Choosing wood for a bow drill

Bow drill troubleshooting

The bow drill method of friction fire lighting is one of the most popular methods of lighting fire by friction in bushcraft. Although it can take many attempts to get it right, it is definitely worth the effort and perseverance.

Here are our bow drill troubleshooting tips:

Squeaking: Try changing the amount of pressure you are using, add some or reduce it as needed until the noise goes. Once things get warmed up things should get a lot smoother and the squeak should disappear. Sometimes it helps to roughen up the surface with a knife if you think that the drill is polished up (it will look glassy). A polished drill will reduce friction and not help you at all.

Cord keeps slipping: You need to tighten the string, if you struggle with this you can tie the cord straight to the bow before its bent. Then when you twist the drill into the string, it won’t slip. Make sure the bow is as long as your arm, which will make it easier to drill with greater effect.

The cord keeps wearing out and breaking: This might be because of a looser cord causing friction and heat which will melt it rather than wear through. Try with a tighter cord and if that doesn’t work, plait three bits together as this will also help grip the drill causing less slipping. Para cord works well but does not last forever, if you can get hold of a leather strap or thong then this is perfect.

No smoke: If you aren’t getting any smoke, don’t stop bowing but instead add pressure and bow speed.

Not the right colour dust powder: You want dust powder that is dark brown/black.  If the powder is light brown in colour and dusty, then you are going too slow and not applying enough pressure. If the colour of the powder is too light but the consistency is correct, then you are going too slowly. Also, if the colour is right but the consistency is that of little rolls of fibre, you might be going too fast or not pressing down hard enough on the bearing block. If you are getting the right colour but the powder looks crusty, then you might be going too fast, pressing down too hard, or both.

Moving the bow is too difficult: The drill may be too wide, so try lubricating the bearing block with Vaseline, or if you don’t have any at hand, facial grease or earwax would also do the trick. Make sure the drill is not binding on the edges of the bearing block hole and whittle the drill accordingly.

Drill keeps popping out and the notch has become irregular or oval shaped: This can be caused by a number of things such as the hole in your bearing block may not be deep enough, the notch in the hearth board may not be whittled deep enough, you may not be holding the hand-hold steady enough or you may be jerking the bow back and forth too vigorously. You need to use smooth even strokes.

A great way to get to grips with using a bow drill is by joining our one day friction fire lighting course held in beautiful woodland in Dorset and Hampshire. You will learn what wood to look for and be shown how to make a bow drill set, before heading into the woods to make your own. Our instructors will demonstrate how to use it and make fire by friction, with plenty of time to practice until you produce your very own ember. We hope to see you out in the woods very soon.

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  1. Lydia Wright says:

    This is a really helpful article! It’s covered most of my problems but one that wasn’t mentioned is the fact the cord keeps moving up the drill! I’m guessing it’s a problem with technique but I have yet to figure out my problem!

    1. Try to keep the bow parallel with the ground.

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