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Fire Making


G'day Dino,
If the spindle is shaped, say, 1inch diameter at the top where the cord goes round, and the bottom half of the spindle is a quarter of that, will the bottom of the spindle spin faster and so create a coal quicker because of increased speed at the bottom?

Barry from Australia


Howdy Barry;
You'll get an increase in speed, but what you'll also need is downward pressure to create enough friction to ignite the fine dust that accumulates in the notch of the hearthboard. Two factors for igniting the fine dust into an ember are spindle rotation and downward pressure. Start out at a slow rotation and warm up the hearthboard. Then increase to a moderate rotation and some downward pressure to create the fine dust in the notch area. After the dust starts to build up, then apply more rotation and increase the downward pressure. At that point, you should have smoke swirling around the base of the spindle. Don't stop until you see puffs of smoke coming from the fine dust in the notch.

Good luck on your fire making endeavors.

Dino Labiste



Hi Dino;
I am a student from Germany and I am very fascinated by the handdrill.

I have 2 things I would like to ask:
First is about a trick I have heard from: not drilling straight at the end, but with a little angle to increase fricion. Is this right or not so good, because drilling out of the center this way, though it is a short time at the end and you could work against this by changing the sides of this not straight drilling?

And the second thing is about the correct notch shape. You have to use a 45 degree angle for the notch pointing to the center. And has the corner reach the center point? Or better stop a little before, and when yes, should you prefer to make a wider end of the notch, that it is flat at the end but still pointing to the center in this situation?

I have not much experience, and I hope you as a very experienced handdrill expert have some advice for me. I would be very happy!

Best wishes!


Hello Michael;
I don't see any advantage to changing the angle of your spindle while drilling. Although, when my spindle binds in a deep hole on the hearthboard, I sometimes angle my drilling in different directions to widen the hole. Whether you drill straight up and down or angle the spindle, it does not increase the friction. Friction is increased when you apply more downward pressure on the spindle.

When creating your notch hole, which is shaped like a triangular wedge, the point should end at the center of the spindle hole on the hearthboard. Open up the wide end of the notch. You want your char to filter down the notch hole and not accumulate on top of the spindle hole on the hearthboard. Too narrow of a notch hole and the char will not filter down the notch hole.

I hope this information is helpful. Good luck on your fire making efforts. Let me know if you are successful in getting fire.

Dino Labiste



Dear Dick,
I just read your article on the Australian aboriginal fire saw, and I can tell you that the exact same method was used in Japan. Only there they used bamboo. I also managed to use bamboo while alone. It is important to have a bamboo that has not started to degrade yet. This you split in half. The fire board will be one half of the bamboo, the inside down with in the hollow a bit of conventional tinber. (You are looking at a bamboo with a 1/2 inch diameter or so) Right above where the tinder is, you have to drill a hole that goes all the way through the bamboo to the tinder. Now you place the other half of your bamboo on the hole and start sawing. (make sure you abrade a bit of the top bamboo so there is a slightly larger surface area.)

Let me know if it works,
Anthonio Akkermans


Hello Anthonio,
Well done! Where could I find out more about the Japanese method? That's one I will have to try. I have seen Mountain Mel DeWeese start a fire very quickly with a Filipino Negrito fire saw which resembles the Japanese one which you describe. It is made from a very large diameter (6 or 8 inch??) bamboo which is very low density. Instead of drilling a hole he cuts a longitudinal groove on the inside of the hearthboard and holds some tinder in it to catch the char. He created an ember very quickly. I have tried it but never been successful.


I came across your "PrimitiveWays" site while looking for Filipino fire starter instructions. This is a device that works by compression. Two halves of a wooden block are drilled with one half holding a dowel with a small depression in the end of it. A piece of tinder is placed in the depression. The dowel is then fit into the hole in the other half block. This should be a fairly tight fit. The two halves are then sharply rammed together. The compression of the air in the hole of the second block then ignites the tinder and creates an ember. This is very similar to the way a diesel engine creates combustion.

I saw this in a video on fire making and recently tried to re-produce it, but haven't got it to work. Have you ever seen or heard of this method?

Thanks for a great site. I am going to try some of your ideas with my scout troop.

Rick Kwitkoski
Sorrento, BC, Canada


Hello Rick;
Yes, I have heard of this method of fire making. The device is called a fire piston. I purchased a wooden fire piston 8 years ago from a person name Bob Perkins. Bob no longer sells the fire pistons. The device works great. I used char cloth for the tinder.

The fire piston is an ancient method for starting fires. It was developed in the areas of Indonesia, Burma, Philippines, Bornea, and the Malay Peninsula. The materials used by the natives were hardwood, bamboo, or horn. The cord gasket and the chamber must fit precisely in order to form the proper seal.

Read Wyatt Knapp's article for more information on the fire piston. Access this webpage:

Also, you can purchase a fire piston from:

Dino Labiste


Dick, all of your articles are excellent. I have one question. How does one apply sufficient downward pressure when trying to start fire with a hand drill? Try as I might, it just won't happen. I use the Egytpian variation of the bow drill and it works a treat. The hand drill defeats me. I can't even get smoke and only got dust once.

Chuck McKinney


Hello Chuck;
It only took me about six months to gain success with a hand drill. Because of my age and weight, I have to have sticks that are really optimized. It took a combination of:
1. A transition from blisters to calluses
Use the palms of your hands, not your fingers and use the bottom part of your palms, nearest your little fingers. If you feel heat in your hands then stop for a day.
2. Finding the right materials
The hearth board should be relatively soft wood like cedar or yucca from the desert, about one half inch thick. The bottom end of the spindle should be about three eights inch in diameter and tapered. Long spindles work better for me than short ones. I have a wild rose stem about three feet long that I have been using for years. It has a square hole in the base so I can use replaceable tips. The tips are generally a little harder than the hearth board (elderberry, mule fat, mare‘s tail). For me small differences in density of the materials mean the difference between success and failure. Persons who are heavier, more muscular and have bigger hands are successful with materials that I can’t even get smoke from.
3. Proper ergonomics
I am left handed so I kneel on my left knee and step on the board with my right foot fairly close to the hole/notch. Avoid having your hands far from your shoulders. Keep your hands pretty close to your shoulders so you can get better leverage. Get up off your rear end and push down HARD on the spindle as you spin it. Work from the shoulders rather than from the elbows. Don’t forget to breathe. Just like every other athletic endeavor, all the muscles that you aren’t using should be relaxed.
4. Technique
Use both arms with equal vigor. I see novices working like heck with one hand and the other hand is barely moving. If the tip of the spindle doesn’t flop back and forth then you are using both arms. Put a little spit on your palms to increase the friction. You must move from low on the spindle to back up to the top as quickly as possible.
5. Building up the appropriate muscles
The first time I had success I cheated and stuck the hearthboard in the oven at 300 degrees before doing it. Another trick is “training wheels”, a pair of thumb loops tied to the top of the spindle. They will allow you to twirl continuously without having to move from the bottom to the top of the spindle.

And there’s always the Tom Sawyer method. Get someone else to do the work. The Paleoplanet web site has a pretty good forum on, among other topic, friction fire. Ask them too.

Dick Baugh



Hi Dino,
My name is Bennie Girl. I live with my husband up North in Mt. Shasta, about an hour from the Oregon border. I was born in Honolulu, but have been state side since I was 2. I'm doing a paper for my ANTH 5, Intro to Archaeology. I can't find how early Hawaiians made fire. Where can I find the answer? You probably know. Maybe you can direct me to some sites where I can learn more about my cultural history.



Aloha no, Bennie. Here is an excerpt from the Bishop Museum book called "Arts and Crafts of Hawaii, Section I, Food" by Te Rangi Hiroa. The text is from the section on Cooking in the book.

"Fire (ahi) was produced by the Polynesian method of rubbing an upper pointed piece ('aulima) of wood along a groove formed on the upper surface of a lower piece ('aunaki) of dry wood such as hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus). The upper piece was held in a forward slant, the fingers of both hands clasped over the front and the thumbs to the back. The lower piece was kept fixed on the ground by placing the front end against a fixed object or under an assistant's foot. The upper stick was rubbed (kuolo) in successive forward movements to create the groove and push the particles of detached wood to the forward end of the groove. When sufficient wood dust had collected, the movements were quickened until the friction created heat and caused the wood dust to smoulder and smoke. Some inflammable material, such as old dry tapa, coconut husk, or coconut stipule (a'a), was placed on the ground and the under stick was turned over it to deposit the burning dust on the material. Strips of dry tapa were usually plaited in a loose three-ply braid, with one end frazzled out for easy ignition. The under stick was given a sharp tap on the back with the upper stick to dislodge all the dust. The dry material was waved in the air or blown gently until it ignited ('a) into flame -- ua 'a ke ahi. The whole process of creating fire by friction is termed hi'a ahi.
Firewood received the specific name of wahie."

Also, try contacting the Bishop Museum. The museum has a webpage on answering questions about Hawaiiana. Access the webpage below for further information and links:


The Hawaiian method of fire making is called the fire plow by contemporary fire makers. You might want to Google "fire plow" to find more information about that method of fire making. Here are some sites about the fire plow:


Be aware that the Polynesian method of holding the stick that moves back and forth on the stationary stick is held in a certain position. Some of the contemporary fire makers today will hold the stick differently (see the excerpt on Polynesian fire making, above, from the book entitled "Arts and Crafts of Hawaii"). Below is a video on the Samoan fire plow.


Here is a webpage on the plant, called Hau, that the early Hawaiians used for making fire:


Hope this helps,
Dino Labiste



I live in southern England. Can you suggest some native English types of wood that might work with a bow drill? I've tried ash and beech, but only seem to get smoke. The char never gets to the ember stage. I know its all down to experimentation, but can I use greenwood, or should I dry any I cut? Would it be better to try fallen branches as a source? I'd rather use local materials than have to go to a sawmill for bits.. .. ..

Be grateful if you can help me.

Andy Winchester


Andy, sorry to take so long in getting back to you, the spring has been rather busy. I don't know which woods you might have in England that would work for fire drills. When I was there a few years ago I didn't get to try any. To start though, with a bow drill, I would use dead wood, though not too rotten. You might try willow, or even better, a large willow root for the hearth board. A well weathered willow stick might work for the drill. Do you have any Elderberry? (Sambucus sp.) One of ours works very well. We also use a type of horse chestnut (Buckeye), if you have anything in this family it might work also. Another thought would be to contact someone in the UK, the Society of Primitive Technology has a few members there. You can contact Dave Wescott the SPT manager at dwescot@aol.com and request contacts.

Good luck,

This is a request to use all or part of your article "The Miracle of Fire-by-Friction" on our website.

As you can see from my signature, I am the Webmaster for SABC3, one of the channels of the South African Broadcasting Corporation. We will be running the CBS "Survivor - Africa" show, and I need material to put on the Survivor Website that we will be putting up. With the approval of CBS, we are using material from their site, and adding more local copy from here. The struggles of the two teams to make fire seemed to make a short piece on the right way to do it, very relevant! I would be glad to credit the author and website.

Our Survivor site is not up yet, but you can look at our Channel website at www.sabc3.com.

I have contacted Dino Labiste, and he replied:
All the articles on Primitiveways.com are copyrighted. If you want to use any article for your website you must:
1. Contact the author for permission. The author's e-mail is at the bottom of each article. If you do get permission from the author, we would like you to credit the authors name and the website it came from (namely Primitiveways.com).
2. I would like to also see your website to see if our articles are appropriate for your site. We don't want to be associated with certain radical groups that are not in our best interest or the authors best interest. E-mail me when you get approval and I would like to check out your site before I give the final OK.

I would be happy to credit the author and website.

Paul Galpin


Yes, go ahead and use it, acknowledge our web site and please also say that it first appeared in the Bulletin of the Society of Primitive Technology.

Dick Baugh

Hi PrimitiveWays Clan;
Our breath is a great thing. We can use it to blow on coals to help fan a fire for example. But, I'm not the biggest fan of getting down right into the fire and getting smoke and ash in my face and eyes when I blow on a fire to help it along at times. As such, I've tried to think and experiment with what I might call a natural bellows of some sort or a flame fanning device. I don't really know what to call it.
The best thing I've used is a frisbee or sometimes a foam sitting or kneeling pad. These both seem to have the right amount of flex and rigidity. Anything that I've tried from natural resources so far hasn't exactly worked the best. For example, I've tried the ends of spruce or pine branches but, as a rule they allow too much air to pass through and are to flexible. So, I'm trying to figure out something that you can grab from a natural resource, and use as is or manipulate without much time or bother.
Have you ever come up with a solution here or have you got any ideas?


