Bow Drill

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How to make a bow drill kit in the wild without any tools or knoledge of local flora.


My rural background has given me many opportunities to see the wilderness first hand. After spending many years learning about the wilderness, I have fallen in love with the primitive living skills I have acquired over time. My favorite skill still fascinates me every time I accomplish it. I have such a magnetism towards primitive fire starting techniques that I felt I must share my knowledge and experience with everyone I can. I have been a first hand instructor in many fields but the one I'm drawn to the most is the primitive friction fire starting methods. I know that once you learn this technique, you will acquire such confidence that you will pursue the natural way of life in other aspects of your life as well. I can't reach everyone first hand, so that led me to write this instruction manual in hopes that I can reach out to a lot more people who want to learn this technique but don't have someone on hand to teach them how to do it. I hope this manual answers all your questions. Thanks for your interest in my friction fire bow drill techniques and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.


Curtis Hooker aka Primitive Prometheus




Table of Contents





Tinder Bundle


Hearth Board

Hand Socket


Burn In

Hearth Board Modification

Making a Coal

Getting Flames






Fire. We all take it for granted until we don't have it when we need it. This instruction manual is intended to be a complete guide on how to start a fire in the wild using the traditional bow drill method and only your natural surroundings.

Fire serves many purposes. A really really long time ago (maybe as early as 1+ million years ago) we learned how to tame fire and reproduce it on a regular basis. With this newly learned skill, we are able to ward off predators, cook our food, purify our water, provide heat, use for light, manipulate materials such as clay and metals, as well as a plethora of other uses. Without fire, we are at the mercy of nature. Whether your need for fire arises from emergency survival, your camping agenda, or merely for the unique experience, the friction fire skill is a wealth everyone should posses.

I feel that the easiest way to start your first fire by friction is to use the bow drill method. That is the most sure fire way to get fire. The thumb string hand drill method is a minimalists version of the bow drill, and the simple spindle and hearth board hand drill method takes the most expertise to operate properly. There are many other methods like the fire plow, fire saw, fire thong, pump drill, Egyptian bow drill, and the mouth drill. These are all friction type fire starters but I'm just going to focus on the standard bow drill for now. Once you master the bow drill, you will have acquired the necessary skills, dexterity, recognition of sound, smell, feel, and seeing the smoke in order to step it up a notch and try a harder method. This manual is designed to take an inexperienced novice and help them acquire the natural living skills needed in order to start a fire by friction.

You can practice using nothing but the natural supplies in your back yard. That's what it's all about anyway. If you are out in the wild and you NEED to perform this task, you'll be glad to have some failures out of the way first. So, go out and try.

Remember, you are the one starting this fire, so you assume full responsibility for anything that happens from the results of you acquiring the knowledge within these pages. If you do not agree with this statement, DO NOT READ ANY MORE OF THIS MANUAL!!! If you agree that your actions are your own personal responsibility and not mine, then please read on and be careful.



I am assuming that the readers have absolutely no knowledge of natural living skills or any experience on how to recognize plants, create primitive tools, or how to assemble and use a bow drill properly. That is why I will not be referring to any specific plants (because a non-botanist will not know what it looks like and those plants might not be in your area anyway). However, when you finish reading this instruction manual, you will be a lot closer to self reliance than you are now.

The only tool you will need is a knife which can be as simple as a rock. It doesn't even have to be a sharp rock, just a rock with an edge on it where you can use it to grind a stick into the shape you want. However, if you have a good sharp knife, you will be better off using that instead of the rock, especially since this is your first fire by friction. But if you want to be a true minimalist living in nature, the sharp rock keeps your efforts authentic.

If you don't have a knife and you can't find a sharp rock, you can make one. Round rocks can be made into sharp rocks by banging them together or slamming them onto a larger rock our boulder and busting them into smaller pieces. You will need to craft some kind of knife so you can carve into the wood a little bit. While closing your eyes and turning away from the impact to protect your eyes, smash the rocks together until one of them breaks. If no sharp piece can be found, smash the rock again. Eventually you will get something with an edge on it. Remember, the rock isn't going to be sharp like a knife is but the finer the edge it has on it the better off you will be. You will use this sharp rock as you would use a knife, drill bit or saw when making the parts to the bow drill. I could go in depth on how to make a good knife with a sturdy and durable handle but that is unnecessary if all you want is a fire.

