Phoenix Bird


By: Steve (The Mechanic)

While reading a wilderness survival book recently I was shocked to see the author dismiss the bow and drill method of starting fires as unreliable and not worthy of consideration. Using a bow and drill needn't be a lost art. I've found it the most reliable way to start a fire using completely natural methods and readily available material.

Parts of the Bow and Drill

here are four parts to a bow/drill setup: the spindle (or drill), the handhold, the fireboard, and the bow. If the need should arise, all of these can be made without modern tools of any kind.

Constructing the Bow and Drill

Wood selection is vital as you prepare your tools. Soft, absolutely dry woods are best. My preference is cottonwood but willow, aspen, tamarack (a.k.a. larch), cedar, sassafras, sycamore, poplar, yucca and sage have been reported to work well also. Pine will work if it's dry but it often contains a lot of resin. Get your wood by using dead branches that are still attached to the tree. Be cautious about picking it up off of the ground or from trees that are near water because the moisture content may be too high.

The spindle should be approximately 3/4 of an inch in diameter, eight to twelve inches long and reasonably straight. Make one end (the bottom) round and cut or sand the top to a point. Use the same type of wood for both the spindle and the fireboard.

The fireboard should be around eight to twelve inches long, about 3/4 of an inch thick, flat on top and bottom and approximately two inches wide. Some people make it wider so that they can make parallel rows of sockets as the spindle works through the wood. The next step is to drill the socket. Take a knife, stone, sandpaper, drill, etc. and make a shallow hole in the fire board about 1/2 to 3/4 inch from the edge

The handhold can be made from almost anything that's harder than the wood used for the spindle and fireboard. It should be small enough to grasp firmly in the hand and yet large enough to keep your fingers away from the spindle. (That end gets hot too.)

My favorite is a small, flat rock about two inches in diameter by 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick with a hole or "dimple" in the center. Wood or bone will also work. Make a shallow hole in the center of the handhold.

Construction of the bow is the most controversial part. Opinions vary with some wanting a green branch and others wanting a dry curved branch. I've used both as well as a straight branch and a loose string. (You keep tension on the string by holding the bow away from the spindle while sawing the bow back and forth.) The bow should probably be between two and three feet long. Any type of cordage can be used for the string as long as it grips the spindle without slipping. My favorite is a leather bootlace.

Getting Started

Before you begin, run the pointed end of the spindle through your hair or behind your ear to get some oil or "lubrication" on it. Wrap the string around the spindle. There should be enough tension to make the spindle want to "flip" out of your hand. Shorten or lengthen the string on the bow to get the right tension.

Body Position

(Note: The following instructions are for right-handed people. If you are left handed put your left knee on the ground, etc.)

With your right knee on the ground and your left foot holding the fireboard down and steady, put your chest against your left upper leg and wrap your left arm around your left shin. It helps to hold the handhold steady if you brace your left hand against your shin.

Wrap the string one turn around the spindle and place the round end of the spindle in the hole in the fireboard and the pointed end of the spindle in the hole in the handhold. Push down on the handhold with just enough pressure to keep the spindle in its proper sockets.

With your right hand, begin moving the bow back and forth with long steady strokes. Increase the speed as you also increase downward pressure on the handhold. If the spindle stops you either have too much downward pressure or too little tension on the string.

Be careful with the spindle because both ends will be hot.

Making the Notch

You should begin seeing some fine brown ash beginning to accumulate around the socket on the fireboard. Once the spindle has made a good impression in the fireboard it's time to cut the notch.

Cut the notch in a "V" shape with the point of the "V" almost to the center of the socket. The notch allows the charcoal you produce to accumulate in the tinder so you can form the coal that will start your fire. Once you've formed the notch, you're ready to start your fire.

Starting the Fire

Now, place a piece of dry bark or something similar on the ground. Put your tinder in a small pile on the bark and place the fireboard on top of the tinder with the notch over the tinder. Set up the apparatus the same as you did to make the socket in the fireboard. Form and technique are important! Begin with long smooth strokes and gradually increase pressure and speed. Soon you'll see a brown dust accumulate in the notch. Keep going until the fireboard and spindle are smoking heavily. <

Once you've got a lot of smoke and a small pile of brown dust or charcoal, remove the fireboard. You may have to tap it slightly to knock the charcoal loose from the notch. Either pick up the pile of tinder with the charcoal in the center of it and blow gently on the charcoal or just bend over and gently blow into the charcoal. You should see the coal turn red and ignite the tinder.

Now add small sticks or shavings. As these flare up, add larger pieces until the fire is going strong.

According to the Boy Scout Handbook, fire has been made in 6.4 seconds using this method!


Be persistent! Few people ever make fire the first time they try it.

Try this before you find yourself in a survival situation. When starting out with this, it's best to concentrate on your form over speed or pressure. Speed and pressure will get heat faster, but only if the form is correct. Keep your strokes smooth and level (otherwise, the string rides up and down on the spindle). Be sure you brace your left hand (with the handhold) firmly against your leg and hold the drill as nearly vertical as possible.

If the string slips on the spindle, you might want to rough up the spindle with some sandpaper. If the handhold begins to smoke it's probably made out of wod that's too soft. If the spindle keeps popping out of the socket or handhold, deepen the holes. Be sure you are holding the spindle straight up and down. (Remember to brace your left hand against your left shin.) Also, watch your technique with the bow. You may be pulling it to the side or have the string too high or low on the spindle. If you have smoke but no fire keep at it. You're probably stopping too soon.

Choose your wood carefully. The first time I tried this, I used a broom handle for the spindle and a piece of oak for the fireboard. I tried for over an hour and never even got smoke! The next time I used a piece of cottonwood from a blown down tree and had fire in ten minutes. I usually take less than a minute now.

It works so keep at it!

Two books I'd recommend to anyone interested in wilderness survival are Tom Brown's Field Guide to Wilderness Survival, and The Best of Woodsmoke: A Manual of Primitive Outdoor Skills.

Note from WWD: YouTube Bow Drill Video
Notched Board Bow Drill