One of the quintessential primitive survival skills is being able to light fires by rubbing sticks together.
Friction fire using a tool like bow drill can be incredibly inspiring to witness, and rewarding to do it yourself!
So today I’m going to walk you through step-by-step how to make your first bow drill kit and get a fire started with it.
Watch the video or read the tutorial below for all the steps:
Making a bow drill fire from scratch is a pretty big topic, so we’ll cover this in three sections:
- Constructing your first bow drill kit
- Using your bow drill kit to make fire
- How to practice so you gain true proficiency
If you’ve ever wanted to make fire by rubbing sticks together, this tutorial will help you get there!
For starters, let’s cover some essential background on how bow drills work, how they create fire and why bow drill is the ideal method for most beginners.
What Is A Bow Drill?
Bow drill is one of the oldest tools engineered by humans for creating fire by friction. Using a twisted bowstring to rotate a wooden spindle creates massive friction against the fireboard causing hot dust to gather in a notch, which quickly ignites into a coal.
The coal is then carefully transferred to a tinder bundle which gets blown into flames.
Here’s a quick picture showing everything required for a complete fire kit:
- Bow with string
Additionally, each time you use your bow drill kit to make fire, you will also need:
- A tinder bundle.
- A little piece of leaf/wood/bark placed under the notch to catch the coal from your kit.
Because there are so many moving parts, bow-drill is a more complicated fire method than hand drill, however the extra friction means this method is particularly well suited for beginners and in cold/wet climates.
In general, bow-drill performs more reliably in challenging survival conditions compared to other techniques so it’s really the ideal place to start.
So let’s do this!
How To Make Your First Bow Drill kit
Let’s make your first bow drill kit!
We’re going to start by gathering some materials and constructing the basic components of a functional fire kit.
What’s The Best Wood For Your Bow Drill Kit?
First off, you’re going to need to gather up some dry wood of the correct type to make the spindle & fireboard.
Not all woods perform equally when it comes to igniting hot dust with friction. In general, the softer the wood, the better.
If you live in a place that has cedar or balsam fir, I would highly recommend using trunk wood from either of those trees to make your first kit.
Best Woods To Use For Your Bow Drill Spindle And Fireboard:
- Balsam Fir
To find your materials check wood piles, or harvest from freshly fallen trees in the woods.
If your materials are wet or green, you’ll want to dry them thoroughly before using. Avoid materials that have started rotting.
If you’re not sure what to use, I would recommend doing a little research into your local indigenous populations and find out what wood they use to make their fire kits.
For this tutorial I’m going to be using dried balsam fir trunk wood from a small tree that fell over during a storm near my home.
This wood will be used to make the spindle and the fireboard of your bow-drill kit.
Some woods to avoid when making your spindle & fireboard:
- Sugar Maple
- Apple, cherry, etc.
For this step, avoid using woods are very hard or have a high burning point.
Hard woods like Oak are however, excellent choices for the handhold which sits at the top of your kit (I’m using an oak handle for this demonstration.)
1. Making The Fireboard (Knife Billeting A Log)
To make your fireboard we’re going to use a technique called billeting. This involves using a knife to cut a flat board of wood from a log.
You’ll need a strong knife with a fixed handle. Do not use a retractable blade because it will very likely break.
How to Billet Your Fireboard:
- Grab a log of wood and position it on a stable flat surface
- Place your knife along one of the rings.
- Then using another piece of wood as a mallet, firmly (but in a safe controlled manner) tap the knife so it slices through the log.
Splitting logs with this technique will require some force, but done in a controlled way is a very safe way to cut wood into planks.
We want to make our fireboard approximately ¾ of an inch thick and anywhere from 2-3 inches wide. The length doesn’t matter, but it will influence how many coals you get from a board.
Use your knife to smooth up any rough spots so you end up with a relatively flat plank of wood (doesn’t need to be perfect).
Next we’re going to carve our spindle.
2. Making The Spindle
I recommend for your first kit to make your spindle out of the same wood as your fireboard. If you’re using a quality wood like cedar or balsam fir, this will be a spectacular kit.
