Friction fire lighting: where there’s smoke, there’s fire??


Friction fire lighting has been a long-held family goal. For more than five years, time and time again, my brother, my father and I had struggled to get a friction fire lit. We tried different methods, different woods for both the drill and the notched base and read up as much as we could (although online resources on this are surprisingly limited, despite having improved significantly over the last few years).

Our most promising attempts centred around the bow-drill method (originally this was done after observation of my persistent but fruitless attempts with a hand drill – my dad realised this was not going to work, and took off his bootlace, and my brother pulled out his Leatherman, and between them they fashioned a quick bow). We managed to get some smoke pretty quickly when we first started using this method, and this evolved into billowing smoke in quantities sufficient to make continued drilling difficult, due to insufficient remaining clean air when crowded around the smoky drill (even in a breeze).

After a great deal of work, study and consultation, particularly of Ray Mears’s Extreme Survival TV series, we realised this was quite a difficult technique that Ray and others make look easy through careful splicing of film. We also found that almost everyone we spoke to *thought* they could start a friction fire, but for some reason no-one had ever actually done it…

However we still wanted to learn. We found a course that offered training in bushcraft, including friction fire (I believe it was the weekend course from here []). We phoned them up and asked whether people actually came out of the course able to light a friction fire. They said not everyone did, but that if we had been practicing (which of course we had) then we should be fine.

On that basis, we signed up. The course was generally interesting, but friction fire lighting was definitely the most challenging part of it. I, for one, discovered that I’m simply not physically fit/strong enough to light a friction fire on my own. Lighting a friction fire requires an elusive combination of strength, astounding endurance and consistent precision, even when the limits of your strength/endurance are being tested. This becomes a little bit easier when you’re working with someone else on the bow, because he/she can take a bit more of the load if you’re tiring, and can enhance precision (or at least reduce inaccuracy of your combined average thrust). The key is to keep the bow level, moving back and forth, and keep significant pressure on the top of the drill (which should be rounded) using another piece of wood with a slight dimple in its surface.
Getting startedWhen it's smoking, it's time to increase the intensity

The base will allow a small amount of charred dust ground from the drill and base to collect in the notch and as this collects an ember is (hopefully) formed.
If you’re not careful, however, the base will be knocked or the wind will blow, and your ember will be lost. Also once you have the ember (preferably on a little piece of dry birch bark placed carefully underneath the notch) you will then need to blow it very gently so that it’s glowing as you transfer it into a pile of tinder. Then the pile of tinder should be held together firmly but gently (to maximise contact between the ember and the tinder, but to avoid stifling or breaking up the ember). Further gentle blowing should allow the tinder to catch alight (if it’s good) and bob’s your uncle.
We understand woods are important too, but the pieces used in this exercise were unfortunately ready-made, so we didn’t get to see what tree they came from. However we were told that poplar is one good option that is readily available in the UK. If you’re based in the States see this woods list [] which says that California Buckeye works for the drill, Incense Cedar works for the base (the ‘hearthboard’) and a stone works for the ‘bearing block’ – the piece you push down on to create friction between the drill and the hearthboard. Tinder is of course critical, but if you get as far as needing tinder, you’ve done pretty well!!

Note: the hand drills page here [] has some more wood suggestions, but keep in mind hand drills are a silly idea (at least until you have the bow drill method down pat) so just pull the wood recommendations from this page for now – don’t actually try the hand drill yet as it will just be demotivating.

Note 2: one additional tip that looks very handy but that we didn’t try is to use a loose bowstring, but to wrap it a large number of times around the drill until it becomes taught. This way the drill doesn’t flip out so easily. See here [] for details (note that this is originally from the ancient Egyptians!)

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 Posted by at 3:32 am

  12 Responses to “Friction fire lighting: where there’s smoke, there’s fire??”

  1. Actually, and have additional friction fire material information. And has info on starting it with damp materials. I’m beginning to feel that primitive ways is my new favourite friction fire site. Most other sites just have high-level rubbish like this: where as primitive ways seems to be written by people who are experienced.

  2. Hi James,
    I have been trying to light a fire by friction recently, I have had a desired to do this for ages as a nipper rubbing sticks together but now old have decided to actually do it. Just to put things in perspective I am a total novice and have only seen the likes of Ray Mears and Bear Grylls on the telly do it.

    Collected some materials couple of weeks ago. Shaped the pieces and started to try the bow and drill but hopelessly failed. After a week thinking about it I realised two things, I needed a pressure block as I couldn’t push down on it and with the top being pointed so to reduce friction so it would spin easyier. 2) My bow was far to small to get a good speed. This time I got a tiny ammount of smoke and gave up as I thought it was too windy. Week later which was today I tried again thinking pushing down harder would work, also made more of a point on the drill. Was getting smoke consistantly but not a huge amount and the dust being generated was black and not the glowing stuff I was expecting. Was spinning for a good 1-2 minutes minutes whilst it was smoking

    So been thinking this afternoon what wrong, and I’m a bit stumped. All I can think is that the Hearthboard must be the wrong wood although I been reading it doesn’t mater. Dunno what type of wood it is, but its pretty soft where us the drill is hard. Do I need a hard wood for the board? Is there anything else you can advise?

