Bow Drill – How many things could be ‘just not quite right?’ Blog 5 of 5

In this blog we are going to focus on the “stance” how to position yourself in relation to all the components of the friction fire bow set. If you have not read the previous four blogs that dealt with the ground & ember pan, hearth board, drill and then baring block and bow, I suggest you have a quick read of those as well.

A quick digression, which my help some of you. I have done a bit of martial arts over the years, irrespective of what style, beginners are usually taught a way to stand and basic movements to learn. As they progress, the more advance student will learn to adapt the basic techniques and make them work for their body. This blog will discuss how I demonstrate the bow drill, based on what Woodland Ways has taught to consistently help customers achieve fire by friction. It is not the only method, in fact whilst on the Game Ranger Experience and Cyber Tracking Assessment in South Africa, I saw a technique that I thought would be impossible to achieve an ember with, but it did! Imagine sitting on the ground, both legs straight in front of you, bent at the knees, with your heels holding the hearth board in place, the (straightish) bow coming underneath one knee to the drill between your feet.

The point is, just treat this as a starting point. Get comfortable, and successful with it. Then see if your adaptions of certain parts still achieve the ember, but perhaps being more relaxed and requiring less effort. Please note, not all instructors will demonstrate this positioning exactly as I am describing it because they have adapted it to fit their body. For example, Woodland Ways Instructor Ian Nairn allows the bow to travel over the foot holding the hearth board. He has adapted the forward and backward motion of the bow (over the hearth board) to a slight angle as he finds it easier. Watch here as Ian demonstrates the bow drill.

If you take one thing from this blog about positioning yourself for using the bow drill as a friction fire lighting method, it is “90 degrees”.

1 Let’s start at the bottom – the ember pan, in this case using a piece of aluminium with the edges wrapped in red tape so we can find them easily on the forest floor, a slither of wood works well here too, is placed under the hearth board. Would it really matter if it wasn’t 90 degrees to the hearth board, no! But let’s keep things consistent!

Aluminium ember pan under hearth board Image Bill Burden

2. Supporting the hearth board with the opposite foot to your dominant hand (just in case one of you doesn’t have the dominant foot and hand on the same side). I am righthanded, so use my left foot, from now on I will refer to this as the front foot. If you have footwear that has a distinct heel and a gap under your instep, then place the leading edge of the heel next to the back edge of the hearth board, so that gap under your instep helps grip the hearth board. (If no distinct heel on your footwear, just follow this as if there was one). The foot is 90 degrees to the hearth board.

Foot position on hearth board Image: Bill Burden

3. Ankle of front foot is at 90 degrees so your shin is vertical both from the side view and the front.

Vertical shin Image: Bill Burden

4) The knee of the back leg, if looking from the front, is placed directly in line behind the heel of your front foot so your thigh is vertical (90 degrees to the ground) from the front and side. See how my legs form a square with the ground, the knee of my front leg is at 90 degrees too.

90 degree angle of back leg Image: Bill Burden

5. Your back foot, and shin, points out to the side, 90 degrees to the direction your front foot is pointing. This is the one a lot of people find awkward, so of course adapt if necessary. The purpose of your back foot pointing 90 degrees to your front foot is balance. If you exaggerate and put the rear foot pointing behind you, in line with the direction of your front foot, you will have no sideways stability. Compromise where you feel comfortable, this maybe halfway between the two extremes, as long as you feel stable and balanced.

Supporting angle of back leg Image: Bill Burden

6. The drill and baring block both follow the same 90 degrees, shown below without the bow. I have positioned my front foot close to the hole in the baring block I am going to use, so that the drill is vertical, 90 degrees to the hearth board, but just not quite touching my boot. The baring block holds the drill in position, it is 90 degrees to the drill, or parallel with the hearth board.

Hand and drill position Image: Bill Burden

7. The arm holding the baring block is probably the one bit a first-timer struggles with. Lean forward from your hips whilst maintaining the position of your feet and legs as described above. Allow the inside of your elbow to hug the outside of your knee. Wrap your forearm around your lower leg so that your wrist is locked into your shin. All of your forearm ideally wants to be touching your leg. See how my thumb is also in contact with my leg. This naturally brings the hand holding the baring block directly over the drill. It is this last bit that brings everything together and gives maximum support to hold the baring block, and hence the drill. Locking your wrist in to your shin is key to stopping the drill moving around with the bowing action. My nose is directly above the drill.

Bow position Image: Bill Burden

8. Guess what, the bow string is 90 degrees to the drill. Ian’s video will demonstrate how to “load” the drill. Keeping the bow level (and the string 90 degrees to the drill) is the only bit left to do.

The only difference between you (& me) and Ian, is the number of hours spent practicing! Success performing a physical technique like this, or a martial arts technique, is building muscle memory through practice.

By my calculations we have got to 72 things that might not be quite right. I was dearly hoping to get to 101, so I could call this blog series “101 things that might be wrong with your bow drill. Maybe you can help with a few suggestions of your own. When it comes to trouble shooting your bow drill technique, the best advice I was given was to video yourself. You now have a list of things to check against the video.

If you still can’t get it, or want to learn other ways of making fire? Check out our weekend fire lighting course .

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