Hi Eric,
Here in California we have palm trees.  They, especially the so-called fan palms with fan-shaped leaves, should work well.  Another alternative is to weave cattail leaves into a fan.  For that you may want some sort of re-inforcement.  Yet another way would be to blow through a hollow tube.
Good Luck,


Eric, thanks for your note.  I've been fanning a lot of flames for a lot years.  In my old boy scout days my old campaign hat did the trick.  As I got into the primitive stuff, I went with the wing tip of a hawk (requires a federal permit these days) or wild turkey (no permit needed in California).  This isn't something you can just pick up though, I kept it rolled in my firemaking kit.  Since the wing wore out, I end up using my hands, a basket, a piece of bark, or else I lean over and blow.  Your efforts at using cedar branches would be best if you use several, and back them up with a few stiffer sticks.  Cedar or other bark would be what I'd look for first, assuming I'm not wearing a hat.


Bob &/or Dino;
I know about the anti-freeze/potassium permanganate mix to start a fire. Didn't know about the glycerine part. I know you can mix swimming pool chlorine with brake fluid (DOT 2 or 3) & get fire. My question is, "Can't you mix steel wool, sugar & another ingredient to make a fire"?


I am sure there is, but I do not know what that would be.
Bob Gillis

After years of working on the bow drill and years of having my cord start to slip around the spindle (haven't had too much of a problem with spindle flying out of the cord), losing friction and causing a decrease in downward pressure, it appeared your Egyptian bow drill method talks of tying the cord around the spindle in such a way that it will never slip. It ensures the spindle will always turn regardless of downward pressure. Does this method of knot work for this, or just eliminate the spindle acting as a slingshot? Thanks for your help on this.
Many thanks,
Doug Norman


Hi Doug;
With a conventional bow drill the cord must be under high tension to prevent slippage. 
Friction + high tension = short cord life.
If you have spent a lot of time making your cord or you have a very thin cord and you don't want it to wear out quickly, there are a few tricks you can do. The simplest is to simply wrap the cord twice instead of once aroung the spindle. Then you need much less tension. The other option is to have a cord that is twice as long, tie the middle of the cord to the spindle, and wrap one half around the spindle. Remember to tilt the bow in such a way that the string NEVER rubs on itself. With less tension on the string there is less danger of launching the spindle into your eye.

Hello Dino!
What is your opinion of the magnesium firestarters? I've tried to light wet tinder with these starters with no luck. The magnesium simply does not burn long enough to ignite the wet tinder. My opinion is that these starters are simply over rated. Sure, they'll start a fire with dry materials, but you can forget it in wet conditions. I'll take a candle any day!

By the way, I teach wilderness survival skills in the East Texas area. I constantly experiment with different methods and technigues for starting and maintaining fires. The information on your website is very good and quite helpful. Good job!

I would really like to hear your suggestions on starting fires in wet conditions. It's obvious you're very knowledgable at what you're doing.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Have a good day!
Joe Musselwhite
Joe's Wilderness Survival Skills


Hello Joe;
Thank you for visiting our website.

The magnesium firestater is like any other fire making device, whether it be matches or hand drill, they work fine with dry materials during ideal conditions. Wet tinder can be a problem when you're drenched and cold. Starting a fire during or after a rain storm can be very frustrating. Even early morning conditions when the ground has been saturated with moisture can be a problem when you're scavenging for tinder.

One possible solution for wet tinder, when using the magnesium firestarter, is to shred your tinder as fine as possible. Less mass will dry out faster and may also catch on fire faster. For example if you had bark tinder that is wet, try shredding the tinder as fine as possible. The magnesium starter may ignite the fine slivers of bark for a moment. The problem I can see is that if your tinder is wet to begin with, the fine slivers may ignite, but you'll never achieve a flame unless you have dry material to extend that glowing sliver. You're back to the same problem of wet tinder. You could try and dry out the wet, shredded material by placing it under your armpits, around your belly area or any part of your body that will generate heat to slowly dry it out. It might take a while until it dries out sufficently to use, but what's the alternative - no fire.

Sometimes logs that have turned into "punky" wood will be soft enough to split easily. If the "punky" material is dry on the inside of the core, it will make a good coal extender. You'll still need to find a more dry, fibrous material to get a flame. Downed logs may provide some dry material. Even after a heavy rain storm, the inside of a thick log may still be dry. The water may not have penetrated the core of the log. If you can find a way of splitting the log, you may find the core dry enough to gather some tinder material. You could mash small pieces of wood with a stone until it's soft enough for tinder material.

Also, if you root around the base of trees, you may find some dry material for tinder. If enough leaves have fallen around the base of the tree, the layering effect of the leaves and debris may keep the rain from penetrating to the lower layers that may contain dry material. Crumble the dry, dead leaves that you find to make fine powder for tinder material.

If your clothes is still dry, that can be also used as dry tinder material.

Some indigenous cultures around the world carried a lighted burning ember in some wrapped dry material, like bark or a dry, herbivore dung patty, to maintain a constant fire starting coal for the next campsite. Other cultures used a ball of bark cordage that was lighted at one end to carry the ember. In post-contact times, some of these balls were made of cotton cloth cordage. If you're moving from one area to another, why not bring a fire starting ember with you, so that you don't have to always rely on your fire starting equipment for the next fire.

Just a few thoughts that might help. I'll forward your e-mail to Dick Baugh, one of the other members of our website. He has dealt and experimented with wet hearthboards and spindle. Maybe he can offer other insights to your problem. Have you checked out his article entitled, "Fire by Friction with Damp Materials", on our website? It's under the Fire Making category.

Hope this helps,
Dino Labiste


Hello Joe,
My opinion of magnesium fire starters: Why bother? The only thing that magnesium is good for is to create a very hot spark which glows and burns very quickly. As you pointed out, that's OK if you have dry tinder, but what if everything is soggy? A big hunk of magnesium is good for creating thousands of hot little sparks, but in an emergency situation you just want to start one good fire.

Mountain Mel Deweese, survival instructor for Navy pilots during the Viet Nam unpleasantry, one of my mentors, racanteur and all-around character says "Everything in your survival kit should have at least two uses." What's the second use for that chunk of magnesium? What you need to carry instead is some concentrated fuel which can dry things. The most obvious choice of natural materials is pitch from a pine tree or other conifer. Mix it with powdered charcoal and you have the adhesive which was used by Indians to attach stone arrow points. Even more practical, but not quite so natural, is Vaseline soaked into a ball of cotton. Fluff up the cotton and it is easy to make it ignite with a hot spark from a "flint". You can use the Vaseline for soothing blisters and chafed spots. Even more high tech: Take along some cotton balls and a tube of Neosporin anti-biotic ointment. Neosporin is 89% petroleum jelly, so in addition to its germ fighting properties, it also burns very well. Vaseline (petroleum jelly) is a very high-energy fuel, about twice as many calories per pound as alcohol. The only disadvanatage is that you can't eat it. Someone should experiment with animal and vegetable fats which can be eaten or used as fuel. Arctic people used seal oil both as fuel and as food.

I hope this answers your question.
Dick Baugh



I have always wondered when you make fire with a hand drill and a base board, can the drill and the base board be made out of the same type of wood, e.g. pine, or should the two pieces of wood be made of different types (one hard / one soft) of wood? If the two woods should be different, should the drill or the base board be made of the hard wood?

James Matsuoka
Monrovia, CA


Greetings. Firemaking can be done with the same wood if you are using the right kind of wood. Either the dril or the hearthboard can be harder. The harder one will wear away the softer one to produde the sawdust needed to form an ember. Since the drill has to hold up under greater pressure, typically it is the harder. Harder in this case is a relative term as both pieces are relatively soft, low density woods. Check out the articles on firemaking on the PrimitiveWays.com website. Every part of the world has different woods that work best, so it's hard to give advice over e-mail, but woods that don't work include most of the standard lumber yard species accept redwood and cedar - the others tend to polish without wearing away to sawdust. Sometimes drills only work if they are `sucker sprouts' (also called water sprouts) as they are lower density (lighter weight) wood.

Good luck,



In your 2-stick hearth board article for fire making, where does the powder go when it's abraded? Does the powder fall between the sticks? Is there a space between the 2 sticks and and does the powder collect into a tinder below?

I would appreciate the clarification .

Ignacio Ciccolini


Hello Ignacio;
The intention is to drill a primary hole and then drill the next hole close enough to the primary hole so that the char falls into the primary hole.

I hope this clarifies the situation.

Dick Baugh



(Question pertaining to the article entitled "Starting Fire With a Lens Made From Ice!")

Clever, Mr. Gillis, I like it. But . . . how do you boil the water to be rid of the gas . . . if you don't have a fire? Did I miss something?

Russ Mitchell


Good point. I suggested the boiling as a way to make ice to practice the art. Often you can find clear, clean ice on a lake or pond. When water freezes slowly, as it often does on a lake or pond, it degasses. If the ice is not too thick, you can use a rock to crack out a section big enough to create the lens.

Bob Gillis

Mr. Baugh,
My name is William McCormick, and I am a pharmacy student at Rutgers University and a summer intern for Pfizer Consumer Healthcare. On your website, you recently recommended that Neosporin can be used to aid in fire-starting due to the fact that it contains "99% petroleum" In truth, Neosporin contains only 89% petroleum, though this still is potent enough to sustain a flame. As an Eagle Scout since 1996, I never actually used the contents of my first aid kit to start a fire, but in retrospect, Neosporin would have made a fine addition, both in terms of emergency wound treatment and when dabbed on a bit of gauze for kindling.

Regards and my compliments to your wonderful website.

William McCormick, Summer Intern
Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey


Hello William,
Thanks for your enlightenment and generous endorsement. I don't know where we got the 99% figure. I will pass this on to our webmaster. The tube sez, among other ingredients: cocoa butter, cottonseed oil, olive oil and white petrolatum. I would think that the total percentage of flammable oils would be most relevant to fire starting. Try it.


(Pertaining to the article entitled, Starting Fire with a Lens Made From Ice!)

Robert Hallinan wrote:

Bob Gillis:
Is the ice lens shaped like a discus or is it concave. I can't believe this works!!



It is convex (lens shaped). It does work.

Make the lens of clear ice. Large in diameter. Use it in the middle of the day. Have your tinder dry and of dark color. Hold the lens so it is perpendicular to the sun's rays. Focus the sun's rays on the tinder so that they are as small as possible. Hold the lens steady. If the lens is melting, avoid getting any water drops on your tinder. When the tinder is glowing, gather more tinder about it and blow it gently into a flame.

Bob Gillis

Hello, I'm a primitive skills practitioner and I have to say that your info has really helped me progress (a lot) in fire making; thank you. With the help of books, articles, and lot's of experimentation I've gotten the bow drill to work on numerous occasions but have run into a few problems. When using nylon cord it gets damaged by the friction and after about eight attempts(successful or not) the string can't bear the streatch and friction, causing it to snap. Is this normal? I'm afraid to try out using buckskin as the cord because I see how it eats through nylon. Why don't I explain my setup so what I may be doing wrong will be more apparent. I use a two foot ridged bow tapering from 1" to 3/4" in diameter that I string tightly with a nylon cord. I've mostly been using cottonwood and hazel spindles with a diameter between 1 and 3/4" and about 8" long. The hearthboards also cottonwood and hazel; 2"wide and 1/2 to 3/4" thick. Anyway, when I wrap the cord around the spindle it streaches a lot. Sometimes when the cord slips I loosen it and give it two wraps. This works for nylon but I hope to advance to buckskin and nettle cords. I just feel like maybe I'm using an axe to do a tomahawk's job. Any suggestions? I'd appreciate any help that you can give.

