What type of fire warms twice? The friction fire! A friction fire not only keeps you warm once you get it going, but it also gets you warm while you’re trying to make the fire. If you find yourself without matches, it’s important to know other fire-starting methods, including this friction-fire method: the bow drill.
The Bow Drill
The bow drill (or fire bow) is the most effective last-ditch fire-starting method; it involves four integral components: the baseboard, the spindle, the bearing block and the bow.
The baseboard will produce a smoldering mound of wood dust that hopefully will start your fire. You can use different types of wood depending on where you are, but I prefer semisoft wood, such as cedar, poplar, aspen or basswood. I also like using a semisoft wood for the spindle, because that way you’re grinding down both the baseboard and the spindle, giving you twice as much dust to heat up.
The most important thing to remember about your spindle is that it should be as straight as possible. The size is up to you, but I typically shoot for 8 inches in length and as thick as your thumb. Make sure the wood is dead and dry.
Most people use branches for their spindle since they naturally seem to be the right size and shape. However, the molecules inside a tree branch are tighter together than a tree’s heartwood (the wood in the middle of the trunk), which is a much softer wood. Therefore, you’d be better served finding a downed tree, breaking off a piece and carving it into a spindle.
The bearing block is used to apply pressure to the top of your spindle. I like to use a rock with a small indentation knocked into it, where the spindle will spin. If you use a piece of wood, it helps to lubricate the point where the spindle contacts the bearing block so it doesn’t grab. Beeswax, pine pitch or oil from your skin and hair can all serve as lubricants in a pinch.
The bow ties everything together. It can be any kind of wood, as long as it’s strong and has a slight bend to it. Use parachute cord, rope, shoelace or strong string to create the bow.
As with making any fire, preparation is key. Remember Leave No Trace principles and fire-safety rules. Don’t short-change your tinder bundle; make it as big as possible, at least the size of a five-pin bowling ball. Fibrous materials like scraped cedar bark tend to work best.
Once you have your tinder bundle, get comfortable and settle in for what might be a long process. The last thing you want is to start creating wisps of smoke but be in so much pain that you can’t continue, because you were awkwardly seated against a rock.
I prefer to put my tinder directly under a notched-out hole in the baseboard so the ember falls right where it’s intended to go. Make sure you pat down the tinder bundle enough so it doesn’t get caught in the spindle. Put the finest tinder in the center just below the notch.
Once you’re settled in, rest the baseboard on the tinder bundle to flatten it out (make sure the ground isn’t damp). Your body should be positioned so that if you drove a steel rod straight down through the top of your shoulder blade, it would go through the back of your hand, through the spindle and right into the baseboard.
Place one foot on the baseboard — the one opposite from the arm holding the bow — and start slowly with a back-and-forth motion, applying gentle pressure to the bearing block. Don’t forget to breathe! Focus on your breathing and get into a fluid rhythm.
I find that placing a bare foot on the baseboard gives me more control than wearing a pair of boots. With boots, you run the risk of accidentally kicking the baseboard out of place. But comfort is the most important consideration here, so do what feels right.
Speed It Up
Once you have achieved a slow, fluid motion that feels comfortable, you can gradually build up your speed, pushing down a little harder on the bearing block. Eventually, you’ll get to a point where you’re going as fast and pushing as hard as you can.
At this point, three senses will play a critical role: touch, sound and sight.
You want to feel an actual grinding between the spindle and the baseboard.
You should be listening carefully to the sound you’re producing. You don’t want to hear chirping, squawking or squeaking, which indicate that you’re polishing the wood, not grinding it. If that happens, stop and chip up the ends of the hole and the spindle to increase the friction between them. If the noises continue, it might mean you have chosen the wrong type of wood for one of your components.
You should see fine wisps of smoke appearing in the baseboard. This is your cue not to stop, but rather to keep going at maximum speed and pressure. The smoke you will soon see won’t be from the grinding of the spindle into the baseboard, but from the ember forming in the wood dust. The curl of smoke will become thicker and whiter.
Light the Fire
One common mistake people make is at the end: They’ll get the smoke and ember, and then quickly blow on it, trying to make it grow as fast as they can, afraid the ember might burn out. You don’t have to jump up like a jackrabbit, because the ember is not going to burn out in seconds. You’ve put a lot of energy into that glowing mass, and it will smolder for a while if you treat it right.
Pull away slowly and cautiously, all while holding down the baseboard to make sure you don’t upset it when you take away your foot.
Lift the baseboard slowly and carefully, transferring the ember from the notch in the baseboard to the middle of your tinder pile. The ember might stick to the baseboard. Dislodge it by giving the board a couple of light taps.
Slide your hands under the tinder bundle, and gently close it around the ember, being careful not to suffocate it. You will likely be shaking from exhaustion, which is normal.
Blow slowly and gently at first. Once you have a glowing red, pingpong-ball-sized mass inside the tinder pile, you likely won’t lose it, so you can begin blowing more vigorously.
As you’re doing that, lift the tinder bundle and blow from underneath so you don’t burn your hands. With luck on your side, you will be rewarded with the tinder igniting into flame. Remember: It’s only a flame! You don’t have a full-fledged fire yet.
You should now be ready to transfer your tinder pile to your fire pit, where you can begin to add small tinder shavings, followed by the kindling to build your fire.
Les Stroud, aka Survivorman, is an adventurer and an award-winning filmmaker and author of Survive!, a best-selling manual on survival. Learn more about Survivorman by visiting lesstroud.ca or follow him on social media @reallesstroud
Actions depicted in this article represent extreme scenarios and may not precisely follow standard procedures. When instructing youth, always consult official BSA guidelines.
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