My first bowdrill

i realized while reading tom brown that the old willow that fell down last fall should be some good softwood for a bow drill. i spent the weekend whittling a spindle and splitting a fireboard from a log. i have everything but the hand socket so far, as i don’t have any harder wood for that. i keep checking peoples’ rock gardens for a good river rock with a dimple already spooned out, but i haven’t had any luck yet.

[ul][li]how detrimental will it be if i end up using willow for the hand socket as well? will it just wear out fast? [/li]
[li]how much does greasing up the socket and the spindle top keep the friction and wear down? [/li]
[li]what’s the best thing to use for lubing the socket and spindle–especially if the socket is soft wood?[/li][/ul]

I think you can use the willow for the hand socket. It doesn’t wear much at all if greased with soap, actually the only lubricant I’ve tried thus far. But if it does wear for some reason you can always find your perfect stone later.

I agree with Penny. Just use the willow for your handhold. Grease it with your earwax. You can also rub the spindle in the greasy corners of your nose. This can look funny if the end has already burned a little bit and you get carcoal on your nose.

Aside from the “perfect parts” you’ll want the “perfect form” which I have rarely found acurately described in any book. Similarly, the drawings of bow-drill almost always have insanely long spindles which makes me wonder who the fuck drew these pictures? The Bow-drill clown? I generally have found spindles that go from my pinky to my thumb while I make a “hang loose” sign, work the best.

thanks for the replies, scouts.

urban, i took your cue from the picture on the wiki of your “hang loose” spindle length. since you’re “nasty, brutish and short” and i’m “tall, bald and gangly”, my hang loose is probably a little longer than yours. :slight_smile:

i was actually able to find a good rock yesterday. i lubed it and the spindle with vaseline, and got no smoke from the socket end of the spindle.

i didn’t think of soap, penny. that probably would have been less messy than the vaseline. i’ll try that next time. i figured in a primitive situation i’d use my big greasy nose or some tallow.

i was able to get smoke and a lot of black powder but no coal. the powder changed texture as i went, too–probably from the amount of pressure i was putting on it? it went from really powdery light brown to really powdery black to flaky black. also, my spindle tip looks kind of glossy now.

the willow smoke smelled wonderful. kind of like roasting marshmallows. i still have the memory of it in my nostrils this morning.


[ul][li]do i have to resharpen my spindle each time i go for a new coal, or is the spindle tip “self sharpening”[/li]
[li]do i need to sand the glossiness off my spindle tip (it is just a slight sheen–not sure if it’s typical or if it’s a real glaze that’s going to defeat friction)[/li]
[li]are my speed and pressure what’s affecting the look of the powder[/li]
[li]what does ideal powder look like[/li]
[li]how much powder should there be[/li]
[li]how long does it need to smoke before there’s a coal[/li]
[li]how do i know when there’s an actual coal down there[/li]
[li]so what’s the “perfect form”[/li][/ul]

it went from really powdery light brown to really powdery black to flaky black. also, my spindle tip looks kind of glossy now.

The black flaky stuff I usually get when I press down too hard. The shinny tip I usually get when I don’t press hard enough.

* do i have to resharpen my spindle each time i go for a new coal, or is the spindle tip "self sharpening"

No. If you’ve got the perfect parts, once you get the perfect form down, you won’t have too. The tip will not become shiny smooth. Sometimes it tends to get pointy, at which point you may want to make it flat again.

* do i need to sand the glossiness off my spindle tip (it is just a slight sheen--not sure if it's typical or if it's a real glaze that's going to defeat friction)

Yeah, I’d sand it off. and make the point flat. You want as much friction as possible at that end, so flat and rough does the trick. You want the top end to get shinny and stay very pointy. I generally don’t use rock hand-holds for that reason. They tend to sand down the point and since rocks generally have rough surfaces the top never seems to glaze.

* are my speed and pressure what's affecting the look of the powder

I’d say pressure. But I need more info.

* what does ideal powder look like

I’d say light brown first, to dark brown to black. Black and flaky goes too far and I have never seen it turn into a coal.

* how much powder should there be

Depends on how long your drilling. If you board is one inch, and you just cut a notch, and the powder has to fall and fill up the notch, then that’s how much you need. Using yucca on cottonwood I can get a coal in 10 seconds. But that’s because I use the perfect form, and the wood is very lofty and light.

* how long does it need to smoke before there's a coal

Depends on the wood, and your form.

* how do i know when there's an actual coal down there

Sometimes you need to check. Othertimes you’ll start to notice how the little pile of powder smokes differently, a thick steady stream of smoke billows from the pile. Not always, and sometimes it’ll do that when you don’t have one yet. Not a sure fire sign. Othertimes the coal will fall out glowing red. Other times the pile will start to glow red.

* so what's the "perfect form"

Hard to simply describe… I’ll pretend yout right handed like me. If not, just reverse the directions.

