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How to make a bow drill, the bushman way

For many years now I have been a fan of Ray Mears. Although I don’t know him personally, his TV persona comes across portraying him as the kind of down to earth guy I could get along with. He seems to have no back doors and his deeply held respect for the environment and nature is something I feel western society has moved away from, to our eternal shame. It is something we need to return too and quickly, in time I hope before some imbeciles, no names, get our planet into such a state that it can never recover.(aside: whats that? we are already there!). Anyway less eco-rant more development of the story. So where was I , oh yeah Ray. Well this ‘appreciation’ earned me the nickname, bushman, one which I must admit flatters me, particularly as I have yet to make fire using friction and my noggin alone or for that matter do much else, other than make a few fires with matches and collect some firewood. Anyway I decided it was about time I put my interest in these outdoor skills into practice.

photo of bow drill in useSo to follow is my quick guide to making your own Bow Drill, a fire making device that uses friction, elbow grease and patience. I would like to make at this stage a simple disclaimer. Do not try this at home unless you are practised with using a sharp knife and I am really not joking. 5 minutes before finishing the whole project a momentary lapse of judgement resulted in a serious laceration of my left index finger which involved severed nerves and cuts to my PIP joint ( that’s my knuckle) I have still not recovered and the injury unfortunately is hampering my guitar playing as I can’t fully bend my finger after 6 weeks!

How does it work

From the image you can probably make out what is going on, but for those of you who cannot allow me to explain. It involves drilling one piece of wood “the drill” into another flat piece “the hearth” at an angle of 90 degrees to the grain. “The drill” is pressed against “the hearth” using “the bearing block” and is rotated using a cord tied on to “the bow” The reason it works so well is the amount of force that can be applied both in terms of rotation and downward pressure. Dust from the dry wood collects in the ember pan, which is placed underneath the hearth. Eventually there is enough heat to form an ember and you are in business.

Choose the right materials

For the wood , many varieties can be used, which is why it is such a widely used method. Dry dead wood is the best. Willow, Sycamore, Lime or Ivy all rated very highly by the experts. Many other woods can be used. I will add at this point that all this information is available in Ray’s rather excellent book Bushcraft: An Inspirational Guide to Surviving the Wilderness. It is useful to have some dry tinder in the form of a tinder ball to hand. I used some shavings created in the whittling process, but there are many other things you could use. When making the bow it is important that it has a little give, so not to brittle and probably best if it has a natural bow or curve in it.

Tools for the job

All you really need is a sharp knife and I mean sharp, patience and plenty of elbow grease.

How to make it

Start by finding a suitable piece of wood for the bow, about the length of you arm should do with a natural bow in it. If you can find one with a couple of natural crotches all the better, if not you will have to carve out a couple of notches to secure the cord to. (this is when my accident occurred!). Now find a piece of wood approximately 9-10 inches long and about and inch and a half in diameter. Now carefully split in lengthways. If you can do this twice to leave a flat piece of wood. You can also just carve strips off using a sharp knife and a good straight arm. Next you will want to pick out or cut a nice straight piece of wood about the thickness of your thumb and about 7 or 8 inches long to make the drill. One end needs to be sharpened.so it can fit into a small hole in the bearing block,t he other end that goes into the hearth needs to be blunter so as to create more friction. When you have done this, carve a small notch into the hearth and use the drill to bore into the hearth creating the notch, which will be the same diameter as the drill.

How to use it

The most important things are to ensure you have the correct posture which will create stability and allow you to drill with one arm while maintaining constant downward pressure with the other. It is also important that he bow cord is wrapped around the drill so that the drill is on the outside of the bow. Remember also to pop an ember pan made out of a piece of bark or maybe even your knife blade under the notch in your hearth to collect and protect the burning ember. One other important thing to remember is in order to make the depression in the hearth use your drill and bow to drill into it until the depression is just right. DO NOT attempt to carve out the depression with your knife. Start simple with a small notch and make it bigger by drilling into it. It may help to stuff some green leaves into the hole in your bearing block to provide lubrication and ensure all the friction occurs between the drill and the hearth where you need it most. Start with a steady downward pressure while building up speed with the bow. When it starts to smoke increase the downward pressure and after a short time the ember should form. Get it into your tinder ball and blow..more about this in part two!.


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