The bow drill with no tools

The bow drill can be seen as something of a benchmark skill in bushcraft. Starting with getting that first ember and finishing with…im pretty sure you’ll never stop learning things about the bow drill!

A key lesson for me was during a session some years ago where as a group we were asked ‘Who knows how to do the bow drill?‘ Having built a few of my own sets and got some embers I raised my hand. ‘Righto just lets have that knife and Para cord back there, and off you go and do the bow drill young man. Everyone else gather round and we’ll show you how to do the bow drill.’

Lesson learnt!

The bow drill is a process we enter into and choose how far we want to progress. The above example of not having a cutting tool or modern abrasion resistant cord is a fantastic way to test a whole set of sub skills within your bush craft arsenal: basic flint knapping to produce simple blades, fibre craft in selecting, preparing and twisting nettles into a suitable bow string, selection of appropriate woods not too difficult or bulky to reduce with flint tools and so on…

This blog is just one way the bow drill can be achieved out in the woods with nothing but your bare hands provided you have access to suitable plants for fibres and rocks you can predictably break open to produce sharp edges.


Nettle bow cord to replace modern Para cord.


Flint blade to replace modern bushcraft knife.

The first step taken was to select around 30 tall nettles and strip the outer fibre from them. This was hung out to dry for half a day but could have been force dried next to the fire if needed more quickly.


 Nettle fibres stripped from plant and drying.

Once the fibres are almost completely dry they are twisted into a simple two ply cord with around 6 fibres per bundle to make a length of cordage twice as long from its middle to one end… All of the additions are then trimmed flush with the cordage so that it runs smoothly over the drill.


2 ply nettle cordage.


Trim away any tufts and fibres sticking out from the finished cordage.

 The types of wood you choose are yours to discover and play with, each person developing a feel for what works consistently for them. Practicing with a range of species helps develop your technique but more crucially gives you a critical eye for the correct state of wood and its composition i.e not too green, not too rotten, just right. In this example a piece of dead seasoned Sycamore and a Hazel rod were broken out of a coppice by hand. The Sycamore forms the baseboard here and the Hazel the drill.


Thumb thick hazel rod and 3 finger thick Sycamore base board.

The drill was roughly snapped to length by hand and then shaped more carefully by scraping with a simple flint blade. Not as quick as using a knife by any stretch but just as effective given time.



Top end of drill has a long narrow taper.


Finished drill, pointed at bottom to help burning in.

For the hearth board the piece of Sycamore was first broken to length using the trick of a sharp smack over a hard right angle edge of a log or rock.



It was then split using a straight-ish wedge of flint and a wooden mallet to drive it into one end of the log.


‘Persuading’ a log in half with flint and mallet.


2 primitive fire hearths.

For the bearing block a piece of cow bone was used. A two minute job of twisting a sharp angled piece of flint made a small depression in the bone to locate the top of the drill. Bone is an incredibly good material for this job being both hard and very friction free.



Top of Hazel drill located in bone bearing block.

The bow in this instance was taken from a live Ash sapling by scoring all the way around the stem and snapping at that point.


Stand of young Ash saplings.


Score repetitively around sapling and break.


Compared to shaping a drill, creating a small notch on green wood for the bow string is simple.


Attaching bow cord to bow handle and securing in notch with a few half hitches.


The top end of the cord is secured using a clove hitch.


Note the two lengths of cord which help reduce friction in use.

The set is now ready for burning the drill into the hearth prior to shaping the notch where the ember will be generated.


Hearth with small hole to accept bottom of drill, drill, ember pan, bow and nettle cord plus bone bearing block.

Setting up in the typical way the Hazel drill is rotated into the Sycamore hearth until the entire tip of the drill is charred black and leaves a corresponding blackened depression in the hearth.


Note minor wear and tear to the nettle cordage at this stage.


Flint blade used to cut out a notch in the hearth board.


Complete notch.

All of the components are now brought together for the final stage of producing an ember to introduce into the all important tinder bundle before being able to conjure fire!


Complete ‘primitive’ bow drill kit including the vitally important tinder nest.


Producing smoke – note tinder nest high and dry.


The ember transferred to the grass and seed bundle – gentle, long breaths.


Flame on!

‘Limiting’ yourself to primitive means you soon realise just how full of resources and value our woodlands are and beyond being able to produce fire, a more wholistic and connective way of appreciating our surroundings is kindled revealing the essence of bushcraft as a subject well worth the studying!

Adam Logan.


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