  1. Put the fire board under your left foot. Align it so its next to your ankle (so that the board appears to be sticking out to your right, from your ankle.

  2. Straighten your shins and thighs into a box shape… Make your legs right angles at your knees. Your right shin should be flat on the ground, pointing behind you. Your right thigh should come up straight, making the back side of the box/square. Your left thigh should stick out straight making the top of the box, then your left shin should go straight down to the ground making the front side of the box, then the ground between your left foot and right knee makes the bottom. The distance between your left foot and right knee should match the length of your left thigh, making it square looking.

  3. Wrap the spindle in the bow. Put your hand hold in your left hand, wrap your left arm around your left knee and angle your fist inward toward your body. Notice that a notch-shape appears where your wrist and hand/thumb meet. That notch or crook in your hand/wrist should fit nicely into your left shin. Since you placed you fire board, and lined up your socket near your ankle, you can use this notch in your hand/wrist to “hook” into your shin for total support. This helps mostly to keep the spindle straight up and down and in place. It also allows you to use your body weight for pressure instead of your arm strength.

  4. Hold the bow from the very back.

  5. As you begin drilling, keep your bow arm straight and let it swing like a pendulum.

  6. When first drilling, you want to go faster and harder to get a base of powder, as your powder builds, you can use longer, slower strides. You’ll hear the rythm of it when you’ve got it going. It just makes this perfect sawing sound.

  7. If your string slides around your bow as you drill, tighten your string. If your spindle keeps poping out everytime you let off pressure, loosen the string. This may be another reason for the black stiff powder. If your spindle is wound to tight, the only way to get it to turn is with lots of downward pressure, which is generally too much. Loosen the string, see what happens.

If I forgot anything… We’ll find out.

Good luck!

wow, lots of great information. thanks, scout!

i think i had pretty good form. i was going off elpel’s instructions in Participating in Nature. i’m not sure if my legs made a perfect square, and i know i didn’t make the notch with my left wrist/hand to fit against my shin–though i did have my left wrist braced against my shin.

the amount of powder needed being relational to the thickness of the fireboard makes excellent sense.

i see now, that i also had the sharpness of my spindle backwards. i had the blunt end at the top and the pencil sharp end at the bottom. i think i ended up drilling a lot of wood off the board with the sharpness, and that attributed to the seemingly excessive amount of powder.

i think the burned-in bottom end of my spindle is probably the right sharpness now, judging by your spindle picture on the wiki. i think i’ll knock the shine off it and round it out a little more for more friction surface.

i think i ended up getting the black flaky and the shiny tip because i was trying various pressures as i went, and i probably hit both extremes before i gave up last night.

You want the top end to get shinny and stay very pointy. I generally don't use rock hand-holds for that reason. They tend to sand down the point and since rocks generally have rough surfaces the top never seems to glaze.
i can see what you're saying about the rock being too hard. it was definitely taking wood off the top of the spindle. i had no burn-in there since it was all lubed up with vaseline. i think as far as slickness, i was fine, but i bet it will definitely cut down on my spindle's life expectancy.
If your spindle is wound to tight, the only way to get it to turn is with lots of downward pressure, which is generally too much. Loosen the string, see what happens.
i never thought about the string being too tight. i'll try loosening.

as for the wood. it seems like everyone i read uses cottonwood or yucca–neither of which i have in the ozarks. i might be able to find some decorative yucca planted somewhere, but i won’t count on it when the civ goes down. we have lots of willows around fayetteville, but out in the hills, i’m not sure what will work. our forests are mostly hardwood. there are some cedars (which i think is really a kind of juniper, but i don’t know what species) but i figured the cedars would be pitchy and just end up glazing. mullein might be my best bet if i’m around any kind of clear ground, as it is pretty profuse in every part of the state. and maybe cattail in wetlands, though i don’t know what i could use for a fireboard, since the stalks are so thin.

I think Willow should work just fine. A friend of mine once picked up a willow twig from the street gutter on our way to camp at Mt. Hood. When we got there we realized no one brought matches… totally stupid. So my friend pics up some other wood… don’t remember what, and gets a hand-drill coal in like a minute with the willow twig. Pretty sweet stuff willow. I saw a guy make an entire bow-drill set out of a single willow branch, cordage and all. Then he made a coal right there with it. The whole process took him maybe 30 minutes. This was a tracker school instructor from back in the day.

yeah, i could tell when i split my fireboard out of a log that the bark would make excellent cordage.

i have only “pretended” to make cordage so far–once i read about the concept of twining, i took some strings from the kitchen and twined them together into a thicker chord in order to practice the technique.

i wanted to try getting some bark fiber out of the stuff i’m working with now to try to make some cordage, but it seems pretty hard to extract when it’s this dry. when i cut the tree down last fall, the bark was really easy to get to, tho.

