Lighting a Fire by Friction in Five Steps

traditional way of starting a fire seen

The idea of rubbing sticks together to make fire sounds so simple, doesn’t it? In practice, though making fire by friction consistently is far from simple.

 Maybe you want to master friction fire lighting as a personal challenge, or as part of a wider bushcraft skillset in preparation for future outdoor activities or maybe you want to be prepared in case of emergencies.  Either way, this is how to light a fire using the bow drill method of friction fire lighting in five simple steps.

Bow drill fire lighting kit with bow, drill, hearth, bearing block and ember pan

Bow drill fire lighting kit with bow, drill, hearth, bearing block and ember pan

Find Dry Wood

If you need dry wood for a fire in the first place you need even drier wood for friction fire lighting. You are going to rub two pieces of wood together vigorously enough that the friction between them produces charred wood dust that is so hot it will start to glow.

To do this you will need the driest wood possible, you will also need to be selective when it comes to the species of wood you are looking for as not all woods produce good friction fire results.

The two pieces which require particular attention are the hearth and drill, the two pieces which will rub together and create the ember we need to get the fire going. Suitable wood species are sycamore, lime, elder, willow, and ivy, they will obviously need to be dead if they are to be dry but they must also not be too brittle.

Do Some Whittling

Once you have found all the wood you need you will need to do some carving and whittling to get it all in the appropriate shape.

The bow in this instance is used to spin a drill against a hearth to produce friction, which in turn will produce a glowing ember. This bow to your friction fire lighting should be roughly the length of your arm from armpit to wrist.

If it is any longer you will not use the whole length of it and if it is much shorter it will be inefficient and you will have to work harder. It should not be flexible or the drill will not move and should preferably be made of green wood for strength.

String; almost anything will do as the string, although some things are obviously better than others but if you have a shoelace you will have everything you need.

The countryman’s staple of bailer twine will not work though, it won’t put up with the friction between the string and bow and will melt. If you want to go down the all-natural route you can try making a string out of natural fibers or from an animal skin but that's something for another time.

The drill and the hearth; I would encourage you to make these out of the same piece of wood if you can find a piece big enough. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard someone say that one piece needs to be harder than the other.

This isn't true, what you'll find if one piece is softer than the other is that it will wear out sooner and maybe so quickly that you don't produce enough friction or heat to produce an ember.

The drill should be about as thick as your thumb, certainly no thicker, and the hearth can be a similar thickness although this is less crucial.

The bearing block; this is the piece that you will hold in your hand to put pressure on the drill, without it you will not be able to put enough pressure on the drill.

It should be made of the hardest wood you can find and preferably green so that the moisture can provide lubrication between it and the drill to stop too much friction and heat developing. Something like a pice of green blackthorn or holly is a good option for the bearing block.

An ember catcher is another vital piece of your friction fire kit but doesn’t need to be any more complicated than a large leaf, piece of bark or sliver of wood. Its function is just to keep the fragile ember you produce up off the potentially cold wet ground.

A Piece of Cake

Once you have all the pieces of your friction fire kit the hard work really starts you are going to have to make a small indentation with the tip of a knife in the hearth, wind the string around the drill and place the tip of the drill in the indentation you have made.

Slowly start to move the bow back and forth with the drill spinning between the hearth and bearing block. You should start slowly and with only just enough pressure to keep the drill in place one you have got up to a rhythm that you are comfortable with you can begin to apply more pressure with the bearing block and start to move the bow faster.

Now you should be able to see your first whisps of smoke, hopefully mostly from the hearth end of the drill rather than from the bearing block. Maintain your drilling for a few more strokes and then stop.

What you should find is that the tip of the drill where it contacts the hearth has charred black as should a corresponding circle on the hearth. You now need to remove a portion of the hearth, take a slice from that charred circle, just like a slice of cake, this is where the ember that will eventually be your fire will form.

The Final Push

Now you can start drilling again, start slowly again and like when you made your first burn gradually build up pressure and speed until smoke is billowing from the hearth, once you think you have definitely got an ember; carry on for a bit longer.

When you are ready to stop drilling, there really should be a lot of smoke at this point, make sure you take the drill away from the hearth under full control. It's all too easy to allow the drill to spin away with the tension of the string, this might flick your ember all over the place or hit you in the knuckles as it unwinds, which is very painful.

The Breath of Life

Once you have an ember you need to make sure you don't allow it to go out, in the grand scheme of fires and sources of ignition it is very cold with almost no radiant heat and will need a lot of encouragement before it becomes a fire.

You must give a bundle of tinder ready before you get to the point of producing an ember; good options are dry shredded grass or dry bracken, a little clump of the seed down from a poplar tree, the head of a cat-tail reed or thistles in the middle of your tinder bundle will extend the life of your ember.

You should carefully tip your ember into this bundle without letting it fall apart and then gently blow. As it grows it will begin to smoke more and more, the rule I use is that generally the more it smoke the harder you blow until eventually, you produce a flame.

 To master this skills will take a great deal of patience and perseverance, just as with any outdoor skill but it is very rewarding and well worth the time and effort; good luck.

Leave a comment: