How to start a fire with the hand drill method

The hand drill method is the ideal fire starting method for those of you who want to rid yourself of your burdensome fingerprints by rubbing your hands raw in an attempt to make a fire.

That’s my way of noting that I’m not such a big fan of this method. I can’t imagine a scenario in which a hand drill makes sense in a survival situation. In an emergency, other friction fire-starting techniques such as either the bow drill or the fire plow methods would make more sense. 

So why teach the hand drill method at all? Because sometimes someone telling you that you shouldn’t do something or can’t do something is all the motivation you need to do exactly what you shouldn’t or can’t be doing. That was my reasoning as a younger man. 

It’s also true that sometimes suffering to achieve something makes the achievement all the more satisfying — so rub your hands raw if you want to. The satisfaction of drinking a cold beer over a fire that you truly bled over just might make the experience worth it — if you can still hold that beer with your newly-mangled hands.

Step 1: Collect materials for your hand drill fire

OK, I think we scared all the cowards away with that “mangled hands” line. If you’re still with me, good for you. Starting a hand drill fire is difficult and painful but definitely doable and pretty rewarding.

The materials you use to start any friction fire are critical, but never more so than when you’re building a hand drill fire. The reason is that you will be suffering to make this fire, so anything you can do to reduce that suffering is paramount.

The best, most obvious thing you can do to ease this process is to select the driest wood possible. For tips on how to do that even in wet conditions, go here. {link}

Tinder Bundle

I can’t overstate how important your tinder bundle or tinder nest is. Trying to start a hand drill fire (or any other friction fire) without an effective tinder bundle is like trying to start my lawnmower without cursing — in other words, impossible.

The tinder bundle is what turns your black, smoldering dust into a full-on flame. This is where the magic happens. Where all your labor is miraculously turned into fire. 

For that magic to happen, your tinder bundle has to be made of the driest, most flammable materials you can find, all loosely smooshed together in the shape of a bird’s nest. 

Dried pine needles, thin wood shavings, dead grass, clothing lint, strips of paper, strands of dry, inner bark and very dry leaves are all excellent additions to your tinder bundle. Look for anything dry, stringy and easily ignitable. 

After you’ve assembled approximately two handfuls of materials, cut and tear them into various sizes. You want the smallest pieces in the middle of the nest, with larger pieces forming the outer nest structure. 


To grow your fire from a spark to a flame to a real blaze worthy of a chest-pounding celebration, you’ll need the tinder bundle to ignite the kindling. 

The best kindling is very dry sticks ranging in thickness up to the width of a pencil. They have to be thin enough that they quickly catch the flame from your tinder, but thick enough to hold that flame and burn long and hot enough so that you can add larger branches and eventually logs. 

To test if certain sticks are dry enough to add to your kindling pile, test how easily they break. Good kindling will easily snap rather than bend. 

If you know your basic tree species, which you probably should if you’re embarking on any sort of prolonged wilderness trip, certain trees make better kindling than others. Pine, larch and cedar are all great options, as are any other softwood varieties. 

Anything in the pine family is probably your best bet due to the flammable resin contained in pine branches. Sticks from a dead pine will burn quickly and easily.

If you’re not in a really dire survival situation and have time to do some whittling before you get started on the fire burning, you can turn your kindling into feather sticks to give it an even better chance of igniting.

The aim of a feather stick is to increase the surface area of your kindling, which increases the stick’s flammability. 

Using your knife, simply carve thin strips from one end of the stick down toward the end of the other, without removing the strip from the stick. The goal is to have a stick handle with a bunch of shavings still attached to that handle. The attached shavings will quickly catch fire, and the firmer handle will hold the flame. 

One or two feather sticks should be enough to do the trick, but you can make as many as you have the time and patience for.


The last pieces you’ll need to make a true campfire are the larger branches known as fuel. If you get your fuel lit, then you’ve mastered the hand drill fire. Depending on the condition of your hands, you’ll be giving yourself a generous pat on the back once these are up and burning.

Select dry, very dry or extremely dry sticks and branches. Dry as my sense of humor, dry, if you can find them. It’s important to get a variety of sizes, starting with sticks that are just a little bit larger than your kindling, all the way up to larger logs.  

Many a fire has been tragically cut down in its youth because someone added fuel logs that were too large too soon, so make sure you have plenty of smaller logs on hand for the early going.

Particularly if you are in a survival situation, make sure you collect enough fuel to keep the fire going through the night. Don’t let your fire die or you’ll have to start over.  

The only thing worse than making one hand drill fire is having to make two hand drill fires. 

Step 2: Construct tools

One advantage of the hand drill method over its estranged cousin the bow drill method is that you have less tools to construct. All you need to make is the hand drill and the hearth board or fireboard.

Hand drill

Also known as a spindle, the hand drill will be the source of all your pain and, hopefully, your eventual pride. It should be a long, dry, skinny, straight stick, about the width of a pencil and around two feet in length. It needs to be strong enough to withstand significant downward pressure.

You want your hand drill to be as smooth as possible so scrape off any knots, leaves or other imperfections. You will be rubbing this drill as fast as possible between the palms of your hands, so if there’s anything at all protruding from the drill, no matter how small, you’ll feel it.

Carve down one of the ends to a blunted point. You don’t want a sharp point as you need some surface area to come in contact with your fireboard and create sufficient friction.

