Bow Drill: All smoke and no fire...

Discussion in 'Wilderness & Survival Skills' started by Texas Slim, Feb 11, 2009.

  1. Texas Slim

    Texas Slim

    Feb 12, 2007
    Thought I'd give primitive fire making a go, might be a handy skill some day and I'd love to pass it along to my son and his Scout troop as well. Only problem is, I just can't get it right.

    I have two wood choices in my area, oak and cedar. I figured cedar was softer so that's what I've been working with. I think I've got all the parts right but I'm having a real problem keeping the rope from slipping on the drill. I've scouted the area but can't find any pine pitch near me and I'm trying my best to do this proper using only locally available materials (with the exception of the rope.) Have you guys got any suggestions that might help me get a better bite on the drill?

    I've managed several times to get pretty good smoke but nothing like an ember yet. I'm getting a little discouraged so any advice or support would be welcome.
  2. tonym


    Mar 18, 2008
    What kind of cedar are you using?

    make your drill more hexagon shaped and it should grip better on the rope.
  3. k_estela

    k_estela Co-Moderator, Wilderness and Survival Skills Forum Moderator

    Feb 23, 2001
    If you're using red cedar, it will smoke like crazy. Coals are difficult at best. +1 on Tony M's recommendation of squaring your drill. DON'T PINE PITCH IT. That is an easy way to gunk it all up. Tighten your bow string and square the edges.
  4. batosai117

    batosai117 Gold Member Gold Member

    Jun 5, 2007
    What he said :D
  5. KEmSAT-Survival


    Sep 23, 2008
    If you're getting lots of smoke you aren't far off a coal. Stay with the cedar (white cedar is one of the best) it should work fine.

    here are some things that I've found helpful:

    Watch the pressure of your bearing block against the spindle. You don't have to bear down super hard. Once you see that you got enough pressure to get smoke, bear just a tad bit harder and watch for two separate trails of smoke.

    on your spindle:
    don't make it smooth. leave the ridges from whittling, it helps give the rope something to grab onto.

    On the part of the bow that you are holding
    Use your thumb and first and\or middle finger to tension the cord. You can go as tight or loose as you need just by easing or increasing the pressure on the rope.

    Another thing:
    When you are stringing the bow twist the spindle in the cord before you tie the back end of the cord into the bow, then pull the cord until it bends the bow and holds good and tight on the spindle. mark that (I usually just pinch it and hold it with my finger and thumb). Let out the tension so you can get the spindle out of the cord. Once you have the spindle out, tie the loose end of the cord into the end of the bow to the length of where you marked it.

    One last thing:
    So you aren't working your arm off, measure the length of your bow by putting on end into your armpit. You want your bow about 6 inches longer than your arm.
  6. hlee


    Dec 5, 2005
    My guess is that Texas Slim is a Texas resident, and that the "cedar" that he is talking about is in fact ashe juniper. Most people in Texas mistake juniper for cedar. Even the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department slips into calling juniper cedar, after correctly identifying it.

    "Mature Ashe juniper is a major factor resulting in decreased water supply to the Edwards Aquifer... Research indicates that removal of Ashe juniper results in a tremendous increase in groundwater. One such study reported an increase of 100,000 gal/acre/year with 100% cedar removal.

    Ashe juniper is a non-native invasive tree that is very common in and around Austin and the surrounding hill country, where I grew up.
  7. batosai117

    batosai117 Gold Member Gold Member

    Jun 5, 2007
    That's very good to know, unfortunately for me all I have around here is stuff for bar-b-q's,'s EVERYWHERE!!! :grumpy:
  8. Texas Slim

    Texas Slim

    Feb 12, 2007
    I stand corrected, I probably am using ashe juniper. But like you said, everybody around here calls it cedar. Makes for good fence posts. Now that I think of it, most often ashe juniper seems to grow short and squatty where some of these trees are taller than the oaks by a good bit. Anyhow, would oak be a better choice? I could probably scare up some cottonwood or cedar elm but not on my property-- which is why I was trying to keep it to oak or cedar, er, um, ashe juniper.

    I had considered shaping the drill but was afraid that would wear my rope out faster. But I think that will be the first thing I try tomorrow.
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2009


    Apr 14, 2006
    First of all, the posts of Kevin and KEmSAT-Survival are right on. Don't 'pitch' it! And don't put too much down pressure on the drill (a common mistake of beginners). Another thing to decrease the amount of slippage between drill and bow - reverse twist the cordage - this gives ridges and valleys to grab the drill with.

    Also you might want to check with Talfuchre - he seems to be pretty successful and he lives in Texas???? so he is acquainted with your local woods.

  10. MagicDot


    Oct 15, 2008
    ..I don't have any access to cedar around here, so I mostly use hardwoods and find them to work the best for me.. the cedar too soft? ..have you tried shaping the end of the drill that goes towards the hand in a lesser size as the opposite end to create less drag up top?
  11. The REAL Commander

    The REAL Commander

    Jun 30, 2008
    I do believe Juniper is a member of the Cedar family.

    Regardless, one key (critical) thing to make sure of is that on your baseboard you have carved a narow groove next to the hole (about and inch long) so that oxygen can enter into the hole. Without the groove, it will just smoke like hell but never combust. The groove actually does two things: (1) let in air, and (2) make a catching trough for wood dust that your drill produces. This wood dust is ultimately what is first to show signs of ignition, not always the bits of tinder you have.

    For bow tension, after I get the spindle into the bow, I sinch of the bow with more rope, either by wrapping it around the bow itself, or just drawing it tight across the back of the bow with maybe a twist or two around. It just firms it up.

    Concerning the spindle, I leave the point jagged too, as others have said. This adds friction, allows air in, and also provides material for making that wood dust we talked about.

    Best of luck, and the first time you get a flame, you will be eleated, it is really fun. About a dozen times again and you'll be able to do it in your sleep.

  12. LittleHairyApe


    Mar 30, 2006
    In case you need a little inspiration, there are several vids on youtube that show how to whip up fire on the bow drill. Trying these search words, "bow drill fire making." Those should get you more how-to vids than you'd care to watch in a lifetime. :)

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