So, imagine you really need a fire. You’ve found some relatively dry and sheltered spot, protection from the elements but, your one and only set of clothing is wet and therefore conducting the creeping cold through to your already shivering body at a much faster rate than it otherwise would. You have plenty of water for a brew (it’s been raining cats and dogs for an eternity) and a few soggy hot chocolate sachets but you know that drinking the freezing rain water, chocolaty or not would potentially lower your core temperature putting you at further risk from hypothermia. You also know that any surrounding vegetation which could otherwise provide some insulation from the cold earth, will be sodden and with night fast approaching and temperatures due to plummet your only real chance of making it through to see another morning is in getting that campfire going. You’ve collected plenty of dry standing dead wood from the surrounding woodlands and have even got a small but sturdy knife blade on your emergency multi tool to shave away the damp outer bark and split the larger sections exposing the dry material inside. An empty critters nest of shredded honey suckle bark and thistle down, hidden away inside the hollow buttress of an old tree was a lucky find, very slightly damp but nonetheless perfect tinder. Only problem is you’ve got no matches. Well, you have got matches but every single one is damp enough for the heads to disintegrate every time you attempt to produce that much needed flame. In the current situation you have two choices…curl up into a shivering miserable ball and count the chilly hours away until morning (if you make it that is) or alternatively start rubbing some of those dry sticks together!
Crazy though it sounds to those of us who live in a modern age of disposable lighters and self-igniting gas stoves, rubbing sticks together does actually work. You just need to know which sticks, how to prepare them, exactly how to rub them and for how long. The bow and drill method has been used in many environments for tens of thousands of years. As with other methods of lighting fire by friction (the hand drill, fire plough and fire saw) the basic principle involves one dry, seasoned wooden component rotating fast or in some other way being worked equally as speedily into another dry, seasoned wooden component. The two surfaces wear each other away creating very hot, blackened wood dust which is purposefully caught in a notch or groove carved into a wooden hearth board. The continual movement of one component working against the other at speed also serves to keep these tiny, hot, wood dust particles at a very high temperature. So much so that eventually they smoulder and begin to ignite. Individually these particles would burn out in the blink of an eye but working together in a cluster, their heat spreads and grows stronger, feeding and fusing the little heap of black powder into a single, glowing coal or ‘ember’. This small glowing ember is placed carefully inside a bundle of dry, fine tinder material (previously mentioned honeysuckle bark critters nest) and gently fed with oxygen by wafting or blowing until the diminutive heat source spreads to the fine tinder surrounding it, creating flame. The flaming tinder is introduced to your previously prepared kindling and bingo! No more hypothermia or cold brews.
So although all methods of fire by friction are based on the above principles, the bow and drill method reigns supreme as the most reliable due to the mechanical advantage the bow offers. Preparation time is increased slightly by having to make the bow and bearing block but in doing so you’ll achieve far greater energy output, can get away with slightly less than perfect materials and can easily include other team members to double, or even treble up on the bowing and drilling making success more likely, even in the hands of a less skilled friction fire lighter. You should only need a small sharp blade of some sort to manufacture the individual components. Even a flint flake would do:
1. Bow – This can be made from green wood about 2.5cm and as long as the distance between your armpit and your wrist. Straight wood can be used, but a slight bend is preferable. Carve a notch in each end to stop the cord slipping.
2. Cord – You will need about 1m of strong cord. In an emergency, your bootlaces and jacket drawcords are all fair game. Twisted animal hide is a good substitute.
3. Bearing block – Green wood preferably but could also be a stone with a natural hollow, a bone, shell or even a little jam jar. Needs to be a comfortable size to grip with one hand and if made from wood, should have a little socket carved into its underside. Stuff a waxy green leaf, such as holly, into this socket to create a shiny, friction-reduced surface where it connects with the top of the drill.
4. Ember pan – Sliver of wood or a section of bark. Must be slim enough to slide under the hearth board and catch your charred wood dust.
5. Tinder bundle – All buffed up and perfectly prepared, ready to accept a glowing ember.
Wild Clematis and birch bark mix - the rocket fuel of natural tinders
6. Drill – Both drill and hearth board must be made from dry, well-seasoned, standing dead wood, which should be still firm and good to carve, not yet powdery. The softer hardwoods are best, such as lime, sycamore, alder, willow and poplar. Hazel makes an excellent drill in conjunction with these hearth-board woods. Carve the drill into a round cross section with a diameter about as thick as your thumb. It must be about 25cm long with a point on each end. The top should be sharply pointed to create a tiny surface area where it is held by the bearing block, minimizing friction. The bottom of the drill must have a blunt point to ensure that a wide surface area is in contact with the hearth, making as much friction as possible.
Standing dead wood. Although shown next to an axe, this was snapped into the lengths shown
7. Hearth board – Your hearth board should be about 25cm long, 5cm wide and about as thick as your thumb. Carve a little pinpoint depression into one face of the hearth board, roughly central on its width and about a third in from one edge. This is for guiding the blunt point of the drill as you begin to bow. Once made, keep your hearth board, drill and tinder bundle somewhere dry until you need to use them.