Take care,
Christopher Bootz


Hello Chris,
There are several factors which will prevent your bow drill cord from wearing out.
a. Be sure the bow is tilted properly. When I use a bow drill I keep my hand low and the far tip of the bow high. As a consequence the string does not rub on itself. The correct angle makes a big difference in string wear.
b. I use old nylon drapery pull cord. That is about the optimum thickness and it lasts a long time.
c. The ultimate in long wearing is to use the Egyptian bow drill configuration wherein the cord is almost twice as long as the bow and tied in the middle to the spindle. (See the PrimitiveWays web site). My goal is to make a bow drill using doubled dental floss this way.
d. I have barely enough muscle power to get a fire with a 3/4 inch spindle. It takes a lot of physical effort and consequent string wear with a spindle that large. I prefer something smaller. I would think that it also takes a lot of tension in the cord with a large spindle and cord wear also depends on tension.
e. Hazel? Hazel is a fairly hard wood so that should take some pretty serious muscle to get an ember. Again, more muscle equals more string wear. I am always trying to find materials which minimize the effort needed. Try a cottonwood spindle, 1/2 inch in diameter and a hearthboard made from cedar or cottonwood root. That should cause less effort and string wear. I have successfully used cord made from shredded cattail leaves for that combo.

I hope this answers your questions.


Hello Dino;
I hope that this note finds you well. I just noticed the new article on bamboo cooking:

I had to chuckle, because, now that I've fully explored firecraft, I am now concentrating on primitive cooking, and this is one of the methods that I am planning to try. I haven't found a source for bamboo yet.

I took my youngest son fishing recently and he caught a bass. After cleaning it, I seasoned it, wrapped it in cabbage leaves, and enclosed it in an inch thick layer of local mud/adobe. I placed it on some coals, as well as placing coals on top of it. After an hour, I cracked open the clay, and ate a very delicious fish. It's a lot of fun.

Keep up the good work,
Ken Youngquist


Hi Ken;

Good to hear from you again. I'm glad to know that you're still exploring the further boundaries of fire. I too have tried cooking in clay. Instead of bass, it was trout. Seems that the enclosed clay mold steams the fish in its own juices. Very delicious indeed.

If you're looking to try out the bamboo method of cooking, there is a bamboo nursery near Santa Cruz. They sell timber bamboo. Check them out if you're interested:

Bamboo Giant Nursery
5601 Freedom Blvd.
Aptos, CA 95003
(831) 687-0100

Keep in touch,

Hi. I have been trying to get this bow and drill set to work but I can't do it. I won't give up, but I'm asking for some help. I "drill" the stick into the wood, but I think my base-board has the wrong set up. Could you maybe describe to me how to make each part yourself and how the "base board" is to be and explain how the "V" groove in the wood works. Thanks

Andrew Olszewski


Hello Andrew;

Several questions:
What kind of wood are the spindle and hearthboard?
Where did you obtain them?
Are they perfectly dry?
What is the diameter of the spindle?
Do you get smoke?
Do you obtain fine blackened wood powder collecting in the notch?

The "V" groove should go half way to the center of the hole. If it is made correctly, 90% of the charred powdered wood (char) should collect in the groove. You need to build up a little pile of char which is about 1/2 inch (1.25 cm) in diameter.

Good luck,

I have heard about a "floating" technique for the handrill. Not only the handrill to make fire but also to drill stone. Do you know this technique? If you do, can you explain it to me? Supposedly, it allows one the ability to maintain the spin without having your hands "walk" down the spindle, but doesn't allow a lot of downward force. It is supposedly used in combination with courses of high downward pressure courses. It helps limit the number of times that you have to change your hand position.

John Rine


Hello John;
Yes, I am familiar with the "hand floating technique" for the fire hand drill. Unfortunately, it's one of those techniques that I feel is best shown rather than written to get the technique down. Basically, it involves keeping your hands stationary in one position on the drill. One hand will push down, with the fingers facing towards the ground and the other hand will pull back, with the fingers pointing upwards toward the sky. This process is alternated over and over allowing your hands to remain in one position on the fire spindle.

There's an article written about the "hand floating technique" in the Society of Primitive Technology Bulletin:


Message text written by Paul Dixon:

Dear Richard,
I was reading your article on the two stick hearth board, and since I have some problems cutting notches, I was extremely interested in it. I have some questions. Where does the dust collect, is this faster or slower than the normal method with the notch? Does it work with the same woods? Thank you for your time.


Hello Paul,
The dust collects in the junction between the two sticks. It will collect more or less equally on both sides and maybe you can get an ember on both sides. After one hole has been drilled you can start the nest hole close to the first one and most of the char shold collect in the old hole. It works with the same woods used for a conventional hearthboard but I don't think it is quite as reliable as cutting a notch. Its chief merit is that doesn't require any cutting.


(Question pertaining to the article, "Starting Fire With an Ice Lens")

I will try it by digging the shape of the lens in a piece of wood, then freeze it, work it with a flint flake and polish it with fingers.
Do you think you can make fire with an obsidian flake lens???

I have yet to see clear obsidian but if you could find such I would think you could make a lens. Lens have been made of crystal but this is no easy matter in that they would need to be ground and polished to a high degree.

Did you ever try?


Judee from france, sorry for poor grammar....


You did quite well.
Let me know how your lens works (send a photo).

Bob Gillis

bwshields@triton.net wrote:

What is the best wood to use for a bow drill and the string for a bow drill? And what is the best tinder when you start a flint and steel fire?


The best wood is what works for you and can be found nearby. For the cord, the same applies. The Egyptian bow drill is most tolerant of poor quality cordage.

Good luck,

I just got the $5 Fire Starter Kit you sent. I just wanted to send you a note to let you know that I finally got that elusive coal (on the first try with your kit). I even used the tinder you sent and got a burst of fire but didn't keep it going. I'm sure I can do that part. Next step is to find local materials to reproduce your kit, then the bow drill.

Thanks for providing a guaranteed kit. It really helped get me that much closer to fire with a bow drill.

Brian Madera


Thanks for the kind words.

I have been searching for horsetail here in North Carolina and have been told that it is quite abundant. I've looked in a variety of field guides and on the internet for a clear picture of what it looks like but am unable to find one that helps me identify it. Any hints?

Susan Richards


Hello Susan;
Are you looking for the plant "horsetail" or "horseweed"? These are two different plants. Your subject was entitled "hand drill fire" on your e-mail. If you are looking for a hand drill spindle, then the plant is commonly called horseweed or marestail. The scientific name is Conyza canadensis. If you do a search using the scientific name, you should get a better response. Be sure to enclosed the name in quotes when searching to be more specific in your internet search. Type in the search name as: "Conyza canadensis"

If you are actually looking for "horsetail", then the scientific name is Equisetum arvense. Do a search on the scientific name.

Also check out this website for photos on horsetail (scroll down on the categories of the common name list on the left of the webpage and click on "Equisetum arvense and other spp.":


Dino Labiste

Hi Dick,
I lead Pathfinders (Seventh Day Adventist Church's boy and girl scouts) and I would like to make fire without matches by flint and steel and bow-drill. I live in Northern California.

What woods can you recommend for the bow drill that can be acquired in my area. Can I purchase a bow-drill? What is good for tinder that is available here?

With flint and steel I have been able to get char-cloth glowing but have not been able to achieve a flame.



Hello Jamie,
In Northern California I would make my hearthboard and spindle out of cedar, either red or incense. The cedar spindle should be 1/2 to 3/4 inch in diameter. Cottonwood is another good material. I would make the cottonwood spindle somewhat narrower.

I sell a bow drill kit for $15.00

For tinder, use shredded redwood bark, shredded dead cottonwood bark, dry fine grass.

If you get a glowing ember but can't get a flame try the following:
a. Add some very flinely shredded tinder to your tinder bundle. Put the ember on top of that.
b. Don't stop blowing and gently pinch the tinder so it is always in contact with the glowing ember.
c. Add some finely powdered ember extender to the glowing ember before you put it in the tinder bundle: powdered dry rotten wood, cow poop, or kangaroo dung.

buena suerte,

I have visited your website and would like to have our scouts try this. I am having difficulty with the bearing block. Can you tell me where I can get items to make them? We will need to get 12 kits and we are experimenting with materials located in Southern California. Not much hardwood here so we have to go to the store. Also what do you recommend for the string on the bow? We have tried cotton shoe laces, leather shoe laces, etc. Most seem to just spin around the spindle and don't get the friction grab we need. We read on another website about making an octagon shape on the spindle. Tried and failed.

Any help you can provide would be most appreciated.

Russ Levine
Scoutmaster Troop 419


Hi Russell;

. . . having difficulty with the bearing block. Can you tell me where I can get items to make them?

1. Bone material makes a good bearing block. Try looking for some beef bone at the supermarket. Ask the butcher if he/she has any beef bone that they throw away. Sometimes they will give them to you for free. Place the beef bones in hot water and cook off any clinging meat and tendons. Clean the bone and cut into appropriate sizes for a bearing block. Then drill a small hole in the middle for the spindle socket.
The knee bone from a ham hock has a natural hole that can also be used as a bearing block. Check with your local butcher.

2. Smooth river or creek stones can be pecked into bearing blocks. Check the creeks and rivers in your area. Find the stones that are smooth in texture, but not gritty like sandstone. Peck a depression in the center of the stone. Lightly greasing the socket hole on the stone will help lubricate the contact area between the wooden spindle and the socket hole.

3. Go to your local lumber yard and check out the exotic hardwood lumber section. Find a very dense wood and cut it into appropriate pieces for bearing blocks. Drill a small hole in the middle and grease or oil the socket hole. This will allow the spindle to spin loosely in the socket and will also keep it from burning.

4. If you can find tree branches that have a fork in them, the wood between the fork is much denser that the rest of the wood. Give that a try.

5. If all else fails, find man-made objects for bearing blocks. A small shot glass works very well. Careful of the glass breaking in your hands.

Also what do you recommend for the string on the bow?

For man-made cordage, I usually go to army surplus stores to buy their braided, cotton cordage (the type that's braided in the round). Get the appropriate diameter for your needs. These cordage are very tough and will take a lot of abuse. I would avoid the synthetic cordages.

If you still have difficulty finding cordage material, try tying your cordage using the Egyptian fire method. Go to our website (www.Primitiveways.com) and locate the category "Fire Making and Primitive Cooking". Find the subject entitled "The Egyptian Bow Drill" and open the webpage. There are instructions on how to prevent cordage slippage. Give it a try. It works very well.

You can always use natural fibers by either making a 2 ply or 4 ply cordage, depending on the strength of the material. Try to keep the diameter of your cordage consistent to prevent any weak spots. The cordage will break along the weakest link.

Good luck on your pyro endeavors,
Dino Labiste

Can you point me in the right direction to find woods in the south Texas area that would make a good hearth board?


Remember the Alamo! Alamo is Spanish for cottonwood. Cottonwood, or better yet, cottonwood root is excellent fire-by-friction material.


Hi, My name is Gareth and I live in Wales. I'm a member of the Pole lathe and greenwoodworkers society of the UK and so I found your site to be of great interest. I intend to e-mail the rest of the society to point them in the right direction. You are an inspiration!
p.s. do you have anything on making fires using flints? I've managed it a few times but inconsistantly, especially when I'm trying to demonstrate the method to friends.

Best Wishes,
Hwyl fawr Gareth.


Hello Gareth;
Thank you for visiting our website.

When using a HIGH CARBON steel striker (example: a high carbon file would work) and flint, be sure that your flint piece has sharp edges. Your steel striker should be hitting the edges of the flint. As the high carbon steel striker hits the edges of the flint, tiny slivers of high carbon steel are shaved off. The impact creates enough heat to ignite the steel slivers, thus creating sparks.

Another tip is to hold the small piece of char cloth next to the flint edge you will be striking. You'll get a higher percentage of the spark igniting the char cloth in this position.

Good luck on your pyro endeavors,
Dino Labiste

I just finished reading your article on the internet and wondered if you could answer a couple of questions for me. I recently started making friction fires. I started with Mullien and Cedar, both of which worked with what I thought was very little pressure. I then tried using birch. Out of around 20 attempts, I have made only 2 coals. I can't seem to consistently make a coal like I can with Mullien and Cedar. Is birch considered a poor wood to use? Or is there some trick that I unwittingly did twice that I can't seem to repeat? I consistantly produce gritty, black slivers or rods of dust, if that helps any.

