Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Successful Bow Drill Ember

One of the key principles of Bushcraft, in my opinion, is the ability to light a fire. The truth is there are hundreds of ways to light a fire, some are really ingenious and simple, like a lighter or matches. Some are scientific like using potassium permanganate and glycerin or a ferro rod. Then there are primitive techniques like the hand drill or bamboo thong. But for me the benchmark is the ability to light a fire using the bow drill method.

Now I’ve been able to light fires using other methods for years now, my personal favourite is vaseline in cotton wool and sparks from a ferro rod, a very quick method to get a flame. Others have included the use of cramp ball fungus and a ferro rod and a feather stick. But one method has eluded me since I really became serious about Bushcraft, and that’s the bow drill. Now I’ve read up on this and there seems to be a variety of techniques and woods that you should use. Which in its self can be quite confusing and daunting. Not being a big fan of reading to learn, I’d rather learn through experience, I was lucky enough to do a course with Paul Kirtley a month or so ago where he produced a bow drill set whilst we were on a walk in what only can be described as biblical weather. Well as you would expect he made it look devilishly simple, so simple in fact that he even managed to get me to make an ember and light some tinder, with a little help. In fact I’d never considered that it could be a 2 person job, so much easier!

But since then it’s been bugging me that I couldn’t quite manage it on my own. No reflection on Paul by the way, in fact if it wasn’t for what he taught me, I still wouldn’t have got to where I am today. So now armed with some practical techniques, a better understanding of what I’m doing and some of the factors that held me back, I set off to achieve a solo ember.

Now one thing I’ve learnt in not just Bushcraft, but many facets of life, is that you have to have the common sense to adapt to your environment and physical (dis)abilites. It’s no secret that I’m a little on the heavy side but add in asthmatic and generally broken from over 30 years of pushing my body beyond normal limits and breaking points, I have a few physical restrictions. So taking what I’ve learnt from Paul, the advice from other great Bushcrafters like Kepis from BCUK, the long Jubilee Bank Holiday was going to be the weekend I’d master the bow drill.

Now some would say seasoning your hearth beforehand is cheating, but I like to call it preparation. Having cut up a well seasoned poplar for charcoal burning, I kept a piece to one side and planked it to use for future bow drilling. Next piece of the puzzle was the string. String is something that I am not short of, so a bit of cord was stashed in my pocket. As for the bow, I’ve been playing with the bow drill for years and have had the same bow from day one. I know it’s easy enough to find a bit of wood to suit, but why cut more wood than you need to. With that ethos in mind, I scavenged a length of hazel from the spoils of some bad pollarding by the electric company under some power lines that run through a local wood to me. My set was complete and a day in the woods began.

my first set in the woods
 I shaped my drill, carved a depression into my hearth and away I went. I made the drill longer to suit my physical impairment (a big fat belly) and things were going great. Then the string started to slip on my drill and cut through itself. Quickly swapped it for a new piece of paracord. Well it was obviously good as it started slipping too and cut the drill in half.

A minor set back, I thought, and grabbed another stick, trimmed and shaped it and off we went again. Sadly the new bit of string didn't last either, so home I came.

Discussing it with fellow Bushcrafters, Kepis made a couple of good observations. He usually cuts his drill to about the thickness of his thumb and also the wood looks a bit ‘punky’. Agreeing with him, I set out to cut myself a piece of hazel suitable for the job. As I didn’t have his thumb to hand, I went for something a little thicker than my own and matched the drill Paul had given me from our course.

Now tooled up and resorting to backyard bushcraft, as the weather wasn’t playing ball, I had another go. Still no success, so now to fall back onto common sense.

  1. Stop, look at what is actually happening
  2. Think, why is it happening
  3. Reflect, look back at what you were taught
  4. Change what you’re doing

I realised that my drill was polishing up and not making good contact with the hearth, so replaced the cord with a bit of 550 paracord, reshaped the drill, started a new hearth hole and made a new bearing block (had worn through the other). So pretty much started from scratch and not being able to spend too much time at it, I gave it one final blast and what do you know, it worked.

My first solo ember

So what have I learnt from this? Well, a good cord makes a difference, also getting the tension right makes life a lot easier, it didn't need to be as taut as I thought. For me, the drill needed to be longer than usual and a bit fatter than my thumb, also finding a rhythm that allows me to breathe made sure I could keep going at the vital time. Being out of breath also meant that was there was enough of a pause once the ember was smoking on its own to build up. So now I feel I can pop a tick against this one, next, well let's see if I can get the time of creating it down to less than three days.

My successful bow drill set

Special mentions to Paul Kirtley for showing me how
Kepis for reminding me


  1. Bit of an update, now got an ember in 3 minutes, so quite chuffed

  2. nicely done...i enjoy your blog. keep up the good Bushy work and helping we newbies to learn.

  3. Thanks Shaman

    High praise if you are learning from me as I'm no expert. In fact I'm a newbie too, this blog is just to chronicle my efforts, but if there's something in there that helps, then I'm glad to be of service. It's all about practice and remembering the basics.

  4. we can all learn something from one another and we were all newbies at some point :)