Or, some basic tips… No, really, after 15 years of making, using, and teaching bow drill I have not tired of it’s awesome simple magic. Lighting a fire from pieces of wood you carved yourself is a truly remarkable experience for anyone who is conscious and has a soul.

It is also one of the skills I see most often taught incorrectly. I have seen my fair share of people set up to fail by well meaning instructors who do not know any better. It bothers me, especially for those of us who teach kids. So instead of crying about it, I want to do what I do best: teach!

Most Common Bow Drill Failures, Or Brad’s Bow Drill Tips For People Who Want It To Work, Reliably…

Given a good lesson in carving and basic dimensions and form, here are the mistakes I often see first:

Poor Material Selection

Make sure your wood is as dry as it can possibly be, inside and out, if you are unsure cut into it and hold it against your upper lip or the inside of your wrist. Since water transfers heat 25 times faster than air, if it is wet it will feel colder than the air. Watch out for rotten or punky wood. You should not be able to grind away wood with your finger nail or crush it in your hand. The name of the wood does not matter but you want a medium soft wood. (Not an necessarily and evergreen, just a wood that is not too dense.) The old “Dent it with your thumbnail trick” I first heard at Tracker is a good one. Most woods work and aside from poisonous ones I recommend you challenge yourself and your friends to try as many kinds and combinations as you can!

You can learn this in depth and more at Winter Survival, Wilderness Self Reliance, Core Skills or Wilderness Survival Immersion Project

Fat Spindles

This is maybe one of my top five pet peeves as a person. I have seen a sixty-five pound ten year old with a spindle as thick as a quarter cranking away miserably, wondering why they just can’t do it. I have seen 230 jacked people sweat and pant and barely eek out an ember and exclaim, “See, my fat spindle works!” as spittle flies from their still panting mouth. It is simple physics, a wider object will give you less pounds per square inch than a thinner one. If your spindle(or your student’s) is too thick you either cannot generate enough downward pressure or you have to work way harder than ideal to create your ember. One Inch.  One Inch. One inch in diameter!  That is the thickest I make a spindle, for small people I go with 7/8 of an inch. I do not go below 5/8 of an inch unless I am working with a hollow stalk like a big mullein or  yucca. If your spindle is too thin it will drill through the fire board too quickly and give you smoke and light dust but no ember.

Notch Failure

I often observe that the notch is too thin and/or not deep enough, therefore not enough air can get to the dust to allow combustion into an ember. Remember, fire needs three things to burn, air, fuel, and heat. If the notch is too wide your spindle will pop out. Too deep, you will get a weird tip on your spindle you have to carve off to keep going. You want your notch to be just shy of center and one normal piece of pie. You don’t want a “I’m watching my figure” type of piece or a “I will shamelessly eat as much of this pie as you let me” type piece. Just your average everyday slice of pie.  This equates to 1/8th of the socket.

Well, I could go on forever, about hand hold position, and string tightness and on and on, but I will leave those for another time. For, now I hope you found this helpful!