Thank you for any help,
Brian Sterling


Hello Brian;
In general, hardwoods require great effort because they are better conductors of heat (poor insulators). That means that a given physical effort doesn't raise their temperature enough. Having coarse, gritty char is double bad because that means very poor contact between the hot char and oxygen from the air. It sounds like birch is not a good wood to use.


Dear Mr.Labiste,
I enjoyed very much in your articles making fire. It helped me also at writing my diploma. As a physics teacher I showed your ways making fire in class and students enjoyed, also.
Thank you very much and many greetings from Slovenia.

Ambroz Demsar

Dear Dick;
I just ran across your web site - it's great, thanks. My question has to do with trying to make a bowdrill fire with harder woods. A month ago, I completed the standard course at Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracker school and left with cedar material for making fire. My goal is to make a coal each day during the summer so that by the time I get back into the classroom I can easily make/teach fire to my 4th and 5th graders. So far, I've succeeded with increasing ease using the cedar fireboard and spindle. I've also done it with a mullein spindle on cedar (varying success) and maple spindle on cedar fire board. I'm trying to branch out into different as well as more difficult materials and maple was on my list of possible woods. I've been working most of the day with maple on maple and its not happening. Lots of smoke, lots of dust but no spark. The dust is also really black and cindery feeling.

I've tried varying degrees of pressure and it doesn't seem to work. Has the dust already incinerated? Any advice? The wood is really hard and was difficult to carve.

Thanks for any help,
Susan Richards


If the dust that you grind off is coarse and gritty then you are wasting your time. Coarse char has to be heated to at least 800 degrees F to ignite whereas very find char only has to reach 700 or less. That small difference in ignition temperature means success or failure.

Materials which are very good insulators take the least physical effort to start an ember. I have also had failure with wood which was slightly "punky" and rotten. In that case I think the wood disintegrates before it reaches ignition temperture.

Hi Dick,
I'm a recent transplant from Central Oregon to Massachusetts. In Oregon's High Desert, we bow drilled fires using Sage for spindles and juniper or sage for fireboards. I have heard that cedar is the best thing to use here in the northeast. Do you have any other suggestions? Other woods that may work better or other resources I could turn to?

This was my first visit to the primitiveways website. Keep up the great work!

Kevin Stapleton


Hello Kevin,
"Best" is whatever works. Part of the challenge is to use the local materials. You may not always be able to find cedar.


What do you think of this idea and, have you ever thought of it before, that is, to dry the tinder with the heat of the spindle and board somehow? If it's possible to dry the spindle and board to get a coal, which both you and I know to be the case, then, I wonder if, rather than let all that precious heat go to waste, it could also be used somehow to dry the tinder. I haven't done any experimentation with it yet but, was wondering what you thought of the idea and how it might be done. Pretty interesting idea in theory anyways. And, it would be the ultimate if there was a technique that allows it to be done. Then with some practice you could be assured that no matter what conditions you found yourself in you could get a coal and put it into some dry tinder.

My first thought is that the bow might knock the tinder off if you piled it around the spindle. Especially if you were using natural cordage and using the technique that Barry Keegan suggests to use. That is to hold the bow at a downward angle. This might knock the tinder away if it touched it. However, perhaps the technique of using the thumb to push down on the string would allow you to keep the bow on a level plain. Either that or get a fairly tall spindle. I have tried the thumb technique to press down on the string in general and I am not too successful because to use the technique you have to reverse the way you load the string. It doesn't seem to spin smoothly for me and has a tendency to make the spindle pop put. Do you use this method and do you have any suggestions to make it work for me? I find the bow much easier to control when it is wrapped the regular way and then I am able to use the bow at any angle I want with little problems.

Let me know your thoughts and ideas.



Regarding the use of the bow drill to dry damp tinder: I am skeptical. The bow drill concentrates the heat over a very small area. When you are drying tinder you need to apply the heat over a large area. Solar power is ideal, but lacking sunshine, I still recommend body heat and patience.

Hope this makes my opinion clearer.


Larry wrote:

I am having a lot of trouble getting coal, I can get loads of smoke but nothing else is there any advice you can give me? HELP!!!!!!!!


Hello Larry;
Since you're getting smoke, that's a good start. Here's some trouble shooting comments on fire making. Whenever you get a lot of smoke and no lighted ember, it may be because the char dust that you're generating is burning before your char can accumulate in the notch. Is your char dust accumulating around the sides of the hole? Is the dust black and not brown? If it is black, then the char dust is burning before it can accumulate in the notch, thus creating a lot of smoke. It needs to filter down into the notch as unburnt, brown char. Check the size of your notch. If it is too narrow, then the char dust cannot filter down to the notch. Try widening the notch. Experiment on the size until you get the needed dust to accumulate in the notch. Also check the grit of the char dust. It should be as fine as flour. If it's too gritty, then you'll have problems igniting the char.

One more suggestion, go slowly at first to warm up the hearthboard. Then gradually apply more downward pressure to create friction and also slowly increase your speed. The downward pressure should start grinding the spindle and hearth board together, thus creating the needed char dust. When you start to see the char dust accumulate in the notch, increase the rotational speed, until the char dust ignites.

Good luck on your pyro endeavors,

What wood works best to make a fire plow?



I have only tried a few, but sotal (a relative of yucca) from the mountains of Arizona is the best I've tried.  It needs to be fairly soft and light.

Norm Kidder


The Polynesians used the wood from the hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus) tree for their fire plow.

Dino Labiste

Norm Kidder,
I appreciate the article on primitive cooking. I need all the tips I can get. Could you tell me what tools would be historically correct for maintaining a fire; helping it to catch or burn hotter is what I mean. I fan the coals or blow on them but I'd like a method that doesn't blow so much ash in my face! Actually, I'd like to use a pipe or something to blow through but since some of my camping is done at primitive rendezvous I'm not supposed to slip out of "time period."

Rosemary Meling


Rosemay, blow tubes go back at least to ancient Egypt. I take cane or bamboo that includes three sections, and burn or punch out the two nodes to make a tube, then blow from a safe distance, or use a basket to fan it. Once started, it's a matter of keeping the fuel at the right distance apart to maintain heat.

Good luck, Norm

(Question pertaining to wood materials for fire making in Ohio)

Chris, thanks for the kind words on the website. Being in California, I'm not very familiar with the woods available in your area. If they are the same as in Ohio where I went to college, then you might check out buckeye, elderberry, basewood and cedar. Another approach would be to contact someone in your area. I'd suggest logging on to Tom Elpel's site -
www.hollowtop.com - where he has a listing of wilderness/primitive ways schools listed by state/province. Contact the school nearest you for local info.

Also, are you interested in bow drill or hand drill fires? I do sell fire kits, mostly hand drill, but could put something together if you need a bow drill. Check out the article on the Egyptian bow drill that Dick Baugh put into our website. It makes the bow drill even more effective.

Good luck, Norm

Dear Dick,
I have read with interest how the aborigines used a fire piston. I would like to make a simple one but have no idea how to get started. Have you ever made one?

Not successfully. A friend made one with brass tubing, O rings, etc. He lubricated it with WD40. It deisel'ed and tossed the piston across the room! On my computer at work I found a web site devoted to fire pistons. I'll try to remember to send the address to you.

I'll keep checking back.

Will you ever put the instructions to make one on the net?


My attitude is that our web site should concentrate on topics that aren't covered elsewhere. Consequently I don't think we will do fire pistons unless we get pretty good at it.


(Question pertaining to fire pistons)

For Fire pistons check out:


In addition to Sotol, cottonwood, and Sagebrush, what woods would you recommend using for fire plow?

Jeff Stauffer


Jeff, I've only tried the plow with sotol, buckeye, blue elderberry and cottonwood, with sotol being the best. Another possibility that I haven't tried, but has potential would be willow root - if you can find a piece straight and big enough. Roots in general seem to be spongier and softer than branches.

Good luck, Norm

Hello Mr. Baugh,
I'm a student at UCONN and I have a primtech calss this semester. I love the class. For my project, I am making fire.. I have got the bow drill made, I can get the stick spinning real well.. I get a lot of smoke . . . the char won't ignite . . . I've read what you wrote in Wescott's book.. and on the website http://www.primitiveways.com . . . It's very interesting and informative. I think my problem is that I'm using the wrong woods? But I want to use local woods I find around here . . . I am using an oak spindle and have tried very dry pine and local hemlock . . . the Char is too gritty I think . . . Is there another softwood I should try in this local area? Do you know where I could find out what the natives of this area used? In New England . . .Central CT?

Thanks, best regards,


Hello Dan,
I agree with you in that I don't think oak and pine or hemlock are the best choice of materials. My knowledge of New England flora isn't that great but I won't let that stop me. Can you find basswood, cottonwood, willow or cedar where you live? Generally I seem to have the most success with a spindle which is slightly harder and more dense than the hearthboard.

What did the indegenous people of Connecticut use? I don't know but I'm sure your univesity library has an anthropology/archaeology section. There is a web site, "NativeWay", I believe, which is devoted to crafts of the Native Americans of New England. Try www.nativetech.org. This is a Native American site from New England.

Best wishes,

Mr. Labiste,
I extend my thanks and amazement at the incredible job you and the other contributors to PrimitiveWays.com have done.

I have always been interested in fire by friction, and toyed with it when I was younger. As I grew (like most boys) my mind turned to other things and I never succeeded in creating that fire or really even understanding the elusive ember. It wasn't until I saw the Survivor episode where NO ONE, not even the people who had looked it up, could start a fire. With that small spark (pun intended) I began to pursue my renewed interest in fire by friction.

My first stop was the local library for a copy the Scouting Handbook. I could find no other sources (at the time) for how to create and use a bow drill. Unfortunately, the Handbook does not go into nearly enough detail to be even remotely useful. After fiddling around with no success other than smoke (which greatly impressed my wife, but didn't satisfy my requirement for flame), I began looking for other sources that had more technical information. That was when I found PrimitiveWays. I cannot begin to tell you how fantastic and informative your site is, and my only regret it that you are on the opposite side of the country. Which brings us to the crux of the issue. I understand the concepts of the bow drill . . . spindle 3/8 to 1/2 inch slightly harder than the hearth board, notch to catch the char, char should be consistency of flour, don't press too hard at first, build char, then rapid motion to ignite the char. (Since I have yet to create the ember, I haven't even begun thinking about catching it to a tinder bundle . . . one problem at a time).

I am having trouble with materials. I live in Virginia and have not found any specific woods that work well (yet).

If you have plants like cottonwood, pau pau, black (or honey) locust, basswood, or willow in Virginia, try using the root for a hearthboard.

I know that some of this will come with the improvement of my woodcraft, but was hoping that someone had some knowledge of my area and an idea of which plants made good combinations forspindle and hearth. And do I strip off the bark or leave it on?

Yes, strip off the bark for your spindle. It's not necessary to strip off the bark for the hearthboard, but I would recommend taking the bark off.

And how thick should my hearthboard be?

A good thickness would be 1/2 inches. The thinner your hearthboard, the faster you'll bore a hole into the board. With a thin hearthboard, you'll be able to get a few embers from that hole. On the otherside of the coin, a thick hearthboard means you should be able to get more use out of a thicker hearthboard. The disadvantages of a thick heartboard are the spindle may bind in a thick hole and you'll have to carve out a lot of wood to create your notch.

And how would I make it that flat and smooth? (I have read the section on the two stick hearthboard, and played with that, but have not quite been able to get it to work either . . . I believe that my sticks aren't straight enough).

All you need is one flat side to your hearthboard, so it'll lay flat and stable on the ground. If you take a branch or root, you can split a flat surface by using a wedge made out of wood, antler or bone. Use a rock for the hammerstone. If your hearthboard branch or root is still uneven, just abrade the flat side of the split against an abrasive flat stone. Grind or abrade the wood until you get a flat surface.

I think that my hearthboard is the biggest problem right now as I haven't been able to consistently catch my char or keep it insulated enough to ignite. Part of the issue is that I don't want to go down to the lumber yard and buy a nice straight, flat piece of wood. I know the primitives had to have some simple way to make that piece of wood functional. How?

Again, thank you for the wonderful job you all have done in keeping this part of our common heritage alive.

Russell Welfare


Thank you for visiting our website.

