Bow drilling in Australia by Gordon Dedman
At the Global Bushcraft Symposium 2022 in the UK, Gordon Dedman presented the bow drilling technique he is teaching in Australia. It is assumed that readers know the basics of bow drill friction fire lighting and I therefore will only concentrate on specific aspects of this technique as taught by Gordon.
Setting up the bow drill set
Which kind of wood to use for hearth board and spindle was discussed in my post about Australian woods for friction fire lighting, which can be found here. At this article here, I will discuss shapes, geometries, and procedures.
For the hearth board for bow drilling in Australia, Gordon is using sticks of the same wood as the spindles are, but only about 1,2-1,5 times wider than the spindle is. That means, the hearth board is comparatively slim compared to the spindle and very often from the same dead and dry piece of wood. Length of the hearth board should be enough to burn another 3 or 4 friction fire holes into it and still have got enough space to securely hold it down with one of the feet. The hearth board should be flat at the bottom, so that it can be held down with a foot without moving or vibrating. In case it vibrates, no ember will be formed but only dust will accumulate. Gordon also cuts a flat sidewall at the place the notch will be located.
The spindle length depends again on a variety of factors, like thickness of the hearth board, length of own lower leg, thickness of holding block a.s.o., but a length of about 35 cm is suitable in most cases. As always, on the lower-/friction side the shape of the spindle should be half-round and on the upper-/bearing side a pronounced, long tip should be cut.
As a bow for bow drilling in Australia, Gordon uses thick, stout pieces of green wood of any species with a length of about one meter, from which he uses about 80 cm of net-length to use for his stroking action. The bow stick can be either straight or slightly bent and most bow sticks he uses are between 3 – 4 cm thick. Gordon prefers to saw on either end an inclined V-notch. On the upper end he attaches the string in the notch with a snare knot; at the lower end (which he holds in his hand) he secures the string with a good number of half-hitches.
As a string, Gordon uses Paracord (between 3,5 – 5 mm thickness). He fits new string cords in such a way that there is only a slight slack in the final mounted cord on the bow, as new Paracord will stretch up to a certain point. For already used Paracord strings, the slack below a virtual straight line in between the two anchor points depends on the spindle thickness, but as a rule of thumb about 3 cm slack should be fine. In case the grip of the string on the spindle is not enough and the spindle starts slipping, following measures can be taken according to Gordon:
- Unknotting and tightening up the string, or
- Gripping the string on the bow further up the line, or
- Moving the bow away from the spindle during the stroking action
- Using a thicker spindle
Alternatively, if no Paracord is available, any other kind of strong and uniformly thick string can be used.
Holding block and others
As holding block for bow drilling in Australia, Gordon uses green hardwood pieces, which are half-round on the upper side. The bearing hole will be cut with a knife in the middle of the block. And, if the block is slightly dry already, he spits into the hole for lubrication. Blade for catching the ember and useful tinder plus its preparation were already discussed in my former post about Australian woods for friction fire lighting.
Burning-in the bow drill set
Due to the slim width of the hearth board, Gordon always got a good look where exactly to center the spindle. He puts the spindle in such a way that there is still a secure sidewall but not too much wood to remove for the notch. Thereafter burning-in is done as everywhere else in the world, from cautious start until first smoke appears and some strokes further.
Cutting the notch at the hearth board
Notch-cutting is again done the same as everywhere else, but Gordon is not shy of having improved the notching efficiency. Sometimes he just cuts the notch with a handsaw and cleans it out with the knife. That’s by far faster compared to a knife only.
Producing an ember with the bow drill
Before starting to produce ember, Gordon always checks sidewalls and bottoms of both hearth board and spindle and cleans out with the knife whatever could negatively influence the action. Like charred sidewalls, glazed areas or elevated pits at the bottom which are increasing the friction area.
After having made sure that all his bow drill parts are in optimal shape and fit each other, he ensures availability of a proper ‘bird nest’, fire pit, enough kindling in four different sizes and suitable firewood. Only thereafter he will start producing the ember.
He assembles the bow drill and starts stroking and – depending on the used wood species – he either increases pressure on the holding block or increases stroking speed or doing both. Necessary regulations of speed and pressure will be felt and heard around a ‘sweet spot’. If the spindle starts squeaking, it means that the pressure has to be increased on the holding block; if only dust is produced (and there are no board vibrations) the speed must be increased.
When stroking, most important according to Gordon, are following factors:
- Thumb-hand wrist area is securely pressing onto the shinbone avoiding vibrations to the spindle
- All strokes are parallel to the ground and scooping is avoided, as this will move the string up and down the spindle
Gordon produced embers with various types of Australian woods and every time within a period of about 30 seconds at dry weather in Wales, UK. Typically, for the last 10 seconds he did high speed stroking.
Treatment of the ember
The hearth board was carefully removed from the ember on a woodchip, remaining dust put with the fingers on to the ember and was left consolidating for 1 or 2 minutes, like it is done everywhere else.
Blowing the grass bundle into flame
Again, same standard procedure as everywhere else. Ember was put into the grass bundle, slightly closed, and with long continuous and directed blows activated. After every long blow and sidewards moving action with the bundle in hand – blowing again. Until the smoke starts to turn yellow and the bundle breaks into flames. When this happens, the grass bundle is turned around, so that the flames are burning up into new grass blades and are transferred to the fire pit. Kindling crisscross atop. Thereafter putting on firewood pyramid style.
Lessons learned from Gordon about bow drill fire lighting
- Hearth board and spindle for bow drilling in Australia can be from the same stick
- No need for a wide hearth board; a little bit thicker than the spindle is enough
- The bow should be stout piece of green wood
- Notch cutting with a saw is easier
- Not only pressure on the block is important, but also speed of strokes
- Always try to feel and hear the sweet spot
Global Bushcraft Symposium 2022 (GBS2022) and Gordon Dedman
GBS2022 was held from 27th-31st July 2022 at a location at Llyn Tegid (Bala Lake), within Snowdonia National Park, in North Wales, UK.
Gordon Dedman is the founder of Bushcraft Survival Australia (BSA), an outdoor bushcraft survival school dedicated to teaching genuine and authentic modern and traditional outdoor living skills through carefully designed educational courses.
Gordon is a former member of the Australian Army 1st Commando Regiment and is presently a survival instructor in NORFORCE, an Australian Army Reserve Regional Force Surveillance Unit (RFSU). NORFORCE conducts patrols in the remote areas of Northern Australia, working closely with Aboriginal communities.
Gordon is also a Combat Survival SERE instructor (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape) and regularly instructs on RAAF Combat Survival Training School Courses in North Queensland.
He has trained at and completed numerous Survival and Bushcraft courses and certifications worldwide at leading schools run by Paul Kirtley (Frontier Bushcraft UK), Ray Mears (Woodlore Bushcraft UK), Dave Canterbury (Pathfinder School USA), Lofty Wiseman (Trueways Survival UK), Richard Hungerford (Bushlore Australia QLD) and Bob Cooper (Bob Cooper Outback Survival WA).
Gordon also works seasonally as an outdoor guide in the Northern Territory, taking clients on camping expeditions into Kakadu and Arnhemland.
A full bio of Gordon Dedman can be found here.
There are also video’s on his YouTube channel in various parts of Australia doing friction fire and using various tinder’s, which can be accessed here.
Gordon reviewed this post on August 12, 2022, suggested some changes which were included, and had no further objections.