Bow drilling in Sweden by Mattias Norberg

Sweden has got a rich tradition of outdoor living and Mattias Norberg wrote the standard book about fire making in this country (‘Konsten att Elda’) . It was a great privilege having got his first hand practical instructions on one of these topics: friction fire lighting with bow drilling in Sweden.

Wood species used for bow drilling

Mattias showed a variety of wood samples, which he used in the past successfully for hearth boards and spindles of bow drills. He is always pairing the same species of wood. Following wood samples were shown to us:

  • Norway maple (Acer platanoides)
  • Sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplatanus)
  • Black Alder (Alnus glutinosa)
  • Common hazel (Corylus avellana)
  • European beech (Fagus sylvatica)
  • European ash (Fraxinus excelsior)
  • Common juniper (Juniperus communis)
  • Norway spruce (Picea abies)
  • Norway spruce root (Picea abies)
  • Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris)
  • European aspen (Populus tremula)
  • English oak (Quercus robur)
  • White willow (Salix alba)
  • Elder (Sambucus nigra)
  • Small-leaved lime (Tilia cordata)
  • Mountain elm (Ulmus glabra)

This is a very wide variety of wood types. It is Mattias’s approach not to collect wood in the forests, bring it home, dry it out and test it, but he walks to the forest, collects the wood he either needs or wants to test and makes fire directly on the spot, with whatever wood he collected.

He is also not shy using non-resinous softwood from spruces and pines, and in fact he rates spruces as the most important bow drill wood in his area of operation, due to its wide availability. He will use for bow drilling in Sweden the upper part of small, dry, dead, and standing spruce trees for the spindle and lower parts for the hearth board. But he also used horizontal branches of dead spruces and pines for these two items. Woods with resin-bladders inside or fatwood of pines is – not surprisingly – not used for a bow drill set.

Shapes and sizes of bow drill components

Hearth board

Hearth boards should have three flats; above, below, and perpendicular on one side and should be about 1,5-2 cm thick. He is pre-burning relatively far away from the edge and cuts a deep notch, which width should be about 1/8 of the outer circumference of the pre-burned hole.


Mattias recommends a spindle length of one fully stretched out hand span plus one length of a finger. He is not very particular of the spindle diameter, but stresses the need of a long drawn-out, very pointy, bearing tip. Friction side is being carved half-rounded. And the spindle should be debarked.

Bow and string

For a bow, Mattias is using a green, straight, and stout stick, which he is also completely debarking. Length of the stick should be from the armpit to the end of the last finger of the outstretched hand. The stick is getting notched on both sides. On the thinner end he places the string-loop and on the thicker end he binds the string with only a very slight slack. Mattias recommends using paracord with a diameter of over 3 mm diameter as a string for bow drilling in Sweden.

Holding block

Following materials holding blocks were used by him in the past: Bone fragments, hazel wood, pine bark and stones; but he prefers any kind of green hardwood, for which no further type of lubrication (e.g.: green leaves or saliva) is needed.

Remarks to the bow drill operation

  • Mattias strings the spindle into the bow like everybody else does and holds stringed spindle and bow like a cross in one hand. That’s very convenient and a big advantage of the straight bow stave. Because now the second hand is free for other things and the bow is already fully loaded.
  • In case the grip between string and spindle is not enough (e.g.: due to a too small string diameter), the string can be wrapped around the spindle multiple times.
  • Mattias is keeping the charred powder from the pre-burning action and puts it before second stroking underneath the V-slot in order to already have a bed of powder for receiving the ember.
  • In Sweden, very good primary kindling is feathered up, dry juniper bark.
  • In case there is not enough grass or other kind of kindling available, he uses green ferns as a holding fan and puts the kindling into it. This will hold the ‘birds’ nest’ together and prevents getting burned when flames are arising.

Lessons learned from Mattias:

  • Go into the forest and use whatever wood is available at that time
  • Don’t be shy to use spruce as bow drill wood
  • Hearth board should not be thicker than 1,5-2 cm
  • Straight and sturdy bow is best
  • Learn to hold the loaded bow in one hand
  • Use charred powder from pre-burning for the drilling action later
  • Use juniper bark for kindling

Global Bushcraft Symposium 2022 (GBS2022) and Mattias Norberg

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

Mattias Norberg held bushcraft courses in the early 90s and participated in many different courses in Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Malaysia. In 1995 Mattias was appointed instructor in the Swedish Survival Guild. He was teaching everything from winter survival courses in the far north of Sweden to plant courses in the south. Later on, Mattias started the first advanced fire course in Sweden. Mattias has written numerous articles on wild plants and wilderness skills and is the author of a comprehensive book on fire skills titled ‘Konsten att elda’, which was published 2020 in Swedish language.