I personally use a fairly small spindle, about ¾ of an inch thick and 4-5 inches long, but I’ve also seen others have great success using much larger spindles.
The most important thing is the overall shape and using a compatible type of wood like those listed above.
To make the spindle, simply billet off another piece of wood from your log, only this time making it more spindle shaped.
You’ll end up with a long rectangular piece of wood, which you then carefully carve down all the edges so all the angles are smooth.
Finally, using a knife we’ll carve the top end to a narrow, but blunted tip, and the bottom into a broader tip as shown in the image above.
For now just do your best to replicate the shape shown above.
3. Making The Bow
The most important thing for making your bow is that it has a good curve and it’s strong enough.
For beginner bow drill kits, you want a bow that holds its shape when you apply pressure, and also doesn’t break.
Here I’m using a curved piece of spruce branch, but it really doesn’t matter what kind of wood you use as long as it’s the right shape and size.
Use a knife to cut little notches on the outside ends of the bow so you can tie your string. Your string will be under a lot of pressure so you want to make sure it’s well attached on both ends.
What Should You Use For A Bow Drill String?
Of all aspects of an effective bow drill kit, the string is the most challenging to make from scratch with harvested materials.
Therefore in your first bow drill kit, I highly recommend using paracord for the string.
Paracord is very strong, reliable and affordable. This will give your kit lots of strength so you can practice and get the technique down.
In a real survival situation, this type of bow-drill kit is incredibly easy to make because you can simply use shoe laces, or better yet replace your shoe laces with paracord so you always have an ideal bowstring on hand (or foot).
Later if you want to progress to more advanced kits using harvested string from the land, you’ll be ready to take on that challenge.
4. Making The Bow Drill Handle
For your bow drill handle, use the strongest and hardest wood you can find with the highest possible ignition temperatures.
Here I’m using an oak handle, but any hard wood will work including hickory, ash and many species of maple.
The idea here is to minimize friction and dust building up at the top of your spindle, while maximizing friction & wood dust at the bottom.
There are extra tricks for managing friction that we’ll cover when we start to practice with the kit, but for now, simply use the tip of your knife to cut a small hole for your spindle top to fit in like this:
Some people will also use a soft palm-sized rock that has a natural concave shape to hold the spindle in place.
Over time the hole will gradually carve out a deeper and more secure hole. If you ever find a rock like this, these make great handholds too!
How To Light A Bow Drill fire
At this point you now have all the main bow drill components ready to go. Congratulations!
We’re getting close to the exciting part, so let’s start getting the technique down and make a few final preparations so your kit is ready to make fire!
1. Burning In The Hole
At this point, we need to create a prepared space on your fireboard for the spindle to focus its energy. Otherwise it’ll fly all over the place when you go to pump your bow.
To do this, we’re going to generate some preliminary friction with our kit and burn in the outline of our spindle on the fireboard.
This will also give you a chance to practice the main bow drill technique.
Cut The Hole:
First, using a knife, cut a little hole in the top of your fireboard to keep the spindle in place. I usually make my starter hole about 1/8th of an inch deep and ¼ of an inch wide.
This will keep your spindle from flying away when you start drilling.
Make sure you position the center of this hole so the edge of your spindle will end up at the edge of the board.
Here I’ve made a very poorly drawn circle with pencil on the fireboard to indicate my intended position of the hole.
Drawing this circle is not necessary. It’s simply to help you see where I’m aiming the hole. You’ll get better at knowing where to cut through practice. For now just do the best you can.
Again please be very conscious about how you use your knife for this step. You don’t want your knife to slip. Only use enough pressure to remove small flakes from the fireboard while keeping your fingers safe.
Twist The Spindle Into Your Bow:
Next we need to twist the spindle into the bow so they become connected.
This is a difficult movement to describe with words, so just play around with emulating this video I made and you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly.
A few tips for twisting your spindle:
- Hold the spindle with your left hand and place it gently against the inside bowstring.
