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 [raymears.com]). 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.
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 [primitiveways.com] 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 [primitiveways.com] 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. SeeÂ here [primitiveways.com] for details (note that this is originally from the ancient Egyptians!)