If you can't find any rocks, you will have to use a harder piece of wood on a softer piece of wood in order to accomplish the tasks involved with building the bow drill. Using wood as a knife isn't going to be easy, but if it's all you have, you have to make do. Start by breaking off a hardwood branch. Next you need to pound it with another heavy piece of wood or crack it in between a couple of close growing tree saplings and use a large shard as your knife, drill bit, hammer, or even a hatchet-like tool. From here on, I'll consider you now have a knife whether it is made from steel, stone, wood, or bone.



The bow is the part of the device that allows you to convert a sawing reciprocating motion into a circular motion. This circular motion is used to turn the spindle and create the friction that will produce your coal. The bow resembles a miniature version of a real bow and arrow set (minus the arrow). It needs to be strong and slightly flexible like a regular bow is but it doesn't take nearly the amount of sophistication to build.

To start off, you want to look for a stick that is pretty stiff, have a slight curve to it, be about as long as your arm, and be only about of an inch to an inch in diameter or about the size of a broom handle. Clean up the stick by breaking off all smaller branches and leaves. It doesn't need to be flexible at all, it just needs to be strong, however, a little bit of flexibility is ok as long as it isn't too flimsy. This is so when you are using the device it keeps good tension and doesn't want to slip on you during the critical time of coal creation when the friction is at its greatest causing the most resistance which leads to slippage between the cordage and the spindle.

Now that you have the properly sized, shape, and , at most, slightly-flexible bow stock, you need to make it conform to your use. What you need to do is clean all the remaining "stumps" and leaves and mini-branches that remain on your bow. Shave them down as smooth as you can because these little spikes and rough lumps can grab your pants, leg, spindle, bow cordage, or even your shoe string and make you have to stop and begin again. An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure.

Now that you have a relatively round, slightly bent, nicely rigid yet somewhat flexible smooth stick with the bark still on it, start shaving the ends smooth so you can tie your cordage to it easier. Cut a notch in each end so they resemble a barbecue fork with only two prongs about an inch long. Use these notches to secure your cordage to the bow. Make sure you grind off the points of the "barbecue fork ends" so you don't accidentally impale yourself and create a medical issue. You should now have a completed bow and you can set it aside and go the next step.

I'll explain how to tie the cordage to the bow in the assembly section.



This skill is essential for the construction of the bow drill if you want to keep your efforts authentic. You might not always have a handy piece of parachute cord or even a shoe string to make the cordage with so I figured that it would be best to teach you how to make your own cordage using only mother nature's supplies. Once you learn this technique, you will be able to make small diameter string, medium sized cordage, and even large diameter rope using your natural surroundings without the use of modern tools or materials.

Making cordage from natural fibers is actually pretty easy once you learn the trick. The first thing you need to do is find some suitable (dry, strong, and long) fibers. Anything will work even if the fibers are only a couple inches long. You can use inner bark from trees, weed stalk fibers, leaf fibers (cattails, yucca, palm...), roots, vines, or even your own hair. Just try what ever you have around you, something will work.

As for using the inner bark lining of dead trees, make a cut lengthwise down the entire length of a straight stick and peel around the outside of the stick to separate the bark from the wood. You want to end up with a "scroll" of bark in best case scenarios. However, that usually never happens, so, what you need to do is take the bark chunks and, bending towards the inner bark, crack the outer bark so it separates from itself and peel away the smaller chunks of outer bark away from the inner fibers. Now roll the fibers in between your hands until the rest of the chaff falls off (or at least most of it). Once you are happy with the fibers, put those fibers in a pile and go out and gather a lot more... A LOT MORE!

As for using live tree bark, instead of bending and peeling away the outer bark, use the following technique which is used for live plant stalks as well.

To use live plant stalk fibers, gather all the stringiest plants you can find. Get a bundle of them in your hand and put a "club" in the other. Pound the weed stalks over a log with a blunt stick until you see the fibers separating. Separate the fibers into single strands if you can. Try to allow them to dry a bit before you use them if you can.

As for using dead plant stalk fibers, gather all the stringiest dead plants you can find and make a bundle out of them. Soak them in water until they bend without breaking. Once they are pliable you can start separating the fibers by wringing, bending, twisting, and rolling them in your hands, and manually work the fibers until the non-fiberous chaff crumbles away and you are left with long fibers. Test a few of the fibers and try to pick the strongest ones and the longest ones.

As for using leaf material to make cordage, follow the above steps for either live or dead plant stalk fibers depending on the condition of the leaves you are intending to use. Generally, tree leaves don't work. The leaf material I'm talking about is from the long leaf plants such as the agave, yucca, or even a palm tree leaf. The longer the fibers, the easier it is to make your cordage.

