Today we are learning all about how to make a bow drill, and how to start fire using the bow drill. This is one of those techniques that any survivalist worth his/her salt should know. Not only should you know how to make a bow drill (and how it works), but you should practice at home using the typical materials you would find in the woods… so that when you find yourself in a survival situation without any of the typical gear you’d use to make fire, you’ll know what to do immediately. This is bushcraft 101 stuff.
If you’re not sure what a bow drill is – it’s essentially a piece of improvised gear that allows you to spin a stick extremely quickly. This spinning action creates enough friction and heat that you can get sparks.
The “bow” part of the bow drill is literally a bow, similar to the type of you would use to shoot arrows. To make a bow drill, you need a stick, a flat piece of food, and some kind of cordage. Combine all these pieces and you can very quickly make a fire by basically rubbing two pieces of wood together without overexerting yourself. With a bow drill, you can make sparks in just minutes. It uses friction and kinetic energy to make embers, and these embers can spark a fire from tinder and kindling.
If you don’t know what a bow drill is and how its used – imagine a bow that you use to shoot arrows with. Now imagine the bowstring is twirled around a sharpened stick of some sort. Now, when you move the bow left and right, this will have the effect of “spinning” the sharpened stick, effectively turning it into a drill. You put the unsharpened part of the stick against something called a hearth board to generate sparks – this unsharpened side has a lot of surface area and will generate a lot of friction. The sharpened side has small surface area and much less friction – that part goes into a piece called the bearing block.
If you can imagine the above, then you’ve grasped the core mechanics of how bow drills work.
We’ll go over a bunch of things today, such as which trees are best, how to make each individual piece of the bow drill, and the best methods for making fire once you have all your pieces prepared.
The Best Wood for Making a Bow Drill
You’re not always going to have a choice in which wood you use, but some wood combinations – if you can find them – will work better than others. We won’t get into the specifics of all the different types of wood in the forest, but the best combinations are going to be willow + lime, willow + willow, hazel + lime, or willow + sycamore.
For the list below, the first type of wood is the wood used for the drill. The second type of wood is for the “hearth board”, which is the piece you “drill” into. Here are some secondary combinations if the best four combos aren’t available.
Best Wood Combinations:
- Spruce + Spruce
- Ash + Willow
- Elder + Pine
- Hazel + Poplar
- Hazel + Ivy
- Hazel + Pine
- Hazel + Cedar
- Hazel + Sycamore
- Poplar + Cedar
- Sycamore + Sycamore
- Wild Rose + Alder
- Bird Cherry + Alder
- Willow + Aspen
- Willow + Poplar
How to Make a Bow Drill (for Fire)
We’re going to describe how to build the best bow drill possible piece by piece. The first piece is going to be the bearing block, the second piece is going to be the spindle (the “drill” shaft), the third piece is going to be the hearth board, and the final thing we’ll talk about is the bow itself. Believe it or not, the bow is probably one of the easier parts.
Once we have our bow, well figure out how to make our fire.
Parts of a Bow Drill: Bearing Block
The bearing block is going to be used for holding the spindle in place while you’re moving the bow back and forth in quick motions. Without a bearing block, you’ll have a hard time getting enough pressure to create the friction needed for fire.
The bearing block goes on the top part of the spindle. You hold the bearing block rather than the spindle because if the spindle is moving fast enough to generate embers then it’s moving fast enough to burn your hand. If you use your hands, either you’d burn yourself or you’d slow down the spindle such that it doesn’t move fast enough to create the fiction needed for embers.
You want the bearing block to be a very smooth wood (as smooth as possible) so that the friction created is on the hearth board and not on the bearing block. It also needs to be thick enough to protect your hand from heat, as an unexpected burn would really interrupt the fire-making process.
A solid bearing block can be built from any hardwood tree branch that you find nearby. You can also use bone, seashell, rock, or steel. Your spindle won’t cause much friction against a nice smooth rock. However, the very best bearing block often comes with your survival knife. There are a lot of survival knives out there that have a bearing block insert built into the knife, specifically designed for use with a bow drill.
Assuming you don’t have one of these survival knives, you can use a piece of wood. But you don’t need to do anything special with the piece of wood. Whatever you have handy, just make sure it’s as smooth as possible and it’s not going to cause much friction when you start spinning something against it. It should be able to fit comfortably in your hand, and it should be relatively thick. But you don’t actually have to do any preparing for it. If you want, you could carve a little bit of a bowl into your bearing block to remove any chances if your spindle “slipping” away from it, but that’s optional.