Dino Labiste

Greetings Dick;
My name is Bruce Copley and I live in Cape Town, South Africa. Read some of your articles on the net and found them to be very interesting. 

Thought you might be interested to see what I am able to do with my didgeridoo . . . . essentially, I create an ember directly from my pine didgeridoo using a hand drill and then breath this into a flame by playing a very fast rhythm through my didgeridoo.

I notice you invite questions on fire making, so here goes:
1. Is the ember formed from the spindle or fire board or both?
2. Is the temperature required to create the ember about 800 degrees F (427 degrees centigrade) and then does the ember burn at this temperature until it ignites?
3. Is there a temperature difference between the ember and the flame?
4. What is the ideal length of a bow drill . . . . length of the cord and length of the bow itself?
5. To increase the friction in the fire hole would it not be a good idea to use a hand drill spindle that tapered from thin (top) to a thick spindle tip that is in the fire hole? Surely one is able to create many more revolutions using a thinner spindle and this would mean that the tip spins much more rapidly?
6. Are you aware of any organisation or person who sells complete fire making kits and if so could you let me have their contact details?
7. I have started using the fire making process with my corporate clients and use it as a powerful metaphor for excellence in business and living in general . . . . do you know of any literature on this subject or of anyone who is doing this and using it in corporations as a teaching aid?

I hope to hear from you soon and look forward to communicating with a fellow fire making.

Yours sincerely fired up,
Bruce Copley


Hello Bruce,
We don't live close enough. One of my other passions is playing a didj'. I, however, keep the two separated. The instrument I play the most is Aboriginally made, very hard wood and costs too much to drill holes in with a hand drill. Last week I had the good fortune to didj' with some incredible professional musicians at the Winter Count, an annual gathering of people who are interested in re-learning and teaching stone-age living skills. I can get one overtone reliably and a second on my Aboriginal didj' if I really work at it. One of my didj' playing friends can get three overtones. He's a lot younger and stronger.

Your questions and my attempts at answers:
1. Is the ember formed from the spindle or fire board or both?
Both. The spindle gets shorter as it drills into the hearthboard. I generally use a spindle as hard as or slightly harder than the hearthboard.

2. Is the temperature required to create the ember about 800 degrees F (427 degrees centigrade) and then does the ember burn at this temperature until it ignites?
The ignition temperature depends on how finely divided the charred wood powder (char) is. This makes good thermodynamic sense. The oxidation of char takes place only on the surface of the particles. Smaller particles have more surface area per unit volume so oxidation can start at a lower temperature. Once the oxidation starts it creates more heat which causes the temperature of the char to increase. The char temperature increases until the rate of oxidation is limited by how fast oxygen can get to the fuel. If you bathed the whole system with pure oxygen it would get VERY hot.

3. Is there a temperature difference between the ember and the flame?
Yes. The ember is dull red whereas the flame can be a brighter red. Flame color (colour?) Is a very reliable indicator of temperature.

4. What is the ideal length of a bow drill . . . . length of the cord and length of the bow itself?
For best ergonomics, especially when teaching children, I use a bamboo spindle about as big around as my index finger and about 12 inches long. I then use replaceable tips. The longer spindle seems to require less coordination. For maximum reliability I use a bow that is as long as my arm. I've done it with a bow that fits in the palm of my hand but it is not as reliable.

5. To increase the friction in the fire hole would it not be a good idea to use a hand drill spindle that tapered from thin (top) to a thick spindle tip that is in the fire hole? Surely one is able to create many more revolutions using a thinner spindle and this would mean that the tip spins much more rapidly?
Find out what works best for you. These days I use a very long tapered spindle with a square hole at the bottom and replaceable tips.

6. Are you aware of any organisation or person who sells complete fire making kits and if so could you let me have their contact details?
I am forwarding this letter to Gene Ward, a professional survival instructor here in California. He sells kits. You can also do a web search on "Bandicoot Bill's Bush Matches." Bill lives in Australia and sells bow drill kits. You could also do a web search on 'bow drill'. Wilderness Way magazine has a web site and several groups advertise there.
Also, check out
http://www.primitiveways.com/firedrill.html for thump loop hand drill fire kits.

7. I have started using the fire making process with my corporate clients and use it as a powerful metaphor for excellence in business and living in general . . . . do you know of any literature on this subject or of anyone who is doing this and using it in corporations as a teaching aid?
The Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS) is interested in doing that sort of thing, but I don't know how deeply they are into it. BOSS is a very legitimate, honest, no bullshit organization that I am fairly well acquainted with. There are other experiential learning organizations that I won't name because I question their integrity. Enough said.

Warmest regards,
Dick Baugh

I am trying to find out about Malaya fire tubes. I saw a TV program about the invention of the Diesel engine. It said that Rudolph Diesel had been attending a university lecture when the professor used a Malay fire tube to demonstrate the principle that compressing a gas raises its temperature. Diesel realized that if he reversed the principle he could make an engine and the rest is history. Unfortunately, in the program it was demonstrated with a glass tube and a metal piston with an o-ring so we could see the kindling burst into flames.

The idea was that the jungle dwelling people in the Malayan Jungles had been making fire in the rain forest for at least 1,000 years by making a primitive device. This consisted of two pieces of wood. A stick had a blind-ended hole, line-bored (the cylinder) and a second stick (the piston) was made to fit in the hole so tightly that it made an almost airtight seal.

Kindling was placed in the hole and the piston stick was placed in the hole, thus trapping the kindling and a quantity of air in the hole. The assembly was then struck forcefully on a rock so as to drive the piston stick into the cylinder stick. The trapped air was compressed and therefore heated. This had two effects, one to enrich the oxygen around the fuel (kindling) and the other to heat it. If the kindling was damp, the heat would boil off any moisture thus drying it. If it were dry, it would heat it to its ignition temperature causing it to ignite. Thus if the kindling was damp, as was likely in a rain forest, repeated removal, replacement and striking of the piston stick would first dry the kindling and then ignite it even if it was wet to begin with.

A method of lighting a fire using wet kindling and two sticks sounds good to me. Yet I have been unable to find anything on the internet about it. Has anybody else heard of this method? Can anyone help with details of how to drill the hole and make the piston an airtight fit in a survival environment? Suitable woods for the job? I think it might be similar to making a blowpipe, but not going all the way thru the wood. As blowpipes were also used in this part of the world, this may be right. Bamboo might also be a possibility.

Can you tell me anything about this?

Yours sincerely,
Craig Mylett


Hi Craig;
The fire piston is an ancient method for starting fires. It was developed in the areas of Indonesia, Burma, Philippines, Bornea, and the Malay Peninsula. The materials used by the natives were hardwood, bamboo or horn.

I have tried to create one myself, but have not been successful. The main problem is the gasket seal. The cord gasket and the chamber must fit precisely in order to form the proper seal.

Your observation on the similarities between the creation of the blowguns utilized in that part of the world and the invention of the fire piston has a connection. It has been theorized that the reaming out of a blowgun could have created some fine shavings to ignite accidentally. Humans, being a creative species, might have figured out how to use that idea to create a fire piston.

Read Wyatt Knapp's article for more information on the fire piston. Access this webpage:


Wyatt Knapp's article is also on the PrmitiveWays website.

Dino Labiste

Dear Norm,
I just wanted to say that was a great essay you wrote. I agree with you on all aspects that were in your essay.

Well, any ways, just wanted to say a little about myself. Hi, I'm Nick and I'm fourteen years old and I just started to get inerested in the old ways and I wanted to ask one question, I have been wanting to try to make fire-by-friction using a bow and drill set but I am not sure of what materails to use, by the way I live in Northern IL. I hope you can help me or give some idea.

And here are a couple of things I want to share with you. You might allready know this stuff, but if you don't you might learn something. I have come up with a way to make fast and easy silverware for camp uses. You probably know how to make a fork out of a forked branch and you might know how to make a good spoon by taking a clam shell about three inches long and then taking a green hard wood stick split it then put it aside next take the shell and wash it out good with soap or you could use horse chestnut leaves crushed in warm water or better yet soap wart if you can find it any ways then you should cut two noches in the shell on both sides to about the width of the stick. Then wedge the shell into the stick and for extra security take siewn or thin string or cordage and wrap it around the stick and into the noches in the shell this is kinda hard to understand but I think you can get it. Also you can make a nice butter knife out of a clam shell . Find a shell that is long and almost flat at the lip after that take one of the halves and take a rock or a stick and begin to pound on one of the shells lines that form a ring if you are carfull it will crack along this ring and then you should break off the two ends where it wraps around the shell so you have a strait piece make this your blade by having it about four inches long and one inch wide then secure it to a stick the saame way as a the spoon I would be so happy if I could teach you some thing and if it is knew maby you could put it on the web,

Thanks for your Time
Nick GGGonverg@aol.com


Nick, thanks for the e-mail, it's exciting to know that people all over the world are connecting with our primitiveways.com website.

We are located in the San Francisco Bay area of California, so we're not very familiar with the plants available in Illinois for fire making. About thirty years ago I was a naturalist in Ohio, but it was before I was into fire (just edibles then). If you have blue elderberry, that works here in the west. I've made bow drill sets out of it. Cedars work, but not pines, Cottonwood works if you have any of that. Buckeye is another you might have. We use a lot of weed stems (like burdock) and shrub branches of types I don't think grow in your area. If none of these work for you, you might check another website - www.hollowtop.com where there is a list of primitive skills schools by state. You might me able to get some info from one of them.

Keep learning. I wish there were places to learn the old ways when I was your age. I had only the Boy Scouts.

Hi Norm,
Doesn't cooking directly on the coals as you suggest cause carcinogenic materials from the coals to get on or in the food? Or am I thinking of something else like when you cook over a BBQ? If this is the case, then why is cooking over a BBQ carcinognic causing and over coals not?

Thanks and cheers,
Eric Waymann


Greetings. You're probably right about grilled food containing some carcinogenic material. I don't know of any differences between cooking on the coals and barbequing as far as this is concerned. If you are cooking fish or chicken with the skin still on, the carcinogins should stay on the skin. With steak you just have to take you're chances. If you sear the outside by cooking on the coals, then the inside steams in its own juices. If you are worried about the possible carcinogens, you can cut off the charred outer layer. If you are really worried about carcinogens, and health issues, you should probably avoid store bought red meat altogether and stick to deep water fish for your protein. Stone age folks had so few carcinogens in their environment that those in their food were probably not a problem, unfortunately we don't get to go back to stone-age conditions when we practice primitive skills, but it's still probably more healthy to eat grilled steak out in the woods than to eat healthier food in the city. (The healthiest way to cook most foods is to steam bake them in a pit oven, but is more work and firewood).

Keep thinking,

(Question pertaining to fire making classes)

Sam, first, as to tracking, I believe there is still a tracking club operating out of San Jose area, Sean Clemenza is the contact. The last e-mail address I have for him is clemenza@us.ibm.com. If that doesn't work, let me know and I'll ask around for a new one. As to firemaking classes, I'm doing a half day class July 28 at Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont. To sign up, Call (510)636-1684 and tell them you want to register for course #635, Fire by Friction. It costs $12. You'll end up with a set of sticks for a hand drill fire. The other opportunities to learn firemaking are the Rattlesnake Rendezvous in May (Memorial Day Weekend - Fri - Sun - $80) and at the Knap-in in October (first weekend at Coyote Hills in Fremont). Check the www.primitiveways.com website.

Hope to see you soon,

Hi, Eric Waymann. We talked sometime ago about various aspects of fire by friction. Can you tell me what the hand socket is made from that is shown in the pictures of the egyptian bow drill set?

Cheers, Eric


It is an astragalus bone from a cow (dead). This is located in the heel. A deer astagalus is little and cute. One of the chief merits of this bone is it has a natural hollow which is perfect for a bow drill socket.


Message text written by Andrew DiFiore Jr.:

Dick, I'm doing research for a story that takes place during an Ice Age. If wood is scarce, how would one start a fire?

One method is to knock sparks from a piece of iron pyrite using a flint striker. One uses birch conk fungus whick has been toasted to catch the feeble spark. The glowing birch conk is place in a tinder bundle and you blow until it bursts into flame. Hopefully you have an oil lamp (Koodlik if you are Inuit).

