Fire by Friction - Bushcraft Skills Added 14th Mar 2011 by Neil Remfrey Foote

If you were to ask a member of the public ways to start a fire in the wilderness, 9 times out of 10 they’ll reply with something along the lines of “rub two sticks together”. This is indeed the most basic form of fire creation, short of collecting fire from pyroclastic flows or harnessing fire from lightening strikes. What the majority of folk don’t understand is that these two sticks need to be of the correct type of wood (usually two used in conjunction) and must be seasoned precisely - a few months too young or too old can make the difference between success and failure!

Fire by Friction - Bow-Drill Components - Bushcraft Skills

Figure 1. The 4 Bow-Drill

It is important to consider the most appropriate friction fire-lighting method with relation to what’s around you and where you are. Due to the temperate weather that we have in this country, coupled with indigenous woods that are found here the practice of the Hand-drill (spinning a long thin spindle of wood on a hearth board with the palms of ones hands) could, in many places, be impractical. Hence in the Northern hemisphere one method was prevalent, being the most reliable and basic to learn - The Bow-drill.

The Bow-drill is comprised of four components; The (a) spindle, (b) hearth board, (c) bearing block and (d) strung bow.

Fire by Friction - Using a Bow-Drill - Bushcraft Skills

Figure 2. Using the Bow-Drill

The spindle as you can see from figure 1 has a sharp end and a blunt end and is usually made from a hard wood. The hearth board has a socket with a notch carved out to receive the blunt end of the upright spindle and is generally made from a softer wood than the spindle. The bearing block has a small socket carved into it to receive the sharp end of the spindle.

Fire by Friction - The Glowing Ember - Bushcraft Skills

Figure 3. The hot embers

The spindle is wound under a certain amount of tension into the strung bow, and is sandwiched between the bearing block on top and the hearth board on the bottom Figure 2. Spinning the spindles blunt end in the socket of the hearth board by drawing the Bow backwards and forwards causes a build up of friction. Using a combination of down ward pressure and spindle revolutions over a set amount of time, results in a build up of super heated wood powder (punk) to fall into the slot in the Hearth board, this in turn will form a glowing/smoking ember Figure 3. American studies of the heat needed to cause this effect have measured the wood at up to 400°C!

The ember is at this point about the size of the end of a cigarette and is very fragile. The ember is passed carefully into a tinder bundle – a bundle of very dry material that when exposed to high temperatures will foster the ember into a flame with the help of oxygen introduced by blowing (Figure 4).

Fire by Friction - Blowing the Tinder Bundle to flame - Bushcraft Skills

Figure 4. Blowing the embers
and Tinder Bundle into flame!

As you can see this is a lengthy process with a huge amount of judgment, technique and understanding of the materials that are being used to achieve the ultimate of all goals – Fire!

It is thought the practice of using a bow-drill to light fire dates back as far as the Paleolithic period which ended about 14,000 years ago. Due to the fact that a set is made from wood it is unusual to find specimens of this age, although one set has been recovered in Archaeological digs in Mehrgarh in modern day Pakistan, which dates to at least 6000 years old.

This article was written by Neil Remfrey Foote from Backcountry Survival. Visit their web site

Neil Foote Runs Backcountry Survival based near Aviemore, providing tailored courses and packages in wilderness survival techniques and the art of Bushcraft.