Failed hand drill, "shoe drill" and mouth drill attempt

During my shelter-oriented outing Friday night (see Modified debris shelter success), I tried to make fire primitively without a knife. 

I tried hand drill first, using an 8 inch length of dead wild cherry sapling for a spindle. For the fireboard, I used a piece of slightly dry rotted oak. 

I “sanded” the tip to a point using the rough slab of sedimentary rock my shelter was built into. I carved out the divot and notch into the fireboard using a quartz blade.

I know next to nothing about flint knapping - the art of flaking blade edges out of certain types of rock. If I have no knife, I search for a chunk of quartz. I put it on a large stone, and smash it with another large stone. At least 2 or 3 usable blades usually emerge from that simple procedure. I use the blades to carve bow drill and hand drill kits, or to cut out pieces of pine cambium for eating.

A chunk of quartz for smashing
The first blow yields a gorgeous blade
One of the smaller blades, perfect for cutting out pine cambium
A half dozen blades from the one quartz rock

I was able to get some smoke, but the coal dust was light brown and nowhere near ignition temperature. I could feel that blisters were about to form on my palms, and I was getting fatigued from the effort. End of the road for hand drill.

The oak fireboard with rock-carved notch

The maple spindle

Next I took off my shoes and put them over my hands, proceeding again with hand drill. I tend to “float”, keeping my shoe-hands at the top of the spindle, until I see a wisp of smoke. Then I go as fast and hard as possible, causing the hands to migrate down. When the reach bottom, I bend over and hold the spindle in my teeth while bringing my hands back up, and start over.

This saves my palms from tearing apart and requires less effort. It is much easier to get the downward pressure because of the stickiness of the rubber soles. Note that this only works with shoes that have flat, flexible soles, in this case Vans Authentics. Forget hiking boots.

I was getting more smoke and darker coal dust, but still far from ignition. 

Next I tried a new spindle. I located a longer, 18 inch section of dead maple sapling. It was also thicker, about 3/8 of an inch. I proceeded as above. Again, still closer. More smoke, darker dust. No coal though.

Finally I took another piece of the dry-rotted oak and split out an inch-wide section. I carved a small divot in the middle with the quartz blade. I sanded the top of the maple spindle to a point as above. I rubbed some of the oil on my face into the top of the spindle to reduce friction. I put the oak in my mouth and set up for “shoe-mouth drill”. I held the mouthpiece over the spindle, pressing the top into the divot. I pushed down with my neck muscles while shoe-drilling the spindle. 

Now there was so much smoke I thought I must have a coal. Nope. The dust was now black, the right color. I don’t know why I couldn’t get it to ignite. Could be a bad combination of wood types. Maybe the spindle or the fireboard were damp inside. The sun set and I gave up for the night.

I brought the spindle and fireboard home with me for further experimentation. I cut down the spindle to 8 inches and made a bow for bow drill using my shoelace and the Egyptian bow drill technique. Using the old mouth piece as a handhold for bow drill, I tried again.

Trying again at home with the oak fireboard - improving the notch with a real blade

Trying the shoe drill again at home, with the same kit
The Egyptian bow drill requires a longer cord but doesn't stress the cord as much. You start with a clove hitch around the spindle...
...then you wrap the cord 2, preferably 3 times around the spindle on each side of the clove hitch...
...then you modify the bowing technique so that you're bowing at a diagonal.
So close!

Massive amounts of smoke, perfectly black dust, and still no coal. I noticed that the dust contained long black fibers in it. I don’t know what that means, if anything. 

But it is clear that the problem was NOT insufficient downward pressure. That leaves three possible problems in my mind. One, the wood type combinations were not ideal. Maybe two hardwoods is a lost cause. Two, one or both of the spindle and fireboard had too much moisture in them (they didn’t seem like it, but…). Three, there is something about my technique, other than downward pressure, that is missing for this particular setup. 

It’s an open question at this point. Any guesses about what went wrong? What am I missing? Leave a comment.

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