As a rule of thumb, the shorter the fibers you start with, the smaller the initial twisted strands will be both in length and in diameter. If you do have to use short fibers, you will need to make a very long length of small diameter cordage to start with. You can use inner bark from trees, weed stalk fibers, leaf fibers and mosses and vines too. Just try what ever you have around you, something will work. The reason you will need to make a very long piece of thin cordage is because you will need to double back the cordage on itself a few times in order to strengthen the bond of the smaller fibers and make the cordage strong enough to withstand the rigors of being used to start a fire. In other words, you might need to make a forty foot piece of cordage if you are starting with strands of short fibers, so when you double it up a few times, you end up with a four or five foot piece of useable cordage. However, you might only need to make a five foot piece of cordage if the fibers are strong enough and long enough naturally. If this is the case, you won't even need to double it back on itself. So, if you can, use the longest fiber strands possible.

When you think you have enough strong dry fibers to make the cordage of proper size (about an eighth of an inch to a quarter of an inch in diameter - depending on materials used and about five feet in length), gather that much fiber again because you probably don't have enough to make the cordage yet. Besides, what you don't use to make the cordage can be used to make the tinder bundle, so, keep gathering fibers as they will not go to waste.

Ok, so you got all the raw fibrous material you will need? Cool, let's get started on the cordage then. Start buy dangling a bundle of fibers from one hand. Tie a single fiber around the bundle of fibers you are going to start working with. This will help insure that the fibers don't come unraveled while you work your way down the cordage. Now, divide the hanging fibers into two equal bunches and start twisting one of them for a few turns or a couple of inches down that set of fibers. Now, while making sure those twists don't come out of that bunch, start twisting the other hanging fibers the exact same direction and as far down as you did with the first one. Now, with both bunches of fibers twisted individually, start twisting them together (around each other) in the opposite direction you twisted them in the first place. Every time you twist the two bunches together, you must re-twist the individual bunches the proper direction too. This keeps the tension correct and keeps the twists tight, compact, and strong. If you can find only short fibers, you will have to splice fibers into the twisted pair of hanging strands as you move down the cordage. This means that you will need to be constantly adding more material every few twists. After twisting your cordage to about the quarter way point (three quarters left untwisted), add some fibers into one side of the raw fibers then about three quarters the way down add some fibers into the other side and keep repeating this for the entire length of the cordage.

After you have twisted about ten feet of cordage of good long fibers (about a sixteenth of an inch in diameter), or about fifty feet of cordage of short fibers (maybe only a few fibers thick), tie off the end you are working with like you did at the beginning so they don't come unraveled. Next, fold the cordage in half in order to find the center of the cordage. Grab the cordage in the center with both hands and give the cordage a twist. If it feels like it is coming apart, twist the other way. When it feels like the cordage is tightening on itself and getting stiffer, twist it in that direction until it coils up on itself and makes a very tight loop (almost like it's trying to knot up on itself). Now, following the method you used to twist the fibers the first time around, do the same thing here. Twist the individual piece of hanging cordage until it feels very tight, then twist the other piece of hanging cordage the same direction, then twist the two together in the opposite direction to make an even larger and even stronger cordage. You can double your cordage as many times as you like (as your supplies permit). You should end up with a cordage about an eighth to a quarter of an inch or so in diameter and about 5 feet long. This will give you plenty of extra length for tying the cordage to the bow.


Tinder Bundle

This is one of the most critical parts of making a fire no matter what method you use. The tinder bundle MUST be made properly or you are doomed to failure. The tinder bundle needs to be constructed completely with attention to detail. The ingredients of the tinder bundle can vary quite a bit, but the method of construction shouldn't vary much at all. Basically, you can build a house without much care, however, it will fail if you don't do it right. The same goes for the tinder bundle. It has specific layers that serve specific purposes. A minimalist's version of a tinder bundle only needs to be one layer, but it's no guarantee it will be successful. Just like a pile of leaves won't guarantee a successful home, an improperly constructed tinder bundle won't guarantee fire.

If you have extra fibers left over from making your cordage, you can use them to make a "bird's nest". This will be a very good layer to your tinder bundle. Use only dry material for this. Live plants don't work. If you used live plants to make your cordage, you must find other dry fibers to make the tinder bundle from. This can range from grass, leaves, inner bark from dead branches or anything dry, crumbly, and stringy ( I always say stringy, what I mean to say is a fibrous material that allows air to flow freely while containing the coal in a tight area where it can build and transfer the heat efficiently to the rest of the tinder bundle).

