Starting Fire

How to Make a Fire With a Bow Drill

It’s not easy making fire like a caveman. Give yourself a chance with these tips.

Practice your fire skills. (Photo by Dawn Huczek / Flickr)
Practice your fire skills. (Photo by Dawn Huczek / Flickr)

1. The type of wood you find can set you up for success or failure. Non-resinous species like cedar, sumac, willow, aspen, spruce, and fir work best (for both spindle and fireboard). Choose dry, hard pieces that look like firewood. Avoid rotten, dirty, or crumbly sticks. Green wood can make a strong, flexible bow.

2. Shoelaces don’t grip the spindle well, making for poor bowstrings. Cotton cordage or flat webbing can work better, but be careful with nylon—it can melt under friction.

3. Use a piece of bark under your fireboard to catch coal and embers.

4. The color of powder being generated by your spindle can help you troubleshoot technique: Light-brown sawdust needs more pressure; if the color remains the same but consistency is fuzzy, increase speed; black and crusty or chunky means reduce pressure; black and fuzzy coal dust is ideal.

5. Pack a lighter. And a backup.