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What is a Bow Drill?

By Matt Brady
Updated May 17, 2024
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A bow drill is a simple device made of wood and rope that is generally used to start fires. Owing to its simple design and use, it has been used for ages by different cultures and civilizations. Although primarily used for fire starting, it has also been traced back to dentistry and woodworking practices. A bow drill is made up of five basic components: four pieces of wood and one length of rope. These are used to stand the drill, or spindle, vertically so it can be rubbed back and forth. The process creates friction, which creates sparks and then fire.

Historians trace the bow drill all the way back to around the fourth millennium BCE, where evidence shows it was used by the Babylonians and Egyptians. Throughout its lengthy history, it has been used as an ancient dental tool—for drilling holes to install rudimentary braces—as well as a woodworking device for drilling precise holes. Although ancient, the bow drill has far from outlasted its use. Even in the modern age, knowledge of bow drills may be very useful to the outdoorsman; the ability to fashion a fire equipped with nothing more than a knife, some rope and available wood may determine the difference between life and death in the wild.

To make a bow drill, one needs to start with a length of rope and a good outdoors knife. For the bow section, find a piece of slender wood, such as a small tree limb or sapling. Take the rope and tie it to each end of the bow. Next, find a flat piece of wood, such as a solid piece of thick bark. This is called the hold. Carve a groove in one side of the hold, and lay the hold on the ground with the groove facing upward. Next, create a spindle using the knife. A solid branch will do, no more than a couple feet (about a half a meter) in length and whittled to a sharp point on one end. The spindle will be positioned vertically, point down, on top of the hold. One last piece of wood is required: the hand hold. The hand hold is used to hold the spindle in place, by placing it flat across the top of the spindle and holding it steady with one's hand. All the components are now in place. Next, the rope needs to be looped around the spindle, so that when the bow is pulled back and forth, the spindle will rotate.

Once everything is ready, the user can kneel down and, holding the spindle in place with one hand, use the other hand to pull the bow back and forth in a vigorous fashion. The rotating spindle will create friction at the base of the hold, which will eventually generate enough heat to begin a fire. Kindling should be placed at the base of the hold so the fire has somewhere to spread. Once the fire is created in the hold, the bow drill operator can even pick up the hold and place the small fire in a larger pile of kindling and wood.

Some outdoorsmen prefer to use a flint and knife to start fires in the wild. The advantage of a flint over a bow drill is that it can spark even in rainy situations. When the knife is struck across the flint, it will invariably create sparks. There is a chance, however, that the surrounding tinder will be too wet to hold the spark and create fire. Nevertheless, a flint and knife may serve as the better all-purpose fire starter, whereas a bow drill is handy in a situation in which only a knife is on hand. There are also other alternatives to the bow drill, such as building a fire plow, which also uses friction to create fire.

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