Hearth board

The hearth board is the second part of the equation and equally important. This should be a board, flat on both sides and less than an inch in thickness. Any variety of softwood is good. 

One of my friends insisted that the spindle and the hearth board be made of the same wood, but I think that was more due to his OCD than any practical advantage that would give you. He spent more time looking for matching pieces than my wife did in a thrift store. Maybe he was just trying to put off the unpleasantness of the actual fire-starting process for as long as he could.

Once you’ve selected your board, gouge out a shallow, circular hole that’s about the same width as the tip of your hand drill. 

You’ll be cutting a little further into your fireboard later after you’ve gotten a start to your drilling.

Step 3: Arrange your fire lay

How you set up your fire to maximize its burnability is called its fire lay. I had a lazy fire lay double entendre joke here, but it was so dumb I added it to my tinder bundle.

There are a number of fire lays out there, all with very descriptive names such as the log cabin, the cross ditch, the star, and, everyone’s favorite, the teepee.

The teepee looks exactly what it sounds like.  All you do is stand your kindling up on end, with the tips coming to a point and resting on one another in the middle. When you’ve ignited your tinder bundle, slip it into the middle of the teepee and let the fire do its work.

The teepee is effective because it takes advantage of the fact that fire goes up and that fire likes oxygen. The space between the upright sticks provides the oxygen and the fact that the sticks all meet above gives the fire available fuel to grow. 

Any structure you build that follows these two principles will work well. There’s no need to do everything by the book, especially if you’re in a survival situation. 

Step 4: Start your fire

Now that you have everything set up and at the ready, you can start finding out which part of your hand yields the most painful blisters. Also, you can start a hand drill fire.

Approach this task with patience and calm. Fires don’t spring from frantic energy. 

  1. Work the drill into the hole and spin it a few times to ensure a proper fit. Gouge out a larger hole if need be.
  1. Cut a v-shaped notch from the edge of your hearth board to the edge of the hole. The point of the v should just reach the hole’s edge. The black, ember dust you create by drilling will collect in this notch. 
  1. Place the hearth board on a dry, level spot on the ground and place something such as bark or a thick leaf under the notch to catch the hot embers.
  1. Find a comfortable sitting or kneeling position in which you can hold the hearth board steady with your foot, but still be close enough to work the drill without straining your back. 
  1. Insert the drill into the hearth board hole. 
  1. Put your hands towards the top of the drill with your fingers extending straight out and the drill firmly in between the meatiest parts of your palms. 
  1. Begin rubbing your hands together lightly, allowing the drill to freely rotate back and forth while maintaining constant contact with the hearth board. 
  1.  Apply downward pressure on the drill as you continue to spin it, a little faster now, but always under control. Some people just rub the same part of the drill, others begin at the top of the drill, work their way down and start over again at the top.
  1. Slightly adjust what parts of your hands come in contact with the drill to prevent really severe blisters and the worst of the pain. As you slightly increase your speed, use your whole hand from the bottom of your palm to your fingertips.
  1. Black, ember dust should begin accumulating in the notch after a minute or two, if not, make sure that your drill is firmly in contact with the bottom and the edges of the hole in the hearth board.
  1. Feel free to take very brief microbreaks to clutch your hands or stretch your fingers.
  1. Smoke! You see smoke! Good for you, but you have to keep going. 
  1. Continue drilling until the notch you cut in your hearth board is almost full of black embers. If you don’t collect enough embers, you won’t be able to start your tinder bundle and we’ll have to begin this whole awful rubbing process again.
  1. Once the notch is full, lightly tap the ember dust out onto the leaf or bark that you placed underneath your hearth board.
  1. Carefully transfer the ember dust from the hearth board to the center of the tinder bundle. Don’t lose even a speck of dust. You worked too hard for that speck!
  1. Squeeze your tinder bundle around the dust and blow into the tinder bundle. Be careful not to inhale too much smoke.
  1. FIRE! FIRE! FIRE! You did it! Feel free to scream! (Unless you’re in your backyard. You might startle your neighbors.)
  1. Transfer your flaming tinder bundle to your fire lay.
  1. Bask in what you’ve accomplished. Everyone, and I mean everyone, including me, tried to discourage you from doing this and you did it anyway. Screw everybody, you’re the best.
  1. Treat your hands for any injuries. 
  1. If you have an office job, make sure to show off your blisters. Bob from accounting just sat around watching TV all weekend and you mastered fire! Good luck in a survival situation, Bob!

Step 5: Put out your fire

I never understood Smokey the Bear. I love the guy. He’s my favorite bear other than Walter Payton. “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” Catchy, but does it really make sense? I think it’s possible other people can prevent forest fires too. My friend is a park ranger. He prevents forest fires, and yet, he’s not me…

Unless, perhaps, only I exist and everything and everyone else is just a figment of my imagination. In that case, indeed, I would be the only one who could prevent forest fires. Is this what you were trying to tell me all these years, Smokey? Am I the center of the universe? 

Regardless, put out your damn fires, everyone. Seriously. I know we just spent all this time and lost all this hand skin starting this fire, but when the time comes, be just as diligent about putting it out. 

Only YOU and MILLIONS OF OTHER PEOPLE can prevent forest fires, but worry more about yourself than anyone else. Take personal responsibility. You can’t control what other people do, but you can be accountable for your own actions and make sure you aren’t the one that sets the next forest fire. Oh! Now I get it, Smokey!

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