Tutorial: hand drill basics

The hand drill is a primitive method of creating fire by friction. It has a much simpler construction than the bow drill (See Bow drill tutorial), but technique is much more important and difficult than with bow drill. Be sure to check out the hand drill videos which accompany this guide.

It took me many months of dedicated practice before I got my first hand drill coal. 

Furthermore, you lose the strength and coordination required to use hand drill fairly quickly if you stop practicing. Hand drill is therefore not the most practical survival skill unless you are in the desert, where low humidity makes hand drill an order of magnitude easier.

Yet if you develop and maintain the skill, it can get you fire in a survival situation much faster than any other primitive method.

Hand drill involves just 2 components.

Mullein spindle and pine fire board
The first is a straight, long stalk such as mullein, cattail, goldenrod, or even prickly lettuce. I have had the most success with mullein. The second component is the fire board. This is a flat, roughly 1/2 inch thick piece of wood wider than the stalk and a few inches long.

A circular depression the size of the bottom (thicker end) of the stalk is carved or abraded into the top of the fire board, 1/8th of an inch from the edge. The best way to go about this is to first press an outline of the spindle's diameter into the fire board by gently but firmly pressing and turning the spindle end on the fire board.

Press the outline of the spindle end into the fire board
Next, perforate the outside of the outline all the way around with the tip of your knife.

Perforate the outline with the tip of your knife
Finally, pop out the perforated circle with the tip of your knife.

Pop out the perforated circle
 A v-notch pie wedge about 1/6th of the circle is cut through the fire board from its edge to outside the center of the circle.

The notch does not have to go close to the center
Once the components are crafted, the stalk is positioned thicker-end-down in the circular depression. The foot is placed on the edge of the fire board to steady it, the body assuming a one-knee bow position. The stalk is placed at the heel of the left hand, bracing it with the tips of the fingers of the right hand. The stalk is then spun back and forth with the hands.

This is tough on the palms - build up to it!
Take it easy at first. You need to burn in the hole a bit before you have any hope of getting a coal, and there is no sense in losing all your energy or tearing up your palms during this stage. The center of the plant stalk is pithy. This pith must be compressed up into the stalk before it can contribute to the coal. The center of the hole in the fire board will begin to develop an upward-pointed divot, which is what compresses the stalk's pith.

The hole has been burned in, complete with the pith-compressing divot
Once you have that divot, you are ready to begin hand drilling in earnest, going for the coal now. Make sure your tinder bundle and tipi fire structure are ready to go. Get a piece of birch bark or something similar to place under your fire board to catch the coal.

Now you go to town on the spindle. With enough pressure and speed, hot wood and pith dust will collect in the notch and ignite as a coal. The coal is then placed in a bundle of fluffy dry tinder and blown into flame.

The trick is to maximize downward pressure while spinning the stalk. 


Carefully removing the fire board from the coal
Good sized coal!

No rush. Pour some unburned coal dust on your coal to build it.
Again, no rush. Let the coal build heat in the tinder. Don't blow it out!
Blow as gently as you can...
...and you will be rewarded.

At the beginner level, you just ferociously spin the stalk and your hands travel down it. When you get to the bottom, you reset at the top. A more advanced technique is to supply sufficient downward pressure while floating the hands at the top, without traveling down the stalk. This is accomplished by moving the hands in a vertical arc, so that when your right fingertips are at your left palm heel, your right fingertips are facing downward while your left ones are facing upward.

The most difficult technique is the “prayer” fire. You start at the bottom of the stalk and work your way to the top, all the while supplying sufficient downward pressure to ignite a coal.

While this has no immediate practical relevance, striving for the prayer fire technique will vastly improve your normal "psycho-blast" technique. 

When I first started experimenting with the hand drill, I tried to get a coal nearly every day for six months before finally succeeding. I was unable to get another coal for three months after that. It’s a skill involving technique, strength and endurance. It takes time to develop, and is perishable.

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