Bow drill standard procedure by Dave Watson

The approach of friction fire lighting with bow drills in the UK is slightly different from other countries. In the following, these differences will be explained.

Materials and shapes of the various bow drill elements

Hearth board of the bow drill

Preferrable lime (Tilia cordata) wood is used for hearth boards. Lime sap- and heartwood are hardly distinguishable from each other; lime has a medium density of about. 0,530 g/cm3 and it is uniformly dense and not elastic. Another type of wood used for hearth boards is Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), which is technically spoken hardwood and contains a high water content but produces lots of heat quickly. It is therefore suitable for fire starting. Dave Watson cautioned against using Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) wood as a hearth board, as Sweet chestnut just produces long fibers and not a powder to form an ember.

The shape of the hearth board is rather wide. See the photo above.

Bow drill spindle

Unlike other proponents, Dave suggests using a different type of wood for the spindle. He is preferring Hazel (Corylus sp.) shoots. The thickness of the spindle should be around the size of a middle finger and the length of a handspan.

Bow drill bearing (Holding block)

A very hard and green wood is used. Preferable wood from the Holly (Ilex aquifolium). To reduce the friction between the spindle and the bearing, a fresh, green leaf (e.g.: bramble) is put in between both.

Bow for the bow drill

Either Hazelwood (Corylus sp.) or Ashwood (Fraxinus excelsior) is used. The length of the bow is about one meter, and the bow is strung by far more elastic compared to either the Swedish- or Australian way. It is a real bow, resembling a bow for shooting arrows.

Operation of the assembled bow is like everybody else is doing it and the same is the case for catching the ember, fanning it, and starting a fire.

During GBS2022 a wide variety of materials and shapes for bow drills could be seen, and there is no right or wrong way. All types produced ember at roughly the same time with similar efforts. Bow drilling is therefore a very versatile technique, not restricted to certain types of wood or techniques. Important is to choose initially the best-suited, dry materials found directly in the forests, woodlands, or savannas and put an effort into the outcome.

In my opinion, bow drilling is in all areas worldwide with not too high humidity the technique of choice for producing fire with very limited man-made supplies. Just a paracord or similar string makes this technique easier to master.

Lessons learned from Dave Watson on bow drilling:

  • Dry lime (linden) wood is ideal as a hearth board
  • Hazel works very well as a spindle on a lime base
  • Sweet chestnut should not be considered for friction fire lighting
  • It does not matter if a fire bow looks like a bow or is just a straight stave: both work very well.

Global Bushcraft Symposium 2022 (GBS2022) and Dave Watson

GBS2022 was held from 27th-31st July 2022 at a location at Llyn Tegid (Bala Lake), within Snowdonia National Park, in North Wales, UK.

Dave set up his company ‘Woodland Survival Crafts’ in 1995 following ten years of building the activities programs as well as the teams of instructors. In 2007 he instigated the development of what is now the Bushcraft Professional Practice group within the Institute for Outdoor Learning, which promotes good practice of wilderness-based skills within education. He was awarded Leading Practitioner within the IOL. With the Global Bushcraft Symposium 2022, Dave acted both as a speaker and lead of the Fire Craft Theme Camps.

Dave reviewed this article on August 11, 2022, and had no objections.

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