Bow Drill Set

A typical bow drill set, consisting of a spindle, a baseboard, and a top-rock. [Image courtesy of Daniel Blanko via Flickr]

I hate bow drilling, I decided. Hunched over the small juniper board, I was trying unsuccessfully to pull the bow back and forth in a long, steady stroke. I was supposed to be the mature one here, an example for the boys in this wilderness therapy program, but I was a heartbeat away from flinging this damn spindle back into the desert. I hadn’t expected to actually “bust a coal” on my first try, but I hadn’t expected to be this terrible at bow drilling, either.

I’ve been trying to learn bow drilling, not just because it’s a required skill for working in wilderness therapy, but also because it seemed like a pretty cool thing to know. It’s a method of starting a fire that has an important place in a survivalist’s repertoire, particularly because everything you need can be made with only a knife.

Bow drilling looks simple enough. You need a bow—this foot and a half long, curved piece of wood I had in my right hand, and a spindle, which is about 5 inches of sage, carved to a point at each end. The baseboard, about 3 inches wide and anywhere from 6 inches to a foot long, is lined with holes, scorched black from the friction of the spindle.

The idea is to loop the spindle into the cord of the bow, so that pulling the bow back and forth will make it spin. You hold the baseboard down with your foot, line the spindle up in one of the holes, and, with a piece of rock or bone in your hand, lean your body weight on the top of the spindle to create downward pressure. The pressure and the friction of the turning spindle causes brown or black “punk” to collect, as the spindle and board grind away at each other. With enough time and pressure, the punk will heat up enough that it becomes a coal, a glowing ember that can be tipped into a nest of bark and blown into flames.

Bow drilling

Bow drilling. [Image courtesy of dog.breath via Flickr]

Just getting the cord of the bow to loop around the spindle was a challenge for me. The string has to be taut, and that means twisting this little wooden spindle into it is a battle. It was probably a good 45 minutes before I got comfortable with the way I had to wedge one end of the bow under my arm and the other end under my knee, and lever the spindle until it poped into place.

Lining it up in the hole was another challenge. For a few minutes, I juggled the bow and the top rock, trying to figure out how to get it all in place without letting the spindle snap out of the cord.

Finally, I was set up and ready to start drilling. I barely moved the bow back and forth one time before the spindle snapped out of the cord, the tension sending it spinning right onto my knuckles.

“Did you get spindle whipped?” One of the boys asked, grinning.

I held up my knuckle where the spindle had taken out a chunk of skin. The other boys proudly showed me the scabs on their own knuckles. It felt almost like a badge of honor, to have gotten my first bloody knuckle from a “spindle whip.”

By the third or fourth time my knuckles had been bashed, it didn’t feel so cool anymore.

A few of the boys hovered around me, giving directions.

“Move your knee forward a little bit more—no, your back knee.”

“Try to keep your bodyweight over the spindle.”

“Use long, smooth strokes, not short and choppy like that.”

“Keep the spindle straight up and down, don’t let it wobble around so much.”

The next time the spindle snapped out, I took a deep breath and announced that I had definitely seen some smoke at one point, and that was perfectly fine for my first try.

As I put away the bow drilling set, the boys talked about their first tries, none of which were much more successful than mine. They’d felt frustrated, thought it was stupid, wanted to throw the whole set into the fire.

Most of them came to think it was at least kind of cool, and they told me proudly about the shortest time in which they could get a coal, or told stories about a nest they made which was only an inch across and started a fire. Another boasted that he could reliably get a coal in just 10 strokes of the bow.

It was another couple of weeks before I had a chance to try again. That was fine with me.

When I revealed to a staff member that I’d only tried once, and with dismal success, to bust a coal, his eyes lit up. The two teenaged girls in the wilderness therapy program looked at me, somewhere between amazed and amused.

“Looks like we’re bow drilling this afternoon.” my co-worker announced.

I started chatting with the girls as we milled about in front of the cabin, asking them what they thought of bow drilling. One of the girls, a confident, tough-talking 14-year-old shrugged and said that it’s at least kind of cool that she knows how to start a fire in the wilderness, in case she ever gets lost or something. My co-worker, a mountain-man, real-life cowboy type, who’s lived much of his life in these hills, a man who hunts turkeys with a bow and arrow and carves his own arrowheads, overheard.  This conversation (as closely as I can remember) followed:

“You wouldn’t last a day,” he told her. “You think you know how to start a fire?”

