Tuesday, 14 January 2014

World of Bushcraft Bowdrill 1-2-1

Of all the things bushcrafty I've taught myself it has to be mastering a bowdrill. I didn't rush out and try but I read watched asked and re-checked, I settled on trying with a willow set and I got the pieces of kit as and when I could in a controlled manner, rather than dashing out and trying to source them asap. When I got started I managed copious smoke and brown cool dust on attempts 1-3, and ember on attempt 4 which I managed to blow out of my tinder bundle (crestfallen doesn't begin to cover it), and an ember and a flaming tinder bundle on go 5 in late September 2008. I've saved the charred depression which I used to conquer it, along with the bow I used which is so large I wonder how I managed, but manage I did to the point where it developed a crack and I inserted a screw to hold it!

For a while I became quite proficient and branched out (no pun intended) to use other woods which included poplar, ivy, lime,  hazel and sycamore and could do multiple coals one after another. So far so good you might think, so fast forwarding to now, why am I looking at a bowdrill 1-2-1 session at the World Of Bushcraft?

Earlier I used the word mastering, perhaps this suggests I'm skilled enough to be almost infallible. I'm not of course. I don't practice enough and equally don't rotate the different woods that can be used (I'm currently a hazel and lime man, the best combo I have used in my humble opinion).

I've also tried demonstrating twice (outside of my immediate household) and both were less than successful. The first was at Cubs when I was in the groove but I found out very quickly that bow drilling straight after tea isn't good due to the cramped drilling stance and I got close but it was hurting too much! For the second I was cajoled on a slightly damp day against my better judgement and again, despite making lots of smoke  I couldn't quite manage an ember.

Both these episodes knocked my confidence somewhat and I found myself using the technique in splendid isolation and with longer gaps between embers...I was managing one and resting on my laurels which is something I'm still doing to a certain extent...This is where Mr Jason Ingamells comes in...

I was lucky enough to get a 'Willy Wonka' golden ticket to the World of Bushcraft opening and I recall Jason's smooth bowdrilling action when he gave a demo and this, coupled with the all weather nature of the premises (and what I've just typed previously) made me decide to get in contact.

The 1-2-1 was sorted for the morning of January 13th and normally when you are looking forward to something it seems to take ages to arrive, but the time seemed to fly and actually I found myself rushing round to get some stuff sorted to take! I'd actually said that I'd have paid a small fee just to talk about fire by friction as my family usually give me a Mrs Brown 'That's nice' when I go into detail about anything bushcrafty.

As Sunday night arrived I had a bit of trepidation about the next day. This was exacerbated somewhat by the fact that , as stated, I tend to rest on my laurels and the extended period of rainy weather had meant that the only chance to practice before the session was the afternoon before. It was dry but with a damp feel in the air and with a bit of huff and puff I managed to knock out a quite decent ember (which as I'd bothered I blew to flame). I was pleased with this but decided to leave it at that because I needed to save my muscles for the two hour stint that awaited...Or did I?

It was a beautiful day to drive up to Bedford and having arrived in good time I decided to have a quick look at the Priory lake which is behind the centre (but accessed through a different road).

A quick look it was as I was itching to get into the World of Bushcraft centre. I grabbed my bowdrilling stuff and headed in to be greeted initially on the stairs by Quercus, and then Kevan Palmer who was there helping out  with a stocktake, having said hello to him and the radiant looking Joanne *with child*, Jason made his way out of the office to see me and got on my right side by making me a cup of tea!

I had a quick stooge around the retail part, a sort of pre shopping browse, and then headed to the display/ demo area to set myself up before Jason came over with the beverage. We sat down and started having a chat about Woodland Ways' success in the Best in Bushcraft awards and this and that and then we started.

Apart from an email I sent Jason about some areas that I would like to look at I was quite open to seeing how the session progressed and hearing anything he wanted to add. As I'd dragged along my sets and various paraphernalia Jason decided to start by looking at my sets and critiquing them, some dimensions were due to preference/ size but some were perhaps issues that I'd built into my game and compensated as I was self taught. He was very honest but not once did I feel like I was being told off. And we went on from there until we had a mix of my stuff and the centres demo stuff together (we also used my knife which I'm pleased to say past muster on the sharpness front).

I then had my bowdrilling 'weighed', my stance and speed tweaked, the powder pulled apart (like an owl pellet) to be shown the contradictory nature of the different coloured powders' size. The temperature of my bowdrilling and resulting ember, discussions on cordage and with lots of digressions and asides about fire, bushcrafting, and the world in general.

I  said to Jason that I likened the tweaking of my kit and stance to a passage I read in a book about the Supermarine Spitfire which listed lots of minor modifications like a smooth wax and a whip aerial which added about 40mph to the plane's speed, regardless of what engine was 'under the bonnet'.

Once I'd put all the things that Jason had pointed out together I turned the hot dust I was making under his watchful eye into a viable, self sustaining ember in literally seconds and I actually commented on the amount of smoke those few seconds issued...it made me cough which has never happened before! To finish with Jason suggested that I have a look through the centre's box of baseboards and drills and marry them up for a final practice. My random selections yielded results but on the first depression I was talking and overdid the v shaped notch, the second I did a bit too close to the edge of the board. This was still a win as I was taught how to drill at a slight angle on the second, and managed to 'nipple' an ember on the first.


With a professional bushcrafter instructor who could talk himself hoarse about fire, tutoring a hobbyist bushcrafter who was willing to listen and interact until hoarse the two hours just flew by and my plan to take loads of pictures and notes didn't realty materialise as I was so absorbed.

I've realised that my style was all turn and burn...fighting the bowdrill set to rip fire from it whereas I'll now cajoule the bowdrill set to give me fire from it. Without getting too higher self it's almost strikes me as being similar to showing nature (ie the trees that have provided the wood) respect for what it gives up. As I look at the picture of the ember I knocked out the day before for practice I now think wasted energy instead of good amount of powder. I bid Jason farewell as he was heading for a meeting but I had just enough time to stash my kit before coming back in to have a spend. You can look to book the private 2 hour sessions here. Recommended. Have a look at my later bowdrill technique and combinations page here to see my 'journey'.


  1. Wow, sounds pretty awesome Austin. You'll have to give me a masterclass on bow drilling next we meet ;) it's a bit 50-50 whether or not I get a fire at mo... Well 80-20 to be honest and that's not in my favour :)

    1. Ask JP in April over lunch matey. I feel enthused at the moment but he's knocked out more embers than I can dream of!

  2. Always enjoy these blogs, Mr Lill - Spitfire analogy is a highlight of this one!