Using a Bow Drill for the First Time
What is a bow drill and why is it useful for survival training?
The bowl drill is one of the oldest methods of creating fire in almost any environment. See how to use it in this Video
It is estimated that this technique of fire-starting is at least 2,500 years old. Each ancient culture has its own version of the bow drill but the principles remain the same.
In today’s blog post I’m going to give you some pro tips for using a bow drill for emergency fire-starting so that you can create heat and fire even if you don’t have a lighter or matches. A true survivalist knows how to create fire – this is an essential skill that everyone should learn!
Proper ways to use a Bow Drill
- Use Ideal Wood for Your Bow Drill Set – If you are creating a bow drill from scratch, it would be best to stick to time-tested wood types that produce good coal and can be used easily by beginners.
Examples of beginner-friendly wood types are white cedars, firs and basswood.
Note that there are some trees and plants that produce toxic fumes when burned and these wood types should definitely be avoided (e.g. oleander). *See this article on all the known potentially toxic woods to be aware of.
Also remember that any wood which has been previously coated with chemicals such as varnish and paint will also logically produce toxins as byproducts once they are burned.
You may use broken chairs for fuel if no other wood fuel is available for cooking. However, your food would have to be well above the flames to minimize toxin contamination from the smoke.
- Hold the Bow Properly – Your dominant hand should be in charge of sawing the bow back and forth. Bow drills can be used effectively by both lefties and righties. Use the handhold to control the angle of the spindle.
The spindle is the part of the bow drill system that rubs against the flat board to create fire. Learn to manipulate the angle of the spindle using your handhold. Avoid touching the spindle when you’re actively sawing the bow back and forth.
- Position the Spindle Correctly – Place the handhold on top of the spindle and mark the flat board before you begin. The exact spot where you will be drilling should be at least one inch from the edge of the long side of the flat board to give you sufficient space to work.
Also, your starting point should be at the opposite short edge of the flat board so you can place your foot on the other edge to steady the board.
Use a sharp carving knife to mark your starting spot before drilling. It would be difficult to drill through a flat surface so make sure that you create a shallow cavity on your marked spot before placing the spindle on top.
- Preserve the Rope While Drilling – The rope on your bow drill can easily be worn down if it rubs against itself. A good rule of thumb when drilling is to drill downward and at an angle to create space between rope twirls to prevent friction at different points of the rope while drilling.
- Apply Sufficient Pressure and Tension – A wooden bow drill can be an effective fire-starter if you’re using the right techniques. If not, using a bow drill can be an extreme exercise in patience. One of the most common mistakes in using this fire-starter is the not applying enough pressure and tension on the spindle.
You should push down on the spindle using the handhold while pulling the rope so that the spindle feels like it’s going to fly toward the bow handle.
The spindle needs to be pressed tightly onto the flat board while you are sawing back and forth.
The extra tension on the rope will ensure that every movement is maximized and the vertical position of the spindle is maintained. Too much rope slack can cause your spindle to slide sideways.
Before applying tension to the spindle, make sure that your rope is attached properly to the bow so you can avoid any accidents. Both ends of the rope need to be wound tightly on either end of the bow to maintain stability during use.
- Watch the Smoke – If you’ve been performing the correct steps thus far, you should be able to see smoke forming on either side of your spindle.
If your spindle is smoking from the handhold side, twirl the spindle so that the top end is now the end that will be pressed against the flat board. You may have to apply lubrication to the top part of the spindle to prevent it from burning.
John David Keys: Founder of Survival Companion.com