Fire By Friction: Learning The Art Of The Fire Bow

What type of fire warms twice? The friction fire! One of the benefits of a friction fire is that it not only keeps you warm once you get it going, it gets you warm while you’re trying to make it, even in the winter. Nevertheless, try to take precautions against sweating while building your fire. Anticipate the fact that you’ll be working hard for the next little while, and adjust your clothes before you start.

The Fire Bow: Components

The fire bow is the most effective last-ditch, fire-starting method, and is comprised of four integral components: the baseboard, the spindle, the bearing block and the bow.

The baseboard is the part of your fire bow that will eventually produce the smoldering mound of wood dust that will (hopefully!) start your fire. There are many different types of woods you can use, depending on your geographic location, but I prefer semi-soft woods such as cedar, poplar, aspen or basswood.

The fire bow is the most effective last-ditch, fire-starting method, and is comprised of four integral components: the baseboard, the spindle, the bearing block and the bow. Photo by Dreamstime/Diamantonix.
The fire bow is the most effective last-ditch, fire-starting method, and is comprised of four integral components: the baseboard, the spindle, the bearing block and the bow. Photo by Dreamstime/Diamantonix.

Choosing the proper wood for the baseboard is critical because the baseboard is essentially being ground away by the spindle as it is spun. This is why some instructors prefer a hardwood spindle – they think it’s more effective at grinding the baseboard. I prefer using a semi-soft wood for both pieces, because then you’re not only grinding the baseboard, but you’re also grinding the spindle, possibly giving you double the dust for your work.

The most important thing about your spindle is that it should be as straight as possible. The size is up to you, but I typically shoot for eight inches in length and as thick as your thumb. Make sure it is dead, and dry.

Most people tend to use branches for their spindle, since they naturally seem to be the right size and shape. But in fact, the molecules inside a tree branch are tighter together than throughout the rest of the tree, making the wood a bit harder. By comparison, the heartwood of the tree – the wood right in the middle of the trunk – is much softer. Therefore, you’d be better served to find a downed tree, break off a piece and carve it into a spindle. Basswood branches (dead and dry ones) are superb spindles.

The bearing block is the part of your fire bow that you use to apply weight and pressure to the top of your spindle. There are many things you can use to fill this role, but I like an actual piece of rock with a small indentation knocked into it, where the spindle sits. You might also consider using a piece of bone; often the knee knuckle bones of a deer or other ungulate will work. People will often use a piece of wood as the bearing block, but if you do so, you should consider somehow lubricating the point where the spindle contacts the bearing block, so it doesn’t grab. Beeswax, ear wax, pine pitch or oil from your skin and hair can all serve as lubricants in a pinch.

The bow is what ties your entire bow drill together. The bow itself can be any kind of wood, as long as it’s strong and has a slight bend to it. Hopefully you’ve got some kind of parachute cord or other kind of strong rope, shoelace or string on hand.

The Fire Bow: The Process

As with any fire-making method, preparation is the key to success with the fire bow. Don’t short-change your tinder bundle; make sure it’s as big as possible, at least the size of a five-pin bowling ball. Fibrous materials, like scraped cedar bark, tend to work best.

Once you’ve got your tinder bundle, it’s extremely important that you get comfortable and settle in for what may be a long process. The last thing you want to have happen is to get halfway through – just to the point where you’re beginning to get wisps of smoke – and realize you’re kneeling on a rock and you can’t take the pain any longer. You should also ensure nothing is in your way that will inhibit the motion of the bow.

My preference is to put my tinder directly under the notched-out hole in the baseboard, so the ember falls right where it’s intended to go. Photo by Dreamstime/Milan Lazic.
My preference is to put my tinder directly under the notched-out hole in the baseboard, so the ember falls right where it’s intended to go. Photo by Dreamstime/Milan Lazic.

There are two schools of thought on where to put your tinder pile with the fire bow. One says that you should have a small piece of leaf or bark under the baseboard to catch your ember, which is then transferred to your tinder pile. I feel this just adds an extra step to the process, and a chance to drop the ember, have it go out or be blown by the wind.

