How to Make a Bow Drill: Don’t Play with Fire, Master It

Bow drill
Russell McCarty
Written by Russell McCarty

Are you a survivalist or a prepper, or are you just crazy about the wilderness? Do you love learning new survival skills to go back to your roots, or do you dislike using fancy modern-day gear? Are you headed on a long trip in uncharted territory or are you coaching a Boy Scouts Team? If any of these is you, then you need to know how to make a bow drill.

It’s not a very complicated process, and it will definitely prove useful in the long run. You never know what might happen to your waterproof matches the next time you set off for a new hiking trip. And it’s always better to be prepared to act fast in a survival situation, especially since fire is essential for cooking food and staying warm.

So we’re here to help with a bow drill that can be made from scratch, with things you find lying around in the great outdoors. We’ll take you through every step, explain all about the materials and the process, and end up with a few additional tips and tricks for the job. Sounds interesting enough, right? Don’t take our word for it, though, and read on!

The Fireboard

Choosing the wood for the fireboard is essential, so you should focus on getting one that has a medium hardness. There are plenty of options to choose from, such as:

  • Aspen
  • Cedar
  • Cottonwood
  • Poplar
  • Sassafras
  • Sycamore
  • Tamarack
  • Willow


Choose a fireboard that has a thickness of 0.5 – 0.75 inches, but make it twice as wide as the diameter of the spindle. You can choose the length you want, that’s not as important as the type of wood you’re using. Use your knife to make a small indentation on it. So measure the width of the spindle on the board, and place the knife tip where it ends. Now twist it until you’ve devised a superficial hole – it doesn’t have to be too deep for it to work.

The Spindle

We advise you to choose even a harder wood for the spindle, though most of you can get away with making the spindle from the same type of wood. We love how a sycamore type of fireboard and a yucca-made spindle work together, but that’s just an idea. Both the fireboard and the spindle should be made from dry wood, so don’t pick a green branch that’s filled with water and can’t be used for actually starting the fire.

As its name suggests, the spindle is the thingy that spins. So the right shape for it is:

  • As round as you can find, with no notches
  • 75 inches diameter
  • Approximately 10 inches length
  • Pointed on both ends, one tapered and one rounded
  • Ground both the tips off

The Handhold

The handhold can either be made from some leftover hardwood, but can just as easily be a rock, provided it has a notch or something like that on one of its sides. Make sure the rock isn’t small, though, or otherwise you can get your fingers burnt. That should fit inside your hand without hurting it.

The catch is that it has to fit well in your non-dominant hand. So if you’re right-handed, you should be able to have a good grip with your left hand, and vice-versa. Now make a shallow hole near one of its extremities, like you did with the fireboard.

The Bow

The bow is also made of wood, so you have to choose a stick that’s a bit curved and also flexible enough for it to work. Otherwise, it can break while you’re making the fire, so you’ll have to start all over again.  Also, don’t choose something that’s bigger than your arm, since it will prove too difficult to handle. The thickness of this stick should be about the same as the thickness of your thumb.

Now let’s get to work! Grab a piece of paracord or string, and tie it to one end using a permanent knot that can’t be untied easily. Once that’s done, bend the bow a bit, without straining it, and tie another knot at the second tip. The difference here is that you want a knot that’s easy to adjust, you’ll do plenty of that. Don’t forget to leave plenty of slack so the spindle can work its magic, but not so much slack that the spindle can slip.

The Drilling

To make sure the spindle doesn’t slip, you also need a few holes made both in the handhold and the fireboard, so follow these steps:

  1. Remember the notch you made in the fireboard? Put your left foot to its left.
  2. Now place your right knee on the ground, behind the left foot, at a distance that feels comfortable.
  3. It’s time you start twisting the spindle, so grab the bow under your right arm, with its thick end pressed tight against your body.
  4. The string of the bow has to be on top, over it.
  5. Make sure you can use both your hands.
  6. Place the round, bottom tip of the spindle on the right.
  7. The string should touch the spindle approximately in its middle part.
  8. Change the position of your hands, so your right hand is on the left part of the spindle and vice-versa.
  9. Begin twisting the spindle, in a clockwise motion, but also trying to pull it up a bit. You’re doing it right if the string starts spinning and twisting along.
  10. If the spindle stays where it is, let the bow go. Basically, you have the spindle spinning away on the exterior part of the bow, vertically placed in the shallow hole of the fireboard. On the right side of the spindle, you have the stick you used for the bow.
  11. Now get the handhold above the spindle, with its small depression on the tip.
  12. Grab this with your left hand, making sure your wrist is supported firmly by your shin.
  13. Grab the bow’s tip in your right hand and start moving it to and from you. Make sure this drilling is at a slow pace, so you can get the proper motion.
  14. Use your left hand to push very slightly, in order for the spindle to stay put instead of getting out.
  15. If you have troubles with that, you need to make deeper holes both in the handhold and the fireboard.
  16. If you don’t have any problems, increase the speed of your drilling, as well as the force applied to push on the spindle.
  17. Twist the spindle from left to right on the bowstring, throughout its length, keeping your arm straight.
  18. Continue this motion until there’s smoke.

Making fire with a bow drill

The Air Notch

Buckle up, because we’re not done yet. It’s time to make the air notch, so follow these steps:

  1. After drilling the spindle, take it out of the rope.
  2. Give it some time to ensure it’s not burning hot anymore.
  3. The top part of the spindle, the one that’s made for the handhold, should be rubbed in oil so there’s decreased friction.

Pro tip 1: If you’re in the great outdoors, in a survival situation, you can use body sebum to replace this oil, like that from your hair or the T-zone on your face (forehead, nose, chin).

Common sense tip 1: Once you’ve set which end goes in the handhold and which in the fireboard, it’s best not to get them confused. Otherwise, you’ll end up with less friction in the fireboard, which equals more effort to light the fire or better yet fewer chances of actually lighting it.

  1. Use your knife to make a triangular-shaped hole in the fireboard’s socket for the coal.

Common sense tip 2: Make sure you place it approximately near the middle, not exactly in the center part, and don’t make it too big or too small. A smaller than appropriate hole means the fire won’t reach its full potential because of the lack of oxygen. A bigger hole means the spindle can’t stay put inside the string, and you can get hurt.

  1. To make sure you get enough oxygen for the fire to start, make a small carving on its bottom part so you can get a bit more oxygen.
  2. Place some bark under it for any coal that gets out.
Air notch

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The Tinder

Now open your phone and start the Tinder app. We’re just kidding. This tinder is the kindling that lights up from the burning coal so you can make a real fire, and there’s a short list of the things you can use below.

  • Cattail
  • Cliffrose bark
  • Cottonwood inner cambium
  • Dogbane fibers, from grounded dead stalks
  • Dry and partially decomposed leaf blades
  • Juniper outer bark
  • Milkweed fibers, from grounded dead stalks
  • Nettle fibers, from grounded leaves
  • Sagebrush outer bark
  • Thistle
  • Yucca dead leaves

Once you’ve got the right stuff, make sure you dry it up very well. It works best to place it between the inner and the middle layer of your clothes, so your body heat helps it dry faster. After that, rub it in your hands to make it look fluffier and stick together. Now it’s time to get the very fine material like sawdust that can easily fall out. Place it in the hole you’ve made for the coal so you can get a better fire.

Start the Fire

You’ve taken all these steps to bring you to the part when you put it all together, so follow the steps here:

  1. Make your fire lay.
  2. Drill the bow drill exactly as you did before, but now use the notch you’ve made for catching any coal that falls off.
  3. Keep your back and the arm on the bow quite straight, but not locked out.
  4. The bow should be steadied flat and kept level with your body.
  5. Start very slowly, so you can twist the spindle throughout the surface of the bowstring.
  6. Once you get a good pace, you can apply an increased force on the handhold as well as speeding the pace.
  7. You might get tired pretty fast, but keep it up and don’t let the spindle pop out of the bow drill if you need to stop.
  8. Once you can’t do it anymore, check out the black dust in the hole. If you see smoke, check the coals by poking them with your knife or a twig.
  9. Blow air or fan the coal by using your hand or a wooden board.
  10. If you see more smoke coming out from the clump of coal, continue doing this until it turns red.
  11. Get the fireboard out of your way.
  12. There’s probably some fine sawdust or powder that’s accumulated in the notch, so add this on top of the burning coal.
  13. Place the tinder on the coal, then turn it around the other side, so the coal gets inside the tinder.
  14. Cover the remaining coal with tinder so it’s completely hidden inside it.
  15. Raise this bundle of heat and joy above your head and start blowing gently on it by exhaling in longish intervals of 6 – 7 seconds each.
  16. When you’ve nurtured your first flames to life, place this burning bundle in the fire lay.