The next part is pretty critical. When you do gather your material to be used as a tinder bundle, you must work it into a crumbly dusty mess of intertwining slivers and curlies and stringy loose fibers that will hold together while you manipulate the coal into a blaze. It should be as large as you can make it because it may be difficult to handle if it ist too small. About the size of your fist should do it, it can be larger but probably not smaller (unless you are already good at getting a blaze from a glowing coal). If you have no leftover cordage material to use and you have no more dry crumbly yet fibrous material left in the area to gather, then you must scrape little small curly shavings from a piece of woody material and pile it up and use that in your tinder bundle.

The tinder bundle works best if you make it in layers. The outer layer should be long and strong fibers that have good flexibility to them. Inside that layer you will need a bunch of finer strands of fibrous material that helps coax the coal into flames. Inside that layer will be a layer of very fine material such as saw dust, cattail fluff, or anything that will help extend the coal. Then form it all into something that resembles a birds nest with a good depression in the middle where you will place your coal.



The next part of this puzzle is the spindle. This is the part that actually does the work for you so finding the right material is critical. There are a few factors to consider when searching for the right spindle. This wood must not be wet, not from a live plant, not too big, not too small, not too dense, not too sappy, not too crooked, and not too difficult to find. Instead of telling you all the things it shouldn't be, I'll focus on what you are looking for and how to identify the proper material to use.

The spindle might take a bit of investigating to find the right stuff. What you are looking for is a very dead, very dry, very lightweight, very straight stick about three quarters of an inch or so in diameter and about one foot long. It should be of the non-sappy type of softwoods. To find out if it is the sappy kind, look for an injury on the tree or branch and pick at the injury. If the "picked scab" area is sticky, it's probably a sappy kind so try a different tree. To test the hardness, clear off some bark and dig your fingernail into the wood. If you can dig a bit of it off with your fingernail, you got the good stuff. If your fingernail breaks off without leaving a mark, you got the wrong stuff. In other words. the softer the wood, the easier it is to start a fire.

Once you find the right wood, the main thing you need to take into consideration is the diameter. As a rule of thumb, the bigger the diameter of the spindle, the tougher you need to be to operate it properly. Here's what I consider a good judgment of the size of the spindle you need to find. If your finished spindle is larger than a broom handle, you'll have to apply a good amount of downward force to get the friction you need so that's for the bigger people. If your spindle is about the size of your thumb, that's for the average size person. If your spindle is the size of your pinkie finger, that's for the smaller people. The smaller the diameter of the spindle means less downward pressure you need to exert.

Peel away all the bark from the entire stick. You don't need to make the stick as round as possible because it may cause the cordage to slip if you do. You want to remove lumps and irregularities to prevent the cordage from binding up by catching on a splinter that is sticking out. Once the spindle is mostly round, you can scrape it with a stone or the edge of your knife to roughen it up a bit to create more grabbing strength for the cordage. However, this will wear out the cordage much faster so I suggest that you don't do that unless you are having problems with the cordage slipping.

Now that the sides of the spindle are finished, you can start working on the ends. By carving, grinding or scraping, reduce the diameter of one end of the spindle until it is only about a quarter of an inch thick at the point and then make it gradually taper back to the original size of the spindle. Now, carve a rounded yet blunt end onto the other end of the spindle. The pointed end of the spindle is what will be placed into the hand socket which will reduce the friction at that end of the spindle. The rounded end of the spindle is what will create the friction in the hearth board and make the coal for you so you need to keep this end from having a point on it. The spindle is now ready for use. Always remember that the smaller end with the taper and the point goes into the hand socket and the fat, slightly round end is what goes into the hearth board.

If you have problems with the cordage slipping on the spindle and the spindle starts getting shiny where the cordage is rubbing it, then you can either tighten up the cordage, or scrape flat spots on the spindle. I recommend trying to tighten up the cordage first because this is the quickest and easiest fix for the slipping spindle problem. If that doesn't work, you can try putting flat sides on the spindle. After you scrape flat sides all the way around the spindle where the cordage was previously slipping, you should end up with about six or eight flat sides which have sharp edges instead of being rounded and shiny. This will give the cordage something extra to grab onto if you are having slipping problems even after you tighten up the bow string.


Hearth Board

The hearth board is the meat of the operation. You must take your time and construct this correctly or your efforts will be wasted. Problems can occur if your board is too thin, too thick, not wide enough, not long enough, not flat enough, or if you don't cut the chimney correctly. In other words, try to take your time with this step because it takes the most time and effort to get right.