My preference is to put my tinder directly under the notched-out hole in the baseboard, so the ember falls right where it’s intended to go. The only caution is to make sure that you pat down the tinder bundle enough so that it doesn’t sneak up and get caught in the spindle during the spinning process. Put the finest tinder in the centre, just below the notch.

Once you’re settled in, rest the baseboard down on the tinder bundle to flatten it out (make sure the ground isn’t damp!). Your body should be positioned such that if you drove a steel rod straight down through the top of your shoulder blade, it would go through the back of your hand, through the spindle, and right down to the baseboard.

Place one foot on the baseboard, the one opposite the bowing arm, and start slowly with a fluid back-and-forth motion, applying gentle pressure to the bearing block. Don’t forget to breathe! Focus on your breathing and get into a fluid rhythm.

I find that placing a bare foot on the baseboard gives me more feel and control than a pair of boots. By wearing boots, you also run the risk of kicking the baseboard when you decide it’s time to transfer your ember to your tinder pile. But comfort is the most important consideration here, so do what feels right.

Once you have achieved a slow, fluid motion (it’s all about the feel), you gradually build up your speed as you get comfortable with the process, pushing down a little harder on the bearing block. Eventually you get to a point where you’re going as fast and pushing as hard as you can, without the spindle binding or popping out on you.

At this point, three of your senses play a critical role: sight, sound and feel. You want to feel an actual grinding going on between the spindle and the baseboard. You should be listening carefully to the sound you’re producing. You don’t want to hear chirping, squawking, or squeaking, which indicate that you’re polishing the wood, not grinding it. If that occurs, stop and chip up the ends of the hole and the end of the spindle to increase the friction between them. If the noises continue, it may indicate that you have chosen the wrong type of wood for one of your components.

Then your sight comes into play. Eventually you’ll see fine wisps of smoke appearing in the baseboard. This is your cue to not stop, but rather to keep going under maximum speed and pressure. At some point, the smoke you see will not be from the grinding of the spindle into the baseboard, but actual smoke from the ember that has formed in the clump of wood dust in the baseboard. The curl of smoke you now see will be thicker and whiter than the wisps you first noticed spinning the spindle.

The Fire Bow: The Grand Finale

One of the most common (and most significant) mistakes people make with the fire bow is at the end. They’ll get the smoke and the ember, then blow it by trying to make the fire as fast as they can because they think the ember is going to burn out. You don’t have to jump up like a jackrabbit, because the ember is not going to burn out in a matter of seconds. You’ve put a lot of kinetic energy into that glowing mass, and it will smolder for a while if you treat it right.

So once you’re pretty confident that you have an ember down there, you want to pull away slowly and cautiously, all the while holding the baseboard down with your hands to make sure you don’t upset it when you take your foot away.

Lift the baseboard slowly and carefully, and transfer the ember from the notch in the baseboard to the middle of the stage 1 tinder pile. You might find that the ember sticks to the baseboard. The best way to dislodge it is to give the board a couple of light taps, so the ember breaks away and falls into the tinder bundle.

Slide your hands underneath the tinder bundle, and very gently close it around the ember, being careful not to suffocate it. You will likely be shaking from exhaustion at this point, which is quite normal. Essentially, you’re creating a mini-furnace in the middle of the tinder pile. Blow gently onto the pile until the heat from the ember transfers onto the tinder and catches the tinder itself.

Blow slowly and gently at first. Once you get to the point where you’ve got a glowing red ping-pong-ball-sized mass inside the tinder pile, you won’t likely lose it now, so you can begin blowing more vigorously. As you’re doing that, lift the tinder bundle and blow from underneath into it as if you are praying to the fire gods, so you don’t burn your hands. With luck on your side, you will be rewarded with the tinder igniting into flame. But remember, it’s only a flame! You don’t have a full-fledged fire yet.

At this point, you should be ready to transfer your tinder pile to your fire pit, where you can begin to add small tinder shavings, followed by small, dry kindling.