Tutorial: bow drill basics

The bow drill has a complicated construction but is fairly easy to use compared to other primitive fire making techniques. Note: there is a video tutorial to accompany this written guide.

There are four components to the bow drill: the bow, the spindle, the fire board, and the handhold. 

The bow should be a bent or flexible branch about the length of your forearm. A piece of cordage (cheat and use paracord at the beginner level) is strung between the ends with some slack.

The bow: line needs to be slack so it can wrap around the spindle
The spindle is a piece of poplar or basswood (these are the easiest wood types for the beginner) the thickness of your thumb and the length of the distance between your extended thumb and pinky finger. The top is carved to a sharp point – a 30 degree cone – while the bottom is carved to a 120 degree cone.

The fire board is at least 6 inches long, the thickness of your thumb, and wider than your thumb. A depression is carved out of the right top side using the tip of your knife, centered at a point such that the spindle, when put in the depression, is about 1/8th of an inch from the edge.

The depression in the fire board

The notch can be cut in now, as long as you take care to avoid getting it too close to the center of the depression. 

The notch is best cut out by whacking a stick against the knife edge, rather than whittling
The handhold is a piece of hardwood  (or stone or deer bone) that fits comfortably in the hand. On the bottom of it is carved a depression similar to the one for the fire board.

The handhold with depression
To begin the technique, kneel down as with the hand drill. Place the fire board under the arch of the left foot such that the depression is immediately adjacent to the middle of the foot. Place the spindle, bottom (shallow cone) end up, in the left hand. The bow is held at the base by the right hand. Put the spindle on the inside of the string. Flip the spindle over such that the cordage wraps once around it, and the shallow cone is facing down. The cordage should be fairly tight. Taking care not to lose the wrap, place the bottom of the spindle in the fire board depression and the top into the hand hold. The handhold is held in place with the left hand while the bow is operated by the right. The left hand and wrist should be solidly braced against the left shin. The inside of the elbow should be braced against the knee.

Downward pressure is going to come from your body weight leaning into the handhold.

Stringing the spindle
At this point, start moving the bow back and forth, utilizing its full length. As the motion smooths out, apply more pressure with the left hand and spin faster. The kit should start smoking.

Burning in the holes

Once you’ve burned the full diameter of the spindle into the fire board, stop. Grease or soap the burned depression in the handhold, or at least use some pine pitch or a green leaf.

The grease will make the burning in the fire board more efficient, because you won't be wasting energy burning the handhold. 

If you have not yet cut the notch, do it now.

Take care not to drop grease or soap into the fire board
Start the bowing technique again. When you get lots of white billowing smoke, pump out 20 more strokes with as much downward pressure and speed as you can manage. You should have a coal.

Carefully remove the fire board from the coal and let it breathe for a bit
You need to have a carefully prepared tinder bundle ahead of time. This can be any dry, fluffy material. Practice by taking apart small strips of jute string and fluffing the fibers. You can use very dry pine needles and grasses, dry-rotted basswood bark, and many other materials. It can be a mix of materials; I have found that cattail fluff does not catch a flame, but works very well to extend the coal.

Arrange your tinder into a bird's nest shape. You will drop the coal into the middle of the bird's nest.

Once you've done that, it is time blow it into flame.

You may be tempted to blow hard because you are so excited about having a coal - you don't want to lose it! But be very patient and blow as slowly as you can. 

Let it rest and build heat periodically. It can take 5 minutes for the tinder bundle to catch.

Slow and steady wins the race
Flame about 1 minute after putting the coal in the tinder bundle
Put the flaming bundle inside your tipi fire structure

I was able to get my first bow drill coal within a week of learning the technique. My first hand drill coal required about 9 months of dedicated practice. Bow drill requires less coordination and strength than the hand drill. Plus, it makes bigger coals that are easier to blow into flame.

But the real difficulty lies in learning how to make a bow with natural cordage. 

The best way to make natural cordage work is to use something called the Egyptian bow drill technique. I will post a tutorial for that soon.

No comments:

Post a Comment