For me knowing how to make a fire is one of the foundational skills when it comes to primitive living or self reliance in general. It provides warmth, cooks your food, is a tool and friend (as anyone who has spent significant amounts of time outdoors alone knows). Many other skills you will learn will require you to have a fire or some other form of heat at some point in the process, and the ones that don’t are more enjoyable if they’re done while sitting around a campfire! And yet it is so underappreciated in today’s modern world where flame and heat is so readily available. . .

And that is something we’re going to address with this episode– Making a fire with matches is something everyone should know how to do (and is something you should understand and be comfortable with before attempting friction fire) but starting a fire by friction will make you appreciate that flame so much more. Plus, it bestows a level of confidence and belief in yourself that matches never can!

So to kick of the Folk Craft Revival podcast we’re going to discuss fire by friction– creating your first bow drill set and how to use it to start a fire!

I started my first bow drill fire 19 years ago (gads, has it really been that long??) and have practiced and built various sets over the years, but I felt like I should bring on someone who had a little more expertise than I did. Someone who does this consistently on a much more frequent basis than I do…. So I emailed Donny Dust and asked him to come on.

Donny is a wilderness survival expert, primitive skills practitioner, and the head instructor at PaleoTracks Survival School. Most of the courses he puts together are expedition style, very hands on classes that look like a ton of fun (my perspective). Leading expeditions into the mountains of Colorado has given him extensive experience in making friction fires. . . in the field, in all weather conditions, with many different materials. He’s someone that has far more experience than I do, and I had a blast talking with him.

In this episode, we dive into making a bow drill set from start to finish then follow that up with techniques for using it in successfully getting your first friction fire! Tune in to hear it all, or read below for a summary of the episode and links for anything we discussed

Material Selection & Shaping

First off, the key is to know what characteristics to look for, not specific species–main things to keep in mind is that they should not be wet, resinous, or rotten. Also, the spindle and hearthboard should be made of soft to medium-soft woods. Here is a basic breakdown of the parts and Donny’s recommendations for them:

Bow— Should be about the length of your arm from armpit to fingertips (individualized, about 1-1 1/2 inches in diameter, and have some flex to it.

Socket/Handhold— Best made of a material that won’t burn (bone, antler, stone, etc) but a hard wood will work as well. It is flattened on bottom with a very small divot to accept the top of the spindle (divot is about the size of half and M&M).

Spindle— Slightly harder wood than hearthboard (same wood at minimum). It should be roughly the same length as the distance form pinky to thumb when doing a hang-loose sign (6-10 inches) and as thick as your thumb. The bottom is rounded off, and the top is brought to a dull point.

Hearthboard/Baseboard— Should be made from a soft wood about a couple fingers wide. You will need to flatten it (like a board). Thickness is dependent on how hard it is, softer woods need to be thicker so you don’t burn through it while trying to get a coal (1/2-1 inch in general). In shaping it, you will create a depression for the bottom of your spindle to sit in and cut a notch into it that is about 1/5 the circumference of your depression (1/5 of the pie). The notch should come almost to the center, flare out slightly at the bottom, and have very crisp/clean edges.

Coal Catcher (under the notch in the hearthboard)— Don’t use material the coal will burn through quickly (ie dead leaves). It should be sturdy, stable, durable and controllable. You don’t want to get a coal and then have it fall apart when transporting it to the tinder bundle.

Tinder Bundle— The tinder bundle needs to be dry, light, fluffy (but not to the point of falling apart). Ideally, it will be at least softball size, with a small depression in the center for the coal to sit in. It also needs to be compact enough that the coal has fuel to burn but loose enough to allow for air flow. If practicing at home, dryer lint and cotton balls are good starter materials for learning.

Technique While Using a Bow Drill

Begin in a kneeling position with your right knee down and left knee up (assuming you’re right handed) and your left foot placed on the hearthboard to hold it flat and still. Grasp the bow at one end with your right hand and place your fingers on the string to apply pressure and adjust tension as needed. The socket should be held securely in your left hand, with your left hand wrapped around the front of your left shin to stabilize it (shouldn’t have any movement here). You should be leaning forward with your chest almost on your leg and your left shoulder over the socket while applying downward pressure. Your bowing motion should be forward and back (not side-side) and you should be doing full length strokes of the bow. The hand holding the bow should stay level and even the entire time. Make sure you breathe! Continue cranking until you see smoke coming from the coal dust at the base of the notch or you see the coal glowing red.

From Coal to Flame

Once you have gotten a coal….. Remain calm! Don’t rush and cause it to break up! Stop bowing when the right hand is near the spindle. Using your left hand, grab the socket, spindle, and bow and calmly lift straight up and away. Place them to the side. Now, use your left hand to pin the hearthboard to the ground and remove your foot.

To ensure that you don’t accidentally lift up the coal with the hearthboard, hold a grass stem, wood shaving, etc in the notch above the coal with your right hand. Now slowly roll the hearthboard away from you with the left hand, the grass/shaving will prevent eh coal from lifting up. Pick up your coal catcher and transfer your coal to the center of your tinder bundle.

Once you have the coal in your tinder bundle, gently cup the bundle around it and squeeze to ensure that it contacts enough fuel. Now turn your back to the wind, and very gently blow on the coal. Don’t over do it or you can blow it out.

After the tinder has ignited, turn it on it’s side so the flame can burn up into more material and slowly add kindling (start about toothpick size). Less is more when adding wood, you don’t want to smother it. Start with material about toothpick size and work your way up to wrist thick.

Troubleshooting Tips

  • Brown/black dust accumulating around top of your notch or hearthboard means your notch isn’t big enough. Widen it so the dust can fall into the notch.
  • Squeaking indicates you are close and need to apply more pressure and increase speed.

Resources Mentioned During the Episode

Check out the following resources we talked about in the episode if you want to learn more about friction fire, Donny, or his school!

Paleo Tracks Survival

Donny’s Youtube Channel (click here or here for friction fire videos)

Instagram– @donnydust

Facebook– @paleotracks

Scavenger: a Primal Approach to Lifestyle Change by Donny Dust (Amazon link)

Thanks for tuning in folks!

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COMING UP: next episode we discuss making mead (brewing!) in a traditional manner

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