“…add another sting to your bow”

In this video I look at the bow drill from a jungle perspective and show how to use a bow drill set when it’s soaking wet.

Being able to use a bow drill is a bit like riding a bike – once you can do it, you struggle to remember why it was so hard to learn in the first place.  But making this video brought back some memories of my own initial attempts.

I, unfortunately, am both an impatient and a slow learner (not a great combination!) – and, having glanced at an illustration of the bow-drill in some survival book, decided I’d got the general idea and picked up the first bit of wood to hand and whittled away my first bow drill set.

Two frustrating days later (with spindles flying across the yard, string breaking, lots of cursing and the odd wisp of smoke) and I went back and did the research I should have done in the first place.

The first thing I learned was not to use a hard, resin packed wood (and I promptly threw my hard, resin packed bow drill set onto a fire that had not been started by an ember from my hard, resin packed hearthboard and drill).

The next thing I learned was that you should make a notch in the hearthboard (duh!)

A bit more trial and error and I got my first ember.

So here are a few pointers if you are learning the bow-drill for the first time.  It’s not an exhaustive list, but simply the things I remember wishing I’d known before I started off.

  • Use paracord (weaker strings snap) and tie it securely to the bow
  • In the bearing block use a lubricant (something like shoe polish) or, better still, a drawing pin/washer/coin.  This will reduce the friction between the drill and the bearing block and transfer more energy/heat down to the hearthboard hole (where you want it)
  • Start with the easiest possible wood combination for the area you are in (check the internet and you’ll find which local woods work best)
  • Concentrate first on getting a smooth and consistent stroke and a comfortable kneeling position (put a mat or towel under your knee and get even more comfortable)
  • Don’t be in a hurry – practice the bow action without trying to produce smoke/fire first – that way you’ll stay focused on your technique
  • Focus on keeping the drill straight and keeping the bow level (otherwise the string will run up/down the drill) – you want to eliminate drill ‘wobbles’ as much as possible.
  • If the paracord starts to slip while drilling, you can tighten it by gripping it with your hand and pulling it towards the bow.
  • If you get everything right, the bow drill doesn’t require super strength and should produce an ember fast (in under 30 seconds).  If this isn’t the case you’re doing something wrong.
  • When you reach the final stage (i.e. when you begin drilling for an ember) remember to start off slowly and smoothly, gradually build up speed and, once smoke starts coming off, go as fast as you can and very slightly ease back on the downward pressure for about 5-10 seconds.
  • If you’re having problems check what other people do on Youtube (someone may have had the same particular problem as you and found a solution)
  • Have cold beers close to hand.
  • Don’t forget that everyone had to learn for the first-time-sometime and probably went through similar frustrations to any you might be encountering.

…and good luck!