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Bow Boards

by Allan "Bow" Beauchamp


This article is on a topic with which we are all familiar -- fire by friction, or "Fire Boards. " But are we really "familiar" with this concept? Many articles have been written on this topic, but I am still amazed at how little we really know about it.

While in the bush one time I remember thinking, "If I could master this, then I would truly understand the concepts of survival and would be rid of my small survival kit."

After many hours of studying, I now have a better understanding of fire. I will try to explain what I have learned and where it has taken me. Maybe you will gain some insights into the fabrication of fire by friction and also how you can develop better skills or options.

Again, I will state that I am no guru of the fire board, or fire by friction, by any stretch of the imagination, but what I have learned has been from nature's gifts, some research, and many cold nights looking at a fire board and wondering "why ?" I wanted to know this skill of starting a "Fire by Friction " which seems easy enough!

So I found a book on starting a fire this way. I looked at the information, went into the bush, and to my amazement it didn't work! The book says, "Just do this" and "Just do that, and the spark will jump out into your tinder. That is all there is to it!" With this being my starting point of attempting firing by friction on a hit-and-miss basis, I began.

First, let me tell you what I believe: the fire board is all about you. If you have ever started fire by friction, you know. When the coal is forming, you feel it. The method of starting fire by friction is more about the individual than the perfectly crafted tool. I have always thought of the fire board as we know it as not being a good option in a survival situation, since there are too many things that can go wrong.

A few things that can go wrong are too much moisture or dampness in the air, the wrong wood combinations, or not keeping enough torque on the spindle to make the coal, etc. All of these plus many more have caused my fire by friction to not develop into the coal.

I tried to find a way that would accommodate what I do in the Canadian Bush where there are many types of weather changes. As seen in the starting photo, I have shown some of the variations of the fire board. There are many variations not shown, but these will help to visualize the forming of the fire board.

The method I wish to focus on is the two stick method.


Photo 1

Photo 1 shows the traditional method of fire by friction. This particular system has a cedar baseboard, a willow spindle, an oak socket, and a maple bow. There are always some preferred woods for fire by friction, but from the example picture, don't be afraid to try any type or any odd sizing as seen in the photo.
Let's look at another type of fire board now. One that is better when trying to start a fire with minimal materials at hand.

This method called "Bows" Boards is comprised of two pieces of fairly straight sticks, approximately the size of your thumb. These can be easily snapped off of a tree, so whether you have a knife or not, it is still a feasible option.

Join these sticks together on the long axis with whatever is available -- a piece of string, your unraveled shirt, or a shoe lace, or fashion some fiber cordage. (If none of these are available, try finding a crack in a rock, push the two pieces in side by side, and jam them in nice and tight.)

You have now fabricated your base board. Whatever method you use, remember to make it tight. Being tight will have advantages. Next, break another piece of stick off the same tree to form the spindle, or experiment and try some other wood combinations. Fashion this with a knife, a sharp rock flake, or just a very abrasive stone. Fashion this in the same manner as a traditional spindle.

For the socket, try using a hollow stone, a broken piece of oak, (perhaps the skull of a baby beaver), or another piece of hardwood to serve the purpose. Fashion a starting hole with a sharp stone or pointed rock. Once this is complete, a traditional bow fashioned in the usual way will be sufficient.


Photo 2

In Photo 2 the pieces of this system, two sticks of cedar, a spindle made from willow, a fashioned socket made from oak and a means to lash these together (a piece of rawhide cordage).

Photo 3

In Photo 3 we are looking at the maple bow with a man-made string which will serve our purpose here. (We will eliminate this piece later on.)

In this photo we have attached the rawhide in such a manner as to tighten the boards to allow as much tension as could be applied. The more tension, the better.


Photo 4

In Photo 4 we see a close up of the binding of these boards. Start with this type of idea and expand from there.

Photo 5

In Photo 5 we see that I have started spinning my hole which is seated between the two sticks. It really does not matter where one starts spinning.
I like using the side of the rawhide to help stabilize the spindle. I have noticed on occasion that this method can be slippery at first.

