Learning to build a bow drill fire can be a difficult endeavor. In the end however, you will be a much richer person for the effort.
Frustration was beginning to build. Things weren’t going right, and my patience had evaporated. A tweak here, an adjustment needed there, and then an unsuccessful attempt. I needed a fire for today’s project; a primitive atlatl dart, and it wasn’t going well. When you build a primitive dart, you ought to build a fire by primitive means. That was the plan at least. The main problem was my bow drill set had been given away to an aspiring bow drill student of mine. My new bow was apparently still in the break-in period.
Soon though, I began to find the sweet spot. After a bit of experience with the bow drill, you can really feel when the wood starts burning good. Once the wood was rolling smooth, willow on cottonwood, I could start to smell the smoke rising. The old saying “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” doesn’t necessarily apply to a bow drill fire. Smoke is just the beginning. Once you get smoke, you still have the bulk of the work ahead of you.
Back and forth, smooth strokes, rolled the spindle back and forth in the hearth. Brown dust collected in the notch as my muscles began to fatigue. Soon the brown dust turned to black and I knew it was time to push the pace. Quickening my speed, I tried to increase the internal temperature in the notch to the magical point where it would weld together and create my coal. Faster and faster I pushed until smoke filled my vision, and I could no longer monitor the situation. I was hitting the point of fatigue where I could potentially slip out of the hearth and knock the whole thing to pieces. All at once I stopped the sawing motion of the bow, and closely observed the dust pile for signs of smoke.
Sure enough, wisps of smoke rose from a pile of dust collected in the notch. From two bits of wood I had created fire. This still provides a sense of wonder every time.
I would guess more people know how to make a bow drill fire than at any time in recent history. So many people are participating in what I would call a bushcraft Renaissance, that this type of skill in not so unknown these days. With just a few minutes you can learn the basics of how to start a bow drill fire. In fact, I’m sure within a short time there may be a post on this site covering the subject. In my mind though, just as important as learning how to create a bow drill fire, is understanding why to.
There are a number of reasons why learning primitive fire making can be beneficial to a person. First off, this skill is certainly not one where you get something for nothing. Unlike many aspects of life where you may achieve, or not achieve, based on a myriad of factors not related to your actual performance, primitive fire making is sort of a pass/fail class. At the end of an attempt you’ve either made a coal, or not made a coal. This kind of accomplishment, especially for young people, can be a huge confidence booster. There is no one else to blame if a coal doesn’t get created, and no one else to take credit if one does. You know where you are in the skill and if you are proficient or not. Practicing primitive fire making can help instill a self-assured confidence only real achievement can create.
Another reason why learning primitive fire making can be beneficial is the knowledge of the natural world it creates. One of the biggest obstacles to create a coal consistently is to use materials that put the odds in your favor. Since all of those materials can be found in nature, you must learn not only to differentiate between woods, but to also know their properties as well. Some woods make good spindles, while others make good hearth boards. With some practice you can soon walk through the woods and spot resources lying all around you.
You’ll also need to learn about tinder, and where to find it at different times of the year in different weather circumstances. The outdoors is not a static place. It takes practice to find the resources you’ll need at all times and situations in a year. In order to learn these things, you’ll have to explore your favorite nearby woods for materials throughout the year. This promotes more learning of the natural world and getting to enjoy nature. What could be wrong with that?
Learning to make a bow drill fire has a less concrete benefit as well. By learning a skill like this you help to pass a torch of knowledge into the next future. These types of Stone Age skills are obviously not common place today. As our lives become more technologically advanced, they will naturally get pushed to the edges of our knowledge. If however they are pushed out of our body of knowledge, they will likely be lost forever. It’s likely that people would know of the process, but there is a whole different level in actually knowing the how of the process. It would be disheartening to lose such a foundational skill to the human story.
The only way skills like this can last in an ever changing, fast-paced, and technological modern world, is by putting them into action. When you apply them, you are a literal link in an unbroken chain that extends back into the first chapters of the human story. Future generations will only have the opportunity to practice and apply these skills if someone today forges those links. Learning to start a bow-drill fire, will not only bring the past to the present, but will keep this foundational human skill alive. It is actually quite an honor when you think about it.
Primitive skills may not be for everyone. In fact, I understand why some people might even raise their eyebrow when they learn I spend my time practicing such skills. It simply isn’t something common. On the other hand, for me the pros of learning such skills overwhelm the cons. They are part of the human story that has always intrigued me. Though I’ve only put them into practice over the past handful of years I can see the benefits they bring. If you are looking to make a real accomplishment, increase your knowledge of the world, and bring forth basic human knowledge, learning to make a bow drill fire might be something you’d enjoy.
Thanks for reading this article on why to build a bow drill fire. If you find aspects of the Stone Age interesting, you may find this article “Build an Atlatl and You Build a Piece of Living History” interesting.