- Grasp the string with your index and middle finger, and then twist.
- The string should be fairly tight, but not impossible to twist.
Exactly how much tension is a personal preference you’ll learn through practice. If the string is too loose, it won’t turn the spindle. But if it’s too tight, you won’t be able to twist them together.
Simply adjust your string until it feels right and you can always make more refinements later.
Get In The Bow Drill Position:
- Your foot is stepping on the fireboard to hold it still. It’s best to use barefeet, and make sure your foot is dry. You don’t want to get your board wet.
- Your handle wrist is locked tightly into your shin. Your wrist needs to be very stable to keep the spindle from flying around.
- Your bow arm is free to wave comfortably at your side.
- The hand-hold fits into the top of the spindle. (The narrow end)
- The spindle bottom fits into the fireboard. (The more blunted end)
- Position the handhold directly above the hole so your spindle is straight up and down. (You don’t want to drill at an angle)
From this position, begin moving your bow arm back and forth so the spindle can move.
Let’s burn in the hole!
- Start slow and don’t push too hard with the handhold.
- Just try to get a slow pumping rhythm.
- The goal here is not to start a fire. We’re just trying to get the kit moving smoothly.
- If your spindle keeps popping out of the hole, try adjusting the handhold pressure. If you push too hard the spindle will be hard to move. If you don’t push hard enough, it won’t be secure.
Lubricating The Handhold:
I also recommend placing a small amount of lubricant at the top of the spindle to reduce friction in the handhold.
My favorite is hemlock needles because they form a soft waxy coating that works incredibly well, but if you don’t have hemlock trees nearby you can experiment with different materials like dandelion leaves or wet grass.
If you really get stuck here, another easy solution is to use a tiny piece of soap.
Keep pumping until the fireboard hole becomes deep enough to fully accommodate the width of your spindle.
When your fireboard looks like this, you’re ready to cut the notch.
2. Cutting The Notch
The notch is a little piece of pie cut out from the fireboard designed to capture and focus hot dust into a small area. As we drill the fireboard, hot dust will gather into this notch and ignite into a coal.
Use your knife to carefully carve out a piece of pie from the hole you just burned, approximately 1/8th of the circle.
This is yet another moment when knife safety is going to be very important.
You’ll notice my hands are in a fairly precarious position here, but the trick is that I’m not actually pushing all that hard to make these cuts.
It’s not necessary to put all your force into each cut. Just go slow and keep every cut under control.
We’re so close now… but before we go for fire, we still need somewhere to put the coal.
3. Make The Tinder Bundle
A tinder bundle is like a big ole bird’s nest made of soft, highly flammable materials like inner bark shavings, dried fibers, etc.
There are lots of great materials you can use here and you’ll want to experiment with whatever is available and abundant in your local area.
If you have old burlap sacks or string lying around, you can also pull them apart to collect the fibres.
One of the best sources of tinder comes from shaving the inner bark of trees like cedar as shown here.
4. Getting A Coal
Now it’s time to get into your bow drill position and start drilling for a coal!
Remember to place a thin piece of wood under the notch. This will catch the wood dust so it doesn’t just dissipate into the space below.
Tips To Get Your First Coal:
- Start slow and stay calm.
- Get a good consistent rhythm going. The most important thing is to be smooth & not sacrifice proper technique.
- Don’t immediately rush to get a coal. Just warm the kit up and start developing some dust. Conserve your energy and focus on getting 100 pumps in a row.
- Try to use the full length of your bow. A common mistake people make when going for coals is they get all tense and limit their pumping to the very center of their bow. This will tire you out very quickly while creating very little friction.
- When you smell smoke, keep going! Smoke is a great sign, but it doesn’t always mean you have a coal.
- When you stop pumping, be very careful not to interfere with the coal. Keep holding the position and carefully observe the pile of dust gathered in your notch. Is it smoking?
- Carefully step back and prepare to separate the coal from the fireboard. A lit coal will typically have at least 2-4 minutes before it goes out so don’t rush this step.
