Creating fire by hand drill in Namibia

The type of wood for fire hand drills changed over time

Fire starting by friction hand drill was traditionally common by Khoi-san (Ju/’hoansi) people in their area of distribution, which was once over the whole of Southern Africa and got more and more confined by invading Bantu tribes and White colonists. Now they are restricted to some areas within and around the Kalahari.

With this restriction in space, also a restriction in available materials for tools, implements, building materials, pots, and so on, happened. And for fire lighting it meant that it was necessary over time to change from 1-type-of-wood fire sets to 2-types-of-wood fire sets.

Type of wood for fire hand drills in the Lowveld area

When Khoi-san still settled in moister areas, they had a variety of wood types available. Along drainage lines, Large-leaved Feverberry (Croton megalobytris), Forest Feverberry (Croton sylvaticus), and False Marula (Lannea schweinfurthii) were available plus a variety of fig tree- and corkwood species, which all gave long straight shoots for the spindle and thick enough hearths from one species of wood.

The wood utilized for fire hand drills in scrubland areas

When moved into dryer areas, Feverberries and False Marulas were not available anymore and the variety of fig- and corkwood species declined. Plus, shoots of these trees and bushes were getting more and more scarce and crooked in dryer areas. At an intermediate stage, Khoi-san therefore used spindles of Raisin bush (Grewia sp.) and connected a piece of fig wood for the fire spindle tip. And still, a hearth of the same fig wood could be used.

The wood used for fire hand drills in semi-desert areas

Moving further on inland, also figs disappeared and there were only two types of suitable wood for friction fire hand drills available: Grewia sp. for the spindles and Commiphora sp. (mainly C. mollis, Velvet-leaved corkwood) for the hearth.

Grewia sp. for spindles has got quite a hardwood, which however is still suitable for the job. Its beauty is, that long, straight shoots are easily available, even in dry areas. And the density of the wood is very even over the whole cross-section, it doesn’t glaze up, and it dries quickly. Cut a fresh shoot in the afternoon and one day later it is dry enough for use.

Commiphora sp. are crooked bushes, where there are always enough dead, dry, and standing pieces suitable for immediate use as hearth wood. Also, Commiphora has a very uniform density of fine-grained wood over the whole cross-section and the fingernail test reveals its ideal density for friction fire methods.

The shape of the spindle for the fire hand drill

The shape of the spindle and hearth can be variable, but for the spindle, the best diameter is that of a human middle finger. The length of the spindle should be about four fist lengths and the wood should be debarked. The spindle should be straightened in such a way, that its tip- and top-center points do not move out of the centerline when turned vigorously all along its axis. Carving should only be done cautiously in order not to reduce the diameter at some places along the axis significantly. All other points, like the shape of the initial tip, fixation of the hearth, location of the spindle on the hearth, and cutting of V-notch align to the same principles as known from bow drills.

Body position when lighting a fire with the hand drill

But maybe the importance of the correct body position should be mentioned: The left foot (for right-handers) has to be located quite forward and sideways for holding down the hearth by the foot, to allow the whole upper body to move down next to the knee. Only this way it will be possible to exert enough pressure on the hands and spindle for a longer time. Although I have already seen Khoi-san people in very dry climates and using an optimal fire drill set to just take any position, move the spindle for (measured) seven seconds, and enough coal was formed to light the dry grass underneath.

Tinder material for fire hand drill in Southern African environments

For catching the formed coal, flat bundles of dry grass are ideal. Fluffed-up dry dung of middle-aged elephants is an ideal tinder material. Older elephants produce finer dung with fewer parts of wooden twigs and branches. Rhino dung does not contain many larger wooden parts but shows mainly uniform plant fibers – which also can be used as good tinder. Dry male hippo dung from home range markings on land is also suitable. Dry zebra- and buffalo dung can be used for transporting fire.

Lessons learned utilized wood and tinder materials for fire hand drills

  • Feverberry tree wood is ideal for hand drills in the Lowveld
  • Dry Fig wood and False Marula are second-best
  • A combination of Grewia sp. spindle and Commiphora sp. hearth works well in dryer parts of savannah biomes
  • Dry elephant dung is the best tinder available and can also be used for transporting fire and as an insect repellent.

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