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HomeSurvivalFireBowdrillBowdrill Strings

Fast Survival Bow Drill Strings

The following article was posted on the Tracker mailing list (on the Internet - now defunct) by George Janson.
"Barry Keegan is a good friend of mine that wrote an excellent article in our TRIBE newsletter. He is a very skilled survival and wilderness living skills instructor. He wrote the following excellent article on the subject of making strings for bow and drill fire making sets. I think you all will find it extremely informative."

Why Spend Time Fiddling With Your Bow?
©Barry Keegan 1996


The hand drill fire is the fastest means of making fire: if you must start from scratch. l found this to be true in arid environments or seasons of drought. New York State is far from being arid! After years of practicing the hand drill fire I have reached MY physical limitations. I was finally able to make hand drill fires with a spindle and fire board of very dry Mockernut Hickory (our most dense native wood) but I still couldn't make fire with a damp Mullein stalk spindle on a willow fire board.

Using a bow drill to make fire is more reliable than a hand drill. Because of this climate, damp wood may be all that I have to work with. The problem, though, is finding a good bow drill string that won't take long to make or find! This was a lot of work and lead me to rediscover what can be used.


I limited my self to plant fibers because in a survival situation I can't always rely on animal products to be available for cordage material. For clarity sake I will rank these bow drill strings in categories beginning with the most year-round available cordage and ending with the most specialized and seasonal ones. Tree bark, branch bark and root bark, roots, wood, stalk fibers, leaf fibers, vines and runners. 


I will begin with tree barks because they are available when the ground is covered by even the deepest of snow. Tree barks also happen to make some of the strongest cords and most of the good ones can be peeled at any time of year. I list tree barks in two categories: Branch barks and Root barks, because each behaves differently and are often handled differently.

Branch Barks

"Branch Barks" is the category of bark that comes from any part of the tree that is not a root. However, certain parts of the tree provide far stronger bark than others. Select a shoot or branch that is somewhat straight, preferably with no branches, scars, dead spots or any such flaws that interrupt the bark fibers. The branch should be about three feet long and at least thumb thickness to obtain enough bark for a cord. Avoid very tapered branches. Do pick a healthy branch, dying trees have dying bark and work about as good as they look. Knot holes in bark strings may cause separations that tear out during use. What kind of tree you use is of major importance. 
The strongest bow drill string of tree bark fiber in New York also happens to be one of the easiest to make. Mockernut and Pignut Hickory work better than other hickories and are my favorite choices!

Peeling Bark

As a general rule, May 1 through August 1 is peeling season: the time of year that bark peels easiest from trees! This is not a long season but farther south it may be longer. The Basswood tree has its own season which starts earlier and ends later than others. Basswood is the easiest to peel at any time of year. There are three methods that I know of to remove bark at any time of year. None of these methods are necessary during peeling season unless you have an unusually difficult branch.
To obtain bark out of "peeling season", you may use pounding, split-separation or if we weren't trying to make a fire, we could use the fire to carefully roast or steam the bark off.
I will begin by discussing the easiest of these methods and end with the most difficult. I will not discuss the roasting method for obvious reasons.

