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Primitive fire making

Use a bow drill to spark a flame without matches.

Story By Lucy Elam + Illustration by Megan Goheen

In this day and age, it is not difficult to feel rather removed from your environment. Most primitive survival skills have fallen out of relevancy and interest. While you probably won’t be in a situation where you have absolutely no way to make fire other than with what is lying on the ground around you, it is a worthwhile experience to learn how to do it. It is rewarding to learn about the different things that grow around you and how they can be used for your benefit. It’s a fun project that will help you appreciate modern conveniences, and it sure doesn’t hurt to know how to handle yourself in the wilderness. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll need it. 

Making fire is dirty, sweaty, backbreaking work. It will bring you to the brink of your frustration and test your mental and physical strength like nothing else. But when you succeed, it is one of the most rewarding and gratifying experiences in life, sort of like changing a car tire, doing your taxes, and running a 5k all in one. In the aftermath, you will feel worn out, but accomplished. One of the most basic methods of primitive fire starting that has been used all around the world is known as the bow drill.

Natural tinder for fires should be dead but not rotten, very dry, light, airy and fluffy.


You will need a knife, possibly a hatchet (for gathering materials), and a length of paracord. Dry, hard wood will work the best and provide the friction necessary to create a coal.

For the bow, you will need to find a curved piece of slightly flexible wood about as long as your arm. If available, tamarack is the best choice for this part. Once you have secured this, you will need to taper down each end of the bow and drill one hole on the end farthest from you and two holes on the end closest to you. The length of the paracord will be woven through these and tied so that it can always be adjusted when necessary.

Your next step will be to fashion a spindle, socket, coal catch and fireboard. A spindle is usually about the length of a pencil, with the diameter of a nickel. You will need to use your pocket knife to score one end in order to rough it up and cause more friction with the fireboard.  

The fire board is a bit more complicated. You will need to find a decent-sized branch, at least two inches in diameter. Then you will need to split this in half lengthwise. Preferably, for the fireboard you should use wood of medium hardness, like cottonwood, willow, aspen, tamarack, cedar, sassafras, sycamore and poplar, which are the very best. For the spindle, you should use either the same wood or harder wood. Remember, use a dead, very dry branch for the spindle and fireboard.

Tinder-bundle, spindle, fireboard and bow.

Now it is time to carve a chimney. On one side of the fireboard, you will use your pocket knife to start carving a bevel in the flat surface of the wood. Once the little “bowl” is deep enough, you will carve from the outside edge in order to create a pathway or “chimney” to the bowl. You don’t want to make this too wide or too thin. This pathway is where the coal will fall through to land on your coal catch (which is just a thin, flat piece of wood used to catch the coal and then transfer it to the tinder bundle). 

In my fire set, I use the knee bone of a cow that I found while hiking as my socket. This works nicely because the wood of the spindle will not cause friction with the bone and start to smoke. Obviously, you probably don’t have a cow knee bone on hand so if you happen to find a stone with a circular indent a similar size to your spindle, you can use that too, or simply use a piece of wood and carve out a bevel similar to that on your fireboard so that the top of your spindle will fit in it. You will want to use something like petroleum jelly as a lubricant on top (the unscored, smooth side) of your spindle and in the socket so that it can spin more easily, and if you’re using a wooden socket, so that it doesn’t start smoking like your fireboard.

Putting the pieces together

Now comes the workout. You will need to get on one knee, your right knee if you are right-handed, and place your left foot on your fireboard just to the left of the “bowl” that you carved out in your fireboard. Now secure your spindle in your bow by placing it on the sting and twisting it into the paracord. You want the paracord to be right in the middle of the spindle, and it should be tightly in place. Not so tight that it will fly out immediately, but not so loose that it doesn’t grip and spin the spindle. Place the roughed-up side of the spindle into the fireboard, and push the lubed-up socket onto the top of the spindle. Your left arm should be wrapped around your left leg, with your wrist pressed securely into your shin and your hand gripping the socket and pressing down as hard as you can. Seriously — press as hard as you can and then press even harder. Make sure your wrist is locked into place against your leg. With your right hand, you should be gripping the bow on the end closest to you, not in the middle. 

Once you have everything in place, you can start by moving the bow back and forth, maintaining constant, intense pressure on the socket. Do not get discouraged if the spindle immediately goes flying. You have to give it several tries for the spindle to get in a good groove with the surface of your fireboard. This will take time. If you are getting tired, it can help to have someone press down on the socket with you and help steady it against your leg. As it becomes a little easier to push and pull the bow, you can start to speed up. Never take the pressure off the socket. When you start to smell and see smoke rising from the fireboard, speed up. The smoke should thicken and increase.

If you have been following all these steps and you haven’t seen any smoke yet, you might want to use your pocket knife to score the spindle and the fireboard in order to rough it up a bit again so you have friction.

Keep moving the bow back and forth until the smoke subsides. At this point, you will need to move quickly and steadily to collect the coal. Move your fireboard to the side and pick up your coal catch to transfer the coal to your tinder bundle. Start by blowing softly and steadily, breathing it to life. If you blow too hard you will blow it out, if you blow too soft it will go out. Once your tinder bundle catches flame, you can place it in the fire structure that you have already prepared. You should have a grid of kindling building up to slightly bigger sticks. Maintain steady breath on the fire. Once the smaller sticks have caught, you can start adding slightly bigger ones, on and on until you have a raging bonfire.

The spindle and fireboard need friction between each other. If the end of your spindle or the bowl in your fireboard are becoming too smooth, rough up both surfaces with your knife.

This is no simple undertaking. It takes time and effort, and more patience than you probably think you are capable of. But there is simply nothing like doing something with your own two hands. Less than one percent of the world’s population knows how to do this. When you see the light of that fire blazing, when you feel the warmth of it on your cheeks, you are experiencing the physical manifestation of your ability to endure hard things and create something incredible. While it is certainly a lot of intense physical work, it is very much a spiritual experience. It is a reminder of the power within you, your inner fire, manifested.