Best Wood for Bow Drill: How to choose the perfect wood for your Friction Fire Bow Drill Kit

Learn how to find and identify the best wood for Bow Drill to start a fire using a Bow Drill Kit. The top trees and plants in North America for bow drill friction fire kits.

Choosing the best wood for your Bow Drill Kit is critical to success.  Even if everything else is PERFECT, choosing the wrong wood will likely result in failure.  This article will highlight the best trees and woody stalked plants in North America to use for carving your Bow Drill Kit.  Before we get into the specific species, let first discuss some basic wood properties.

DOWNLOAD my 6 Identification Guides for the Best Bow Drill Woods in North America – FREE – just enter email below.

Best Wood for Bow Drill: Wood Properties & Selection

Dry

If the wood you choose is not bone dry then you will not succeed in making fire with your bow drill kit.  An ember can only be born in the near absence of moisture.  For this reason, live green wood should never be used for the spindle or the hearth board.  (Live green wood is actually preferred for the bearing block, which we will discuss later.)

EXPERT FIELD TIP

It can sometimes be difficult to determine by touch if a piece of wood is dry.  I’ve found that the lips, cheeks and chin are more reliable than my fingertips in determining if a piece of wood contains moisture.

If at all possible, wood for the spindle should not be gathered from the ground.  With few environmental exceptions (such as extremely arid locales) wood found on the ground will be less desirable because it will have absorbed moisture.  Dead standing wood and low-hanging branches are almost always drier because they are exposed to sun and wind.

Wood Types

Although I have successfully used many different types of wood for spindles, certain varieties work best.  While I want you to be familiar with specific trees and plants that make excellent spindles, it’s important that you first understand their key properties. 

Soft and lightweight woods are preferred over hard and dense varieties.  A popular rule of thumb [LM1] is that you should be able to use your fingernail to make an indentation in the wood with little effort.  While soft is preferred, the wood should not be ”punky” or rotted.  It should be firm.

EXPERT FIELD TIP

I prefer to use the same exact type of wood for both the spindle and the hearth board.  I’ve had the most success with this arrangement.  Exceptions can be made, of course, but I prefer to cut both components from not only the same type of wood but the same piece of wood as well.

I also like to use tree branches and suckers (these are saplings growing from the base of larger trees) as opposed to the main trunks.  This faster-growth wood has a more porous texture than the dense, main trunk and creates a faster ember with less effort.  Along that same line, I’ve found that the faster the tree grows, the better it is for bow drill spindles.  Single-season growth is always an excellent choice.  It just so happens that the tree varieties that work best for bow drills also grow extremely fast. 

Finally, any wood you choose should be as straight as possible and free of knots or cracks.

Drying a Green Kit

You may not find dead, standing wood of the variety you need, but you can cut live green wood and let it dry.  For one kit, I typically cut a branch or sucker (preferred) about the diameter of my wrist and at least one foot long.  I then split this piece in half and let it dry on a south-facing window sill for at least a week.  Splitting the branch allows for a faster drying time.

DOWNLOAD my 6 Identification Guides for the Best Bow Drill Woods in North America – FREE – just enter email below.

Best Wood for Bow Drill: Specific Tree Species

As mentioned earlier, soft woods make ideal bow drill kits.  Below is a list of trees in order of my preference for both the spindle and hearth board.  Where applicable I also list other noteworthy facts about these incredible survival resources.

Best Bow Drill Wood: Basswood (American Linden) (Tilia Americana)

Basswood – a wonderful bow drill wood.

Besides balsa, I know of no softer wood than basswood.  Also known as the American Linden, basswood is a favorite of wood carvers and one of the best woods for bow drill.  My friends from Britain refer to this tree as Lime.  Except for areas of extreme climates, basswood can be found in most of the northern hemisphere.  It is a water lover and will almost always be found growing around water.  

Basswood leaves are somewhat heart shaped and almost always asymmetrical.  They have a small, pea-shaped fruit that dangles from a tongue-shaped bract.  Young, tender basswood leaves are among my favorite wild edible greens. I make basswood salads several times a week in early spring.