The tinder has been prepared in a hole with the materials to sustain the coal. I prefer doing this on a very windy day. We have already seen that some of my choices are not favorable with the traditional method of fire starting,. These I feel are advantages to this method:

A. Place the fire board on the ground. (True, it is on sandy ground but still not preferred for fire by friction, since ground moisture is always a problem.)

B. We are doing this technique in the wind, but I will show how we can use this to our advantage.

As seen in the photo, I have done the same procedure as with a traditional fire board. First, I placed the spindle in between the two sticks I have bound, held the spindle against my leg in the same manner as one would with the traditional board, and placed my foot on the board to stabilize it and not allow any wobble.

One advantage here again, is that with the two sticks being round, if you had a partially moist, muddy area (and I do mean muddy area) and placed this system in it, it would form to the bottom and hold the base of the board for you. This will only help increase the stability. I have shown this technique to individuals, using a partially moist, muddy area, and received a smile, as we all know the traditional fire board put down in a muddy area will bring much dissatisfaction.


Photo 6

In Photo 6 I have continued the spinning process. We can see that the coal is apparent. This formed coal has been left for considerable lengths of time and found to be not fragile. On this particular windy day with a traditional fire board, one would not hope for wind, but I have found that with this bow board, the wind is an advantage. With the two sticks tied together, we have a natural channel. The coal, as you can see, is well protected from the wind down in the crack between the sticks. If the wind is too strong, turn the board away from the wind, so that the wind will hit the outer side of the sticks.
If the coal needs a little air, turn the sticks into the wind. This allows the wind to be channeled into the coal and helping fuel its formation. This is a definite advantage over traditional fire boards, where individuals will blow on their coal, and the moisture from their heavy breathing causes the coal at times to be blown out.

Leaving this coal in the wind channel only strengthens it. The wind strength can also be varied by just turning the board slightly, one way or another, to increase or decrease its strengths.


Photo 7

Photo 7 shows that after we have spun the spindle a short while, taken the coal, and placed it in the bundle of cattail (as seen at the tip of my knife) , there is still a good-sized coal still in the crack of the two sticks. When using this method, I have often times formed two coals-one on opposite sides of the cracks. In this particular photo this is not the case, but it will be for you as you develop this skill.

Having two coals develop will be of great assistance when starting a fire, as many times we have made a coal and lose it because of some unforeseen circumstance.

Photo 8

Photo 8 shows a close-up of the coal, and the background shows that the coal still in the crack is almost the same size. If you leave the coal with the natural crack into the wind, it will develop. An advantage here worth mentioning is that you can work with one coal, and while the coal is forming its life, it is easy to use the side of your knife, scratch some shavings from the cedar stick, and build what I call my bush match.

This is accomplished by allowing the coal to grow and feed off the sticks, using the fibers for kindling. Then use your knife to shave little strips of cedar off the stick and build the fire in the cedar stick base board.


Photo 9

In Photo 9 we can clearly see that the work has paid off. This is what we wish to accomplish when we need to make fire by friction. This method seems to work well.

In these photos I have shown my bow board using cedar to get the desired results. We are not limited by this system yet.

Many individuals will say that there are preferred woods. Well, I have a wood combination that many will say probably won't work. One advantage with the bow boards is that what I felt at first would not be suitable combinations seemed to work.


Photo 10

In Photo 10 we see two bow boards which I have tied with white cordage to show exactly how they were bound. They were bound differently than a rawhide tie down. The one at the top is gray and dry. This was actually my first attempt at the bow boards. I found a stick lying on the ground in early fall, broke it in half, and tried it. There is a burn mark on the stick. This worked well, and I discovered it was a poplar tree stick.
The other (on the bottom) was a piece of stick I cut off a small, living tree beside a wet area. I will explain the pieces to you, and you decide.

In the same photo, the spindle was made from a piece of willow, the socket was made from oak, and the bow was the same one from the last photos, made of maple. Lastly, the bow board is actually oak.