Peeling In Season

Cut or abrade off your branch of choice and remove any twigs or branchlets, if you have them. On the cut end try to peel the bark free, as if to begin peeling a banana. If it easily separates, and it should, examine the branch for knot holes or areas of removed twigs. You may want to use a sharp stone flake or knife to score the entire length of the branch to make two or three bark strips of even width and as little taper as possible. This is the best way if you did have branchlets on your branch because you can
make the cuts align with the branch scars. Holes in your bark strips are less of a problem if they are on the edge of the strip instead of the center.
Careful peeling can produce good results without scoring if you peel both or all three sides at the same time. You need at least two feet of cord from this branch so go slowly and carefully. Watch for sticky spots! Knots can be very sticky. Pull the bark strip at a 35 degree angle or less from its branch to minimize the tapering tear. Pulling straight up (90 degrees) or back on itself (180 degrees) will drastically increase the taper or tear out. Sometimes rocking the strip back and forth as you pull on it can free up the bark at a sticky knot area. If it still sticks, consult the pounding section of this article for another way.
Once in a while I find a branch that won't peel, even in peeling season! Trees can be as different as people are, so, if this happens, find another tree or at least a healthier branch. Peel your bark right away or store the branch completely under water until peeled. Elm bark may not peel the next day after it has been cut. Hickory may not peel after being cut three days before and is noted to stick in times of draught, especially on high hills. On the contrary, Basswood may still peel a month after being cut if it sat in a damp shady place.
As a general rule, the youngest branch or shoot that grew the longest length in the shortest amount of time produces the best bark! Some trees like Aspens will give strong bark only on its one year old growth. Good luck finding long straight Aspen twigs that are big enough to provide enough bark to make a sturdy bow drill string. I had to peel 25 ordinary sized twigs to make mine!
If a branch broke off about two years ago and a bunch of sprouts grew from that wound, there may be enough bark on one of these sprouts to make six bow drill strings. Arrow and basket makers purposely cut back Willows and other plants to force them to grow more suitable shoots for materials. This is called copusing!  The deer or a storm may have done some copusing for you. If you know your trees well, i.e. Willows grow by water and deer go there a lot, you may find some choice sprouts growing
from a broken "buck-rubbed" branch. Beaver love to eat Aspen!

Pounding Bark "Out of Season"

If the bark doesn't peel from your branch, find a smooth stone or smooth the bark off of a dead log, this will be your anvil. Then find a sturdy branch of wrist diameter for your pounding mallet. Break it to a one foot length. Scrape your anvil and mallet smooth of any protrusions that may injure the bark that you pound. Lay the branch across the anvil and begin pounding at the thick end of your branch. Pound till the bark separates on all sides. You need to strike hard, but not so hard that the bark gets crushed. Work down about six inches of the branch's length, pounding every inch or so on at least two of its sides. The bark does separate from the mallet side as well as the anvil side of each blow, if the strike is well centered. 
Once you get the feel for how much or little pounding is needed, you can pound the whole branch and then peel it, of course, going slowly to watch for sticky spots. Pound where it sticks till it pulls free easily. If you pull the bark hard past where it sticks you may leave the strongest part of your cord stuck to the branch as the bark tears out thinner.
If it is close to peeling season and the bark sticks, you may score the bark before pounding. Little pounding is needed at this time to remove the bark. In mid winter you will have to pound the bark so hard that it will split where it wants and you will have to choose from what you are left with. At times you may have to pound so hard that the branch becomes splinters! Hickory bark is very tough and can take a lot more beating than other "cordage grade" tree barks.
Hickory and Basswood are the easiest branch barks to remove by pounding because they don't crush easily under the mallet. Gentle mallet work can help remove the bark from Pawpaw, Elm (Slippery and American), Tulip Poplar and Willow. These barks are more delicate! Try working with one to three inch diameter branches because the bark is thicker on bigger growth and can withstand more mallet work.
However, pounding becomes ineffective on branches that are more than three inches thick.
You should have no problem obtaining at least one, hopefully two or three, full length bark strips from your branch. Even if the worst happens and your bark as well as your branch are in splinters, save those splinters and keep reading, you can still make a string!

Split Separation: In or Out of "Peeling Season"

