Please consider supporting our efforts.


Making & Using Bow Drills

Friday, 21 June 2013 00:20

In today’s modern world, it is extremely rare to see or hear of anybody doing such primitive things like flintknapping, hide tanning or even old fashioned ways of starting a fire. We are a modern society and we certainly like our gadgets. However, using our hands like our ancestors used to is one way to connect with our past. Isn’t it kind of cool to do something your great great grandpa used to do? Practicing the primitive ways links us to our heritage.

Bow Drill Set 1 - Making the Set 

Often times, instructors will pass along these primitive skills simply to help future generations stay connected. It would be dreadful to think of these skill becoming obsolete. Another reason you may want to consider learning some of these skills is for the sake of simply having a backup plan. In the event your gadget fails, breaks or you don’t have it, you still need to survive and primitive skills may be your only hope. Knowing how to substitute a gadget with things in your environment, could save your life.

Using a bow drill made with sticks found in your surroundings to start a fire is one skill you should add to your survival skill set. In this video, you can watch the beginnings of a bow drill set being made. One of the most key rules when it comes to making a functional bow drill set is choosing wood that is dry. Don’t use anything that is lying on the ground.

The second key part to your bow drill is choosing wood for your spindle and hearth that is of a medium-density. Cedar, cottonwood, basswood, and willow are ideal for creating your set. Your hearth piece will need to be about 12 to 14 inches long. The spindle will need to be about 6 to 8 inches in length.

Your handhold piece needs to be out of hardwood or even a rock. Your bow piece should be about arm’s length. Beech trees are perfect for making a bow. Now for cordage, you will notice in the video paracord is used. Although it is possible to use natural cordage, it can be extremely difficult. For training purposes, it is best to use man-made cordage.

Bow Drill Set 2 - Fine Tuning the Set

Making a fire with a bow drill is certainly not a new skill nor is it completely obsolete. You will find plenty of folks who have been kind enough to post videos on YouTube detailing the fine art of fire making. However, if you pay close attention, you will note there is one crucial step missing--the fine tuning. You cannot simply grab a few branches and make a bow drill and expect fire to happen. There are some tweaks that will need to be made.

Somehow, all the videos that are out there tend to skip over some of the really important details. While I won’t get into every single point, I will cover the main ones. You will need to discover the rest on your own through your own experiences. In fact, you may discover a trick to making your bow drill that really works for you. There is never a “one size fits all” form of survival skills. There is a core and then the rest you develop and tweak to suit your style and needs.

Now for the fine-tuning of your set. We will go through this piece by piece and highlight some of the important parts.

Hand Hold

• Hard wood, rock or even a metal cap would work for this piece

• A dimple cut in middle of hand hold should allow spindle to turn freely.

• Lubrication for spindle can be ear wax, oil from your skin, green acorns or..snot.


• Needs to be about 6 to 8 inches or “Aloha” length between your pinkie and thumb

• Hand hold end should be pointed.

• End that fits into hearth should be rounded.

• Smooth sides that are not too rough or bumpy.

• Thickness should be about as big as your thumb

Hearth or Fireboard

• About 12 to 14 inches long, or comfortable enough for you to stand on one side

• Thickness of your thumb.

• The pie piece (where the spark starts) should be about 1/7 to 1/8 of the circle.

• The pie piece should extend into the middle of the burn hole.


• Length should extend from about your armpit to the tip of your fingers.

• Width will vary depending on what works best for you.

• Cordage can really be anything. However, when you are first starting, avoid paracord or other material that has a sheen on it. This makes the fire starting process super easy.

You can watch this video for even more useful details. As I mentioned earlier, your bow drill set will need some fixes here and there to suit you. You will only discover these little nuances if you actually use it.

Bow Drill Set 3 - Working the Set

Probably one of the most misleading aspects of all those videos on YouTube or clips you see in the movies about fire making is how easy it is. It takes a lot of practice to learn the art of starting a fire without matches or other convenient tools. However, once you do figure out how to do it, you will do just fine. The following are a few more tips to help you get started in learning the skill of bow drill fire making.

• Place your non-dominant foot (if you are right-handed this would be your left leg) as close to the spindle as possible, but don’t get in the way of the spindle.

• Put your dominant knee behind the other foot.

• Lean forward and wrap your arm around your leg. This will help use your core body strength and not solely rely on your arm for the spinning motion.

• Place enough pressure on your hand hold to keep it upright, but don’t put too much and prevent it from spinning freely.

• Keep the spindle straight up and down.

• Your spindle will be on the outside of your cordage.

• Start out slow. Those first few turns are done to create a little dust.

• Once the pie piece starts to fill up with dust, then start cranking up the spinning motion.

• Use the whole bow in the action.


• If the dust is not a dark brown, apply more pressure to the hand hold.

• Your cord should remain firm on the spindle, if it does, tighten it up a bit. If the spindle is not moving freely, your string is probably too tight and needs to be loosened a bit.

• If the spindle goes flying, relax, and try again with it at a 90 degree angle. You could also cut bigger dimples.

• If you see lots of good dust, but no spark, get a closer look. Do not do this in direct sunlight--you will not be able to see those first embers.

• You wear out before  you get that first coal. Well, you need to get in better shape. Follow these tips and you will get that first ember.


Keep practicing and soon you will definitely get the hang of it.

Craig Caudill is the instructor for Dan’s Depot. You can access his free instructional videos here. He is also the chief teacher for his Nature Reliance School.

Last modified on Saturday, 22 June 2013 11:37
Rate this item
(3 votes)
Login to post comments
You are here:   HomeSurviveDan's Depot ArticlesMaking & Using Bow Drills