The ”bass” in basswood comes from the word ”bast,” which means fiber.  The inner-bark fibers of the basswood tree make incredible natural cordage.  Instant basswood bark cordage can easily be obtained in spring and summer months by peeling the bark from younger suckers or saplings. You will find this cordage to be flexible and strong.  I have made many a bow drill string using basswood cordage.  The bark from slightly older basswood trees (3 – 5 inches in diameter) can be pounded and peeled from the trunk during the same time of year when the sap is flowing heavy.  After soaking in water for 3 – 4 weeks (called “retting”) the inner bark fibers will easily peel away from the rough exterior bark in long, ribbon-like sheets. 

I recall one summer when lightning struck a large basswood tree at the edge of the pond near my training facility.  This powerful strike caused the bark of that large tree to be blown from the trunk in several massive sheets, around 2 feet wide and 20 feet long.  After soaking them in the pond I was able to gather several wheelbarrows of basswood cordage, which I used in training for many years after.

While I’ve used basswood of every age and type for bow drill kits, my favorite is that which is sourced from sucker trees that are 2 – 4 inches in diameter.  The consistency of fast-growing sucker wood is unlike wood cut from the main tree.  However, green sucker wood will require drying time.  If you find a standing sucker tree that’s already dead, count yourself lucky. If suckers are not available, low-hanging branches are a good second choice.

Best Bow Drill Wood: Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides)

Cottonwood – a great choice for bow drill wood.

Cottonwoods were a favorite among Native Americans across North America, as the trees were used to make dugout canoes. (Often, these were coal burned.) Cottonwood trees have a triangular-shaped leaf with toothed edges.  The bark is deeply fissured.  Like basswoods, cottonwoods grow primarily around water.  I’ve seen massive cottonwoods along streams from Arizona to Virginia.  When it comes down to it, some would argue that cottonwood is the best wood for bow drill.

Cottonwoods grow very fast—almost too fast for their own good.  The combination of this fast growth and their soft wood makes for very weak branches, which is a good thing when searching for stock to make your spindle and hearth board.  Dead, broken branches can almost always be found littering the base of large cottonwoods and hung up in smaller trees or underbrush nearby. 

During the spring, when the cottonwood bears the source of its name, one can gather not only wood for the spindle and hearth boards, but tinder bundles as well.  Cottonwoods produce seeds that are covered in cotton-like down.  When gathered together, these downy clusters make a very flammable tinder bundle.

Best Bow Drill Wood: Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

Eastern Red Cedar – a great choice for bow drill wood.

The eastern red cedar grows primarily in the northern woods of the United States and into Canada, but I’ve had success with many different cedar varieties including western red cedar from the Pacific Northwest.  Cedars are coniferous evergreens and are easily identified by their flat, fan-like branches with scaly leaves.

The dead lower branches (also known as “squaw wood”) often make excellent spindle and hearth board choices.  Shredded cedar bark makes one of the most effective tinder bundles.  It can easily be processed by scraping a knife at a 90-degree angle against the tree.  The bark will shred off in fibrous masses that can be further processed by rubbing the shredded bark between the palms of your hands until they reach a hair-like consistency.

LEAD MAGNET: DOWNLOAD IDENTIFICATION GUIDES

Best Bow Drill Wood: Willow (Salix spp.)

Willow – a very popular bow drill wood choice.

There are hundreds of species of willow throughout the world, and for many, it is the best wood for bow drill. They belong to the genus Salix, and are simply called that in many areas. They love water and grow in nearly all temperate regions of the world where water is available. I’ve seen them along the banks of arroyos in the Sonoran Desert and in the marshy swamps of Maine. They grow in nearly every roadside ditch, along rivers, and at the edges of ponds. If you cut a live willow twig (called a cutting) off the tree and shove it in the ground, it will likely root and grow into a tree of its own. I’ve planted hundreds of willow trees on my own property using this method.