Once you have learned the split-separation peeling method you may never pound bark again! Now you can peel bark (if you haven't already). This method of peeling may require a lot more practice than pounding but you will be able to peel bark from nearly all of the cordage grade trees at any time of year! Take your thumb-thick branch from a tree or bush by abrading half way through its top side. Then pull down on the branch so it splits and make the split run about two inches down the desired end of the branch. Then abrade the branch off.
You need to split the whole branch in half. Any split-shoot basketry book or article will show you how to do this, but, basically you need to pull with equal pressure and angles on both halves of the split to guide the split down the stick. If one side becomes thicker, pull it at an increased angle to steer the split back to center. This is a faster way to make two equal sized strips without using a stone flake to
score the branch. A branch that is thicker than a thumb may be split in three by splitting and
pulling on all three splits at once or also split into four by halving the halves.
Remove bark by snapping the split stick near the center very slowly by bending it in both hands, pressing your thumbs on the bark side and bending away so it breaks down to the bark, revealing it. Next bend the break at a 35 degree angle so the wood that clings to the bark peels away from the bark. Then, if you're a righty, hold the branch at the crack, in your left hand so it lays along your left arm down to your elbow and with your right hand, lift and pull away the wood from the bark.
You want the bark to stay flat and taut. Just as if guiding a split, you need to pull on the wood part of the branch so it does all of the bending because it is much thicker than the bark. This should look like a backwards, small letter "y". If the branch cracks or breaks off, peel up the next section as you did the last, from where it broke off. Keep peeling it like this until all of the wood is removed from that half of
the stick. Then flip the branch around so you are holding the peeled bark in your left hand and the
stick part lays along your left arm, as before, and remove the rest of the wood from the bark. With practice this can be done in two or three minutes. 
You may lose some bark to splintering on its outer edges. This is less likely to happen if you split the branch into thirds or fourths because the flatter the bark lays on its branch, the easier it is to pull free. Imagine peeling masking tape from a wall compared to peeling it from a pencil which has been covered with a length-wise strip of tape and the edges wrap all of the way around.
Remove the splinters from your bark strips by pulling the bark splinter at a 180 degree angle (back over onto itself). This causes it to intentionally tear out without tearing far at all. Woods that are flexible, like Willows (especially shrubs), will allow you to split a branch in half, third or fourth down along its growth ring(s) so the wood part of the branch is about as thick as the bark is. This makes it easier to separate the bark without breaking the wood part as much.  Butternut or White Walnut are too fragile to be pounded but may give strong cordage when peeled in this manner. Even in January it provides a strip whose strength compares to some Hickories. Do remove the outer bark when using Butternut, Mulberry, Osage Orange, Aspen or any bark that won't twist without cracking the outer bark. 
Outer bark may be removed by scraping with a stone flake or by abrading it off on a gritty rock, but the fastest method leaves you with the strongest results: split-separation! Split the outer bark from the inner bark at one end by using a sharp edge or bend the bark so the outer part snaps away from you.
Then peel up a section and split it in half as you would split a branch, by pulling with equal tension and angles on both halves.

Root Bark

I will discuss how to dig, find and select roots for cordage later in this article. How many branches are on your root is not as important for root bark as it is for root wood or branch bark strings. Hickory root bark is the strongest of the root barks. It is as strong, if not stronger, than its branch bark and is easier to remove.
Hickory, Walnut, Osage Orange, Red Cedar and some of the Elms and Cherries have root bark that is much stronger than the wood part of their roots. With Mulberry, Black Locust, Willow, American Elm and Hemlock, their root barks and root-wood fibers can be equally as strong. I have found some variations of strength within species and environments.
With the exception of Hickory, the root barks listed above share a unique characteristic unlike any other local plant fiber cordages: elasticity! A root bark bow drill string can stretch up to two inches when pulled tight. Because of its elasticity bow drill strings of root bark do not need to be as thick as those of branch bark. A thumb-thick root is overkill and a pinky-thick root is ideal. For an example of extreme strength I made a fire with a Hemlock tree's root bark string, taken from a root which was half as thick as a pencil. The string itself was as wide as a strand of spaghetti. 
To remove root bark, first cut your root and remove its smaller branches. Hang the root over a branch and hold it by both ends as if you were using it to saw the branch. A branch with toothy bark is ideal but do remove any sharp protrusions that may cut the root or its bark. Buff through the root bark on one side by pulling the root in a back and forth sawing motion. As soon as you've exposed the wood core down the whole root's length, pry the inner root gently out of its bark sheath. Peel the bark from the root at the same 35 degree angle that you would to remove tree bark.
Root bark peels easiest in bark peeling season. It peels almost as easily when out of season! You do not need to pound roots to remove their bark. Split-separation does work on roots but it's not necessary. Walnut is one of the few root barks that needs to be separated from its brittle outer bark. Most of the root barks listed here may be used "as is" for bow drill strings. Root bark is a better choice than branch bark when it's available. 

Barry Keegan and his partner Anthony Follari operate a school in Elmsford, NY called PATHWAYS that teaches a variety of primitive, survival and wilderness living skills. If you wish to contact Barry or would like a brochure of classes they have to offer, write or call:
Barry Keegan, 6 Heather Lane, Elmsford, NY 100523

©Barry Keegan 1996