Bow-Drill Fire Making
Photo by Kristi Dranginis

Bow Drill Fire Making

Bow Drill Step-by-step instructions

Although most of this information is basic for bow drill fire making, there is a good deal of advanced fire making information as well, particularly related to all the materials, known as the bow drill kit. It is suggested that you spend a lot of time experimenting with fire making with a bow drill on your own before consulting this page.
I. Body Positions and General Considerations for bow drill fire making

FHOM and DPS. Fuel, Heat, Oxygen, and Moisture: Duration, Pressure, and Speed. All are factors which will affect the success or failure with bow drill fire making and all methods of friction fire making.

  1. Lock wrist against leg.
  2. Keep hand hold perpendicular to drill.
  3. Apply proper pressure.
  4. Keep bow horizontal to the ground and 90 degrees to drill
  5. Flexible vs. rigid bow.
  6. Angle of bow in relation to body. Straight ahead; slight angle across body; cross body like cello player.
  7. Bow length choices vary from long to short. Types of wood and sizes of drill will play a role in determining type of bow.
  8. Bow should be moved from the shoulder not from elbow. Body position should be high enough to require swing from shoulder.
  9. Body should lean over drill far enough to exert downward pressure on drill with body as well as the arm.
  10. Keep drill vertical. Otherwise, binding and unwanted friction will occur along sides of bow drill fireboard hole as drill penetrates deeper.
  11. Instep of foot should be on top of fireboard and side of foot almost touching drill.
  12. Notch In bow drill fireboard should face to the inside.
  13. Do not place tinder under the fireboard.
  14. Place coal catcher under fireboard.
  15. Kneeling leg should be almost in line with front leg and lower part of leg should angle across back of body for balance. If kneeling leg is to the outside of the front leg, it may restrict bow movement and fire making will become very difficult.
  16. Apply tension to string with fingers.
  17. Check shoelace and make certain it will not be caught in the rotating drill.
  18. Use visual imagery for fire making preparation. Do not begin to physically with bow drill fire making before conducting proper mental rituals.

II. The Bow (part #1 of Bow DRILL KIT)
  1. Length should allow for full swing of arm. However, there may be times when a short bow will do the job better. Rotation/ friction factor must be taken into account.
  2. Curve needs to be only slight. Too much curve can throw the fire maker off balance and tire him or her more rapidly.
  3. Choose flexible bow or rigid bow. Flexible bow is a must for natural cordage string. Rigid bow can be more powerful.
  4. Keep extra string tied around the bow to quickly replace broken string.
  5. Diameter and weight should be comfortable so as to not wear out the user. A heavier bow can supply more power.
  6. Handle can be outside or inside where string is tied. Placing hand inside string area reduces bow length.
  7. Rather than notching where string is to be attached, a hole through the bow may be better, especially when it comes to using natural cordage. A drilled hole requires less string length. Hole diameter should be about the size of a “pinky”.
  8. Apply pine resin to string to keep from slipping on drill.

III. The Drill (Part #2 of Bow Drill Kit)
  1. Drill diameter. Too fat = slow rpm’s; too thin = tendency to drill hole faster.
  2. Upper end should be pointed to create the smallest friction surface.
  3. Watch for formation of indented ring near top of drill. This is an indication that drill end is too big for hand hold opening.
  4. Drill should be clean so as to not wear out string. Too smooth, however, will cause string to slip.
  5. Tip should be fairly flat.
  6. Tip for initial drilling into fireboard should be blunt pointed.
  7. Hollowed center to eliminate dead zone.
  8. Length. Too long = too much wobble; too short = loss of pressure, loss of control, and short life.
  9. Keep tip lubricated. Green leaves most easily available lubricant.
  10. Keep lower end trimmed along sides so as to not create side friction. May not be able to do this with thin walled, pithy centered drills.
  11. Drill should be straight as possible, not bowed.

IV. The Fireboard (Part #3 of Bow Drill Kit)
  1. Hole should be burned in far enough from edge of board to keep drill from breaking out of fireboard wall.
  2. Notch. a. too shallow; b. too deep; c. just about right; d. blunt point, better for dust flow; e. straight wall, used by some primitive cultures–sometimes even narrower; f. notch to one side, indicates drill being held on an angle. Will cause dust to collect in a circle around the drill on top of the fireboard.
  3. Fireboard thickness. Too thick = dust cools and takes longer for ignition; too thin = may burn through before ignition.
  4. Prepare board so it will not wobble when in use.
  5. Width wide enough to accommodate two rows of holes.
  6. Hole base. a. rounded, allows for too much oblique-angled friction–less heat; b. flat base, good friction and heat; c. hump formed from hollow center drill — remove it.
  7. Keep hole diameter large enough so as to not create side friction.
  8. Have more than one hole prepared as back-up.
  9. Use second hole to receive coal rather than cutting notch on side of board.
  10. Warm up extra holes on either side of center hole for extra heating and drying before trying to make coal in the middle hole.
  11. Branch will make a quick fireboard. Just flatten top and bottom; it is not necessary to carve and square everything up like a piece of lumber.

V. The Hand Hold (Part #4 of Bow Drill Kit)
  1. Type of material. Wood should be hard and polish easily (hickory, Osage orange, serviceberry, and oak are good). Soapstone makes an excellent, long lasting hand hold. Bone and antler also work well.
  2. Should fit properly and comfortably in the hand. Finger and thumb grooves can be carved for a custom fit.
  3. Hole should be deep enough to keep drill from popping out, and wide enough so drill edges will not touch hand hold except at the very tip.
  4. A soapstone insert can prolong the use of a wooden hand hold.
  5. Hole in side of hand hold to store lubricant for drill tip.
  6. A branch with the bark left on can serve the purpose without a lot of extra work. Bark helps the hand grip better. Can work just as well as, or better than, a fancy hand hold.
Written by Lisa and GT Sanford, who run run Big Oak Wilderness School located in Nolensville, TN. They teach lots of outdoor skills including bow drill fire making.

2 Comments

  1. Max

    Great, comprehensive summary, but the sub-title is misleading. These are not Bow-Drill Fire Making “Step-by-step instructions” since they don’t run through the entire process.
    Also, what would round this out is detail about types of wood for the bow, drill, and fire board.

  2. Mark Jones

    Good points all around. I have made over 200 bow drill fire kits and have sold many of them and given many of them away.

    Just made 24 kits and made 24 cedar boxes with lids and finished them. This is a speical edition we are having our 50th Anivesary for Royal Rangers and will give many of these kits out and some will be sold as keep sakes at our BIG 5000 person campout!

    Bow drill fire making is cool. Once you have done it.. do it a bunch more to get good at it.

    Again nice job of explaining these techniques.
    Mark Jones

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