Tips and Tricks

Now that you have your bow drill, you probably plan on using it to light a fire with it, right? So you should be prepared to use it in different conditions, even in inclement weather. That’s why, to make sure you can use it anytime, anywhere, it’s best to take a glance at the tips below:

  • Take your time to perfect the bow drill. The better you make it, the easier it will be to use it for starting your fire.
  • The stick you use for the bow has to be a bit curved and flexible, but not altogether bowed. Otherwise, it will be much tougher to keep the spindle inside the rope and hold the bow at the same time, which means you’ll have to use both hands instead of having one free.
  • Don’t put the coal directly on the ground. It’s much easier to use some bark on a piece of wood to add extra insulation and make sure the fire can actually start.
  • The rope has to be quite taut so that you can’t get the spindle into the rope very easily.
  • Make sure that if it’s windy, you place your body against the wind.
  • We’ve told you before about lubricating the handhold to decrease friction. However, make sure you don’t use oils that burn off when they’re hot because that defeats the purpose.
  • We also advised you earlier to support your spinning arm on your shin. But if you’re big boned or aren’t flexible enough, and can’t do that, use your inner thigh for support.
  • The logic behind keeping a straight arm to use the bow drill is that a straight arm can apply more force much easier. So basically you’re saving your strength for actually spinning the spindle and increasing your chances of creating a spark.
  • The bow needs to be held near its tip, not near the middle so you can actually hold it steady. Otherwise, it will prove very wobbly.
  • Your handhold has to be quite flat, so it’s best to use a mirror or have someone tell you if you’re keeping it flat, or otherwise it might just seem flat even if you don’t hold the right posture.
  • If there’s black dust after you’ve twisted the spindle, with no smoke, it means the coal went out so you need to tilt the spindle a bit in order for more air to get inside the notch. You can even blow some air yourself toward the dust.
  • You should use your knife when you make the transfer of the coal on your tinder, to make sure this stays in a compact bundle.
  • The logic of holding the lit tinder above your face isn’t so you can burn it. It’s so the smoke doesn’t get in your nose, but it also keeps a good balance between how much fuel you have and how much oxygen it reaches it.
  • The coal has to be completely covered by tinder so it constantly gets fuel for burning.
  • Keep approximately 8 inches from your face to the tinder, not less or otherwise, you’ll blow some water vapor there too, that hinders the chances of you lighting the fire.
  • If you’re a beginner, you can start with a kit you get at a lumber store.
  • A harder wood for the hearth is better because it means that your hearth can be thinner.
  • If you want to use a rock for the handhold and want to carve a notch inside it, it’s best to use eye protection.
Using a bow drill

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Final Thoughts

We’ve taken you through a series of steps and advice on making the bow drill, so we hope that will help you build the perfect fire. However, we have to give you a heads-up: it’s a tough job making the fire, so you need tons of practice.

So when making your first bow drill, you shouldn’t use the finest wood you can get. Oakwood is fine, to begin with, so you can practice as long as you need. After that, when you’ll get your hands on high-quality cedar or cottonwood, you’ll get it right the first time.

Now that we’ve told you all this, tell us a bit more about yourself. What will you use this bow drill for? Have you made one before? And when you’ve devised your bow drill, come back here and tell us how it went. What seemed the easiest? What did you struggle the most with? The comments are right below!


Russell McCarty

Russell McCarty

Russell considers backpacking one of his great passions in life. He actually managed to transform his passion into a living becoming a professional adventurer. Russell loves long-distance backpacking and he enriched his portfolio with famous trails like the Alaska-Yukon Expedition or the Appalachian Trail. With thousands of miles under his feet, Russell is the expert to consult when it comes to how to prepare for a successful outdoor adventure.