I write this post today for those of you who do not have experience with starting fire by friction with a bow drill. If you want to learn this ancient technique but don’t know where to begin – this is the perfect tutorial for you. In this tutorial, I focus more on learning the process than I do on using natural found materials. My philosophy is once you understand the process and develop your technique, you can then challenge yourself with other matierals and scenerios. LEARN it now so you can USE it later. This tutorial is also available to be watched in a 2 part video series that can be found in the Video Gallery.
Step 1: Harvest and prepare your bow drill spindle.
The 2 spindle materials that will give you greatest success are the dried dead woody stalks of mullein and yucca.
Mullein, as shown above, grows in open areas and along tree and fence lines. You can’t miss the big long yellow flower bloom head in the summer. Most mullein plants I see are at least 5 feet in height. Mullein is also know as TORCH PLANT because natives once dipped the dried bloom head in resin and once lit it would burn for several minutes. It’s also been called OLD MAN’S FLANNEL because the mullein leaves have a similar soft feel to flannel.
Yucca, like mullein, can be found all over the United States. In many parts of the country it is a decorative plant because of the beautiful white bloom it displays for a brief time in the summer. My favorite place to find Yucca is in cemeteries. Yucca is a very cool survival plant and has many resources – most notably for making cordage. Soap can also be made from the Yucca plant. If you have some time, Yucca is worth studying. Today, though, we are most interested in the dried dead woody stalk that spikes up through the center of the plant.
The stalks of the mullein and yucca plant are both ready to harvest in the fall after they have had time to die and dry out. The reason these 2 stalk work so well is that they both have a semi-pithy center that works extremely well for the fire by friction process. Just 1 stalk of either the mullein or yucca plant can yield several bow drill spindles that you can store for later use or give to a fellow primitive skills junkie. To harvest the stalks simly cut them off at the base and use your knife to cut off any leaves, brances, seed pods, etc… Ultimately, you will want your spindle to be about 10-12″ in length – rounded at one and and slightly pointed at the other. The slightly pointed end will go into your hand socket – it’s pointed to reduce friction. The blunt rounded end will be the business end that will drill onto your fire board to generate the coal.
Step 2: Prepare your Hand Socket
The Hand Socket is the piece to the set that fits on top of the spindle and allows you to hold it and apply pressure while you spin the spindle with the bow. You can fashion a hand socket from many different things. I’ve seen it done with rock, shells and metal. I like to use a hard wood such as oak, hickory or walnut. Whatever you choose to use it should be comfortable to grip in the palm of your hand and should have a hole or indention on the bottom for the spindle top point to fit into. For wood sockets just carve this socket hole with your knife.
Step 3: Find your bow
This requires getting out in the woods a bit. You are looking for a bow with a natural bend that is about 2 feet long. Once you find something similar to this, carve a notch all the way around at each and and tie on a length of paracord (or other strong cord) using a clove hitch. Trust me, use paracord in the beginning when you are just learning. You can challenge yourself with other kinds of cordage later.
Step 4: The Hearth Board (Also known as the Shelf or Fire Board)
For the fire board get yourself a cedar shingle or split a cedar 1 by 2 in half. You need your hearth board to be around 1/2″ thick. The width isn’t really important. Carve out a starter hole so that your spindle has a spot to start spinning. There should be about 1/4″ from the edge of your spindle sitting in the hole to the edge of the hearth board. After you’ve done this go ahead and assemble your bow drill set. Wrap the spindle in the bow string, grip your hand socket and place it firmly on top of the spindle, place the bottom of the spindle in the hole you’ve created on the hearth board and then (with your foot on the hearth board to steady it and the hand holding the socket pressed firmly against your shin) begin to slowly pull and push the bow back and forth. Take it slow at first to give the spindle a little time to wear out a smooth cavity for itself in the hearth board and hand socket. You aren’t worried about created a coal at this point – just grinding out your holes a bit. Before too long your hearth board will start to smoke a bit and you’ll see little black dust particles flying out from under the spindle. When this happens, stop.
Your hearth board should look like this:
All those little black particles that you saw flying out from under your spindle is ultimately what will form your coal that you will dump into your tinder bundle. Now, you need to carve out a notch in your hearth board to collect these particles. Using your knife, carve out a small pie shaped notch that goes almost (but not quite) to the middle of the burn hole on the hearth board – like in the photo below:
At this point you are ready to actually start trying to make a coal. But before you do so, make sure you have your tinder bundle ready for it. For just learning, I recommend 2 kinds of tinder material. 1st is Jute Twine which is a natural fiber twine that can be purchase on the spool in virtually any hardware store. You can unravel this twine and it makes a great tinder bundle.
My next tinder suggestion is Steel Wool. Steel wool catches a spark very well and is great for learning the process. Again, you can purchase steel wool for just a couple bucks at a hardware store.
After you’ve got your tinder bundle prepared, go ahead and set up like you did when you were doing your first burn on the hearth board. Except this time, put a little catch under the notch to catch the burning dust that will form your coal. You will use this to transport your coal to the tinder bundle. You can use all kinds of things – a wood shaving, a piece of leather, a leaf, a piece of cardboard…
Once you are set up like before and with the new added catch, start spinning your spindle….slow at first until you start to see smoke. Once you see smoke apply a little more pressure speed it up a bit – then count to 7. At this point you will be generating quite a bit of smoke. Slowly pull your spindle away…you should continue to see smoke come from the notch that is full of black dust. Get a little closer and then blow really softly on it and you should see a red ember. Don’t worry, it will burn for a good 30 seconds at least. Ive had them burn for minutes before so don’t get in a rush. You might have to tap your hearth board with your knife to get the coal to fall through to the little catch you put under it.
At this point you are ready to carefully place your coal in the middle of your tinder bundle and blow it into a flame. It may take a little practice but you will get it. If you run into any hang-ups just ask me – I’ve taught this skill to tons of people and would be happy to help you.
Thanks for reading – Creek