Hand drill friction fire lighting in Australia

At the Global Bushcraft Symposium 2022 in the UK, Gordon Dedman presented the hand drill friction fire lighting method he is teaching in Australia. As most readers of this topic will know the basic techniques of hand drill friction fire lighting, I will only concentrate on specific aspects of this technique as taught by Gordon.

Setting up the hand drill set

Recommended wood species for hand drills in Australia were discussed at the following link. In this article here I will only discuss the shapes and procedures of hand drills. The whole equipment set-up of a hand drill set is by far simpler compared to a bow drill set, as can be seen here. We just got the hearth board, spindle, and ember catch.

Hearth Board

The hearth board is just a bit wider than the spindle, and both are often from the same shrub, bush, or tree. There are three flat sides carved into the hearth board stick. Two flats on top and bottom each and one sidewall perpendicular to them.


The length of the spindle (besides wood species) is the biggest difference between using a hand drill in Australia and such e.g., in Southern Africa. An Australian spindle is about 1 m long, whereas in Africa it is not more than about 40 cm in length. The reason for this difference is, that there are different body positions taken when drilling with hands.

A typical hand drilling position in Australia is sitting on the ground. One leg stretches out and one leg is holding the hearth board sideward with the opposite foot. The twisting of the spindle starts at a position of eye height and the twisting palms move down to stomach height. Hold the spindle into the contact area and move with the hands up again. The spindle portion from stomach height downwards is just used for the transfer of movements and forces.

The typical hand drill position in Southern Africa is not with stretched-out legs, but both legs are angled and therefore the upper body can easier move further down to the ground. See also pictures in my post: ‘Creating fire by hand drill in Namibia’ via this link.

These long Australian hand drill spindles need to be very straight, as they otherwise swirl around when twisted. And such long and straight shoots are not easy to find. Therefore, very often, such spindles have to be straightened over a fire. With ‘wetting, heating up, bending’, straight spindles can be produced with relative ease. The best thickness of hand drill spindles is about the thickness of a middle finger.

Burning-in the hand drill set and notching

As the contact area of hand drills is smaller compared to bow drill setups, friction and heat are setting in relatively fast. Notch cutting is done more easily compared to bow drills, as there is by far less wood to remove.

Producing ember with the hand drill and turning into fire

When having a good, paired set of hand drills, it takes about the same time as for bow drills to produce an ember. Again, at the last 10 seconds, the spindle should be twisted vigorously. Depending on the smoothness of the spindle wood to be used, a certain amount of calluses on the inner palms of the hands is a bonus. Embers of hand drills are smaller than their bow drill cousins, but they normally still hold for about 1-2 minutes after setting. Transferring the ember into a processed grass bundle with additional fluffy tinder and gentle, long-lasting blows will produce flames.

Lessons learned from Gordon about hand drill fire lighting

  • Sitting with the stretched legs on the ground is a convenient hand drill position
  • Hand drill spindles in Australia are often bent over fire
  • Calluses on the palms of the hands are an advantage for hand drilling and processing of grass bundles

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. His CV can be found here.

There are also videos on Gordon’s YouTube channel in various parts of Australia doing friction fire and using various tinder, which can be found at this link.

Gordon reviewed this post on August 12, 2022, suggested some changes that were included, and had no further objections.

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