The hearth board is actually pretty simple yet it is quite complex when you get to the mechanics of it. The board should be the same material as what you made the spindle out of. It should be about inch to one inch thick, a couple of inches wide or wider, and about a foot long. You should try to make it as flat as possible on both the top and the bottom. This will prevent it from wobbling around on you when you are making your coal. That's the simple part. The construction of the rest of it will be handled in steps.

First, place the fat end of the spindle on the hearth board about to inch from one side of the hearth board and a couple of inches from one of the ends. Mark a line around the spindle showing the diameter of the spindle on the top surface of the hearth board. Next, carve a dimple into the hearth board about the same size as the mark and about a quarter of an inch deep in the center of the dimple. We're done with the hearth board for now. We'll do more to it in a minute.

After you complete the "burn in" procedure you will be cutting the chimney into the hearth board. For the reasons of not being redundant, I will explain this step in the Hearth Board Modification section because you MUST do the burn in before you cut the chimney. Otherwise it will be much tougher to get your coal. The burn in serves several purposes. One purpose is to make sure the spindle seats properly on the hearth board and the hand socket, and another reason is to pre-char the hearth board before you try to make a coal. Every little thing helps.


Hand Socket

The hand socket is the device that allows you to put downward pressure on the spindle. Using stone reduces the amount of energy you use by way of eliminating the majority of useless friction created by using a wooden hand socket. However, a stone hand socket requires major time to construct unless you can find a rock with a smooth dimple in it already. Most of the time, that isn't going to be the case, so, I'll explain how to make one using wood.

The hand socket can be a bear to make if you want to use stone (but it's the best when you are done). Usually, you aren't going to have time to make a rock into a hand socket in the wild. The quickest material to use in the wild is a harder piece of wood than the what the spindle is made of. Use the fingernail test and you will find a good piece of wood that is harder than your spindle wood.

The hardwood hand socket should be a made from a stick about 2 inches in diameter and about 4 inches long. This will allow you to get a good controlling grip on it. You should leave all the bark on it so it will increase your grip. Now, you need to carve a hole into the side of the stick about inch deep so the spindle won't pop out. Make sure the hole you make has a larger diameter than the spindle top (that's why you reduced the diameter of the top of the spindle earlier). You only want the point of the spindle to come in contact with the hand socket. This will keep the friction to a minimum.

Using a wooden hand socket creates a lot of friction. To reduce this friction you need to find something to use as a lubricant. Ear wax, oil from the around your nose, bees wax, green leaves, or even saliva works better than nothing. Just put something in there to reduce the friction and it will be much easier.

Alternative materials to use for the hand socket can be a bone from a dead animal, sea shell, or even an antler. Just try to find something that is harder than the spindle material.



Now that you have all the pieces for this puzzle, let's get to assembling this thing. Tie the cordage onto one end of the bow by holding the end of the cordage on one end and dropping it into the wedge shaped notch at the end of the bow. After you have dropped it into the notch pull about a foot through the notch and pull it down tightly into the wedge and wrap the short end of the cordage around the end a couple of times, making sure you go over top of the bow string to secure it tightly in place, then tie it off on one of the forks at the end of the bow. Now wrap the cordage around the spindle and pull the cordage tight and slide it in the fork notch of the other end of the bow. Pull it very tight and hold it in place. This sizes it up for proper operation when you get done tying the cordage. Now, remove the spindle but keep the cordage in place on the end of the bow. While still holding the cordage in place, tie the cordage to the bow by wrapping it around the whole thing a couple of wraps (go over the bowstring, this holds it in place better and it tightens it up a bit so it will have good tension on it when you start spinning the spindle) then go under the bow string for a wrap or two then wind it tightly up the bow and tie it off using the fork in the end of the bow.

I make a series of 3 holes in the handle end of the bow in order to make adjustments easier. All you do is feed the cordage through the holes and then feed the cordage under one of the loops in between the holes and pull it all tight. You don't even need to make a knot in this end because the tension of the cordage holds it in place. The reason I do this is so when the cordage stretches or the spindle wears down a bit, I can quickly adjust the tension of the cordage by simply re-pulling the cordage through the holes again. The holes are oriented where two of the holes are drilled parallel to each other through the handle of the bow and the third hole is drilled perpendicular to the other two holes. This prevents the cordage from sliding back out of the holes when you put tension on it. To prevent the excess cordage from getting in your way, and to add security to it's holding ability, I pull the cordage through one of the holes a little more to make a loop and then feed the excess cordage through the loop, wrap it around the bow handle and feed it back through the loop again. Do this a few times and then tighten the cordage around itself by pulling the loop back down through the hole into it's original position. This is the best way I've found to secure the cordage while allowing quick adjustments on the fly.


