Bow Drill – How many things could be ‘just not quite right?’ (The Ground)

Let’s start with the disclaimer. I am a novice when it comes to friction fire. This blog is not here to teach you how to get an ember from a bow drill set. If you have never had a go with a bow drill set, then watch this video.

This blog, and the ones that will follow, are a way of recording my journey, my learning and understanding of bow drill from where I am now to a point where I become competent to teach someone else to get an ember. On the Woodland Ways Courses, the instructors aim to give the customer the best opportunity to get an ember and blow it into flame, using the bow drill. (It is such an amazing feeling that first time). To do that, the bow drill sets they collect, and get ready for the customers to use, have to be as close to perfect as possible. Every set matched together and tested. This is my journey putting together my [future] customers’ bow drill sets.

I recently attended the Woodland Wayers Advance Fire Lighting weekend, with Instructor Jay Jenner, as part of my Instructor Apprenticeship. Jay said something along the lines of “I’ve never actually worked out how many fine details there are in putting a bow drill set together, things that could be just not quite right”.

Rather foolishly I have taken up the challenge to attempt to document those fine details. I am certainly not going to claim I will even come close to covering them all, so let’s agree that this is a starting point.

My plan is to work from the ground up and make a series of blogs, in summary: (i) The Ground (ii) Hearth Board, (iii) Drill, (iv) Bow, (v) Baring Block (vi) Stance. I expect things to change as I go through the process, and then there are the topics of ember extenders, tinder bundles and actually blowing to flame, which have been covered and need to be referenced.

Friction Fire Bow Set, Image credit: Apprentice Bill Burden

So, from the ground up, let’s start with:

The Ground:

  1. Location – Set up in a clear space close to where you want your fire and remove any portable obstacles.
  2. Fuel – have your graded fuel for when the tinder bundle is blown into flame, already laid out on a supporting log off the ground, especially in cold or wet conditions. (Shelter as best you can if its raining.)
  3. Tinder bundle – Have tinder bundle and ember extender material to hand, keep off the ground to prevent getting damp, have it stuffed inside your jacket or in something waterproof if raining. There will be plenty of time to make it when the fuel is coalescing.
  4. Flat / Level Ground – The hearth board should ideally be level on the ground, this affects everything else from this point on, from brining the rest of the set together to every detail in body position.
  5. “Levelling Sand” – The hearth board might not be completely flat, so some dirt to help level it may be beneficial to rectify this and prevent any wobbling of the hearth board.
  6. Debris free – Reduce the risk of the bow flicking dirt on to the ember pan whilst bowing by removing debris in front of the bowing action. (Turning hearth board with the notch facing you will also aid this)
  7. Clear vegetation – Avoid the bow being caught on plants in front and behind you.
  8. Comfortable – Where you are kneeling, free from twigs, stones or roots. Consider a kneeling pad.
  9. Wind – Position body and hearth board to shield from the wind. Set up a wind break on the ground if necessary
  10. Rain – Position body over set to shelter it. Consider setting up a tarpaulin to keep area dry if necessary.
Stable ember pan supporting coalescing fuel

Ember Pan:

  1. Dry – No moisture to cool ember, Slither of seasoned wood is ideal.
  2. Sturdy – Won’t break, bend or buckle before you transfer the ember to the tinder bundle.
  3. Thin – Not to upset the balance and stability of the hearth board but not too thin that the ember burns through, you can dig a little void in the ground (if the terrain allows) for it to sit flush with the surface if you need to.
  4. Size – Wide enough to catch all the fuel in the notch.

That’s Fourteen things to consider before we get to the hearth board, can you add any more?

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