How did the early Inuit start fires?

Bow drill and toggle drill were used. I have also heard that they used a piece of ivory (Australian Aborigines used a piece of bone) with a cylindrical hole stuffed with moss? instead of a wooden hearth board. I have tried that with a bow drill with no success.

I realize they used seal fat for fuel but how did they get it started?

See above.

Thanks in advance for your help.

Mr. Baugh,

For what it's worth, I achieved success and created fire by friction yesterday. And it is sort of magical ... a moment I got to enjoy right after I stopped huffing and puffing. Even had a beer to mark the occassion! And I wanted to make sure I passed along my thanks for the tips you've given me. I might have gotten there on my own, then again I don't know if I'll be alive that long.

Here's some of the things I learned:
First, having a mechanical advantage. Wether you'd call it a machine or a tool, it goes a long way toward making stumbling efforts bearable. I think it might be a good tool to use in a training class situation. Sure reduces the muscle power you need. The 'tool' I rigged up is nothing more than a big nut cracker made out of 2 x4s. There's a base, two uprights nailed in
opposite one another on one end, and a pivot arm connected to the uprights that serves as the upper socket (on mine I nailed on an aluminum block to minimize energy losses). The different hearthboards get tacked to the base board. You can go through lots of spindels, hearthboards, drill diameters, hole depths, and notch configurations in pretty short order. From what I knew about making fire a week ago, no way could I have actually done it without this kind of mechanical assistence.

And it's not just for garage practice either. I've got configurations in mind that could be gined up using naturally occuring limbs. Once I get my char twirling technique down pat, that's where I work next: coming up with a working fixture made of natural components.

Technique is the key. The 30 second warmup you mentioned is what, for me, made all the difference. By applying light pressure early, and heavy pressure only near the end, I've been able to grind out coals using three different spindel woods, including maple (using cedar as a hearthboard). Next parameter was to keep the working point of the spindel to about 3/8 of an inch in diameter. Funny too. When you get it right, the spindel tip takes on a remarkably consistent shape; almost flat, with burn marks on the outside and the inner core almost unchanged (if yet ground flat).

You might make mention, next time you write about F-by-F, that you have time once the coal is created (and it does take off by itself! From smoke to a glow ... as if you've awakened a sleeping spirit in the wood). The coal can sit there and cook for a very long time. Knowing that took a lot of pressure off trying to get everything timed just right. Precise timing isn't a problem, and isn't necessary.

I didn't want to tell you everything.

What is, is tinder preparation. I've reached ignition far more than I've been able to create actual fire (6 to 1 at the moment). Going from a tiny glow to flames is a very artsy crafty kind of task. Lots more difficult than I imagined. Lesson learned there: gather up as much of the char produced earlier and dope the cattail down beforehand. Even then, making that spark bloom is not a sure thing.

Yes. The tinder that you drop the glowing ember onto should be very fine.

So..., thanks again. I don't know how it is with other folks, but for me knowing how something works technically lets me attack the problem from a variety of angles. Your write ups helped, and got me to open the right doors. I've got a long long ways to go, of course, but the top of the fire-by-friction mountain doesn't look so imposing anymore, thanks to you. And now, if I ever find myself stranded in the middle of nowhere without matches, I can smile [maybe] and get to work instead of going into a panic. The fire is out there, just waiting to be coaxed into being.

Best regards,
Dave Boyle

Have you ever thought that you'd end up looking like a blacksmith after a while, with one arm lots bigger than the other? It's jobs like this that make me wish I was ambidextrous!

Trouble is, I'm doing something very wrong. I get lots of smoke...but glowing embers? Not a one. I think it has something to do with the fact that the char I'm grinding out is brown, not black. I figure it's a pressure problem, though I'm not certain of whether it's too little or too much. Any thoughts / suggestions?

Sounds like too much pressure. I get the best success when I twirl with light pressure for 30 seconds at least, until there is medium smoke and then I go as fast as I can.

And trying to feel out which wood to use! Wow ... this rubbing two sticks together to make fire stuff is hard. I've made a bit of a mechanical advantage, and now I can get smoke in under 15 seconds. It's cheating, yeah, and far from what I could do in the 'real' world, but what the heck?

That's what experimentation is all about, yes?

Yes. You aren't an expert until you have failed 500 times.

Another thought: Wood which you gather from the beach will be loaded with sodium chloride (table salt). Sodium ions are pretty good fire retardant. Any beach wood shold be rinsed to remove salt.

I thought I had this all figured out, though after this weekend, I'm not so sure. What I've gathered from what you said earlier and on the website: a) the pressure plate (on top) is supposed to be the hardest material (I've got an aluminum block at the moment - told I was cheating), b) the spindle a little less hard, and c) the hearth board the softest of the three. That right or wrong? And if there aren't a lot of different types available, which way is better to err?

Many people will use a spindle and hearth board made from the same material.

Initially I ended up smoking the pressure plate AND the hearth board, for whatever that says.

It says get a better pressure plate (Most of us call it a socket.). Try soap stone, a knot from a dead and down douglas fir tree, an astragalus bone ffrom a cow or deer, mountain mahogony, pismo clam shell. Lubricate it with ear wax, sebum, animal fat, oil from California bay nuts, live oak acorns... The lists are endless. If the socket is smoking then there is too much friction on it.

And I can build up a serious pile of char - all of which is brown. I even once had a piece of balsa (hearthboard) and a piece of plywood (pressure plate)(which I though was very hard), and I ended up smoking the plywood before the balsa ever got dark! Grrrrr. How can that be? I'm positive the balsa is softer than the plywood. I'm thinking there's something special about the spindel, only I haven't figured out what yet.

I did some practice and for the first time ever got a fire started by using a lit cigarette. Gads ... even that was hard to do! And whatever do you use if you don't happen to have cattail fuzz to work with?

The ember can be extended with crushed dry mugwort leaves, powdered dry rotten wood,
fungus from trees,...

Whoever the Neanderthal was who figured this all out was either pretty smart or really really determined (I think he had a sweetie on the line, but she wouldn't come to the cave until he warmed the place up). My cave is already pretty warm, but I'm still determined. Funny huh? Trying to find out about making fire on a computer.

Anyhow, if you see something here that's off base, or can give me hints on how to pick sticks, I'd appreciate it. Doesn't take much looking to see I'm in serious need of help!

What is our spindle made from and what diameter?

Thanks again,
Dave Boyle


Regarding balsa wood and other very soft hearthboard materials: Don't apply too much pressure. You will wear away the wood before it gets hot enough.


Thanks for the information. As soon as all the snow around here goes away, I'm gonna set up in my back yard and see what I can do with it. I'm really surprised abot a good spindle having a pith core. I might actually have used that as rejection criteria! Goes to show I know nothing - yet - about the subject.

I will follow up on one thing you mentioned. When I used the power drill for experimenting, I got smoke early on, and even hit just the right combination once to make a nice little pile of char that I got to the glowing stage (tissue paper, unfortunately, does not make for a good char-based fire starter). But thereafter, I got absolutely nothing. I was using balsa as a hearth board, real soft and real dry, but after getting that char all I did was drill through my board. Below you mentioned that someone got better results if they reversed the drill direction. Which makes sense now that you mention it. My spindle was burnished. And not that I think about it, all the outer layers had to be smoothed in one direction. Like a fine toothed file used only one way, the teeth simply got dull. With a real bow/drill, the teeth get used equally on both sides.

Too bad, too. Looks like using a power drill will just have to take a back seat to the the old fashion way!

Thanks again. And I most likely will have more questions ... after my next round of experiments.

Dave Boyle

Hi Dick,
I am enjoying your Fire by Friction information a lot. Starting afire that way is something I have always wanted to do. After seeing the bogus "fire by friction" that was done by Tom Hanks in the movie, Castaway, I resolved that I was going get off my duff and finally do it...

The screen writer for "Castaway" went to Baja with the former owner of the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, their chief guide and the president of SPT to learn survival skill. They introduced him to the fire plow. I cannot think of 3 better qualified people to learn from.

I am trying to do this with materials I obtain myself within walking distance of my home on the central coast of California. I live in Oceano, about a mile from the beach. I have been collecting materials for a couple of months and I think I have the right stuff. I'd like to use incense cedar for the hearthboard, but will only use it if it floats up on the beach which is highly unlikely. I do know where there is some Mule Fat a few miles inland, and will get some of that in the next day or so. Right now I have some some elderberry and cattail spikes that I have cut for spindles and have been drying them in the sun for the last five weeks. I found some nice redwood on the beach after the last series of storms and have been drying that too. I found a nice piece of soapstone that I have worked a socket into and it serves quite nicely for a bearing block. I'm using no steel and am cutting the spindles, etc. only with stone tools I have made myself, mostly out of chert.

My first attempt (a few days ago) was the "hand method" using the redwood hearthboard and a 1/ 2" elderberry spindle, with my wife holding the bearing block. I got a lot of smoke the very first time and that was exciting, but after that I could only get a light glaze and charring on the hearthboard and no smoke, even after dressing the hole in the hearthboard and cleaning the tip of the spindle. Do you have to make a new hole in the hearthboard every time?

The important thing here is that you don't want any friction on the sides of the spindle. 99% of the friction should be on the bottom of the spindle. If the old hole gets too deep you can either start a new hole, ream out the old hole(make it wider) or twirl off from verticle in order to open up the hole.

Can you keep using the same spindle?

Eldeberry spindles have a pith core. The bottom part of an ederberry shoot will be about 1/2 wood and 1/2 pith. That's good. As you wear away about 5 inches of the spindle you will come to a region where where the wood is only 30% and the pith core is 70%. That seems to be marginal.

Any ideas as to why I was so (partially at least) successful the first time and then no luck afterwards, even though I was using the same materials?

Don't give up. Try a willow root hearthboard.

Any information will be appreciated...
Thank you,
Norm Hammond

Hi again! While stressing about this project and trying to decide how I can tie in physics, I started to wonder if you, by any chance, might know the coefficient of friction AKA mu of wood against wood. That is vital information if I want to figure out any formulas which would realte physics in this experiment. I know that this project is all physics but I just don't know how to incorporate it in my paper. Any ideas would, once again be greatly appreciated.

Thanks again,
Allison McDonnell


Hi Allison,
You and I think about things the same way. I'm the analytical type too. Here's my take on the problem: There are two situations. #1 is the use of a human powered drill and #2 is the use of some external power like an electric drill.

With a human powered drill you don't care what the coefficient of friction is. Your physical effort, expressed in watts, watt hours, calories or whatever is all dissapated as friction between the spindle and hearthboard. That power dissapation causes the wood to get hot and wear away. In the beginning the friction coefficient is not so high so you push down hard. If the friction coefficient is high then you push down with less force. You automatically put more or less the same "horsepower" into the effort by adjusting the downward pressure.

With an electric drill you are probably going at constant revolutions/minute so the power dissapation will depend on the coefficient of friction. My experience with an electric drill tells me that when you begin the friction coefficient is very small between uncharred hearthboard and uncharred spindle so you push down harde. As things heat up and the wood starts to char then the friction coefficient increases and you use
less pressure.

The 1954-55 edition of the Chemical Rubber Company Handbook tells me the
friction coefficient of dry wood on dry wood is .25 to .50.

Best wishes,

I'm doing research on a novel I'm writing that takes place in Rockingham, N.H. in 1669. While I am reasonably sure that they had kerosene lamps in those days. I am not sure how they lit their fires since matches were not invented yet. I wonder about flint and steel, but it's hard to imagine a houswife in 1669 lighting a stove that way. I've been searching through the Google search engine and can't seem to find a reference to this information. Can you help, or direct me to where I might find answers for this time frame?

Thank you.
Teri Brown


Hello Teri;
Unfortunately, I don't have an exact answer to your question. I believe fires for cooking, during the 17th century, were started with the flint and steel method using tinder to start the fire. The use of matches came about during the early 19th century.

When doing your internet search, try using quote marks to isolate your search more. Also use + signs to include other reference guides. For example, you can type in this information in the search boxes:

"flint and steel" + cooking + "17th century"

Good luck on your cyberspace investigation.

Dino Labiste

(pertaining to the aritcle entitled, Some Uses of Fire)
You missed ashes for making lye for making soap.
Kathleen Sanderson


I also left out uses for soot, as in tatooing.  I'm sure there are other uses for ash as well.