Willow leaves are typically long and narrow. They are widest in the middle and taper to a point on both ends.  The leaf margins are finely toothed. The upper-side of the leaf is bright green, and the underside is often pale green, which gives many willows (such as the white willow, Salix alba) a silvery appearance from a distance.  The bark of young trees and branches is very smooth and becomes darker and furrowed with age. Many varieties of willow, especially those related to Salix alba have brightly colored bark in early spring that can range from yellow to red.

Best Bow Drill Wood: Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)

The sycamore tree, another water lover, is nearly impossible to misidentify and is a good wood for bow drill.  Its very unique bark has a winter camouflage effect: mottled with whites, tans, creams and grays.  As the tree grows, the exterior bark peels off to the ground in thin, brown curls, leaving a pure white base layer exposed.  No other tree in the forest has bark that looks like or behaves like the sycamore’s.  When layered into a large cigar-style roll, a thick tube of sycamore bark also makes for an excellent fire carry.  It will smolder a red hot ember, which can be used to blow a tinder bundle into flame when desired.

The sycamore tree also produces small balls of clustered seeds in the fall, which can be broken apart and incorporated into a tinder bundle.  The seed clusters alone don’t make an ideal tinder bundle, but they are great filler when mixed with dried grasses, pine needles or bark fibers.

Like the cottonwood, the base of all sycamores will be littered with dead and broken branches all year round.  These branches make very serviceable spindles and hearth boards.  Sycamores also grow suckers at the base, which can be used.

Other noteworthy bow drill trees are:

  • Red Alder
  • Staghorn Sumac
  • Aspen
  • Tulip Poplar

Best Wood for Bow Drill: Woody Stalked Plants

My first successful bow drill kit wasn’t made from a tree at all, but from a woody, stalked plant – the yucca.  In fact, there are several noteworthy plants with woody stalks that make fantastic bow drill spindles and hearth boards.  Some of the fastest embers I’ve seen generated with a bow drill were from those carved from woody, stalked plants.  Let’s discuss a few of the most popular of these.

Yucca (Yucca spp.)

Yucca – best bow drill wood choice.

I list yucca first because it has a special place in my heart since it was the first material I learned to use in my bow drill kit.  It makes an excellent choice for first-time drillers.  Yucca is a plant native to America’s Southwest, not to be confused with yuca, also known as manioc or cassava, which has an edible root.  Yucca is a popular ornamental plant and can now be found all over the United States and throughout the world.  It grows in arid deserts as well as the four-season eastern woodlands. Even the harshest of winters will not kill it.  I’ve often found it growing in old cemeteries, where it no doubt was planted as an ornamental.

The leaves of the yucca are green and sword-like. Beware of the very sharp points on the tips. They grow from a central rosette and remain green year-round.  There are many different species of yucca (some even growing into large yucca trees).  While not edible, the yucca root is loaded with saponins and can be crushed and used as soap for washing.

Yucca’s claim to fame is its fibrous leaves, which are filled with long, strong fibers that can be woven into durable survival cordage.  (This process is covered in great detail in my Pocket Field Guide entitled NATURTAL CORDAGE.) Immediate cordage can be sourced from the green leaves, but I prefer to use the dead leaves that typically can be found around the base of the plant.  It is very easy to slough off the brown, flakey exterior and extract the fibers from the already-dead, dried leaves.  I have successfully used yucca leaf cordage combined with a yucca stalk spindle and hearth board for many bow drill kits.  Yucca is nearly a one-stop shop when it comes to gathering bow drill kit components.

The stalk of the yucca grows from the center of the plant starting in early spring.  The height and diameter it reaches depends upon the species and age of the plant.  Beautiful white flowers (which are actually edible) bloom all around the stalk, creating a very impressive display in spring and summer.  Soon after full bloom, the yucca stalk begins to die, dry, and harden.  By late fall and all through the winter it’s ready to be cut off at the base and used for a bow drill spindle and hearth board.  The lightweight, porous consistency of this dead, dry, woody stalk makes for one of the best bow drill spindles available on earth.  The trick can sometimes be finding a stalk that is thick enough AND straight enough to be used as a drill and hearth.

