A Bow Drill Path Less Trodden

Now I’m sure most of you are familiar with the concept of bow drill friction fire, especially with some of our previous blogs. It’s one of my favourite skills to play with and one that often gives me an overwhelming urge to knock out an ember or two and it’s that urge that led to the topic of this blog.

Aspen end grain ember

Let me set the scene, it’s about 1:30 in the morning and I can’t sleep, my wife and kids are tucked up in bed and I get the urge to have a play with a piece of European aspen I found recently (I’d never used aspen for friction fire before). Given that it’s approaching two in the morning and I’m in a top floor inner city flat with children asleep I can’t really start axing out a hearth board in the middle of the living room floor, but that got me thinking of ways I could make a hearth board with minimal amount of crash, bang, wallop. Saw cuts are generally a bit quieter than axe work but how do I saw out a hearth board? that’s when the lightbulb moment happened, cut a mini board from the end grain of the wood rather than the cross grain.

Then I realised that not only had I never done end grain bow drill before I hadn’t seen, heard, or read of anyone else doing it either, I couldn’t think of any reason why it wouldn’t work, but could I be missing something? Was there a reason I’d never seen anyone else, do it? There’s only one way to find out! (I’ve recreated the method in daylight for the benefit of pictures, but this is how it went).

Saw and cut a section of about 2cm thick from the end

First I took my saw and cut a section of about 2cm thick from the end of the piece of wood that I had, and cut my drill divot into the soon to be hearth board, burnt in my drill as standard then started to carve my V notch. I found carving into the end grain was slightly more difficult than cross grain but still easily enough achieved. I would recommend being careful with the amount of pressure you use when your cutting as end grain is far more prone to splitting than cross grain and burying a knife into your hand is never fun; also a blood soaked hearth board is unlikely to produce a decent ember so be mindful of the path of your cutting tool and avoid having your fingers directly behind the notch you’re carving.

Burnt in my drill as standard

Once you have your notch carved it’s time to get an ember pan under your board and begin producing your ember.

V notch carved into the end grain

I found that the aspen board and hazel drill combined to produce a nice ember fairly quickly with little effort and the experiment was a success, end grain bow drill works fairly well and I took away a greater depth of knowledge about bow drill as an ignition method. Just as valuable, if not more so, was the lesson in improvisation adaptation and experimentation, three skill sets that our ancestors must have relied on hugely as they evolved and expanded their knowledge of the world around them and ones we can still use today as a way of expanding our range of skills and knowledge.

The aspen board and hazel drill combined to produce a nice ember

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