There is no greater feeling while out in the wilderness than the feeling of independence you get from mastering the bow drill friction fire. It is the closest to real life magic that we can get. Taking nothing and creating this element. Not only does it give us a means of cooking, comfort and protection. It gives us a direct connection to the humans that walked this earth thousands of years before us. It is quickly becoming a forgotten skill and with reason that in most environments it is simply just unnecessary.
But for those who dare to journey deep into the remote wilderness like Woodland Caribou Provincial Park, It can make the difference between shivering, discomfort, and eating raw fish to warmth, celebration, and, well, bragging rights for life. In the remote wilderness, Mother Nature can be a cruel and unforgiving teacher. She will give you the examination first, then the lesson later. It can be very easy to get lost and/or separated from your gear. Although not too common, this can happen to even the most travelled adventurer. It is how we deal with these situations that make the difference between a search and rescue extraction or a great story to share with the grandchildren one day.
In the next few paragraphs I will share with you the tips and tricks that have helped me to master this skill. That being said, nothing will compare to actually heading out for yourself and practicing these skills hands on, with this to be a great reference to go off of. Before I begin, there are a few main rules to live by while attempting any friction fire.
Firstly, the word surrender has to be removed from your vocabulary. There is no such thing. If this does remain in your head, then you will fail before you have even begun. This can also carry over to many aspects of your life.
Secondly, it is so important to be fluid in your technique. Don’t get stuck trying the same technique over and over because it worked the previous time. If something isn’t working, then switch up your position, carve your spindle skinnier, longer or wider, or grab completely new materials. I have found in teaching the bow drill that people hang on to certain styles because they have worked before. Bottom line is every material is very different, and what worked on one branch from a tree, wouldn’t work on another branch from the same tree.
My third main rule is, never practice on one bow drill set. I always practice in the wilderness, and burn my bow drill set on the fire afterwords. This forces you to make a new set each time, and become more familiar with finding the right materials. Anyone can bring home a piece of wood, dry it out, and get an ember. It is important to practice this skill while out in the forest, in every condition. Wind, rain, humidity, energy levels all have a huge effect on achieving an ember so it’s crucial to practice often and in all weather conditions. We would love for survival situations to occur on a hot calm day, but Mother Nature has her own plans.
There are five main components to the bow drill friction fire:
1.Spindle- creating the friction and dust.
2.Hearth board- creates dust, contains the friction and dust.
3.Bow and string- aids in spinning the spindle.
4.Bearing block- helps keep the spindle straight and puts pressure on the spindle and board creating more friction.
5.Ember platform- leaf, piece of bark. Any flat surface used to transport ember to tinder bundle
First off, and in my opinion the most important step. Selecting the right wood that is suitable for friction fire. It is crucial that you select the wood that is in the perfect decomposition state. If it is green and still living, it will never work. If it is dead standing and dry, it might work. If it is on the verge of decomposing but has not gone “punky” yet. It is perfect. If it is too “punky” it also won’t work. There is a very fine line between bone dry and on the verge of decomposing, and too far gone to work. I find that if you look for a softwood tree, about wrist thick, dead standing with no bark left on the tree. This will be your best bet. It can be hard to identify the tree when it is like this, but you can certainly tell if it is a soft wood tree if you can make an indent into the wood with your fingernail. Being able to identify the tree will come in time, and experience. I have found in my experience that Balsam Fir works the best and is the most reliable, but any tree will work if found in the right state. Keep in mind the second main rule during this step and grab as many examples of this wood as you can find, so that way you can quickly move on to a new set if the first one isn’t working. The thicker the tree the less likely it will work.
Now that you have found the perfect wood for a friction fire it is time to gather all your firewood and tinder bundle. There is no point in getting an ember if you can’t turn it into fire. Make sure to grab as much tinder material as possible so that you have enough to keep that ember going even if you can’t get flames right away. Some great tinder materials include Poplar tree inner bark, dead grasses, fine pieces of birch bark, old mans beard, wood shavings from dead and dry wood also known as feathersticks. If the material is damp you can place it in a chest pocket and your body heat will dry it out, or on a dry breezy day you can place the tinder up high and in the wind to dry it out.
Now it is time to harvest the other tools you will need. You will need to find a lightweight sturdy and straight branch that is the length from your finger tips to the centre of your chest and no thicker than your index and middle finger together. You want it to be light weight to conserve energy. This length will allow you to draw the bow in full arm lengths, giving your spindle more turns per pull, creating more friction, faster. Then you will need cordage for the bow itself. I preferably use paracord, but in a survival situation you can use your shoelaces or even braided Spruce tree roots.
You will also need a bearing block. Preferably hardwood or greenwood so that you don’t burn through it too quickly. The bearin block will need to be roughly the length of your forearm and wide enough to get a good grip on, usually about 3/4 the thickness of your wrist or whatever feels best for you. You want the bearing block to be longer so that you can tuck it against your shin to keep the spindle spinning straight with even downward pressure.