Burn In (Instructions are from a right handed point of view.)

This step is critical on a few levels. The spindle needs to be form fitted to the hearth board and this process mates them perfectly. This not only prevents the spindle from popping out of the hearth board, but also prepares both of them by way of pre-charring their mating surfaces.

After you have the divot cut into the hearth board about the size and shape of the spindle, kneel down, right knee down, left knee up. Place your left foot on hearth board a couple inches away from the divot you made for the spindle. Wrap the cordage around the spindle keeping the spindle outside the bowstring (so it don't scrape against the bow) and the fat part of the spindle pointing down. Hold onto the spindle firmly as it may want to spring out of your grip. Place it into the depression you carved in the hearth board. Put the hand socket on top of the spindle and hold it firmly with your left hand. Brace your left wrist against your left shin to keep it steady while working the bow. Grab the bow almost at it's end and start "sawing" back and forth smoothly and slowly in very short strokes while applying minimal pressure on the hand socket. Once the spindle starts spinning smoothly and it feels like it will stay in place, pick up the pace a bit and apply a bit more pressure. When it feels like they are starting to mate up together nicely, start sawing fast with a lot of pressure on the hand socket. You should see a good bit of smoke coming off the spindle and hearth board. Give it a few more strokes and then gently stop. Carefully remove the spindle from the hearth board without letting it fly out of your hands and don't let it scrape off the black char either.

The black char will help create the coal in a number of ways. It will help make more friction, start filling your chimney with "ready to burn" material, and reduce the time needed to fill the chimney. You don't need this char in order to be able to make a coal, but every little bit helps.


Hearth Board Modification

Here is where you need to be more precise in the construction process. The chimney needs to have sharp edges. You can succeed with rough edges but the rougher the edges are, the tougher it will be for the char dust to collect properly. The sharp edges of the chimney act as little scrapers that remove a layer of char dust on every revolution. Just like scraping paint off a wall, the sharper your scraper is, the easier your job is.

Using your knife or sharp stone (the sharper the better), cut a "V" into the edge of the hearth board (where the "burn in" depression is only about to inch from the edge) until the point of the "V" almost reaches the very center of the divot. Don't cut all the way to the center of the divot but make sure you go at least a third of the way in. The size of the "V" will make a difference too. The widest part of the "V", or chimney, should not be any smaller than about the diameter of the spindle. It also should never be wider than the diameter of the spindle either. A variation of the chimney is to cut a "U" shape instead of a "V". This results in a better chimney but it is a lot tougher to construct and the benefits are not that great.

The chimney is what allows the char dust to collect in one spot and build up the heat necessary to ignite. Some people recommend that you turn the hearth board over and widen the bottom of the chimney so the char dust resembles the shape of a mountain instead of a sharp triangle with the edges going straight up and down without any slope to them when you remove the hearth board. This is ok, and it might actually work better in some circumstances, but it greatly reduces the number of coals your hearth board can produce per hole and is tougher to get right. What happens is, during the process of grinding away with the spindle, the hearth board wears away and the chimney then widens too much and the spindle will fly out of the divot, break off one side of the chimney, or just stop maintaining friction with the hearth board and waste all your efforts. I suggest that you eliminate this step because it is not needed. I have made coals using both methods and I have found that it really doesn't make that big of a difference and it actually makes things worse if you are in the process of learning. I'm an experienced fire bug and I still don't use this method. If you are in a windy situation it may help a little bit due to the larger coal mass but the pitfalls far outweigh the benefits for the novice.


Making a Coal

Now it's time to make a coal. You have two options. You can set your hearth board onto your tinder bundle and build the coal right on it. Or, the way I like to do it, put a leaf or a big flat splinter of wood or even a flat rock under the hearth board and use that to catch the coal. This will allow you to comfortably transfer the coal to the tinder bundle without smashing your tinder bundle into oblivion. This will also give you a little time to work the coal from a minuscule little puff of smoke into a cherry red coal. You must make sure your hearth board is sitting flat and is very secure. You don't want your hearth board moving around on you otherwise you will extinguish your coal and have to start all over again.

