Improved Bow and Drill

Friction fire is one of the most sought after skills. People spend many frustrating hours trying to make fire by rubbing two pieces of wood together. The most common method is the bow and drill. You have all the right materials in place, you have read everything you could possibly get your hands on about the subject, you’re feeling confident and to your chagrin you cannot get a coal.

“What happened?” you ask yourself. “I know the materials are right. Why is it that I can’t get a coal?”

Without missing a beat, you grab all the materials get into position and try again. Only this time you figure, maybe the cord was slipping, so you take up all the slack on the cord you can. Everything seems to be going fine. You even managed to get some smoke when all of a sudden, SNAP! The cord breaks.

“Son of a…!” you say to yourself as you throw your bow-drill set into a dark corner in your garage. “I give up! This doesn’t work. The people who wrote this stuff are full of it!”

We have all been through this to some degree or another. Believe us when we tell you, “You’ll get it. Just keep at it”.

It wasn’t until Dude and I met with, Dick Baugh, from Palo Alto Ca., at Winter Count 2004, he showed us a simple little known method that eliminates some of the frustrations people normally have with the traditional bow and drill. Dick proceeded to produce a smaller than normal size bow and drill set from his pocket. This one seemed a little different though. The drill was attached to a thinner than normal cord, which in turn was attached very loosely to the bow.

“This!”, he said, “is the Egyptian Bow and drill, as it was shown to me by John Olsen, who said he saw it in a book on Ancient Egypt.”

Although we had been aware of the Egyptian bow and drill, we had never really taken the opportunity to explore this unique method.

“The Egyptian Bow and Drill” he explained, “seems to eliminate some of the more common problems inherent with the standard/traditional bow and drill.”

The Problem

We know from experience, the biggest problem with the common bow and drill is excessive wear and tear on the cordage, caused by the cord slipping on the drill itself. Wear and tear is what ultimately causes thinner cords to break.

Another problem people seem to have, is getting used to the tension of the drill strung on the bow. For all that have tried the bow and drill, you know if you let go of the drill when strung on the bow, it will go flying. Enter the Egyptian Bow and Drill!

The Solution

Upon returning from winter count, we started experimenting with the Egyptian bow and drill by putting it through a series of tests. The first thing we did was take an old mulefat handdrill about 3/8” in diameter and cut a piece about four inches in length. For the cord we decided to use an 18” length of surveyors line. Next we strung the drill on the cord with a simple clove hitch. Another way is to run the cord through a small hole that has been made through the center of the drill and tie it off on either side with a knot. [NOTE: Neither a clove hitch, or hole drilled in the spindle is necessary. Multiple wraps around the drill is all that is needed] For the bow we used about a 9” section of a branch from a walnut tree. The bearing block we used was sycamore. And finally the hearth was sotol.

We set off to try this new ancient device. We wrapped the drill around the cord a la the standard bow and drill but instead of the normal one wrap, we wrapped it about 8 times. — the length of the cord will determine the amount of wraps. You do however want to make sure that you are able to wrap the cord around the drill at least three to four times. The first thing we noticed was the lack of tension on the drill, common to the standard bow and drill set up. This was good because it meant there was no need to perform a juggling act just to get all the pieces into place. After settling into a comfortable position, we went to work trying to get a coal. Immediately we started to produce smoke. After about 20 or so seconds, we had a coal. A smile rolled across our face as we saw the little glowing ember. This was indeed an exciting moment for us.

“Well we know that cord works” we said “lets go smaller.” At which point we decided to use some dental floss we happened to have, from our PSK (personal survival kit), just to see how well it worked. Using the same methods we employed earlier with the surveyors line, we proceeded to use the dental floss. After a couple of turns, the floss snapped. Not because the floss slipped on the drill but because it was too thin to handle the downward pressure we were exerting on the drill with the bearing block. We decided to try it again, only this time we were going to use four strands of floss instead of one. The anticipation grew as we wondered if it was going to be at all possible to use floss. We proceeded to work the bow back and forth, slowly at first, and then faster and faster. After a very few seconds we began to produce smoke. We continued to draw the bow, back and forth slowly increasing our speed. When it happened, SNAP! The floss gave way. We sat there in disdain as we stared at the hearth, when we noticed smoke still rising from the notch. Our frowns quickly turned into smiles as we reached for our prepared tinder in order to blow the coal into a flame.

Our experiments concluded that while the standard bow and drill works and works well, for those who have mastered it, the Egyptian bow and drill is far superior in design. The cord wrapped around the drill multiple times, instead of the single twist, completely eliminated the cordage from slipping at all. This allows one to use a wider array of cordage such as floss, yucca, dogbane, a shoelace, or in an emergency even a strip of cloth from your cotton t-shirt. It also enables a person with limited experience to have a much greater chance of success. For those of you who have mastered the common bow and drill, you will find that using the Egyptian set up, is not only easier but more efficient. In fact we feel that once you use the Egyptian bow and drill you will no longer want to rely on the common bow and drill… there is no need to!

2 person strap drill, with leather about 3/4″ wide.

By lengthening the cordage on your current bow and wrapping the drill multiple times, you will have instantly converted your bow into the Egyptian bow set, allowing for your own experimentation with this method… it’s that easy!

It should be pointed out, with using multiple wraps around the drill, one can convert to the two person strap drill, by simply substituting the bow for someone else just holding on to the ends of the cordage. Also, it is much easier to use the Arctic Strap Drill in this method. Another thing I would like to add, I prefer to use leather strips in lieu of the cordage. I’ve used leather anywhere from 1/4″ wide to 1.5″ wide without any issues.