Saturday, 5 November 2016

A Bowdrill From Scratch

Since 28th September 2008 when I first managed to get a bowdrill ember to flame I've been working at improving my technique which has included, amongst other things, 1-2-1 sessions with both Jason Ingamells and Dave Watson. I also started this blog  page  which not only includes a little how to section but also the wood combinations I've used with notes.

But I digress, the point of this page is to record the fact that I've never actually gone out on my own into a wood to create fire with a set I made in situ, the closest I've come thus far is on the afore mentioned Dave Watson 1-2-1 but of course I had him holding my hand. So I headed off to a permission to rectify this situation. I took my time and wondered around looking at trees on offer.

As I was out on a frosty but sunny November day with a little wind I wondered about going for my favourite Hazel and Lime combination but whilst I could see some seasoned Lime wood I couldn't reach it (same with some Lombardy Poplar, Sweet Chestnut and Aspen). I also saw some Sycamore/ Norwegian Maple which I find a bit hit and miss, Buddliea which I isn't good and Elder which was a possibility if I could find some Clematis wood for a baseboard. 

As I was looking for wood I had an eye on tinder too. I was able to selectively collect grass in the sunny nooks and crannies and stick it my pocket to dry a little. I also had some 'Old Man's Beard' (Clematis) bark and flowers and a lucky find of some Crampball fungus which makes a great tinder ball extender.

I wanted this to be as 'on the spot' as possible but I did bring paracord in the form of my bootlaces, an unused bearing block from my Dave Watson 1-2-1 as a) I didn't want to cut fresh wood just for that and b) Just in case I couldn't find any other suitable fallen or wet wood, and a little extra tinder just in case I ran out of time to make up a full bundle on the day.

But as it happened I totally lucked out on both the bearing block and bow. I found a freshly fallen Ash bough that had conveniently snapped a section in half which meant it needed minimal work to tidy it up, and the bow presented itself in the form of a broken Hazel length.

At the risk over over-mentioning my Dave Watson day he showed me how to prep fresh wood (Hazel as it goes) into a usable bow so I cut some beaked notches and strung it up first. Not sure why I didn't cut it on the chiseled end but anyway. Whilst it wasn't a deal breaker I should have bent and secured the Hazel uncut because once I cut it to size it wasn't quite as biddable and whilst I got a curve it was fairly shallow.

On the drill and base front I found a perfect piece of Willow for the baseboard along with some Hazel and Willow drills. I was happy with the base and just flattened the bottom and thinned one end, but decided to have options on the drills so I had a plan B if needed. Upon further inspection one of the Hazel drills was a little punky and one had heart shaped spalting running through it.

I eventually discarded the punky Hazel drill and decided to use the 'heart' drill first, and once the set was finished off with an ember pan sliver made from carving the base I was ready to get going.


It had rained heavily the previous day and as it was a cold frosty start to the morning I decided to do an extended slow and low bedding in of the depression to not only create a decent depression but to also warm up the base/ drill and hopefully help drive off any moisture, especially as Willow is a little hydrophilic in nature. I was buoyed up as the set bedded in perfectly on the first go so without further ado I cut the notch ready for a bit of ember action.

For some reason the set started to squeak but nevertheless it pumped out dust quite quickly but I only managed an ember on go three as the first two were close but didn't sustain. I also tweaked the bow string tension as I was finding that the paracord wasn't gripping the drill as well as I expected. Note the boot with no lace, it's no accident that I chose my left boot as it would be flat on the baseboard whereas the right foot is bent and if I'd chosen this one my foot would be trying to pop out.  

And that was mission accomplished...Nearly. I had the ember but at this moment I had a deja vu moment. Back in 2008 when I first succeeded I had three goes with smoke and dust but no ember, go four produced an ember but I messed up at the tinder bundle stage, and I enjoyed success on go five.

With this thought I decided to save the tinder bundle, discard the coal and use the Willow drill which is perfectly in keeping with my deja vu moment as it's actually the combination that I succeeded with in the first place.

The Hazel drill was good to go once I'd topped and tailed it but the Willow drill needed some meat cutting off. It produced a really smooth and quick ember but looking back at the above picture I could have done with trimming the edges of the length to make it spin a little smoother but to be fair I was aware that I was running out of time.


With time in mind I did use the extra tinder that I'd brought along because it would have taken me more time than I had to get a decent amount. I did however plant what I'd foraged (about half the bundle) in the middle so that it would be the architect of any successful pyromania. In the end the foraged goodies were grass, buffed Clematis bark and seed heads, Silver Birch bark, a piece of scraped Crampball and a little Willowherb seed just for good measure.

Once I'd achieved flames the bundle went from fairly smokey (the foraged tinder), to clear (burning my drier tinder as I inverted the bundle), and back to fairly smokey (as I popped it the right way up on the ground). In fact there is a small bit of my introduced tinder in the top of the picture burning without smoke, this in my mind proved that the ignition was with the foraged tinder.

All in all I was pleased but didn't time myself, OK I did I was out three-and-a-quarter hours however not all my time was focused on the bowdrill with  a glorious November morning to experience too, it was quite a distraction. So with a win it was time to do some minimal putting right of the now hallowed ground √° la leave no trace and to re-thread my bootlace which I'll then look to change to slightly more grippy paracord. This experience has only taken a mere 2563 days to chalk up since my first bowdrill success...All good things come to those who wait I guess. 


  1. Nice work Austin.... I've let my bow drill skills drop recently... Time to get back on it. Jaffcat

  2. I have to say that I had a period of inactivity early on and I never used to used to practice much in winter a I believed the bowdrill to be a fair weather tool.