“I can start a fire,” she protested. “I got five coals in one day!”

“It’s easy when all the pieces are made for you, and all you have to do is pick them up.”

She looked sheepishly at the bows hanging from a peg on the cabin. “I know how to make them.”

“Okay,” he said. “Here’s a knife.” He gestured with his hypothetical knife out to the desert. “Tell me how you would start a fire out there.”

She considered the expanse of sand, sage, and juniper in front of her. “First…I’d find a bendy tree branch to make the bow.”

He rolled his eyes skyward in mock hopelessness. “”Bendy?”

“Yeah.” She seemed amused at his exasperation. “Like, not too straight, and just…bendy enough that it bends so you can get the spindle in the string.”

“What type of tree?”

“Juniper.” She brightened at knowing the answer.

“Very good. You might actually survive. What are you going to use for the string?”

That caught her up for a second. “Well, I’d have some cordage with me,” she replied.

“Nope. You’re dead. All you have is a knife.”

She considered for a moment, then shrugged.

“See, those of us who are smart, the ones who are going to survive, might consider using our shoe laces.”

She stared at her boots, then snorted. “That’s why I have electricity back home. And matches.”

For the most part, I’m inclined to agree. What are the chances of ever ending up stranded in the wilderness with only a knife? I made a mental note that if I ever got around to making up a survival kit for my car, I’d include waterproof matches, flint and steel, a couple of lighters, and every possible means of starting a fire other than bow drilling.

Later that afternoon, we headed out to porch to gather the set together. I was a little bit resigned, and a little bit excited; yes, I wanted to learn how to bow drill, if only as a matter of pride. The scrapes and bruises from my first attempt had nearly healed, though, and I wasn’t looking forward to a set of new ones.

This bow was made with Russian Olive instead of Juniper. Lighter and stronger, the bow felt good in my hand. The baseboard was bigger, too. As soon as I started pulling the bow back and forth, I noticed how much smoother the motion was. With only a few strokes, a trickle of smoke started to drift up.

The movements started to feel almost comfortable, the bow gliding back and forth, my foot pressed against the board, and I alternated on keeping the bow going smoothly and keeping the spindle from wobbling.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t end up with a new set scabs and bruises on my hands.

After 30 minutes or so, my coworker walked over and watched for a moment as a steady stream of smoke started to drift up from the board.

“Now, just go a little faster, and you’ve got it.”

My shoulder screamed in protest as I pushed it faster, the bow arcing and scraping against the ground, the spindle wobbling as my hand struggles to hold it upright. I gave it a few good strokes until my shoulder couldn’t take anymore and I sat back, exhausted, disappointed in myself for giving up when I was so close. Then, I saw that the stream of smoke was still going.

“Looks like you’ve got one.”

I leaned forward to look at the cardboard where the punk had gathered, nudged it with my finger, and sure enough, there was a little coal there, steaming and glimmering red.

Trying not to hurry, I picked up the piece of cardboard, using my free hand to guard the fragile stream of smoke from the wind. I dumped the coal into the nest, nudged a few pieces of bark around it, then held it up in front of my face and blew lightly.

The bark started to glow, crackling and twisting, and each time I blew, the red heat enveloped more and more of the nest. Finally, with a whoosh, a flame leaped up out of the bark.

“I got it!” I held up the flaming nest. No one was paying any attention. “Hey, I got it!” I repeated, louder. This was a damn momentous occasion, and I wasn’t about to be ignored.

My co-worker came over and took the nest, and for a moment, I felt an irrational panic that he was going to squash the flame out. Instead, he carried it over to the stove and laid a few pieces of kindling over it.

The girls were busy working on their projects, but I wanted to run over to them and announce that I’d gotten a coal. That fire there, the one that would be keeping them warm all night? Yeah, you’re welcome.

I felt surprisingly protective and possessive of that fire. I kept glancing at the furnace through dinner, checking to make sure there was still a glow in there. I’d wanted to get a coal as a matter of pride, mostly just to be able to say I could do it. I wasn’t expecting to be practically bubbling over with excitement, telling every person I saw for the rest of the day that I’d gotten my first coal from bow drilling.

I think one of the boys put it best: “It’s not like it’s something I’ll ever use. But it feels pretty awesome when you can get a coal.”