Position yourself so that there is no wind blowing on the hearth board. Put the spindle in the bow again and start out slow with minimal pressure again. When you feel the rhythm and the security of the spindle in the socket and hearth board, start speeding up and start adding more pressure. When you start seeing smoke, it's time to jam. Pick up the pace almost as fast as you can while still keeping long smooth strokes, and add more pressure without stopping the spindle from spinning or slipping in the cordage. When you see dark brown char dust pushing out of the chimney keep going a bit longer to make sure the chimney is completely full of char dust. When you are sure the chimney is full, let up a slight bit on the pressure and saw the spindle even faster. This is when you are actually creating the coal. During the smoking phase, you are filling the chimney with the char dust that is almost ready to ignite. You now need to stop pushing the char dust out of the chimney and start heating it up a bit more. By letting up on the pressure you stop adding dust to your pile. By spinning faster you are adding heat to the dust. This concentrates all the heat energy into one place so it can build up. After spinning it super fast for a few strokes, gently stop and calmly and carefully remove the spindle from the hearth board and set everything down. Be calm here, the work is done, precision takes over now.

You have plenty of time to work this into a good coal so take it easy. Carefully coax the hearth board away from the mountain of char dust without disturbing it. You may need to use a small twig to hold the coal in place as you pull the hearth board away. With the hearth board out of the way, you can now carefully manipulate the tiny coal into a useable glowing coal. You really want to hold in the heat right about now while giving it fresh oxygen so it can grow. The trick here is to shield the coal with your fingers or a couple of leaves, twigs, or even the hearth board without touching it or smothering it either. While still shielding the coal, give it a very, very light blow (even with your mouth wide open a few inches away). Wait a couple of seconds and give it another blow. You might have to do this for about thirty seconds or so. Finally, you will see a red glow in the pile somewhere. You can now stop blowing on the coal. This is when it is safe to transfer the coal. You still have a couple of minutes to carefully transfer your coal to the tinder bundle so take your time and handle the coal with care. Go ahead and pick up your leaf (or whatever you used as a coal catcher under the hearth board) with the nicely glowing coal and gently place the coal into the center of your tinder bundle without breaking it apart. Keeping the coal intact during transfer is critical because if you break it up, it cools down really fast and it makes it much tougher to get your tinder bundle to ignite. Handle with care.


Getting Flames

After you have successfully transferred your live coal to the tinder bundle, cover the coal with more material or squeeze the tinder bundle so the coal is not exposed anywhere except where you are directly blowing. Be extra careful not to squash the coal. Start blowing gently on the ember to make it spread. When the coal inside the tinder bundle gets big enough it will start to smoke pretty good. Position yourself so that the smoke doesn't blow back in your face. This is when you pick up the blowing a bit. You will need to keep squeezing the tinder bundle so that it is always touching the coal. The closer you are to getting fire, the more oxygen it needs. As you increase the blowing, the tinder bundle will finally burst into flames. Be careful, these flames will sometimes come right back at your face or even go directly onto the hand that's holding it. Just be careful.

BE OFF!!! ...and good luck. : )





In this section, I will describe some of the secret details that most people don't tell you when you are learning how to accomplish the task of fire by friction.



The techniques you use are some of the most important factors in starting a fire. If you have bad techniques, you probably won't get fire. If you have good techniques, your chances of getting fire are greatly increased. In other words, you can have the best materials available but if your technique is lacking, you will probably fail. However, if your materials are lacking but your technique is fantastic, you'll have a much better chance of making fire. Practice is the only way you will be able to accomplish the task of developing good techniques. One of the techniques I speak of is reading the char dust which I will explain in the next paragraph. There are other techniques such as how you keep your spindle hand secured against your leg to prevent loss of friction by way of a wobbling spindle, how you hold the bow in order to tighten the string in case it starts slipping during operation (wrap a couple of fingers around the bow and string and squeeze the string towards the bow to tighten it while you are still working the bow drill), the position where the bow string rides on the spindle (lower is better, two or three inches above the hearth board is best), and the speed in which you like to operate the bow (the harder the wood, use lighter downward pressure and the faster you go - and the softer the wood , the more downward pressure you use and the slower you go). The size of the spindle makes a difference too (skinny spindle requires less downward pressure and a fatter spindle requires more downward pressure). There are other techniques that are just as important like keeping my foot close to the spindle so the hearth board doesn't move around, how you dislodge the coal from the hearth board once the coal is smoking on it's own (hold the coal in place with a small stick while you raise the hearth board away from it), and the way you hold your hand socket (there is no specific way to hold the hand socket, just make sure it is comfortable to you and it doesn't move around too much). The key to most techniques lie in keeping the device steady and operating it smoothly and consistently for the entire duration.