Make the spindle and board from the same tree, and don’t be afraid to move on and burn another hole or simply move on to the next set if the first one isn’t working. You will want the spindle to be about over an inch thick, shaving the spindle thinner and thinner as you go until you find the sweet spot. The length of the spindle should be as long as your shin if possible. You will want this length for a couple of reasons. A) It’s easier on your back and bearing block arm. B) It allows you to tuck your bearing block elbow over your knee, keeping the spindle more stable. C) it simply allows you more spindle to burn through until you get your ember. There is nothing more frustrating than getting some good friction going and having to start all over because you burned through your whole spindle.
Your spindle should start wide on the burning end and taper down to pencil thickness on the bearing end. This will create more friction on the burning end and the thinner end will use less energy to spin. Every 5-10 minutes you should shave the bearing end thinner to keep less friction on the bearing block, again, saving precious energy and creating more friction on the burning end.
Now you will want to prepare your hearth board. The sweet spot on the hearth board will be about a 2-3 inch radius of the centre of the log. This is known as the heart wood.
A lot of people will instinctually split the log down the centre to get to the heartwood, but doing this will create an uneven board and will likely waste a good portion of the heartwood. I like to chop into the side of the full log until I reach the heartwood. This way it is nice and straight and you can use all of the heartwood.
Once you have removed the wood and have a flat surface, you will want to pick a spot on the centre of the board that does not have any knots in it. Then you will make a divot in the board that is a fraction smaller than the spindle. This divot does not have to be perfect it just has to keep the spindle spinning in the same spot. You can roughly make a divot with the tip of your knife, or a sharp rock. Then you can make another much smaller divot in your bearing block.
Now it is time to “burn in” the spindle into the board. We do this not to achieve an ember but to burn a hole deep enough that we can have a reference when cutting the notch into the board. When you are burning the hole keep an eye on the spindle to make sure it is spinning in one spot and not rocking side to side. If it is rocking side to side it will not create enough friction to get an ember. You can fix this problem simply by cutting a deeper divot.
The notch is cut either with a saw, knife or sharp rock even to collect the charred wood dust that is created from the friction on the spindle and board. If you cut the notch too big it will require a lot of bowing and wasted energy filling up the larger space with the dust. If the notch is too small it might not get enough oxygen to produce the ember.
Now you wrap the spindle around the bowstring. Having the right amount of tension on the string is very important. The perfect tension roughly will flip your spindle away at a steady speed when you let go of it.
Place the spindle back in the burn whole. Find any body position the feels comfortable, as long as your inner elbow is pivoted against your outer kneecap. You may have to change multiple positions depending your surroundings.
Start bowing at medium speed, concentrating on getting the perfect downward force and making sure you are drawing the bow the full length of your arm. You will want to stay at this speed until you can see that your notch is full of your light brown charred wood dust.
Then only now you will go as fast as you can, giving it all your might, all your worth! Smoke is billowing in your face! Just keep going!!
You will reach a point where you just physically cannot keep spinning that spindle anymore! At that point all you can do is just hope that when the smoke clears, there is an ember sitting in the wood dust pile!
To help your odds you will want to immediately take your spindle and gently tap the dust out of the board giving your potential ember enough oxygen to take off and burn.
Ok so now we have the ember! This is the time where you actually need to stop, breath and refocus your head and clear the adrenaline. That wood dust pile will actually burn for a couple minutes or so depending on the amount you have created. I’m not saying, go for a hike or anything, just take a second to breathe, maybe get a drink of water if it’s handy. This will be one of the proudest moments of your life!
Now you will want to drop your wood dust pile and ember into the centre of your tinder bundle. Gently close in the sides of the bundle into the wood dust pile, being extremely careful not to extinguish your ember. Lift the tinder bundle above your head so that you are blowing upward (heat rises). Now you want to blow on your ember as gentle as can be. Right now you aren’t after flames, you just want to spread the ember as large as you can. Once you feel that you have a decent sized glowing ember, it’s time to blow the ember faster. Do not squeeze the tinder bundle too hard together, you want to keep it light and airy. After a few lungfuls you will be able to tell that you are on the verge of flames. When you blow on the ember it will start to sound like a rocket. Then poof like magic flames appear in front of your eyes.
Place the burning tinder bundle on your wood pile, adding in Birch bark or any other flammable materials you may have. Then add in your kindling once you have a strong flame formed and build your fire from there.
It is a very intense feeling when you get your first fire from friction. Nothing comes close to the feeling of independence that you earn when you take matters into your own hands and work alongside nature to create flames like magic. It takes a a lot of practice and discipline but when you master friction fire, you truly feel unstoppable and completely in tune with your surroundings. There are not many people left on earth that have this skill so it is your duty to share your knowledge and experience with others as I am here, to keep this skill alive. For a detailed video tutorial on the bow drill friction fire, or other methods of friction fire, please check out my YouTube channel @WoodlandAllure or find me on Instagram under the name @BlackwaterBushcraft. Safe travels
Nick Di Francesco