How To Start A Fire With Bow Drill?

Jeremy Bowyer
Written By Jeremy Bowyer

Jeremy Bower is a generational survivalist and expert outdoorsman.

Using bow drills to start a fire is a primitive technique used by man for thousands of years. In terms of survival skills, it’s still an important skill to have in your pocket in case you ever need it. Here I am looking at using the bow and the drill to start a fire.

Finding The Best Wood

To be able to make the drill itself, there are several different components you will need. To form the bow, there is a spindle, the hearth board, and the bearing block. You will also need to find some fuel like coal, some tinder for starting the fire with, and some kindling like logs too.

For your fuel and drill wood, you need to find something that is both dry and dead already. The best choice in making this contraption is to find fallen branches that aren’t on the ground. Just make sure they are not green or rotten before you begin making your bow. As long as the wood is hard and has good integrity, it shouldn’t matter what piece you pick.

prepare a bow drill

Making The Drill

For the drill itself, you should pick a piece of wood that measures around 12-15 inches long. It should also have a bit of flexibility to it. Get your string and tie it to either end of the piece of wood, ensuring that the string isn’t too tight or loose at either end. Then find an appropriate piece for your spindle – a piece that needs to be perfectly straight and measuring 12-15 inches long, with one end sharpened.

The hearth should lie flat on the ground and be around an inch thick. Cut a small hole into the wood that will be used to make friction and ultimately fire when the time comes. You should also make sure to cut a narrow v-shaped notch next to the hole that goes all the way to the end of the board. This could be useful when rolling the ember out onto your tinder.

Gathering Fuel

Before using a drill, you need to get the fuel for your fire first. Anything you want to use as part of your tinder bundle has to be completely dry and smaller than a match. Once you’ve gathered up enough to make your tinder bundle, make sure it is squeezed together as tightly as possible with a small hole pressed into the middle. Imagine this bundle as a bird’s nest, and you should get the right shape immediately.

Kindling can be anything that measures about the same width and length as a pencil. You will also need some slow-burning fuel, such as coal or logs, to add once you get the flames going.

Fire starting materials

Using The Drill

Now you have everything gathered and your drill made, you can get started with the fire lighting. Wrap the string from the bow around the spindle, then place this into the hole you made on the heart. Apply a small amount of pressure, keeping the spindle as steady as possible. If you find it helpful, you can kneel during this step and then use your shin to wrap your weight-bearing arm around and generate more pressure on the hearth.

Work the heart with the spindle by making small movements back and forth. After some time, smoke will begin to show because of the friction. At this point, speed up your movements until you see the hole glowing red. When this happens, you have formed an ember that can be used to create a flame.

Roll the burning ember out onto your tinder bundle and then rock this around in your hands a few times, allowing the air to get to the flame. It would be best if you also blew gently on it so that the tinder catches too. If you have picked the right materials, your tinder should quickly catch light. Once it does, you can put it down and build the kindling around it in a tent-like shape. When this has caught light too, add on your main fuel of coal or logs, so the fire keeps burning.

Practice Makes Perfect

This method of making a fire is by no means easy or quick. It will take a lot of time to master, and the process can also be tiring. If you know you want to learn this as a survival skill, don’t wait until the situation crops up but instead go out there and practice. One of the best ways to learn the right techniques is using bad wood. Although you won’t get a proper flame out of it, you can perfect your form quite easily and then switch over to suitable woods. You may be surprised at the outcome.

bow drill

I practiced every day for an entire summer with bad wood, and when I first went out to camp, I used my technique with suitable wood and got a flame almost instantly. In this instance, I used cedar and yucca wood. Never get discouraged during your practice because you will end up breaking a spindle or two, not tightening the string enough, or blowing the tinder out of the socket before it has caught properly. Try and try again, get that method down pat, and soon enough, you will be making burning hot coals that envy the entire campsite.


What Is The Best Wood To Make A Bow Drill?

The wood you use to make the bow drill should be dry and dead. If the wood even has a trace of green or freshness to it, it won’t be useful as a drill. In terms of the best wood, this can be argued over and over again. The best tip is to use the same kind of wood for both the spindle and the hearth. Hardwoods are also the better option because they have better integrity, so anything like oak, hazel, and willow will work well.

How Does A Bow Drill Work?

A bow drill is an ancient method of starting a fire without having to use matches or a lighter. It applies enough friction to a surface that generates heat, eventually producing embers that burn the fuels around it to create a great fire.

bow drill on the grass

How Do You Make A Fire?

There are several ways to make a fire without lighters and matches. The most primitive of these methods is the bow drill, but you can also use steel and flint, a fire plow, a hand drill, a magnifying lens or batteries, and steel wool.

Final Words

One of the biggest principles of lighting a fire outdoors, no matter what method you use, is that you can’t leave any trace behind. Can you start a fire with a bow drill without causing damage to the area? Taking a cautious and safe approach to fire-starting not only protects you but others around you as well as the environment. So remember, every time you start a fire, use your bow drill to leave behind no trace that the flames ever existed.