Char Dust

Light brown char dust in the chimney means you are either not pushing down hard enough or you are not spinning the spindle fast enough. If the char dust is large chunks that are black and crispy, you are pushing down too hard. You want the char dust to be a very dark brown to almost black and you want it to be a very fine powder. In other words, the smaller and the darker brown the dust particles are, the better chance you will have to get it to ignite. Remember, black char usually means that it has already burned somewhat and will not produce a live coal as easily as a very dark brown char will.



If the char dust is collecting around the spindle on top of the hearth board, the chimney is probably cut a little too small. You will need to widen it up a little bit so the char dust collects in the chimney instead of spreading around the top. If the spindle seems to be walking towards the chimney or one of the edges of the chimney breaks off, the chimney might be too wide, it might be cut too far into the "burn in" divot, or your angle of attack with the spindle isn't straight up and down.


Tinder Bundle

I use 5 layers in my tinder bundles. Each layer has it's own purpose. I'll describe the layers starting with the outside and finishing with the part that actually touches the coal when you put it in the tinder bundle. The first layer (Atlantic white cedar shavings) is designed to hold everything in place and to give you some duration of flames in order to give you enough time to get your kindling going. The second layer (shredded cedar bark) is what helps coax the coal into flames. The third layer (oakum - unraveled natural fiber rope) is a very fine fibrous layer that contains the dust in one place while allowing the heat to expand. The fourth layer (dried and crumbled sphagnum moss) is the dust that extends the life of the coal and helps the heat spread to the rest of the bundle. The fifth layer (char cloth) is something that catches the coal and makes sure it transfers the heat to the dust layer before going out.


Char Cloth

Here is a secret that is the most used due to it's ability to catch a spark. Making char cloth is easy. Simply put come cotton material (or any natural fibers or wood chunks or even saw dust) into a metal container with a non-sealing lid (you can actually use aluminum foil for the lid or even the whole container if your coals aren't too hot) and put it on some hot coals. Make sure the metal container isn't completely sealed because the smoke needs to have a way to escape. It will start smoking in a few minutes. When it stops smoking, remove it and make sure you don't open it until it cools down enough to handle with your bare hands. Most cookie tins or metal breath mint containers work well but you need to pre-cook the can or you will get a bunch of gunk on your char cloth from the coating on the can. If you use a paint can (must be very clean or new and unused) that seals very well, you will need to poke a hole in the top of it to allow the smoke to come out. If this is the type of can you use, put a stick in the hole after you remove it from the coals to prevent oxygen from getting to the char cloth or it will ignite by itself and it will burn up leaving you with a pile of junk char cloth that is good for nothing. If you leave the can on the fire too long, the char cloth will cook too much and be good for nothing so keep a close eye on it and when the smoke stops, the char cloth is ready. If you use a very large can, you might need to turn it over a couple of times in order to cook the char cloth evenly. Also, don't pack the cloth in the can too tightly. However, don't leave too much air space in the can either. You want to have the material comfortably fill the can to the rim without forcing the lid on.


Reducing friction

If you are using a wooden hand socket, you need to take all the possible steps to reduce the friction. One of the things you can do is to lightly tap the pointed end of the spindle onto a rock or harder piece of wood which will compress the fibers and make the pointed end more likely to slip instead of grip. In addition to this, you can take a skinny rock with a rounded end on it and gently tap it into the wooden hand socket hole to compress those fibers as well. It's better to do this before lubricating the end of the spindle because if the spindle is wet, it will be more likely to separate the fibers instead of compressing them. By the way, a shot glass works very well as a substitute hand socket for the beginner.


Getting Flames

The secret here is to inhale very quickly and exhale slowly. If you take too long to take a breath, the coal has time to go out. If you blow to hard, you can blow the coal out as well. If it sounds like a jet engine, either the tinder bundle is too close to your mouth or you are blowing too hard and you may burn up the coal before it has time to heat up the rest of the tinder bundle. If you are only getting heavy smoke, you are not blowing hard enough and the smoke may smother the coal and put it out. Consistently progressive airflow is the key. Start off with slow soft breaths and progress into harder and more intense blowing without making a bunch of "fire noise".


Wood Selection

The secret is to find soft (fingernail test on the smaller branches), seasoned (old and very crunchy sounding when you break it), dead (no living branches), standing timber (not on the ground) that has no sap (not sticky when you scrape into it past the bark). I don't list specific types of wood because you might not be able to find or identify that type of wood or it might not even grow in your area. The key is to understand the characteristics of the wood that work well and use that knowledge to identify the materials in the wild no matter where you live.


Curtis Hooker   All rights Reserved.