- Using a tiny dry stick or leaf tip, gently pull the coal away from the notch so it sits alone on whatever you used to catch the coal. If it stays lit, you’re ready to transfer it to the tinder bundle.
5. Transfer The Coal To Your Tinder Bundle
If you’ve ever blown a hot coal back into flames, this is essentially the same process.
Coals from a bow-drill are very tender and sensitive so you want to move slow and allow it the necessary time to build in heat while driving off every last bit of moisture left in your tinder bundle.
Sometimes the ignition happens very quickly, other times depending on the materials, it may take several minutes to nurse a tinder bundle into flames.
Eventually if you’re patient and give it lots of practice, you will experience that glorious moment when the tinder bundle suddenly bursts into flames and you can transfer it into your intended fire space as shown in this video:
Troubleshooting Common Bow Drill Challenges:
My spindle doesn’t spin when I move the bow: Check whether your string is tight enough. It should click into place when you twist it in. Less commonly – you might be pushing too hard on the hand hold. Start with less pressure and then gradually increase as you get it spinning.
My spindle keeps flying away while I’m cranking: Most likely your wrist is a bit unstable. Try to lock it into your shin so you can use the stable surface of your leg to get leverage. Alternatively, you might be pushing down too hard on the handhold, or not hard enough. You also want to make sure your spindle is perfectly aligned from top to bottom, don’t drill on an angle.
My arm hurts: This is normal. It takes a fair bit of arm strength to get a bow drill coal. Just take a break and come back after you’ve had a rest. Eventually you’ll build up the arm strength, and your technique will also improve so less strength is required.
I’m getting lots of dust but no coal: You might not be getting the dust hot enough. Try increasing the speed at which you drill, and experiment with pressing a little bit harder on the handle. Make sure you’re using the entire length of your bow in every crank.
I got a coal, but it went out when I tried to move it: Give your coal a few seconds to sit in the notch before you transfer it over to the tinder bundle. If it stops smoking within 10 seconds, it probably wasn’t quite hot enough. You’re very close though… Keep going!
I can’t get my tinder bundle to light: Try some different materials, or make a larger tinder bundle. You might be blowing too much or too little. Don’t focus on making fire. Focus on making smoke. As the smoke increases eventually there’s a tipping point and will light. With practice, you’ll get better at knowing how much air to give it.
How to Get Good At Bow Drill Fires
Getting skilled with friction fire is simple, however for most people it does take a significant dedication of practice.
For this reason, I always recommend practicing in micro stages so you don’t get discouraged.
It’s important to have alternative ways of measuring your progress beyond simply asking… did I make fire?
Here’s a little checklist to help you measure your progress:
- Create your first complete bow-drill kit. (This is actually a huge milestone and should be celebrated!)
- Successfully twist your spindle into the bow with good tension. (You will likely have to play with the string a bit to get the correct amount of tension, however once you find the right amount, it will last for many years).
- Successfully position your body in the correct bow-drill position.
- Get your first successful spin of the spindle. Boo yah!! You’re almost cookin’!
- Get 10 pumps in a row.
- Get 25 pumps in a row.
- Go for 100 pumps in a row. If at this point, you don’t yet have smoke coming, repeat this milestone faster or with a touch more pressure on the handhold.
- Get your first smoke.
- Get your first coal.
- Successfully light your first tinder bundle.
Depending on how much time & energy you spend practicing, each of these milestones can take days, weeks or even months to achieve.
How To Get REALLY Good At Bow-Drill Fires!
Once you’ve started your first fire with bow drill, this is still just the beginning of your journey.
Starting fires under ideal circumstances is very different from being in a true survival situation.
So here are 6 more challenges to keep pushing yourself towards higher levels of bow drill mastery…
- Get a coal every day for 100 days in a row.
- Practice during winter and wet weather.
- Dunk your kit in water, then get a coal.
- Make 3 bow drill kits testing different combinations of local wood.
- Challenge yourself to make a kit without using wood from a woodpile.
- Try to get a coal using an Oak kit.