“Obsession is the single most wasteful human activity, because with an obsession you keep coming back and back and back to the same question and never get an answer” (Norman Mailer)

If I so much as mention friction fire at home my partner will begin rocking back-and-forth like a mad woman, cover her ears and start humming.  Even my mother – who watches some of these videos more, I suspect, out of a desire to remember what her son looks like than for any burning interest in junglecraft – repeatedly reminds me how boring she finds the videos on fire starting.  Only the dogs have maintained my interest level in friction fire, although this is principally because they have worked out that the technique requires the use of both my hands, leaving me wide open and powerless as they move in to lick the sweat off my face – which feels a bit like being  a boxer having his brow cooled with a sponge between bouts (only warmer and unpleasantly stickier).

I even find myself questioning why the primitive art of friction fire holds such an appeal for me.  The standard answer is that “in a survival situation I could start a fire”… but the truth is that I very much doubt I will ever find myself in such a situation (particularly as I always carry a lighter).  Even if the survival-situation-scenario were a satisfactory explanation of ‘why‘, it fails to explain the compulsion to keep experimenting when I already-know-how-to-do-it.  Why not just stop?; secure in the knowledge that I can start a fire if I need to.

The only comfort here is that I know I am not alone it being obsessive about friction fire…. Youtube has a plethora of videos on friction fire: from beginners getting their first bow drill ember to the experts using three inch floating drills or getting a hand drill ember in just 2 seconds.  I enjoy watching them all.  I am an addict.

So, you may ask, why would anyone recommend developing such an obsession?

Well, here is my (admittedly post-rationalized) justification…

Firstly, learning the bow drill requires the use of related bushcraft skills and is thus a good way to improve them:  you need to cut the bow, tie knots, whittle out a drill, carve out holes in wood, find tinder and make cordage.  If you become someone who experiments with the bow drill you will be doing this a lot!  And each time you make up a set you’ll get better at it.

Secondly, the process of experimentation with different woods helps you to ‘get your eye in’.  What do I mean by this?  Simply that  you’ll start to see the forest for its trees…the best way of learning how to identify trees is to find trees that have a use that you’ve tried out.  For example, there are many species of Macaranga here in Malaysia but I can spot the specific species that works best for friction fire half a mile away…why?  because I’ve spent hours searching out and studying that tree…and the only reason I did that is  because it provides such a useful wood for friction fire.

As you learn to identify different trees the jungle begins to transform from a confusing mass of vegetation and into a road map with the trees that you recognize providing vital landmarks that help you, almost subconsciously, to find your way.

Learning friction fire techniques also helps you ‘get your eye in’ in other ways.  You’ll start to get better at spotting good tinder materials, you’ll get better at spotting dead wood caught up in the rattan, or dead branches that could make good drill sets…. abilities that are useful when you need to collect firewood (and may help you avoid pitching your hammock beneath a widow-maker).

So, friction fire experimentation provides a reason for interacting with the forest, improves associated skills and makes you more aware of your surroundings.

There is another reason that applies particularly to me: I am, by nature, impatient and a bit slapdash.  I wish I wasn’t, but I am.  Friction fire will quickly (or, in my case, rather slowly) teach you to be meticulous in your set-up, to take your time and not get flustered by failure and, perhaps most importantly, not to give up.  This is an important lesson for the jungle – learning to slow down and take your time is the key factor in dealing with an environment that can quickly punish those who are impatient or over-reach themselves.  And, as any survival instructor will tell you, ‘not giving up’ is the key factor in determining your chances of survival.

When I first started experimenting with friction fire in the jungle I bemoaned the fact that there was no reference guide to which woods work best.  In retrospect I’m glad this was the case as it forced me to try out different woods and that process teaches you what types of wood to look for.   Because here’s the thing: almost anyone with basic hand-to-eye co-ordination and average physical strength can get their first bow drill ember after about a couple of hours  if they have a good teacher and if they have the  right materials and if the conditions are favourable.  And here’s the other thing: immediately drop those same people into the jungle and they would most probably fail to get their second ember simply because the conditions in the jungle are far from being favourable and they wouldn’t know which woods to use.

So, paradoxically, when learning friction fire, failure is a necessary part of the process that ultimately leads to consistent success.

In this video I show a few tips that have helped me with the bow drill and show the bow drill in practice in the jungle itself.  The wood I use is from the fig tree and this was a discovery for me – figs trees are common in the jungle and are what is called a ‘keystone’ species as they support a huge amount of wildlife in the forest (particularly in lean times) – so, not only are you likely to come across them deep in the forest (which is not necessarily the case for the lower density, pioneer species like Macaranga), but they are easily identified as well.

I would recommend learning the bow drill to anyone interested in the outdoors (although they might curse me later on) and encourage them to experiment for themselves….’yes’ they could simply buy a bow drill set (of ideal woods) over the internet, but what’s the point?  Far more satisfying is to use the trees in the area where you live and to learn for yourself which ones work.

But I warn you now that the bow drill is only the beginning of the journey and, like drug addicts progressing from dope to harder drugs, the hand drill lies patiently waiting in the shadows to tempt you on further.

…I might do another video about that (sorry, Mum!)