Yes, I said that right -- an oak bow board. Now we have a new concept, using a willow spindle on an oak bow board!


Photo 11

In Photo 11 we see that after using my spindle a short while, we have actually started a coal.

Photo 12

In Photo 12 we see the size of this coal and its intensity. It is a well-formed coal.

Photo 13

Photo 13 shows that not only is it a good coal, but it is also growing, as seen in comparing it. Look at the size of the coal in the previous photo, and you will now see it is actually spreading to the inner side of the crack. 

Photo 14

Photo 14 shows that this board is actually out in the elements-placed on the ground and not sheltered from the wind. After spinning the spindle once again, we see the coal dust has formed, just before the coal has developed.

When you view this photo we only see one burn hole. To keep the same sticks around a while, just give them a quarter turn in any direction, and you now have a new piece.

Refer back to Photos 3 and 4. Now you know where the burn beside the rawhide came from. You can actually get many fires from two small pieces of sticks.

Photo 15

In Photo 15 we see that I have now transferred that coal into a piece of waiting birch. When you go back and view the starting photo again, if you look under my flint rawhide pouch, you will see my oak smaller version of the bow board.
I find this system of using two sticks as a board very effective. Many times I have gone out in the bush, leaving everything behind, and thought, what could I fashion with just nothing?

This means nothing man made, not even string.

I remember a time when I was sitting around a camp fire up on the reserve with a spiritual leader whom I work with. Around the fire were also many natives, sitting and listening to some stories, when someone came up with the idea to show the technique of fire by friction and understand the meaning of fire.

There I was, sitting on the ground below the spiritual leader with a real captive audience wanting to see fire by friction, and having a bow board made of oak, right on the ground. If ever there was a time for a fire board to fail, I was sure this would be the time, but I had made this bow board myself, and spinning away I went. It did not fail me. That is why I feel this method is not only better in a real situation when the pressure is on, but it also has many options in your favor. It will get a better coal even if all is not perfect (including materials or tools), as I have outlined in my story.

Next time you are walking through the bush, and you come across a dry log with a small crack in it, try putting your spindle in the crack and working it. See what happens. You might be surprised! See how the process works. Does it resemble the bow board? Or try taking the stick pieces of cedar and finding a crack in a rock, jamming the sticks in tight. Now try your spindle. Can you get a fire going with these? And you didn't use cordage to bind these? Another option?

When you have learned to get a fire going this way comfortably, try finding a mullein stock and going into the bush. Try the rock-jamming technique using the mullein stock and a piece of raw hide (raw hide on your thumbs, attached to the top of the mullein stalk). This will replace the bow and spindle. Another option?

Try using the mullein stock in the crack in the log with your bow until you can feel it better. Experiment. Try different types of wood combinations, different wood configurations. Try taking a plug of wood that is half the size of the spindle and see how few strokes you can use to have a coal develop.

Can you take the string off your bow and make cordage to get the fire going?

I have outlined an option earlier so we are not dependent on a string, or should you wish to fabricate cordage. (My next article "Cordage" will show some interesting things.)

Taking the time to understand any system has its own rewards, as I am sure you have already discovered. There are many ways in which this system can be enhanced. Try all the fire by friction techniques with this bow board and see which ones work best for you.

I am still finding many fine ideas that have come from understanding this fire starting technique.

There is always something to learn. Nature has so much to "teach" us, if we are willing to listen. I hope that the time you spend trying fire by friction is as rewarding for you as it still is for me.

Just a thought: Is it possible to take the traditional fire board and put it in half an inch of water outside and get a fire going?

Can you go out in -30 degrees below zero and get a coal from a traditional fire board?

Well, try your option -- the bow board!

If you follow my articles, watch from time to time, and I will add these extra photos. Do your own experimenting and bush time, and see where nature shows you her options. There is so much more on this topic that I can write about, but most of the rewards will come from seeing it for yourself.

Photographs and text on this page Copyright by Allan "Bow" Beauchamp; used with permission of the author.
This article originally appeared in Wilderness Way magazine, Volume 6, issue 1