How to start a fire with the bow drill method

In my experience, people can be divided into two categories. There’s the person who tries to prepare everything ahead of time and get the hard work out of the way, and then there’s the procrastinating improviser who saves the work until the end. 

I’ve got nothing against the latter, but any friend I ever had leaned towards the prepared type. My closest friend kept an earthquake kit. We both lived in Michigan at the time.

If you like to prepare and get the hard work done first, using a bow drill will be your favorite amongst the three, main, friction fire methods.

You have to construct more tools than with the other methods, but after you’ve made your bow, spindle, fireboard and bearing block, you can start your fire with relative ease. 

As I said in my article about how to start a fire with sticks, I have some personal hang-ups with the bow drill, but objectively speaking, it is the best method to learn in case you find yourself in a survival situation.

Step 1: Gather materials for your bow drill fire

Using a bow drill to start a friction fire isn’t an exact science. You can do a lot wrong and still eventually get the desired result if you’re careful about the materials you select. 

Most importantly, you have to choose dry wood. This is easier said than done if you are trying to build your fire in wet weather conditions, but there are a number of ways to ensure that you have the driest wood possible even after heavy rains. {link}

I’m assuming that you will embark on this mission with a very sharp blade, be it a knife, small ax or hatchet. If you’re in a survival situation and don’t have a blade, you can make one out of stone. {link}

Here is what you’ll need to collect before you get started. 

(I’m writing this just before dinner, so please forgive any food analogies.)

Tinder bundle

Your tinder bundle (also known as a tinder nest) is critical. This is what turns your hard-earned spark into an actual flame. It consists of more than two handfuls of highly flammable material smooshed together in the shape of a bird’s nest. 

The material itself can be just about anything as long as it is dry and flammable. Many survival experts suggest that clothing lint is a great place to start and it is, but unless you work in a laundromat you probably won’t have enough.  

Other materials you can use are pine needles, thin wood shavings, strings of paper, finely-cut tree bark, sawdust, dead grass or thinly-cut paper. Basically, anything dry, stringy and easily ignitable.

Cut and tear these pieces into varying sizes. Even the smallest pieces can ignite, but to get a sustainable flame, you need some larger pieces as well. The biggest pieces should be a little thicker than spaghetti noodles.

When you have two handfuls or more, shape the material into a nest with the smallest pieces in the middle. 

When the time comes, you’ll put your tiny embers on top of the smallest tinder pieces right where the egg would go in your nest.


The kindling is the fire’s appetizer. You’re whetting its appetite for real wood but not gorging it with portions that are too large. 

You want to select sticks that range in size between pretzel sticks and pretzel rods at the biggest. They have to be thin enough to catch fire quickly, but thick enough to sustain the flame for a few minutes in order to light the larger branches you will add in the next step.

It goes without saying that the drier the sticks, the better. Seek out dead wood that snaps rather than bends when you try to break it. Anything that bends will be much harder to ignite.

Some trees are preferable to others. Pine trees are an excellent source of kindling as they contain a resin that is highly flammable. Any other softwood trees such as larch or cedar are also terrific choices, but if you aren’t great at tree identification, don’t worry. If it’s dry and it’s wood, it will burn.

You can make your kindling even more appetizing to a fire by carving out “feather sticks”. Feather sticks are slightly larger pieces of kindling into which you make long, thin cuts from the bottom almost to the top of the stick. 

Remember string cheese? Making a feather stick is like pulling as many little strings of cheese as you can without actually pulling them off the cheese. 

If your cuts are thin enough, the wood will feather into curls. Repeat as many times as you can without breaking the stick and then make as many feather sticks as you can without losing patience.


This is the fire’s main course, but think of it more like those little medallions of beef they serve for dinner at restaurants, not like that huge ribeye you cook for yourself at home. 

The reason is that it’s very easy to get overconfident once your kindling is lit. If you throw on a log that’s too large, you’ll smother rather than sustain your fire. That’s a rough way to lose the beginnings of a fire, especially in a survival situation. Sadly, you’re nearly back at square one and left to recollect your tinder nest and kindling.

Instead, collect branches just slightly bigger than your kindling and work your way up to larger and larger pieces. Collect intermediary branches all the way up to large logs, but again, don’t add them too quickly. Everything in due course.

Step 2: Collect and construct tools

This is when you do all the legwork, but you can use these same tools more than once, so if you are in a survival situation, you’ll save energy in the long run.

(By the way, I took a writing break to finish my dinner, so that should be the end of the food analogies until I start craving dessert.)

Fire Bow

This is the one piece of wood you want to be strong, flexible and green. There should be some natural bend to it, just like a regular bow. The length of the wood you select for your bow is dependent on the length of the string you’re using.

If you don’t have any sort of strong string, fishing line or other cordage with you, you can always use your shoelaces, unless you are in this survival situation because you just escaped from prison. If this is the case, please stop trying to make a fire and just turn yourself in. It’ll be easier on everyone in the long run.

Tie the string securely to both ends of the bow. Make sure the string is taut, but with just enough slack that the drill can be strung through it.

Hearth Board

The hearth board or fireboard is the bottom piece that you’ll be drilling the hole into. It should be made of softwood and have a flat surface on both sides. 

Your hearth board needs to be strong enough that it doesn’t snap from the pressure you’ll be applying to it, but you’ll be cutting a notch out of it so it shouldn’t be too thick. Definitely less than an inch.

