The Bow Drill represents the most primitive of fire by friction methods and mans earliest fire making discovery - a discovery that changed human history.
Success with the hand drill is considered by many to be the pinnacle of primitive fire making skill. Mastery of the hand drill will enable the primitive skills enthusiast to venture into the wilderness with absolutely no modern tools and be able to make fire with a minimum of preparation. With a small amount of practice and the right materials this method is far easier than many people believe. Downward pressure and rotation speed are critical.
Caveman fire doesn't get any easier than this!
Bow Drill Background & Description
The components of our primitive bow drill sets have been constructed from woods specially selected for their intended purpose. Cedar hearthboards are mated with Canadian hemlock spindles which produce a fine powder and fast coal formation. Bearing blocks are made from rock hard ironwood for low friction and the bows are made from hard maple. The bows are designed such that you can squeeze the bowstring to increase tension on the spindle should it start to slip.
This is an ancient method of starting fire without matches. It uses friction to generate heat. The heat eventually produces an ember in the burnt sawdust. The ember is tiny, smaller than the head of a cigarette, and fragile. Once the ember is formed it is carefully placed into a "tinder bundle" (a bird's type nest of stringy, fluffy, and combustible material). Once the ember is in the tinder bundle it is then carefully nurtured and coaxed into flame. Once the tinder bundle bursts into flame, it is then placed into the fire lay.
The spindle, carved to reduce friction at one end and maximize it at the other, is held at one end by the bearing block, and at the other by the hearth. The string of the bow is wrapped once around it, so that it is taut enough not to slip during operation. A variation on this called the "Egyptian Bow Drill" which attaches the string by wrapping it around multiple times, or actually tying it to the drill or through a hole through the drill shaft, then wrapping it. ("Egyptian Bow Drill" from link on main fire making article)
The usual position that a person assumes whilst operating the bow drill is as follows: the right knee is placed on the ground (assuming a right-handed operator) and the arch of the left foot is on the board, pinning it in place. The left wrist, holding the handhold, is hooked around the left shin so it can generate enough downward pressure and speed; achieved by pushing down with the handhold and spinning the drill. The heat of the friction between the hearth and the spindle both creates charred, fuzzy dust and causes it to ignite - forming a coal or ember. The handhold is lubricated and the spindle is carved to about thumb thickness, usually six to eight inches long. Another option to practice is to make the "handhold" into a "mouth-hold" piece, so it's held down by pressure from the chin/mouth, leaving both hands free.
An indentation and a "v" notch into the center of the dent is made into the fireboard and the spindle is placed on it. The notch allows a place for the dust collect while it is being abraded off the spindle and the hearth. Eventually, the friction generates heat to ignite the dust, which can be used to light tinder.
Whilst a "v" is most common, other methods to create a cavity to contain the dust whilst it is being ignited can be used. For example: drilling part-way into a hearth made by lashing two sticks together from one side, and then drilling from the other side to meet this hole; or using the area where two branches separate. This is to keep the coal off wet or snow covered ground.
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