I knew I forgot something. This really only applies when using natural chordage, not parachute cord…

You must hold the bow at a 45 degree angle when drilling. This makes the cordage not rub against itself as you drill. Parachute cord is strong and protected and you don’t need to worry about it, unless you want to train yourself for how to do it the “real way.” I don’t know how many nettle cordage strings I’ve accidentally broke because I was used to using a shoelace or parachute cord… A reall bummer after spending the time to make the cordage.

yeah i meant to ask about that. i remember reading it in elpel.

i was going to ask about the general longevity of natural chordage.

for now i’m using some nylon clothes line.

Hmm. I used a nettle cord for a long time. My friend Nicholas made a nettle necklace and wore it for years, showered with it on an everything… kinda like Hemp. Lasts forever.

Now, twisting it and pulling it definately shorten the life span… but if you know how to treat it & know how to wrap it… it’ll last quite a while.

I busted a coal last night. On my second try of the night and my third try total.

The first try last night I was able to get a really tiny coal, but the wind blew it out before I could shelter and gently feed it air. The next time I tried, I got a lot of smoke and a lot of powder, but not anything that seemed like a constant enough smoke to tell me that I had a coal. I gave up, and was looking at how much powder I had–a huge pile–when I realized that there was a fat coal inside the mound of powder.

I blocked the wind and gently fanned it to help it grow. Then I grabbed my nest I had made the other night–dried grass stuffed with cattail fuzz. I was afraid I’d smothered the coal when I dumped it in the fuzz, but it was pretty healthy by that point. The wind and I blew it into health, consuming the cattail and making a lot of punk before the grass caught… and then I had flame.

I wasn’t interested in building a fire, so I had no tipi of tinder set up. But I grabbed a cigarette to light off the nest. I’m sure the whole neighborhood wondered what that weird guy in the house by the creek was yelling about. I danced and smoked and loved my fire.

Cattail fuzz has some awesome longevity. It was still a nice red smoldering punk long after the grass had burned away. I refused to put it out and just let it burn itself out in appreciation of the energy that was being released and transformed. I sat smoking my camel, keeping my sad son away from the pretty red stuff he wanted so bad, tending the smoldering punk to keep it from catching my lawn on fire.

It was a good night.

Thanks for all your help and encouragement.

Awesome! Gratz! ;D

Congratulations! Sounds a lot less frustrating than my first attempts a bowdrill. But then I didn’t have the gentle guidance of dumdumdum… Urban Scooouuuuttttttt.

Haha. Nice job! You’re ready to move to the next step: Green Oak :wink:

haha green oak. yeah, i’ve heard that story, stalking wolf… i mean, urban scout.

i’m definitely going to play around with my willow set for a while. maybe try a cattail hand-drill set. i’d like to find some other ozark soft woods. maybe find a slightly harder wood for the fireboard. experiment with using a crack in the wood instead of splitting a plank and carving a chimney. maybe try the two-piece round-stick fireboard variation–make some attempts to drop the energy investment in getting a set put together.

by the way, scout, here’s the infamous coke can bottom reflector fire you referenced in the post about cotton balls and vaseline. i’ll drop a link in that post too.

here’s another great page on the wildwood survival site of friction material usefulness. it would be a good thing to add to the wiki if i can find it get permission–or if we can start our own chart and fill it with our first-hand experiences.

i was able to talk my friend luke though busting a coal on my bow-drill set last night. unfortunately, the tinder bundle i had prepared (just dried grass–no cattail down this time) wasn’t too user friendly, and he wasn’t able to get a flame. but the coal was nice.

kick ass, the bowdrill is bomb. when i use natural cordage i use what i’ve heard called ‘the egyptian bowdrill method’, damn, i’d love to hear that over some huge stadium speakers…
tie the cordage on the bow real loose and wrap it around the spindle 5 or 6 times until its taut enough. go for it THE EGYPTIAN BOWDRILL METHOD, shit that’d sound good in baritone with some wwf echoes.
now try the fire plow

i can bust coals like nobody’s business now. but i’m having trouble getting tinder bundles to flame up.

what do you guys use for tinder bundles?

my best luck has been with standing dead cattail leaves twisted into a nest and stuffed with fluffed cattail down. that combo has worked a few times.

usually, though, the tinder gets charred but never ignites before the coal dies out.

any suggestions on materials or blowing techniques would be greatly appreciated.

It seems like you may need something to bridge the size of the cattail fluff & Cattail leaves.

IME cattail down burns up to quickly before the bigger stuff can ignite. I use it to kick start the bundle and ignite the smaller stuff. I generally use red cedar bark or inner cottonwood bark.

One time I used crumpled up wax paper outside of a Pizza Shop. No one, even me, thought it would work… so the whole “praying for a coal” thing isn’t always neccesary. The gods will give it to you when you know how to make fire-love. You ask with your body, not your mind. Know what I’m sayin?