Parts of a Bow Drill: Spindle / Drill Shaft
The spindle is what will go into the bow drill. The spindle is going to be looped/tangled inside of the string of the bow, and it’s going to spin extremely fast when you move the bow to and fro. We already discussed the best materials for making the spindle. But just to reiterate, the best thing we can suggest is an extremely hard piece of wood. The harder the wood, the more friction you’re going to get.
You want your spindle to be roughly 10 inches long, half an inch in diameter, and perfectly straight. Basically, the spindle is just a piece of wood they’re going to use like a drill shaft + drill bit. Anything between 6 inches and 10 inches long will be fine, and so long as the drill is at least the thickness of your thumb you have nothing to worry about.
To prepare your spindle, carve one end so it’s pointed/sharp and looks kind of like a pencil. You also want to strip all the bark off that you can. In fact, when you’re ready this should look exactly like a thick novelty pencil, with one end sharpened and the other end dull. The reason one end is dull and the other is pointed is because the dull side needs to be causing as much friction as possible. The surface area is larger, and because it’s dull there’s going to be more friction.
Many beginners make the mistake of thinking the sharpened side is the side that creates the embers. Don’t make this mistake. Unlike a real drill, in this case, the pointed end is facing upwards because your goal isn’t to actually drill a hole, it’s to create friction against your hearth board. You sharpen one end of the spindle because it reduces surface area and therefore friction, which allows for better spinning.
The pointy part is going to create less friction against the bearing block. The low friction against the bearing block makes the spindle easier to spin. The faster the spinning, the more friction the unsharpened end creates against the hearth board, and therefore the hotter it will get. Essentially the goal is to minimize friction on one end and maximize it on the other hand.
The reason you don’t want an extremely wide drill is because it’s going to take too much downward pressure to create friction, and if your spindle is too wide you won’t get as many rotations with each stroke of your bow.
Parts of a Bow Drill: Hearth Board
The hearth board is going to be cut from a soft piece of wood. You want it to be about an inch in thickness. A thinner hearth board will get you a usable “coal” ember more quickly. It’s also crucially important that the board is dry. You’re going to get nowhere trying to start embers against a wet hearth board.
To prepare the hearth board, you need to mark the place where the spindle is going to be spinning. To do this, place your spindle on the board roughly a half inch away from one of the ends and one of the longer edges, right in a nice corner. Mark the point with whatever you can, and then use your knife to create a little indentation where the drill will go. This is going to help your spindle stay stable when you start drilling. We recommend widening the indentation by drilling your spindle into the mark for about 30 seconds just to get it prepared.
Now you should have a shallow dimple for your spindle to fit into that looks like a cigarette burn. But we’re not done yet. In order to get a coal, you need wood dust. For your spindle to create the wood dust, you are going to need to cut a proper notch into the hearth board.
To do this, you can use the small indentation as a guide. All you need to do is take your knife and make a V-notch beside your indentation. It should touch the little circle where your spindle is going to go. Now when you start drilling, the dust created is going to drop into the hole to help create the “coal”. As you spin, the dust will start to form a coal as it slips through the notch and onto your catch.
Your catch is just a strip of bark. When you start to make your fire, you want to place your hearth board on a piece of flat bark. Once the ember is formed, you can quickly discard your hearth board and then take the piece of bark with the ember on it and deposit the ember into your tinder nest.
Parts of a Bow Drill: The Bow
It’s time to make the main ingredient. All of this will be pointless if you don’t have a bow to use. And while many people think a bow stick needs to be bendy, that’s not the case. You want a stick about as rigid as a broom handle. While it’s mechanically similar to a bow for archery, you don’t need the same kind of “give” in the wood you use for the bow in your bowdrill. You also want it to be about as thick as a broom handle. In terms of length, we’re talking about (roughly) the length from your armpit to your fingertips. Basically, it should be about the length of your arm.
Once you have your stick, it’s time to find a string. The obvious choice here is going to be paracord, but paracord might not be available in your situation. If you have paracord, you probably have a fire starter anyways, making all of this moot. You can use a shoelace, a nylon cord, fibers from your clothing, or any other string-like material on your person.
If you have literally nothing, you’re going to have to go with a natural material. You can use buckskin, rawhide, sinew, or more likely plant fibers. This can be extremely difficult. If you’re going to use plant fibers, that’s a whole different article. You will need to extract fibers from available plants and then string them together to make a thin rope. It can be done, but it takes loads of time. If you’ve got shoelaces, use em.
