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Bush Craft: Fire by friction


Since humans as we know them first roamed the earth, fire has been made by rubbing two sticks together in one of a number of ways.

What is interesting is that where these methods (with a few minor differences) are found to be used throughout the world by indigenous people, the techniques are the same. The three techniques I will discuss here are the hand drill, the fire bow, and the fire plough.

Just before we start, a brief note on the type of wood to use. Choosing the right wood is the key to fire by friction. The hearth should be a softwood, and the drill a hardwood. One of the woods must ‘break down’ to produce tinder for the creation of an ember, and this will be extremely difficult if both pieces are hardwood; the wood will just ‘glaze’. Equally, if both hearth and spindle are softwood, they may consume one another without producing an ember.

Fire bow

(1) The four elements for a bow drill

For the fire bow, you will need the following:

Socket: This is used to apply downward pressure to the drill and hold it in place. It needs to have a slight depression in it to hold the drill, and can be either a stone or a piece of wood.

Drill: This should be a straight piece of wood approximately 30cm in length and 1.5-2cm in diameter. The top should be carved to minimise friction, and the bottom carved to maximise the friction surface. Do not use wood with a thick pith core, as this will not work properly.

Fire hearth: The hearth can be any suitable piece of wood, but should be wider than the drill. A depression which will hold the drill should be cut in the hearth, and a V-shaped cut notched in one side. This will gather the tinder and ember.

Bow: The bow should be a pliable stick approximately 60-70cm long which can be formed into a bow without snapping. Use string or natural cordage for the bowstring. Leave no slack when tying the string to the bow.

Creating an ember

Place a leaf or stone on the ground beneath the cut in the hearth. This will catch the ember. Loop the bowstring over the drill, place the drill in the depression in the hearth, and hold the socket on top of the drill. Place one foot on the hearth to hold it firmly against the ground. Before you go hammer-and-tongs trying to create an ember, make sure the drill is seated.

To do this, draw the bow back and forth several times until the drill seats itself and has scorched the entire surface of the working end. This is important; you need the widest possible area to create tinder and an ember. Once this is done, apply downward pressure on the drill, and begin drawing the bow back and forth. Once a smooth action has been established, work the bow faster. This action will grind hot black powder (punk) which will fall through the groove and create a small ember. This can then be gently moved to a bird’s nest of dry tinder kept nearby. Place it in the nest, and blow gently on it until it catches alight.

Hand drill

The hand drill is a variation on the bow drill, and is perhaps the method most used by indigenous people around the world. It is made in exactly the same way as the bow drill, but, rather than using a bow to spin the drill, we use our hands. The drill for this method needs to be longer (at least 50-70cm), and as smooth as a piece of dowel. Any knot or imperfection will cause cuts and blisters on your palms.

As you spin the drill, apply downward pressure. When your hands reach the bottom, move them to the top again. While you are doing this, it is important that the drill stays seated in the hearth to keep in the heat that it is generating.

Continue spinning until an ember is created. This method requires a lot more energy, is tiring on the arms, and requires technique to create an ember. The fire bow employs mechanical advantage, and is more efficient; but personally, I prefer the hand-drill method.

Fire plough

This is the simplest of the three techniques. Basically, you need a piece of softwood for the base, and a hardwood fire plough. Gather a bundle of tinder and place it on the base wood.  Begin rubbing the plough up and down the base wood towards the tinder. Begin slowly at first, gradually increasing speed. Rotate the plough slightly on each stroke. Eventually a groove will be formed, producing dark powder which is pushed towards the tinder. Be careful not to break this tinder up, as it will become the ember.


Do not assume that any one of these techniques is easy. None of them are. They take the right combination of wood, a lot of effort, and skill which can only be gained by practice; but the satisfaction gained by creating fire by ‘rubbing two sticks together’ (especially for the first time) is worth all the sweat and tears.