure on the end of the drill. I have found that it is best to rest the hand holding the spindle against the side of the shin. So my drills are long enough that my hand rests up high on my shin, not down low- I found the pressure down low to get a bit painful after awhile.

The drill and the fireboard should be made from the same soft wood. This allows them to wear together quickly, creating the most surface area for friction. The end of the drill held in the spindle should be carved to a point to keep friction on the upper end to a minimum. The other end which contacts the hole in the fireboard should be rounded, by roughly so. Making it a bit rough causes an instantaneous buildup of powder in the notch of the fireboard as it wears smooth and round in the fireboard hole thus helping to create the spark faster.

The Fireboard-
The fireboard should be about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in width, about 1/2 inch thick, and at least 6 to 8 inches long. These are dimensions that seem to work well for me. I have seen fireboards that are as short as 4 inches and as long as 10 inches. The longer board makes it easier for foot placement- remember that you are kneeling over the board and one foot holds it securely in place. I have also made fire using a fireboard that is only about an inch wide, just wider than the drill I was using. You will get a feel for what you like with experience. Remember that the fireboard should be made from the same type of soft wood as the drill. I use cottonwood for both.

Three views of the same fireboard showing notches cut in board after use.

The photos to the left show three views of the same fireboard: top, side and bottom. It is made from cottonwood and is roughly 1/2 inch in thickness. Each hole in the board was used for at least a few fires. Note the angle of the notch from the side, opening wider at the bottom. This allows the spark to collect in the notch and makes it easy to lift the fireboard away, with the spark sitting intact on a piece of wood for placement into the birdsnest, or sitting directly over the birdsnest.

I have made a fireboard using a piece of cottonwood bark, something I had never read as being recommended. I carved off enough of the rough, outer bark to obtain the proper thickness and allow the board to set flat on the ground. I have made many fires using a cottonwood bark fireboard at this point. At first each had to be made in a different hole- the bark is very soft and wears down quickly. Now I am able to get fire at least a few times from each hole in the board, if not more. The softness of the bark does seem to help create a large ember rather quickly, which could be advantageous. I use a typical cottonwood drill. I will continue using cottonwood bark for fires to see if I can come up with any reasons not to use it. So far I am finding it a good material. Besides making a great fireboard, if you find a large chunk of cottonwood bark often the interior is covered with a hairlike material that can be removed and used for the birdsnest. The shavings from carving the board flat are great for tinder.

Finally, I find it helpful to add a few grains of very fine, dry dirt to the hole in the fireboard before inserting the drill. This increases the capacity of the drill to wear down itself and the fireboard and seems to cause the spark to build up faster and possibly even hotter. These are just observations on my part. I have not timed myself, tested the temerature of the spark created, nor done any controlled experiments with the bow and drill. If you are interested in scientific studies of this kind, you can find them documented in the Bulletin of Primitive Technology, the journal published twice a year by The Society of Primitive Technology.

Using the Bow and Drill

Details and photos will be added soon.

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Related Pages
Page 1: Primitive Skills- Living Comfortably Off the Land
Page 2: Primitive Skills- Learning the Basics, Water
Page 3: Primitive Skills- Shelter
Page 4: Primitive Skills- Fire
Page 5: Primitive Skills- Food
Page 6: Primitive Skills- Navigation
Page 7: Primitive Skills- Primitive Weapons
Page 8: Primitive Skills- Fishing
Page 9: Primitive Skills- Flintknapping
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