Sotol (Dasylirion spp.)

Creek standing next to a Sotol plant.

Sotol, also known as desert spoon, is similar in appearance to yucca.  It, too, is an evergreen and produces long, thin, sword-shaped leaves in a circular pattern around the base.  Unlike yucca, sotol cannot handle prolonged cold and therefore grows exclusively in the warm, arid environments of America’s Southwest, including the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.

Like the yucca, sotol produces a central flower stalk that is adorned with a bristle-like plume of tiny white flowers.  This stalk can grow as tall as 20 feet, and I’ve seen them as large as 2 – 3 inches in diameter.  The leaf edges are lined with sharp, barbed thorns, so use caution when cutting the stalk from the base.

The dead, dry, and woody stalk is used extensively for the fire plow method of friction fire-starting and is large enough to make many bow drill kits. This stalk works incredibly well for bow drill and is highly recommended if you reside in an area where the sotol plant is native.

Elderberry (Sambucus spp.)

Elderberry is a deciduous shrub found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, except in areas with extreme climates.  A year-round identifying feature of the elderberry it its bark.  The exterior of the bark is covered with evenly spaced little raised ”bark warts.”  This is a very unique feature of the elderberry.

In spring, the elderberry bush produces flat, dinner-plate-sized flowers, which are actually made up of many small white flowers.  These flowers can be battered and fried (elderberry fritters), but they are traditionally used to make elderberry syrup after being steeped in sugar water.  If left to their own devices, the flowers will ultimately transform into clusters of berries colored from purple to black. These are used to make jellies, jams, wines, and all sorts of other delicious treats.  All other parts of elderberry are poisonous.

The elderberry branch is unique in that it has a very large pith with a Styrofoam consistency.  It’s one of the very few bushes/trees/woody, stalked plants that can be hollowed out.  It’s the soft wood of the elderberry combined with its pithy center that makes it a wonderful bow drill spindle candidate.  An elderberry spindle is better paired with a hearth board made from a different type of wood. It’s challenging to create a proper hearth from an elderberry stalk because of its central pith.

*Special Note:  Because of the pithy center, it can be difficult to carve the top of the spindle to a point.  Consequently, it is better left rounded.

Download my 6 Bow Drill Wood Identification Guides – FOR FREE! Just enter your email below!

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

The dead, dry stalk of the mullein plant in fall and winter makes a very suitable bow drill spindle.  Much like elderberry, it is better paired with a hearth board made from a different wood because a suitable hearth board is difficult to split out from a pithy-centered mullein stalk.

Mullein, also known as lamb’s ear, has large, pale–green, fuzz-covered leaves in spring and summer.  The plant has a two-year life cycle.  The first year it grows a low rosette of large fuzzy leaves that are nature’s perfect toilet paper and padded inserts for shoes.  During its second year it shoots up a tall, straight, and woody stalk topped with masses of beautiful little yellow flowers.  This stalk is almost always perfectly straight and I’ve started many a bow drill fire with a mullein spindle.

The woody stalk is firm, yet soft, and the center is filled with a dense pith.  One fall I built an entire bow drill kit (excluding the bow string) from one giant mullein.  I used the root for the bearing block; the stalk for the spindle, hearth and bow; and the leaves and seed head for the tinder bundle.

*Special Note:  Because of the pithy center, it can be difficult to carve the top of the spindle to a point.  Consequently, it is better left rounded.

Best Wood for Bow Drill: Carving Your First Kit

Material selection is only one component that you have to get right when starting a friction fire using the Bow Drill.  You must also carve the kit correctly.  To help make sure you carve the kit correctly, I’d like to give you my BOW DRILL CARVING TEMPLATES to use as your guide.  They are FREE for you to use – all you have to do is enter your email below so that I know where to send them!

Download my FREE Bow Drill Carving Template by entering your email below!

Thanks for checking out my article about how to choose the best Bow Drill Wood – I hope you’ve found it helpful!

CR///EK

(Visited 1 times, 1 visits today)

No Comments

    Leave a Reply

    %d bloggers like this: