Wildwood Survival website

Tracker Knife
Pitch & Glue
Lyme Disease
Native People
Emergency Prep
Young People
Wilderness Mind
Site Disclaimer
About this site
Use of material
Privacy Policy

Advanced Bow-Drill

by Peter Moc
(photos by Peter Moc except where otherwise indicated)



Being able to get a coal in your backyard on a sunny day with a proven bow-drill set does not mean that you would be able to get a fire started in an actual survival situation. There are numerous variables that will make getting a coal exponentially more difficult. For example, you must be able to get a coal with a variety of woods, in a variety of conditions. The wood may be damp. You may not have a knife. You may not have any cordage. You may already be tired. For these reasons, it is good to practice dealing with each of these factors, first separately, and then bring them all together.

In a survival situation, it is difficult to predict exactly how a stay will unfold. There will always be unexpected situations to deal with. You will have to find the wood. Where is there a grove of good bow-drill trees? I don’t have a knife. Where can I find rocks to use as tools? What trees can be used for cordage? How should I pace myself? By challenging yourself, you will be better able to handle a wide range of conditions and increase your fire-starting reliability.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of keeping a log of your observations and discoveries when working on your technique. This will help greatly to see relationships between different woods and conditions and how to approach them.

Working with Different Woods

The first step in advancing your bow-drill technique is to challenge yourself with different woods. This will enable you to test your technique and reveal whether it is a real communication with the wood or just in your head. This is the first step in learning to “talk with the wood” and listen to what it tells you.

There are two ends to the spectrum of wood hardness: hard and soft. Generally, you want to use the soft woods in a real situation. Damp hard wood is virtually impossible to start a fire with. That is why you want to use only dry woods when working on density differences between woods. Another factor that you want to explore is the state of decay of woods. How does the type and extent of decay affect fire-making? Generally, rot softens wood by breaking down the fibres. In hard woods, however, it can harden the wood, making it brittle at the same time.

First, start off with the soft woods. Find some aspen/cottonwood, etc. that is almost punky. It should almost crush right in your hands. Try getting coals with this using your regular bow and handhold. All you need to make is the board and the drill. Don’t worry if the drill keeps burning at the handhold. Just lubricate it with some shoe polish, etc. You want to get the feel of how the wood reacts. Don’t waste time keeping the handhold from burning in at this point. Note any changes needed in your technique to obtain a coal.

Now, experiment with the other end of the spectrum. Find some hard wood and make a spindle and board and handhold as well. Initially, this should be with relatively solid, very dry wood. You will need the hardwood handhold as well or else you will have constant burning problems. Some challenging hard woods are the hickories. These are some of the densest woods in some areas. You may also try ironwood, blue-beech, and the oaks, among others. Again, note what changes you had to make to obtain a coal. You may have to really go to extremes in your technique, as well as your set-up.

The powder step becomes extremely important with hard woods. This is when you will really hone and learn to fully control your technique. The powder must be totally fuzzy. If the powder is at all chunky, getting a coal will be almost impossible. Also, the temperature that you must get the powder to before it ignites is significantly higher than with soft woods. You may be making ridiculous amounts of smoke, but still with no coal. Sometimes you just can’t get a coal that day, especially with the denser hard woods. In that case, just look at it from the perspective that you are strengthening your muscles and refining your technique. Remember, you would never use a hard wood in a survival situation unless you had slipped on a rock and bumped your head!

There is one more category of wood types to hone your technique on. This is the pine group. Many people will tell you not to use balsam fir, or the spruces, but I find these to be some of the best woods to use! I have found only the pines to have very pitchy wood. White pine is a very good wood to practice on. You may find you are getting coals rather easily. In this case, try using wood that is relatively green. This will increase the challenge a little! But this is jumping ahead.

Finally, you can try using different combinations of woods together. For example, use a soft spindle with a hard board and vice versa. Does it make any difference? Write your observations down in your notebook.


Working with Different Dimensions

You know want to try using different sizes of apparatus. There are two benefits of this. One is that you will be able to find the “ideal” sizes for yourself (and realize that these can change depending on materials and weather conditions). The other is that you will become more versatile and be able to make use of less than ideal materials.

An example of reducing size. Much smaller sets have been made by others. See how small you can make yours!

Experimenting with this is relatively straight-forward. Just change the dimensions of your equipment slightly, one component at a time. You may already have gotten a taste of this. It is not unusual, when you are learning the basics, to go through spindles and boards at a high rate. See how short of a spindle you can use and still manage a coal. Also, try using really thin and/or really narrow boards.

Change your notch size and shape and see what kind of effect this has. See how big of a handhold you can use without it getting in the way (pretty big!). This will show you that not everything has to be all pretty and clean-cut. You will learn what the important aspects of the set are that relate directly to the coal-forming effort.

Finally, try using different lengths of bows, especially shorter ones. You may find that getting coals with shorter bows to be a little more difficult and uncomfortable. It is good to get used to it now because you will generally have to use shorter than ideal bows when using natural cordage materials.

See how big you can make your set. **Note: don't try this at home  :)


Working with Various States of Woods

The last way you can challenge yourself with woods is to try getting coals with varying conditions of wood. In other words, use green woods, wet woods, and rotten woods. Rotten wood was already mentioned previously, and is pretty straight-forward. Remember to try different species as well as from different locations. Different woods are subject to different types of rots and this also depends on the way the limb/tree died and where it fell. Branches that stayed attached to the standing tree tend to experience a dry rot. The wood tends to slowly turn into powder. Limbs that fell off and landed on wet ground tend to experience a wet rot. Both types can be used for fire-making.

Collect a variety of woods you think might be good for bow-drills and ones that you think are not so good. Collect rotten, totally punky, green, and dry woods from a variety of species. See how the condition of the wood affects fire-making. You will find the green woods to be very challenging! You should be getting a feel for how rotten and how damp a wood can be and still be usable. You may find some woods to be so water-logged so as to weigh more like oak than cedar! The whole point of this is to be able to recognize, just by looking at and feeling a branch, whether you get a coal from it in a survival situation.

One more way of challenging yourself is to take a proven bow-drill set and immerse it in a bucket of warm water for an hour. Then take the set out and immediately try to get a coal! This will help with your technique. Don’t bother putting the handhold in as you will have trouble with burning. This exercise to improve your technique, rather than to waste time keeping the handhold from burning. You will find that , as long as you can carve away the saturated surface of the wood, getting a coal isn’t too difficult. Unless the wood is saturated right through, which you should immediately recognize when you pick it up, you should be able to get a coal (if it is soft wood).


Finding Wood in the Forest and Seasonality

You now want to put together all the components and take it to the forest. Pretend you are in a survival situation and try out different branches you find. Many will be too rotten to use. A good way to test this is to snap the branch in question in the crotch of branching tree and see if it breaks by splitting. If it just breaks with a weak thud and is almost a flat break, it will probably be too far gone to use. It should break such that a split is produced. This way you know the fibers are still somewhat intact.

An excellent place to look for wood is a grove of proven bow-drill trees, in this case, trembling aspens.

Bring your knife and cordage out with you and try getting coals out in the “field”. First, use your knife to its fullest ability. You may find you have more success when you take a large branch and whittle all the parts from it. This is due to the fact that the moisture stays just in the first couple of millimeters in from the surface with the core being relatively dry. Also, the outside of the branch usually is the first part to rot.

After you have become reliable at getting coals in this manner, try using your knife less and less. Try to take the fewest number of “whittles” as you can. Instead of carving the spindle from a thick branch, find a branch that is already roughly the thickness of your spindle. Try snapping wrist-thick branches to produce boards. This can be done by placing a long, wrist-thick branch between two stout, closely-spaced trees and levering it until it snaps. Keep snapping off sections until you get some relatively flat ones. Sometimes curved sections will work, as long as the spindle will stay in position long enough to get a decent hole started. In other words, learn to rely less and less on your knife. Eventually you will find it to be very nice to have, but not a necessity (unless there are no rocks where you live!).

Dead cedars

Dead aspen, split open

(Photo by Walter Muma)

Make a habit of trying the bow-drill at least once in every season using just a knife and a string. Note the problems that each different season brings and find ways to deal with them. Spring brings high moisture, but finding wood is easy. Summer brings mosquitoes, etc. and finding wood can be laborious when the vegetation is thick. Fall is probably the easiest time for the bow-drill. Winter means you cannot use wood that is on the ground and special preparations are needed for your work area (i.e., removing the snow).

Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, useable wood can sometimes be found in damp areas. Willow wood is often dry enough to use if you shave off the wet outer portion. Look for willow branches that fell off several months earlier that still have the bark on them but are no longer green. Often, large willow branches found on the wet ground will produce excellent bow-drill sets.


Once you have mastered these techniques, you will have a very valuable survival skill. In very few situations would you have no knife or pre-made cordage of any kind. In fact, the only time you would be without these items would probably be in a self-imposed primitive wilderness stay. There is a fairly large jump to being able to make and use a successful bow-drill set without a knife or cordage. But with these items you will be able to confidently start a fire in any place, at any time of the year.

2000 Peter Moc