With your blade, gouge out a circular indentation in the fireboard. The hole should be a tiny bit bigger than the point of your drill.

Bow Drill

Your bow drill or spindle is the arrow in this setup, so seek or cut a stick as straight as an… arrow. (I think maybe I was writing better when I was hungry.) Remove all knots, bark and other imperfections. The smoother you can make your drill, the faster it will spin and the quicker you’ll start your fire. 

The bow drill can be of varying length, but you don’t want anything longer than a foot. Anywhere between seven and ten inches or so is close to ideal. It also has to be strong enough to withstand significant downward pressure, so don’t use a stick that’s too thin. 

The bottom of the bow drill will be in contact with the fireboard and the top will be in contact with the bearing block. You want all the friction to occur on the bottom so you have to carve accordingly. 

Carve the bottom into a dull, thick point and the top into a more tapered point. Picture an upside-down, well-worn pencil. The bottom should look like an eraser used almost down to the nub and the top should be a dull point, in need of sharpening.

Bearing Block

Also known as a handhold, this is the instrument you’ll use to put pressure down on the bow drill. It should easily fit in the palm of your hand and it needs to be as frictionless as possible so that the top of the drill spins easily, but it also has to hold the top of the drill in place. 

Those are the rules. Finding or making something that meets these requirements can be a challenge.  

In a survival situation when making fire is paramount, I’d try to construct my bearing block out of hardwood by carving a very shallow indentation to keep the drill from slipping. This is probably the best you’ll be able to do under any circumstances, but there are alternatives if you’re lucky enough to come across them. 

If you have time for rock hunting, you may be able to find smooth, river rocks with a convex shape that work well. Large animal joints or antlers can work if you can find or carve the right shape. The bottom of aluminum cans can also work quite well if you wander off with a six-pack and can’t find your way back to civilization. 

I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard of people using coins which they imbed in a piece of wood so that only the top of the drill comes into contact with the coin. In very cold environments you can even use a block of ice.

Also, take a look at your knife handle. Many survival knives have holes that make for great bearing blocks in the handle.

Basically, you are looking for anything that will hold the drill but let it spin as freely as possible. Find something like that and you’ll be roasting marshmallows in no time.

Step 3: Arrange your fire lay

How you arrange your kindling to receive your flame is known as your fire lay. You can look in guidebooks or on websites to see any number of lays, just don’t google it using the phrase “variety of lays,” or you’ll be shocked (shocked!)… by the number of different types of potato chips there are.

Among the most common fire lays are the pyramid, the log cabin, council fire, the star, the cross ditch and the most widely-used, the teepee. 

You can pretty well picture the fire lays by their names, but you don’t need to follow a blueprint or be an architect to figure out the best lay for making fire. Just remember two principles: Fire likes air and fire rises upwards. 

Any structure you construct that allows the fire to breath and has kindling placed in the way of the fire’s upward climb will be fine.

Make sure to gather plenty of fuel to keep close at hand. You don’t want to get up in the middle of a freezing cold night to search for your hearth board and bow in order to start the fire-making process all over again. 

Also make certain the fire will be confined in a pit or within stones. Anything to prevent it from spreading beyond your intended boundaries.

Step 4: Start your drill fire

Try to complete the final steps in this process without singing “Light my fire” by the Doors. Any survivalist or woodsman worth his or her salt will tell you Jim Morrison lyrics are a natural fire deterrent. Billy Joel’s are even worse. If you have to sing a fire-related song, consider one by Jerry Lee Lewis. Let’s just put things in order:

  1. Insert the drill in the fireboard hole and spin it in order to break in the hole a bit. 
  2. Loop the string around the drill. Pull the string tight.
  3. Carve a notch like a pie slice in the fireboard from the side of the board to the hole.
  4. Place a piece of bark or a leaf under the fireboard beneath the pie-slice-shaped notch in order to catch the tiny embers you’ll be producing.
  5. Find a comfortable position that will allow good freedom of movement while stepping on the fireboard with your left foot to make sure the fireboard doesn’t slip.
  6. Put the bow drill firmly in the fireboard hole. 
  7. Place the bearing block on the top of the drill and apply downward pressure.
  8. Begin to work the bow back and forth, slowly at first. The bow drill should stay in place and freely rotate in the hole. Resist the temptation to go too fast.
  9. Continue until you see smoke, then increase your speed and maintain downward pressure.
  10. Keep going until there’s a smoldering pile of black dust that looks like tiny brownie crumbs collected on the leaf under your fireboard.
  11. Carefully tip the fireboard to collect all the smolders on your leaf or bark piece
  12. Add the smolders to the middle of your tinder bundle then loosely close the tinder bundle around them.
  13. Squeeze the tinder bundle together while blowing on it until it bursts in flames.
  14. Quickly but carefully add the flaming tinder to your fire lay.
  15. Carefully add the fuel to the fire.
  16. Bask in the warmth and light that you, once a mere mortal, have created.
  17. Forage for some sort of dessert. You can make fire. You deserve it.

Step 5: Put out your fire

Always remember, whether you’re making your fire for survival or for kicks that you have to make sure your fire is properly extinguished before you head on your merry way. 

I know exactly what you’re thinking, ‘How could I extinguish something that sprung from my own blood, sweat and tears? Something that is somehow a part of my soul? How will anyone know its glory if I put it out?’

Send your hearth board to the Smithsonian (might want to include a return address) if you have to commemorate your fire, but never leave a campsite with even a single ember still alive. 

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