  3. Hi ellisd5,

    First of all, congratulations on the decision to actually do this. It isn’t easy but it’s worth it.
    Secondly, Ray Mears et al on TV are not generally showing the whole story – see if you can see an instance where Ray starts a fire by friction without a cut in the filming – I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find one. It is extremely hard work (as mentioned above I discovered on this course that I personally do not have the physical strength and stamina to do this alone) and it takes a few minutes of the most intense but controlled force you can muster, AFTER you start getting smoke. So it goes like this:
    1) Warm up – drilling at moderate pace and with moderate pressure on the pressure block until smoke starts to appear – 2-3 mins (or 1-2 mins if you are drilling in a hole you have already been drilling in)
    2) Step up the pace – drilling at a faster pace and greater pressure – 4-5 mins of long, smooth strokes so that the drill is going at constant speed except for at the brief changes of direction at the ends of the bow
    3) Remove dust-pile and blow gently – hopefully should have a small wisp of smoke as you remove it and start to glow as you blow it – if not (if it breaks up for example due to blowing too hard, or if you didn’t keep the hearthboard in place firmly enough with your foot while drilling and the pile was squished) then back to 1)

    You absolutely do need a pressure block, but it is extremely useful to have someone else holding this, because if not you have very little ability to control the pressure after a minute or two of intense drilling, and one man drilling with two hands is difficult enough. I would recommend it being a three man job in the first instance if at all possible (I know it can be hard to find other guys committed to the friction fire cause – “why not just use a match?”) but in an ideal world you would have one to hold the pressure block, and one on each end of the drill.

    The dust that is being generated is always black and very fine if it’s good dust (brown and less fine if you’re pushing too hard and it’s not getting a chance to get charred enough) – it never gets to the glowing stage until it is in a small, tightly-packed pile in the notch you have cut under the hole in the hearthboard. First it becomes a little pile of very fine black dust, then it becomes a little tightly packed pile with a tiny wisp of smoke emerging (you probably wont see the wisp for all of the other smoke though until you take it out), then you take it out and blow it very gently and it starts to glow.

    I’m afraid as for the woods I don’t know the answer (ours were ready-made, and I have read contradictory things online as to whether it should be soft or hard wood for the drill or bow), however I have the firm impression that while the wood is important, personal strength and fitness as well as the technique (long smooth strokes) is what is really important. It sounds to me like the main issue you’re having is the amount of time you’re drilling for after you start getting smoke – the best way to increase this is to get another pair of hands involved. The guy I watched do this solo was a huge 25-30 year old guy that looked like he’d come straight out of boot camp – peak-fitness, and built like a tank.

    Best of luck and please keep me posted as to how you’re getting on – let me know what problems you might be running into or better yet let me know when you succeed!


  4. Added some pictures from the trip – hope they will inspire you!

  5. Got a superb youtube instructional here on lighting a fir by friction, hope this helps with developing your skill

  6. these skills are very important for people to master since we seem to have it to easy in life right now. we are A spoiled race. who knows what happens tomorrow.

  7. Survival School courses are designed to be fun and safe, (we employ a Health and Safety Consultant) whilst passing on the knowledge you need to be able to live comfortably in the wilderness. Our instructors will spend time with each participant, ensuring that they get enough knowledge and practice on each skill to be able to master it before leaving the course.

  8. I’m IGNORANT of these things, but from an outside obeservation, I wonder if a longer drill (shaft) would give better control over shaft alignment and be more tolerant of bow mis-alignment/wandering.??

  9. B Cox – I would guess that you’re probably right except that in that case the drill would need to be very straight – the longer it is, the more magnified any wobbling is at either end (if it is not perfectly straight)

  10. Must bushcraft and survival skills every one should learn it!

  11. Elder on elder works well in a bow drill. Readily available in the UK. My hearth board, drill and bearing block are all elder and reliably produce a good ember without too much work. An elder tree will often have dead dry branches just waiting to be used!
    I have also achieved an ember with rhododendron on rhododendron which though not native is fairly common in many places.

  12. Mark – that’s very good to know, especially given how easily recognisable elder’s little white elder flowers are, making it an easy tree to identify!

    I never would have guessed that it works well given that the branches are often hollow and full of pith, but I understand the heartwood is very solid.

    When you say it works well, are you referring to the hollow pithy branches or the heartwood?

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