Hand drilling in UK as taught by Dave Watson

Friction fire hand drills are normally not the first choice for fire lighting in the Northern Hemisphere, as it is regarded as a strenuous technique, especially in cold and humid environments. Dave Watson proved under overcast Northern Wales weather conditions, that this perception is not correct. He produced with hand drilling in the UK as fast an ember, as he did with a bow drill.

Materials used for friction fire hand drills in boreal forest biomes in the Northern Hemisphere

Hearth board for hand drill friction fire method

Dave is using dry Wild clematis (Clematis vitalba) wood as a hearth board, which he cuts into 1,5-2 cm thick slices. This thickness is ideal for being able to drill long enough and minimize the distance (and therefore heat loss) for falling down charred powder to create an ember in the notch.

Spindle for hand drill friction fire method

For spindles, he either uses hazelwood (Corylus sp.) with a tip of elder wood (Sambucus nigra) or a uniform spindle of elder wood. According to Dave, elder shoots should preferably be collected from a bush or tree, which is not fully exposed to sunlight, as in this case, the shoots tend to grow too fast and only develop a very thin wooden area, with a large pit inside. It is far more likely to get good wood from shaded bushes And he collects all his elder shoots in wintertime when they contain the least water from bushes that are growing in forests. Nevertheless, every single elder shot has got a differently sized pit.

For hand drilling spindles in the UK, Dave cuts about 10 cm long parts of elder shoots and removes up to a depth of about 3 cm the spongy pit. Thereafter he carves onto his Hazel shoots a matching prop with a 90-degree shoulder and matches both pieces mechanically together. They will never come apart again and he got a perfectly straight stick with a tip of softer wood and a small surface area (as only the elder wood will grind, not the elder pit). On average, the spindles are in total about 80 cm long.

Kindling for hand drill friction fire method

For receiving the ember, Dave is using a dry grass nest, in which he fills in an additional kindling primer. Most of the time he is using either thistle- or fireweed (Rosebay willowherb; Chamaenerion angustifolium) fluff.

Specifics of hand drill fire-making

Before Dave starts, he wet his hands with water to get a better grip for whirling. And whenever he stops, he will wet his hands again before starting. When doing it myself, I found a big difference in applying water to the hands or not. So, it is recommended.

When hand drilling in the UK, Dave is not holding down the hearth board with his feet, but before he starts, he makes sure that the board is not moving in any way. And it could be seen that it was not necessary during drilling to hold it down.

Dave is using nearly the whole length of the spindle to drill, which is a considerably longer time than it is rotated before setting a new grip in Australia or Africa. Dave is using his whole upper body to apply downward force onto his hands by kneeing quite backward from the spindle.

For pre-burning only about three whole spindle strokes were necessary. A small notch was cut, and a wood chip was laid underneath. For the actual burning action, not more than about five full spindle strokes were necessary to produce an ember.

A similar technique was afterward practiced by us in a relay fashion. Always three persons kneed around a hand drill and wetted their hands. The first one held down with two fingers the hearth board, the second one rotated the spindle and when reaching the lower point shouted, ‘Take over’. At this command, the third one took over at the top and this went around until we created an ember, which – again – happened surprisingly fast.

Lessons learned by Dave Watson about friction fire hand drilling

  • Friction fire hand drilling is – with the availability of suitable materials – also in cold and humid climates done easily.
  • Harvest elder shoots from shaded bushes in wintertime
  • Prepare a Clematis hearth board and dry it out properly
  • Train to match Elder tips with Hazel shoots for hand drill spindles

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 camp.

Dave reviewed this article on August 11, 2022, suggested one comment that was added, and had no further objections.

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