Thanks for the careful reading,

Mr. Baugh,
I was actually already thinking of using the power drill instead of my own arms. Today we bought the spindles in oak, walnut, cherry, and mahogany.


Whoa! I should have told you to use something like cedar, poplar or bass wood. The ones you mentioned are probably on the hard side.

They are .5" in diameter and about 2.5' long. They fit into the drill and we made our floorboard out of oak (I would call it the hearthboard.).

See above comment.

We also drilled an indentation into it, which to my understanding, allows for the presence of air?

The notch should penetrate 1/2 way to the center of the hole. It's purpose is to collect the fine charred wood that is rubbed off from the hearthboard and spindle.

As we started drilling, smoke appeared almost immediately and a black, flaky material appeared as well.

A simple test is to pick up the "black, flaky material" and rub it between your thumb and forefinger. In order to ignite it must be fine and powdery like flour. If it is coarse and gritty then the woods aren't correct.

Sparks weren't created and nothing else happened. I don't really know what I'm supposed to do next and or what I'm doing wrong. Some help as soon as possible would be greatly appreciated because as you can tell, I'm clueless.

Thanking you in advance,
Allison McDonnell


Hello Allison,
Don't give up! I first tried this with my Dad when I was eight years old. We failed because we had the wrong woods. I succeeded 25 years later. I tell students they won't become experts with fire by friction until they have failed 500 times.


Hello my name is wilbur and I am interested in this two stick hearth board. I have tried a few different kinds of wood.My question is what kind of wood would you recomend using to do this?

It all depends on what's available where you live. For the article on the web site I used mule fat (Baccharus salicifolia) for the two stick hearthboard and the spindle. It is a common shrub which grows in stream beds which dry out in the summer in the western states. Another candidate would be cottonwood, both wood and root for the hearthboard and cottonwood wood for the spindle.

Another question is is it ok to use the same kind of wood for the drill?

Yes, although I frequently use a slightly harder material for the spindle.

I am trying to get this together for the reason of teaching my son this on one of our family outings.Well if you wouldn't mind sharing your little secrets then I would be greatful if you could answer these questions.Also if you wanted you could send me anything of this sort to me weather it be your own or something you learned someplace else.Thank you very much and I am sure my son would thank you also.I hope to hear from you soon.


Dear Mr. Baugh,
My name is Richard McCollum. I found your site whilest searching for ways to start a fire without a lighter. I read your bio at http://www.primitiveways.com and it said that you know a little about starting a fire-by-friction.

Please sir, would you tell me the secret to making fire with no modern tools? I have 4 little ones that I would like to teach some basic life skills to. Making a fire is the first step in cooking a rabbit. (do you know how to snare a rabbit?)

I will repay you by sending you pictures of our fire making experience.

Richard McCollum
(Owner) GreatNorthern.net


You don't want much do you? With no modern tools I would use either a hand drill or an Aboriginal fire saw. The materials must be chosed carefully for dryness and low thermal conductivity. If you have the muscle power then a fire plow will work.

For rabbit snares, read "Outdoor Survival Skills" by Larry Dean Olsen.

Best of luck,

Mr. Baugh,
I appreciated your website. As a junior in a high school physics class, I am entering a model where I create a friction fire, into the science fair. Do you have any more information or websites that you could send me?

Thanking you in advance,
Allison McDonnell


Hello Allison,
Just do a web search on "fire by friction". There is plenty out there. Another suggestin is instead of using your muscle power, use a power drill..

I hope this helps. Feel free to ask more questions.


Mr. Baugh,
I have, through my wife's diligent searching, just discovered 'primitiveways.com'. I have had a burning desire (please excuse the pun) to know how to start fires 'the old fashion' way for a very long time. I am, therefore, in your debt for the information you have presented. I was about to put together a rather extensive design of experiments, and you have reduced that effort considerably.

Even so, I find I have many questions. Some materials related, some process.

I gather that the hearth board needs to be a soft wood (like cedar), and very dry. But what about the drill? Where should it fall in the soft to hard categories? I am presuming it needs to be at least relatively strong - and thus hard - to withstand the pressures to be applied. Would oak make a good drill? Or maple? Both are readily available in my neck of the woods.

Where on the curve does drill diameter fall? Smaller leads to higher revolutions per second and high per square inch contact pressures. Increasing diameters would seem to decrease both, which in turn would tend to be counterproductive. Maybe a tapered shaft, small on top to increase revs, and larger on the bottom to increase edge velocity and, I presume, friction (After having always tried to reduce friction forces, it's a bit of a twist trying to figure out how to increase it).

These issues, in turn, lead directly to questions of hole/drill shape and depth. Is a slender point best, or one that is blunt? Intuitively, I would guess the latter. And how far into the hole is the notch to be cut? And what exactly is the notch intended to do? Is it the accumulator for the char? Or an overflow valve where the char drizzles onto the kindling and is later ignited at the top like a fuse?

The catch for the char seems to be the most critical aspect of the whole endeavor. Cattail fluff is a forehead slapper - "Of course!" Except that cattails don't always grow where you need them, nor do kangaroos leave their calling cards in any of the woods I frequent. But dried deer pellets? And how about bits of clothing (which, as a survivor, I should still have on). I'm thinking of cotton socks, and maybe even navel lint. Dry grass sounds nice, too, though maybe a bit too dispersed to catch a tiny volume of char.

I'm going to be doing some experimentation (and I'm going to cheat and use my power drill before I go to the hand drill - which of course our ancestors didn't have. Then again, they didn't have to put up with traffic in the morning, either), but any help you could give me with the above parameters would be greatly appreciated.

Lastly, I think the idea of a primitive ways site is a great idea. I have to shake my head sometimes when I think of all the knowledge that's been so painstakingly acquired . . . and then lost. Sites like yours might help spark the quest to keep that knowledge alive. I'm going to keep an eye open and see where you folks get together. I think I might just sit in, a time or two. And in the meantime, keep up the good work.

Dave Boyle


Hello David,
Thanks for the interesting letter. You ask a lot of the right questions. I'll try to answer them.

The drill/spindle: I have the best results with drills of a slightly harder composition than the hearth board. Another thing that helps is a spindle with a pith core (elderberry, Sambuca nigrans) which is about 1/2 to 1/3 the outer diameter. Oak would not be my first choice. Maple might work well. I've never tried it.

Drill diameter: For a hand drill, I use something about 3/8 inch. I have about 98 to102% of the muscle power needed to do a hand drill fire so all the parts have to be well tuned. For bow drills I have one with a 1/4 inch spindle (see the Bow Drill Challenge on our web site). That's not the most reliable. 1/2 inch seems to work most easily for me. Some of the stronger, younger people use 1 inch diameter. That spreads the effort out over a larger area so you need more horse power. At the Winter Count someone demonstrated a toggle drill made from 5 inch diameter cottonwood. It was twirled by two men on opposite sides of a rope. At the Winter Count, I also saw an Egyptian style bow drill wherein the cord was long enough that it was tied securely to the center of the spindle and then wrapped around multiple times. Consequently the cord NEVER slips. Very clever those Egyptians. The spindle wants to be blunt on the bottom.

The notch: Half way to the center of the hole works well. It collects the char as it is rubbed off. I like to put a little piece of dry bark under the notch to chatch the char. I have seen un-enlightened but otherwise very intelligent people catch the glowing char on the blade of their knife. I guess that individual, whom I respect highly didn't know about martensite and the iron-carbon phase diagram.

Tinder and ember extenders: Any fine, dry plant material will work. Use your imagination. When I teach fire by friction I show the students a plastic box with 18 compartments, each with a different tinder material.

Power drill: At the Rabbit Stick Rendezvous someone demonstrated frictin fire with a battery powered drill. He seemed to have better success when he periodically reversed direction. I don't know why.

PrimitiveWays: We live on the San Francisco Peninsula. Our Rattlesnake Rendezvous is Memorial Day weekend. If you can't make that then, come to the Winter Count or Rabbit Stick. If you can't do that then at least join the Society for Primitive Technology (phone 208 359-2400)

Feel free to ask more questions.


Hi Norm;
My name is Mark Morris and I live in Jupiter, Florida. I found your piece on friction by fire and of course had to try it myself. So far to date, lots of smoke, no ember. I have tried different types of woods without success. I would really appreciate it if you could send me some wood to make the various components,. Of course I would be willing to compensate you for your time and trouble.

Yours sincerely
Mark P. Morris


Mark, greetings. Friction fire is often frustrating. It took me two months to get my first fire, and two years to get reliable at it (that is with the hand drill). The wood is quite critical to success, along with good technique and callouses. I don't know what you've already tried, but alot of easterners swear by burdock stems for the drill. Cedar roof shingles (heavy duty) work well for the hearth board. Having the notch correctly done is also important. If you have sawdust coming up the hole and making a circle around the drill, you need to make the notch a little bigger. Go for speed first, then apply more downward pressure, and be sure to spit on (or otherwise dampen) your hands first. I'm assuming you're working on a hand drill, rather than the bow drill method. If you still need a set, they cost $12 plus shipping ($5) for a set that I know works.

Let me know,

Hi Dick
My name is Mark Morris and I live in Jupiter Florida. I found your piece on friction by fire and of course had to try myself. So far to date lots of smoke no ember. I have tried different types of woods without success. I would really appreciate it if you could send me some wood to make the various components, of course I would be willing to compensate you for your time and trouble. My email is either mmorris.jupiter@worldnet.att.net or mmorris@oscs.varian.com .

Yours sincerely
Mark P Morris


Hello Mark,
Before I send you anything (which I'd rather not do), I'll ask around and find out what materials from your neck of the woods works.


My name is Riley. I am having trouble trying to start a fire by friction. I have to do it for a science prodject. My friend and I have tried everything we know. We know how to get one started but we can't. We need some hints. We cut a notch in the wood where we spin the stick and put some cedar bark in it. We are using cottonwood. That is the kind that the boyscouts hand book said to use. We are from Texas so we do not have many types of wood to use. If you would write back and tell us some pointers it would help a lot. Thank you.

From: Riley Abbott


Hello Riley,
Cottonwood is a good choice for wood. Make sure it is perfectly dry and not rotten. Often I gather green cottonwood and dry it in my wife's oven. I prefer a spindle that is about 1/2 inch diameter for a bow drill. Use a top socket made from something hard (bone, antler, soapstone, very hard wood) and grease it to reduce friction. Use a heavy nylon cord on the bow. Adjust the cord tension with your thumb so it NEVER slips. The notch should go half way to the center of the hole in the hearth board. Start out by twirling slowly and steadily so you get just a thin wisp of smoke. After you have a thin wisp of smoke for about a minute then go hard and fast. Concentrate more on fast than high pressure.

I hope this helps. Feel free to ask more questions.


I'm having problems with the bow method. I'm not getting the char dust to ignite. I'm using eastern cedar for the spindle and hearth board. It only wants to smoke that is all. I even put the spindle in a electric hand drill and still no success. I don't know if it is the wood or what. What wood would be best. I live on the east coast, and I can't find the wood that you use.



Hi Nate;
Since you're getting smoke, that's a good sign. The eastern cedar that you're using may work. Here's some trouble shooting comments on fire making. Whenever you get a lot of smoke and no lighted ember, it may be because the ember that you're generating is burning before your char can accumulate in the notch. Is your char dust accumulating around the sides of the hole? Is the dust black and not brown? If it is black, then it is burning, thus creating a lot of smoke. It needs to accumulate in the notch. Check the size of your notch. If it is too narrow, then the needed dust cannot filter down to the notch. Try widening the notch. Experiment on the size until the char dust accumulates in the notch. Also check the grit of the char dust. It should be as fine as flour. If it's too gritty, then you'll have problems igniting the char. One more suggestion, go slowly at first to warm up the hearthboard. Then gradually apply more downward pressure to create friction and increase your speed with the bow. The downward pressure should start grinding the spindle and hearth board together, thus creating the needed char dust.

Good luck on your pyro efforts,

Hi Dick,
I just read your article on making fire by friction with damp materials. It sure makes a lot of sense to take it easy with the spindle pressure until the wood dries out. I've never tried it as my experience goes back to Boy Scout days when the object was to make fire first in order to win from the competition. So I always kept my spindle, hearth and tinder near as warm a source as possible and kept my fingers (oil) away from the working areas.