Now it’s time to tie your string to your stick. You can do this in whichever way you are familiar with. You can carve a small hole on each end and then tie your rope through that, you can make a notch and then hook your string through it, or you can just the natural shape of the stick. If all else fails, just tie it around the ends so that it’s tight and not going anywhere.
The string doesn’t even need to be super taut. Again, this isn’t a bow that will be used for archery. It should be loose enough that when you twist your spindle inside of it, the spindle is secure and relatively tight. You may need to experiment with different lengths to get it right. But in general, a string that is about the same length as your stick will work just fine.
Parts of a Bow Drill: Tinder Nest
Now that your drill is ready, all that’s left is to make your tinder nest. You can do this in a wide variety of ways. You just need a little “bird’s nest” full of extremely flammable material. We actually have an article on the best tinder materials, both man-made and natural. We suggest checking that out for more information on the best tinder to use.
You should have your little nest of tinder extremely close to where you’re working so that you can quickly transfer the ember into the tinder, then the flaming tinder into your fire pit. You always want your tinder to be dry, and you want a small pit where your ember will immediately catch fire with a little bit of blowing.
How to Make a Bow Drill Fire
With your bow drill ready, your hearth board notched and pre-drilled, your tinder nest nearby, and your bearing block in hand, it’s time to start making fire.
How to Start a Fire with a Bow Drill: Use a Proper Stance
The first step is to get all your pieces ready. Have your hearth board sitting on your bark catch. Now place one foot on the opposite end of the hearth board (every important for stability’s sake), have your bearing block in your weak hand, twist the spindle into your bow string, and get your posture correct. Posture/technique is importance here because a bad stance means less force, which mean less friction and no embers. This could take a while, and so you want to have a strong posture and you want to be comfortable. From this point on, there is no stopping and no breaks!
How to Start a Fire with a Bow Drill: Start “Drilling”
Start drilling. With your strong hand, you’re going to give it everything you’ve got. Apply the appropriate downwards pressure to the top of your spindle using your bearing block and make smooth and quick front-to-back motions with your bow. This is going to take a significant amount of practice, and you might have to do it a few times before you get the hang of it. The trick is to get a good rhythm, to have a comfortable posture, and to stick with it.
Even if you’re out of shape, this shouldn’t be too big of a challenge. You’re simply pushing down with your left hand and making sawing motions with your right hand while kneeling on the ground. With stable pressure, your spindle is going to stay exactly where it should, and thanks to the hole you already cut in the wood, it has a track to stay in.
If you’re doing it right, you’ll see smoke probably within 60 seconds or so. Don’t panic and don’t stop. You need to continue your steady motions until the smoke gets extremely thick. And whatever you do, never stop applying the downward pressure. The second you ease up on the pressure, you start losing ground. This is one of those things where if you think it’s “done”, you want to keep going a little bit just to make sure.
How to Start a Fire with a Bow Drill: Collect the Embers
It’s hard to know exactly when you have an ember because of all the smoke. However, this is one of those things you’ll know instinctively. The smoke will get extremely thick and you’ll feel that you’re close to breaking through the other side of your hearth board. The good news is that even if you have an ember and you keep drilling, it’s not going to destroy the ember. When it gets extremely smoky and the piece of bark underneath your board is getting really black with dust, you probably have an ember.
Stop drilling and take a look. If you stopped drilling and smoke is still rising from the wood, it means there is an ember there. Carefully remove the hearth board and even more carefully pick up the piece of bark with the red glowing ember on it. It won’t last long, and so transportation is critical.
Carefully deposit the ember into your tinder nest. You’re then going to fold the tinder around it gently like a taco, hold the bundle in both hands, and blow generously into the tinder. You don’t want to blow gingerly here, as it won’t transfer enough oxygen, but you also don’t want to blow too hard or it might not work either. Try to focus the airflow directly where the ember is (a powerful, “thin” stream of air is better than a wide and weak stream of air). With a few seconds of confident blowing, all the oxygen from your lungs will turn your little ember into a flame and the nest of tinder will ignite. Once that happens, start adding your kindling and you’ll have finished the hardest part of starting a fire using a bow drill.
How to Start a Fire with a Bow Drill: You’ve Got Fire!
Congratulations, you’ve just made fire from nothing! As we already said, using a bow drill does take some practice. It seems easy in theory, but the actual application is a bit tricky. Just keep in mind all these tips and you’ll be fine. The most important part is remembering the theory. Friction makes fire!