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Monday, 31 October 2011

Basic Firebow / Bowdrill

I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about the firebow, firstly most people call it a bow drill, but a bow drill was a wooden spindle with a flint microlith in the tip used to drill holes in wood in our pre history days, so it's a misnomer even from the start..Also people say about going out in the woods and doing it from scratch when they use knives and paracord for the set up, again a falsehood, if you want to do it from scratch do it with NO modern materials and make everything ON THE DAY, including the cordage then I will applaud you. I have much more respect for the hand drill than the bow drill, but that is a skill I have never mastered.
The firebow is very simple provided you keep to a few simple rules, use the right wood, keep it dry and take your time, If you practice in a control situation like your home you will get an ember to flame in the vast majority of times, there's no magic to it, it's simple, anybody who tells you otherwise is simply perpetuating an illusion

Position yourself comfortably and grip the bow and your bearing block securely, here I'm using a long bow (30" sycamore and it's flexible, probably the opposite of what most people tell you to use!) and a limpet shell for the bearing

Start your bowing action slowly to start with, gently heating up your spindle and hearth board, in this instance it's willow on willow

Once you start to get good smoke, start bowing slightly faster and add a little more downward pressure, keep this going for a dozen more good strokes

Once your pile of dust ( and it doesn't matter if it's coarse or fine dust, darker is the key here so go for black not brown dust) is smoking by itself you have a coal, fan it lightly with your hand to feed it oxygen and help it grow. (note the man made cordage, no illusions here!!)

Add it to your tinder bundle whatever that maybe, here I'm using flax but dry grass, cat tail, thistle down, fireweed etc all help make good tinder bundles

Blow gently on your ember to start then gradually increase the force

in a few seconds you will have fire, it's that simple..don't let anybody tell you it's tricky it just needs a bit of practice..this was the first time I've tried firebow in over a year and from 5 attempts I got 4 embers and 4 to flame and only then because I split the hearth board on one attempt, not too bad for somebody who dislikes the method, however I'll take Flint and Steel anyday!!
Thanks to my son Logan for taking the pictures!!


  1. I don't know why, but I am always surprised to see this work. Great pictures, Logan!

  2. Hi Buzzard, something I've been wondering about for a while.... I once saw this done with a larger diameter spindle, maybe an inch and a half across. It seemed to provide more contact surface with the block and generate more spins relative to the movement of the bow. I thought it made perfect sense. But it seems to be rarely done that way. Is there something I'm missing about this that makes a smaller spindle better?

    Craig Meade

  3. Great photo-blog.

    A wonderful and informative job.

    Well done - Keep it up.


  4. Hi Craig, I've never seen such a wide diameter spindle used by one individual and I can only assume that the friction of actually getting it roatating sufficiently would counteract the ability of producing the required friction in the hearth board to a high enough temprature ( around 700degrees) to cause ignition, however in saying that many moons a go we tried a team bowdrill giant size effort, the hearth board was plank size, the spindle was about 6 inches in diameter and the bow was 8ft long, we actually had to put a girl on the top of the bearing block to try to get enough downward pressure, however although we got smoke and brown dust we just couldn't reach ignition point..however I will investigate your idea sometime and see just how effective it is, but to be honest if you use the right wood and make sure it's dry you should get an ember most times anyway..

    Thanks also to Penny ( nice to see you back!)
    and Alan for your comments.

  5. Good point about the friction of getting it going Buzzard. As we know so well, nature doesn't give anything away for free. I can't actually remember if the big spindle worked or not.

  6. Great again, I have to learn that skill still, and this was helpful again! Thanks a lot!

  7. making it look easy Phil. Nice stepwise instructions. Must dig out my set.

  8. Ah the old bowdrill (tomato, tomatoe lol), was it willow or hazel was your nemesis mate? Nice instruction and your quite right as i have always said there is nothing mystical about it it is just a trick. The handrill is a different beast but one that is easy enough tamed though pretty immpossible to do in our climate from scratch outside in all seasons. Another great post Phil!

  9. Many thanks for the comments everybody...