I was never a very good Boy Scout. Also, I have never been interested in seeing how fast I could get a fire started. My attitude has always been "I enjoy doing this. Why should I be in a hurry in doing something I love doing." But I digress again, I just wanted to comment on drying out the damp tinder method wrapped in a bandana and placed next to the abdomen. When the only book of matches I had got too wet to ignite, In desperation, I had no choice but to place the match book in the warmest part of my body, namely in my crotch for about 5 minutes and the matches were dry enough to ignite.


Hi Norm and Dick,
For the better part of 62 years I have deceived myself into believing I was the only person left on earth who could make fire by bow and spindle and flint and steel. Now, thanks to the computer and internet I know I am not alone in practicing this skill. Primitive Ways is a great site. Thanks for creating it.

But I must say you have been far more active and investigative whereas I have only demonstrated what I had learned as a Boy Scout and tried a few different woods but mostly have stayed with yucca as it was until recently supplied by the national supply service of the BSA.

As a boy I used ordinary pine with which to perfect my bowing and form as yucca would get used up too fast and was costly. Once or twice I succeeded in getting a "char". And as stated, no char was associated with gritty friction products.

In 1940 at New York's Madison Square Garden on the occasion of a massive Scout Show in honor of one of the founders of the BSA, Daniel Carter Beard, and one who would be proud of your organization, our Boy Scout Troop demonstrated fire by friction using a "giant" set.

It consisted of a 6 foot tall cedar spindle bowed by a turn of 1/2 inch manila and pulled by 3 Scouts on each side of the spindle. The "thunderbird" or top bearing was a paddle with two handles held by two Scouts on either side of center. For weight a young Scout sat on top of the thunderbird holding on to the shoulders of the paddle bearers who also were standing on the hearth to keep it from sliding around. I was one of the team and I can proudly say that we got char that day and made fire using shredded cedar bark. So cedar can work. It was aromatic that's all I know about it. It was also very dry as it was kept in the troop equipment locker and only used on special occaisons.

Norm in your paper "Fire by Friction" you describe other ways compression makes fire, e.g., flint and steel where the iron is torn away and the rise in temperature is enough to make the spark. Recently it was brought to my attention that a chemist had studied this reaction and came to the conclusion that the "spark" in fact was a bit of nacent iron oxidizing as it is exposed to air for the first time after being formed. I supposed much like a meteorite.

And speaking of which, Lord Avebury in his book "Prehistoric Times, As illustrated by Ancient Remains and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages" Publisher, Williams & Norgate, London 1913, tells of Eskimos in NW Alaska making fire using two pieces of quartz. One piece is rubbed in sulfur and struck with the second piece. Other Eskimos near Hudson Bay I believe it was, struck iron pyrites with flint like we do with steel.

And speaking of which, the Bronze Age "Ice Man" found in the Alps has been described as making fire with a piece of flint but I don't remember if it was iron pyrite or magnetite which was the "anvil". My preference is to strike the steel a glancing blow with a piece of newly "napped" flint. (before I forget I just found out the origin of the term, skin-flint. Yup, it's napping an old piece of flint to get some more life out of it when used in flint lock).

But I digressed and almost forgot that recently I have been trying to find a piece of bracket fungi which when scraped like the recent Nova film on the Ice Man showed being done, can be used much like "charred" cloth to catch and nurture the spark.

I have found fungi shaped like a horses hoof which is what they showed on Nova and it came from a dead beech tree, But the scrapings just don't nurture the spark.

After trying several samples of different decay appearances I suspect that the samples which will work are those that have been "burnt" by ground fires and charred much like I prepare linen by charring in a partially sealed can.

So my next step is to char the bracket fungi and give it a try. Why not. I can just put myself in the place of a bronze age hunter who sitting by a fire noticed that a bracket fungus thrown into the fire seemed to glow long after it should have been consumed like wood burning. So he pulled it out and blew on it and it flared up. The next step was to scrape it and save the blackened flakes. He would try it in place of the belly button lint he had been using with great difficulty.


Hello VeeSook,
Thanks for the absolutely beautiful letter. If you are are still interested in the "Old Ways" run, don't walk to the nearest recruiting office and join the Society for Primitive Technology. We put out a bulletin twice a year which is a real gold mine of ideas. Call (208)359-2400.

Warmest regards,

I read your article on www.primitiveways.com entitled "miracle of fire by friction". It was very interesting. I was drawn to learn about making fire after seeing the first installment of survivor 2 after the super bowl on sunday. Neither of the two "tribes", consisting of eight people each, could make fire! The failure was particularly acute seeing as they went to bed hungry and cold. I wondered to myself - could I make fire?

It's a good challenge and I always welcome a good challenge. This is great because I can also involve my 5 year old boy in the undertaking. I will try this weekend and see what happens.

Any suggestions on finding suitable wood and technique to use. Thanks.

Joe Simone


Hello Joe,
I am hoping that the "Survivor" program, corny as it is, will whet other peoples apetites for traditional stone age skill. It took me over twenty years to learn the skill. The first time I tried it with my dad when I was eight years old. I didn't succeed until I was about thirty. It is a thrill every time I do it. Suitable materials? It all depends. If you lived in Maine I wouldn't send you off to look for yucca. If you lived in southern Arizona I wouldn't suggest cedar. If you lived in a big city a lumber yard would be the best place to go. Cottonwood, cedar, yucca are all good candidates for the hearthboard. I like to use a spindle which is slightly harder. Larry Dean Olsen's book "Outdoor Survival Skills", ISBN 0-8425-0002-2, is truly inspirational.


Message text written by Patrick Swanson:

I was reading over your article on the web...nicely done, by the way...and have made some initial attempts at doing this but have failed to make fire.

I was wondering about wood substitutes. What kind of options do I have? Are there any general guidelines, like can the baseboard be any hardwood...does the baseboard need to be harder than the drill or can the be made of the same wood?

I appreciate your time.


General guideline: That which works works. I usually use spindles which are harder than the hearth board. For minimum physical effort low density materials (wood, weed stems, yucca stems) are preferred over harder, more dense materials. I have had very poor results with woods which are "punky" or slightly rotten. Look up ethnogrphic records of the Native Americans who lived where you live. Frequently these references will describe fire-by-friction methods in detail. I can't tell you what to try in your area because I don't know where you live.


Clay wrote:
I was at you site primitive ways and tried to make a fire by hand and bow drill and don't know which is easier.


Easier is a matter of what materials you are using. With the right materials, I find the hand drill easier. The reason for that is less parts to fiddle with. You'll find that most indigenous cultures around the world use the hand drill (or a variation of rubbing two pieces of wood together, for example the fire plow that Tom Hanks used in the movie Cast Away) as oppose to the bow drill. The bow drill requires making cordage, constructing a bow and finding a baring block. Too many moving parts in a bow drill. Although, there are three advantages I can see in using a bow drill. You can apply more downward pressure on the wooden spindle, thus creating more friction. The next advantage is that you can create more rotation with the sawing of the bow. You can last longer aerobically with the bow drill. The third advantage is that you can experiment with woods that are harder and denser due to the fact you can apply more pressure and create more rotation. My suggestion is to start out with the bow drill first. A lot of survival or wilderness schools tend to use this method because it doesn't poop out their students sooner until they get the lighted char dust.

When you've mastered the bow drill, progress to the hand drill. This is where technique and the right materials are very important for success. The hand drill only requires two materials: the spindle and the hearthboard. Less moving parts. The old saying, "Simpler is better" may also translate to easier.

Dino Labiste

As an assistant scout master here in North Carolina, we have just started to get some of our newest scouts busy on their cooking merit badge, and have worked with them on fire building. We have a bow and block kit that some purchased years ago, but we haven't been successful getting it going yet.

It seems that we could improve our method if we cut a path to the outer edge of the base, as in your pictures, and allow that to ignite some tinder. Also, I think we need to round off the tip to better meet the contour of the hole.

We'll keep trying. Thank you.

Todd Heil

Hello Deirdre,
Bob Gillis sent this on to me for a response, I'm one of the Board members of the Society of Primitive Technology, an Int'l organization dedicated to preserving knowlidge from the pre-industrial ages. Your question concerning the first use of fire is hard to give a good answer. There is currently no way to be sure when our ancestors first used fire. It is likely that Australopithecines were taking advantage of naturally occurring fire for a variety of purposes. Homo habilus, aroung 2 million years ago was making stone tools, and could have been using fire as well. By 1.5 million years ago, Homo erectus was using fire for cooking and warmth, leaving identifiable hearths. As a result, they were able to leave Africa and spread out into Europe and Asia, including rather cold areas. In addition to using fire for heat and cooking, they were also using it to shape weapons and likely other uses as well. There were two spears recently found in Germany with fire hardened points that dated to Homo erectus time 0 about 700,000 years ago. From this time on fire continued to be used for an increasing number of things. Light for caves, charcoal for cave painting, smokefor preserving food and hides, burning off the land to increase the food supply and improve travel conditions, fires to scare game over cliffs, etc... At the end of the stone-age, people learned to heat certain rocks (ores) to extract copper and tin, which could be combined to form bronze. Later ovens were developed to fire pottery, malt grains for beer, and eventurally to smelt iron. The invention of gun powder in China, and later India, preceded the technology to make gun barrels, so rockets were the logical alternative. (gun powder is a mixture of finely ground charcoal, sulfur, and nitrates).

If you have time for some research in the library, try - "Becoming Human" by Ian Tattersall and "Origins Revisited" by Richard Leakey for the early stuff, and "Technology in the Ancient World" by Henry Hodges for the later stuff.

Good Luck,
Norm Kidder

Deirdre - forgot to add info on methods of making fire when I e-mailed you yesterday. Again there is no real information on this, but the assumption is that people first learned to carry fire and keep it going, depending on natural fires from lightning and volcanoes as their source. Later, they learned to make fire as aresult of accidental discovery of friction methods. The most widespread method was the hand spun fire drill. The drill stick is spun between the palms of the hands while downward pressure is applied against a flat hearthboard. A notch lets the saw dust accumulate until enough heat is present to start the burning. There is an article on Bob Gillis's website under the primitve ways section on making fire. This method was probably discovered by someone trying to drill a hole in a piece of wood. Another good website to check is abotech.com, which has many articles available on different primitive technology subjects.

Good luck,
Norm Kidder

I am a student doing a short 15 minute video that includes Primitive Peoples first use of fire. I found your website but was unable to access any of the links or information. Basically, I would like to know who was actually the very first peoples that used fire and by what method (was it flint)?

We don't know who or when but the first fires used by humans were probably started by lightening. Things like fire by friction sets are very rare in the ancient archaeological record because when they wear out people toss them in the fire to burn.

Also, if you have any information on the Greeks

Don't know anything.

and the Chinese,

In the country side they still use flint and steel to start fires. I've seen people do it this way in Nepal.

that would be very helpful. You see I go from Stone Age, to Greek, to the Chinese, to India where they used the fire for Rockets used in battle. The interesting thing is I wonder why rockets were used before the flintlock riffle??

My guess is that a gun barrel is very difficult to make because it must be very strong. In contrast, a rocket can be made out of bamboo because the internal pressure is much less.

If you have any information on this it would be greatly appreciated. This is my thesis film so time is of essence. I hope you can guide me in the right direction. I will also, in turn, list your web site address at the end of my film in case people would like more information. Thank you in advanc for your time.


My pleasure. I hope this helps. Feel free to ask more.


Hi Dick;
After reading all that I could find on the subject and building what seemed to be a reasonable friction fire set I could not form an ember. Smoke yes, ember no. The cord always seemed to slip at that time when you had to put in a big final effort. Lack of success despite being so close eventually caused me to give up. Then I read your article on "The Egyptian Bow". First try I got an ember, put it into the tinder bundle and begin to blow. Smoke, more smoke, more smoke, different colour of smoke and then suddenly poof there was fire in my hands and a big stupid grin on my face.

Question, how long does the smug grin last?

Thank you,
Jon Spencer


Hello Jon;
For flaming ever. I have been doing it since 1972 and it is still a thrill.

Dick Baugh

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