If you were asked how to make fire without using matches, what would you suggest? A magnifying glass and the Sun? Batteries and a brillo pad? If you found yourself stranded in the wild without any of these things, but with a knife1, what would you do?
Well, remember the old joke about rubbing two boy scouts together? You could make a bow drill. This is a friction method using a stick against a bottom board with a groove cut out and a 'bow' to twizzle (rotate rapidly) the stick, with a top piece to apply downward pressure and to keep the stick revolving vertically. Oh, yes, and you'll need tinder material to catch the coal produced and to incubate the fire.
How to Construct a Bow Drill
You will need four pieces of wood plus a length of nylon cord, as described below, and a knife. The wood could all be taken from one suitable sapling.
The first thing to consider is the choice of wood. Avoid very hard woods such as oak and soft resiny woods such a pine, fir or spruce. Wood that is too hard will make it very hard work to obtain a coal and wood that is too soft and resiny will simply not give you one.
Other woods should work, although some give better results than others. Some woods which give good results are willow, larch, cedar, poplar, sycamore, and mulberry. A rule of thumb is that if the wood is dry and easy to carve, it will generally be good for making a bow drill. If it is hard and difficult to carve, or if it is sticky, then it will not be.
Choose a sapling with a natural bend with a width about the width of a broom handle. It should be around two feet long, but you can make one longer or shorter, depending on what is available. You'll probably need to clean off any twigs with your knife so that they do not snag the cord.
Nylon cord is probably best to work with, but in an emergency, a shoelace or the bottom hem of a shirt, skirt or T-shirt that has been twisted to give it extra strength can be used. Tie the cord to either end of the sapling so that it is tight, but still has a little bit of give and can be twisted round a spindle.
The Spindle or Drill
The spindle should be cut from the middle of the sapling and should be straight and free from knots, which would make it difficult to carve. It should be 6-9 inches in length and around 3/4 inch in diameter. The bark should be stripped away and both ends slightly pointed.
The handhold is a piece of wood to apply pressure to the spindle or drill and to keep it vertical.
It can be made of the same wood as the spindle and would usually be taken from the thick end of the sapling. It should fit into the palm of the hand, but shouldn't allow the fingers to wrap all the way round. It will need to be made smooth to prevent blisters or cuts. A depression should be cut on one side, either by using a rock or the point of a knife. The hand hold will need to be burned in and greased before it is ready to be used.
This is the wood that produces the coal at the bottom of the apparatus. It is a piece of wood, again of the same type of wood as the spindle and hand hold, cut from the thickest part of the sapling. It should be around 6-10 inches long and around twice as wide as the spindle and about 1/2 inch thick. It should be scraped flat on the top and bottom.
The next thing to do is to carve a depression in it near one end and towards the centre of the wood. A notch the full height of the wood is then cut from the edge of the wood to edge of the depression.
Although you have now made all the pieces of the bow drill, you are not yet ready to make fire. You will need to 'burn in' the bow drill. This is a process which 'sets' the sockets into the handhold and fireboard.
The fireboard should be protected from the ground, so that moisture does not seep into the wood. This can be done by placing it on dried grasses, leaves or bark.
One foot (usually the left foot) is placed across the fireboard with the instep around an inch away from the cut hole. Then the bow should be wrapped round the spindle with the wrap facing away from the bow. The drill should be held in the right hand and the hand hold in the left2. The bow should be on the outside of the spindle, away from the left shin.
The left hand holding the handhold should press down on the spindle slightly and the right hand should draw the bow backwards and forwards so that the spindle turns. Then the downward pressure should increase and the bow should go faster until the handhold and fireboard begin to smoke. It is useful at this stage to mark the top end of the spindle so that there is no confusion which way the spindle should be placed.
Final Preparations - Greasing and Notching
The top end of the spindle and hand hold need to be greased after the burning in process to allow the spindle to spin more freely and to prevent the hand hold from getting hot (or burning through). In an emergency, you could use the grease from the sides of your nose, your chin or hair. Soap can also be used, or sticky sap.
You will then need to cut a pie-wedge shaped notch from the side of the fireboard to almost the centre of the depression. Be careful not to allow rough edges here, as this is where the coal is formed. It needs to be able to fall down onto the tinder bundle. It should be around 1/8 of the depression, extended outwards.
You'll need some material to ignite with your drill, which is known as tinder. This is very dry material, which should be easy to ignite. The usual materials are dried leaves, inner bark, some grasses, and herbs. You may need to experiment. Generally speaking the tinder needs to be stripped and puffed up into a fibrous bundle and shaped into a 'bird's nest'. You may need to use a stick to break up some materials, throwing away rough bits. You'll need a palm full.
You may be lucky enough to find Tinder Fungus, (Inonotus obliquus) which grows on birch trees and looks like a blotch of blackened wood. This ignites easily and will keep a coal for a couple of hours, handled correctly.
The process for making fire is roughly the same as the burning in process, except that you need to place your tinder bundle under the notch to catch the coal.
After a number of turns, you should be producing smoke on the fireboard and at this stage, you should watch carefully for signs of a coal. Your notch will produce dust which will ignite from the friction. You should ease the coal gently onto the tinder and wrap it round. The pressure should be neither too tight, which would smother the coal, or too loose, in which case it might starve.
Holding the bundle a few inches from your face, you should blow gently. As the smoke increases, you can blow more strongly until the bundle bursts into flames, at which point you can place it in your fire, which you should have prepared earlier. A tipi fire (the name comes from the shape) is best.
You will need to have chosen a safe place to locate your fire, prepared a firepit and gathered kindling and firewood beforehand. Further information on fire-making can be found at:
The best way of being able to make a fire drill is to experiment. Remember that there are variations on a theme. Keep a notebook of your experiments, what worked and what didn't. Experience the magic of producing fire - without matches!