The Bow Drill Method

By Michael Benanav

The first thing is that the bow drill is best performed in a dry, desert-like climate. The principle is wood on wood friction, and dampness makes it difficult, if not impossible. A rainforest would be a bad place to use it. Also, even in the desert, it is imperative to keep your materials dry.

First you must make your bow drill set. A soft wood is required for making your “drill” and your “hearth”. I use yucca-like stalks. Cottonwood, aspen, or sage can be used, but these are more difficult to work with.

The drill is a cylindrical piece of this soft wood, about 8 inches long and an inch thich. One end is rounded into a dome, the other whittled into a cone shape. Make sure the sides are smoothly rounded and not warped. When using the set, the drill stands vertically, the dome end down on the hearth.

The hearth is made of the same wood as the drill, but is flat and rectangular, no less than an inch thick, an inch and a half wide, and better if a foot or so in length. This lies on the ground horizontally, so a flat side is facing up. The dome of the drill rubs against this flat surface.

To work the drill, you need a “bow” (complete with string) and a “socket”. The bow and socket are made out of a strong wood- better if cut live. I prefer to use a juniper branch, but any curved piece of wood will work. You don’t want it to be too heavy, or it is hard to use. I try to find the thinnest piece that will be strong enough not to flex under the pressure of bowing.

The bow should be bow-shaped (no really), perhaps fourteen to eighteen inches from handle to tip. A durable string runs the length of the bow, from where you hold it to the tip. It is tied on to both ends. Parachute cord will work for this, though I prefer to make my own string from artificial sinew, available at bead shops. You will twist the drill into the string, so if you move the bow back and forth, the drill will turn.

The cone shaped top of the drill will be stabilized with the socket – a piece of wood of the same material as the bow, though thicker. This must fit well in your hand – not too big, nor too small for the drill. Carve a depression, maybe an inch deep, into the socket so that the cone end of the drill will fit nicely into it.

With the drill “loaded” into the bow string, you should be able to put the dome end on the hearth, the cone into the socket, and the drill should stand upright. Turn the drill by stroking back and forth with the bow.

This can be difficult – form is all important, as your stability depends on it. Keep the hearth stable by holding it under your foot while kneeling. As a “righty”, my left foot is on the hearth, knee in the air, and my right knee is on the ground, maybe a foot behind the hearth (whatever’s comfortable and most stable). This works best if wearing boots, and if you keep your hearth foot right next to where you are drilling.

Hold the socket firmly, and apply a straight down pressure. Make sure you have level bow strokes, not angled ones. Also make sure that the knee that is on the ground doesn’t get in your way- I like to put it in line behind my hearth foot. Lean forward to put your body weight on the drill. Don’t forget to breathe.

First, drill enough to make a small depression in the hearth. Then stop and cut a “slot” about a centimeter wide from the middle of the depression, all the way through the thickness of the hearth, out to the edge on the side that faces you. This is where your ash will accumulate. Place something under the slot to catch the ash – the top of a tin can, a piece of leather, or tin foil all work well. Put the loaded drill back in the depression, and bow away. Smooth, even strokes are important.

Because this is about friction, speed and pressure are your two variables. Start slow to establish a rhythm, then increase speed and pressure. You can expect the drill to slide off the hearth or pop out of the bow string a few times, until you get it right. Just reload and start again.

Your goal here is to create a glowing ember, not flames yet. As ash builds up in the slot, smoke will be coming off the drill hole. Eventually the ash will become this glowing coal.

Once you have a coal, the hard part is done. Before you’ve even started, you should have ready some “tinder” and “backing”. Tinder is very fine, very dry plant material – dried sage, some crushed cactus skeletons, or finely crushed grasses will work. Backing is a thicker material, like pine needles, dead grasses, or other thin desert plants (newspaper would work for this, too).

Make a nest with your tinder, and put it on top of your backing. Once you’ve made a coal, deposit it into your nest of tinder. Pick up the whole thing, hold it in front of your face, and blow on it in long, steady breaths. Keep the wind to your back. The tinder itself will become a much larger coal. This then ignites the backing. Make sure you have enough backing so that the tinder won’t fall out, and so you don’t burn your hand. Put the flaming backing into your fire pit, already prepared with easily ignitable material.

That’s it. It is not easy to do the first time, especially without a teacher present. But there are few things as satisfying as that feeling of making your own fire, few smells as rich as the smoke from wood rubbing wood.

Or, start a fire according to The BootsnAll Way

photo by JelleS