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Bow Drill
The bow drill is a simple tool used to ignite a small pile of dried tinder. There are five basic parts to a bow drill: the bow, the bowstring, the handle, the drill, and the fireboard (See Figure). Each part of the tool is ideally made out of a specific material, but variations can be made if the appropriate wood is not easily accessible.

The concept of the bow drill is simple as well. A bow is constructed to rotate the drill while it rests on the notched fireboard. The pressure and friction created by the quickly moving drill produces heat and a heated wood powder that will fall on the pile of tinder placed underneath the fireboard. When enough of the wood powder or "char" falls upon the tinder, it will begin to smoke and voila!--fire.

A simpler, but less effective variation of the bow drill is the hand drill.

Steps to Make a Bow Drill

Set Up (Starting your Fire)

Steps to Make a Bow Drill:
  1. The drill is cut from a straight, dry piece of hardwood such as ash, birch, hickory, maple or oak. Avoid gummy or resinous woods. It should be about 15 in long, 2 in thick, and as round and straight as possible to minimize wobbling during rotation. Round on end and carve the other to a sharp point.
  2. Use another piece of hardwood to make the handle for the drill. The handle should be about 3 in wide by 6 in long by 2 in thick, and the edges should be smooth and fit comfortably in your hand. Carve a hole in the center of the handle about ¼ in deep that the rounded edge of the drill can fit into. The addition of a little sand will help smooth out the edges of the hole.
  3. Choose a piece of softwood such as cottonwood, pine, or poplar about 6 in wide by 12 to 18 in long by 1 in thick for the fireboard. On one of the long sides of the board, well towards the end, cut a v-shaped notch about ½ deep into the center of the board. Then dig out a small hole about 1/8 in, or less, from tip of notch for the drill point to fit into.
  4. The bow is made from a green branch of springy wood such as cedar, mulberry, or willow or from a young sapling. The bow should ideally be about 2 feet long and 1 inch thick. Tie a bowstring, about 3/8 in wide to the ends of the bow. The bowstring can be any type of sturdy cord such as a boot lace or natural cordage made from cattail leaves.

To utilize cattail leaves to make a bowstring, cut the leaves at dirt level, ideally while they are still green and scrape off the slimy stuff that accumulates at the base of the leaves. Split them into long strips and then let them dry. Moisten and then twine them into a two-ply cord about as thick as a pencil. The finer you split the leaves the stronger the cord will be. This is not very strong cordage but will suffice for making a few bow drill fires before it breaks.

TIP: Notches can be cut in the ends of the bow to keep the bowstring from slipping. The string should be long enough so that when it is turned around drill one time it will be stretched taut.

Set up (Starting your Fire):
  1. Set the fireboard on a smooth, even surface where it will not slip. Place a small pile of tinder under the notch in the side of the board.
  2. Turn the bowstring around the center of the drill once. If the length is correct, the string should now be taught. A 1 or 2 inch section in the middle of the length of the drill can be notched to keep the bowstring from slipping during rotation.
  3. Set the pointed end of the drill in the hold near the notch on the fireboard. Fit the rounded end into the hole in the handle. With your left hand, hold the handle to keep the drill perpendicular to the block. Steady the fireboard with your left foot while resting your right knee on the ground.
  4. Gently move the bow back and forth horizontally for the full length of the bowstring while keeping gentle pressure on the handle. As the drill begins to bite into the fireboard, a hot black powdered wood known as char will fall through the notch onto the pile of tinder. As smoke is produced, put more pressure on the handle and move the bow faster.
  5. When you have a considerable pile of hot char on your pile of tinder, move the fireboard away and gently fan the pile with your hand until you have a bright glow. Add more tinder and blow until the tinder bursts into flames. Begin adding kindling as your fire grows.

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