Spindle carved correctly and hearth board split down to size on one end. Bow, ember pan and seasoned ash bearing block also shown
Using the bow and drill:
First, attach the cord to your bow with a knot that can easily be undone for adjustment. The cord should be slightly loose rather than taut like an archery bow string. You should only just be able to twist the cord one turn around your drill. The easiest way to do this is to lay the drill alongside the cord, rotate it slightly to overlay the cord and then twist it round to bring it vertical to the still-horizontal bow string. This wraps the cord tightly around the drill. Ensure the blunt point faces downwards. If the drill twists in too easily, you may have to re-tie your cord a little tighter.
Kneel down on your right knee only, using your left foot to clamp the hearth board (pinpoint depression uppermost) steady on the ground just to the right side of your foot. Locate the blunt point of the drill into this depression, and, holding the bearing block in your left hand, locate the sharper drill point into the socket on the underside of the bearing block, thus clamping the drill in a vertical position. Your bearing-block hand should be held tightly against your left shin to keep everything locked in place, otherwise you’ll expend a lot of energy just trying to keep the whole apparatus steady (this is a difficult position to get into and even harder to explain but luckily there’s an accompanying image below).
The drill must already be twisted into the bow string, and with a back-and-forth sawing action while bearing down slightly on the block, the drill should spin freely as you bow. This repetitive movement will spin the drill into the hearth board, creating heat through friction. As long as you’re bowing fast and hard enough, the point where drill and hearth meet will start to smoke as both wooden surfaces begin to char and consume one another. But don’t get too excited yet! When the drill has burnt a little charred socket in the hearth board of the same diameter as itself, stop and have a rest.
You will find that all around the blackened socket burnt wood dust, or ‘char’, has collected. This is the magic dust that eventually becomes an ember, and in order to catch it and keep it hot, a notch must be cut into the hearth board. Using a sharp blade or small saw, cut a triangular section from one side of the hearth board, the apex of which extends into the centre of your burnt socket (indicated by the dotted line on the 'parts of a bow drill' illustration and the image below).
Once sufficiently rested, get yourself back into the same awkward position, replace the waxy green leaf in the bearing block (the previous leaf will probably have disintegrated), tighten the bow string (which will probably have stretched a little) and slip the ember pan between hearth and ground right under the notch. Then take a few deep breaths and begin to spin the drill in its socket again by moving the bow back and forth. Pace yourself at this point, conserving your energy. Concentrate on keeping a regular, smooth action with just the right amount of downward pressure: too much and the drill will bind, or stick, in the hearth, causing the cord to slip; too little and your char dust will only be brown in colour and nowhere near hot enough. Keep the bow cord running centrally between top and bottom of the rotating drill, and apply more tension to it, if needed, by pinching the cord tighter against the bow with the fingers of your bowing hand. Use the full length of the bow to give a maximum number of revolutions for your energy output. You should see smoke and black char very soon. (If not, you may need to apply more pressure to the bearing block or pick up the bowing pace.)
Spindle rotating, heat building, both wood surfaces consuming one another becoming charred particles gathering in the notch
Notch filling with char, plenty of smoke, char starting to spill out around the spindle/socket
Most of the hot, black char should now be collecting on your ember pan inside your notch cut. As the smoke increases and thickens, your notch should completely fill with char. In damp conditions this could take a while, but in good conditions with a perfect technique you should be at this stage after about 30 seconds of quality bowing. Remember that there are 101 reasons why this technique might not have worked. If your ember attempt isn’t immediately successful, work out what needs tweaking and keep at it. You may need to reduce the friction where the drill sits inside the bearing block by sharpening the point and adding another waxy leaf, or the cord may be slipping and need to be re-tightened. However, if thick, acrid smoke is being produced and your ember notch is spilling over with jet-black wood dust, dig in and increase the pace considerably for a sprint finish. Thirty good fast strokes should ensure that your little mound of hot powder grows hot enough to burn all by itself.
If you REALLY need this technique to work and there's more than just you in your group then it makes perfect sense to halve the work by 'buddying up' on the bow drill set. Two people or even more can work in unison to produce quicker results. Remember, there’s no ‘I’ in team but there’s plenty in ‘I haven’t got my fire to light’. Don’t try and be a hero, many hands make light work!
'To me..to you' three die hards power away to create an ember
Once your notch is full of hot, smoking char, stop bowing and carefully roll the hearth board away to leave your miniature volcano intact. It should continue to smoke if it’s hot enough inside. You may even see a soft red glow from within.
Use a small twig to hold the fledgling ember in place as you roll away the hearth
While protecting the fragile ember from any gusts of wind (and try not to sneeze or cough), gently increase the flow of oxygen by slightly fanning with your hand, and you will see it glow red as it gradually solidifies into a hot little coal.
Once it’s strong enough, tip it into the middle of your tinder bundle and blow it into glorious flame as previously described.
Now sit back and enjoy the moment. Life will never be the same again!
Now sit back and enjoy the moment. Life will never be the same again!
A good ember is introduced to a tinder bundle of honeysuckle bark
Surround the ember with fuel and blow to increase oxygen flow through the heart of the tinder bundle
Thick smoke is a sure sign that ignition is only seconds away