Friction Fire Methods: Bow, Pump, Hand Drill, and Plough Methods

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By Bryan Lynch •  10 min read

Whoever scoffs at the idea of rubbing two sticks together to get a fire going, does not know what they are talking about. Although to be fair, friction fires are not an easy way to start a fire, which is why a lighter and matches should always be carried. 

friction fire methods

Friction fire methods have been used throughout history and continue to be used throughout the world in some cultures. The idea is as simple as grabbing two items and rubbing them together to produce friction, which produces heat.

But the application is far from simple. Before jumping into some of the actual methods, it would be worthwhile discussing a quick overview of this process. 

An Overview…

Several friction fire methods utilize wood as the medium for this process. The wood itself is not going to burst into flames (although that would be cool and make things much simpler) Instead, these methods create fine wood dust that is mostly charred.

When enough heat is produced, some of this dust will turn into a red hot ember. This ember, in turn, is placed into a tinder bundle which will hopefully produce a flame. That flame is then used to build a fire. 

It is also important to note that while any wood can be used for this process, softwoods are the best. By not using the right materials, these methods become even more frustrating. So, know your wood. 

Friction Fire: 4 Methods Discussed

Here we will discuss how to make a friction fire… Let’s get started.

Bow Drill

This is probably the most popular and well-known method around. It consists of six parts. 

  1. Fireboard or base 
  2. Spindle 
  3. Bow
  4. Bowstring 
  5. Handle 
  6. Something to collect the dust and ember. A piece of bark, leaf, etc. 

Here is a video to get you started:

For the fireboard acquire a piece of wood that is several inches wide, about ½ an inch to an inch thick, and at least one foot long. The length of the board only matters for holding it down. Use a knife to create a small dimple or hole int the center of the board. 

Next, find a straight piece of wood that can be used for the spindle. Cut off any rough spots or branches along the spindle to create a smooth surface. Round off both ends of the spindle, one end will be used in the handle and one end will be used in the fireboard. Lastly, it helps to cut a notch all of the way around the spindle in the middle. This is where the cordage is going to go and the notch helps to prevent the cordage from sliding up and down the spindle. 

For the handle, anything that will hold the end of the spindle in place will work. Another piece of wood with a hole cut in it, a rock with a dimple, even a cup can be used. 

The bow does not need to be a perfect bow shape but it does need to have some curve to it. When a piece is found, cut two notches, one on each end. This is where the cordage will be tied off to.

Attach the cordage to each end of the bow, leaving a little slack. The best way I have found to do this is to start by tying one end of the cordage to one end of the bow. Then loop the cordage one time around the spindle. Finally, pull the cordage taught and tie off the last end to the bow. 

Everything is now ready to go. Place one tip of the spindle into the hole that was created in the fireboard and place the other end of the spindle into the handle.

Place one foot on the edge of the fireboard and rest your elbow of the arm that is holding the handle, onto your knee. With your other hand, begin pushing and pulling the bow back and forth to turn the spindle. This will be hard at first until the wood smooths itself out. Once the hole in the fireboard matches the size of the spindle stop and put everything down. 

Use a knife or saw to cut a V shaped notch in the edge of the fireboard so that the point of the V slightly penetrates the hole that is being drilled. The V needs to be cut all of the way through the thickness of the fireboard. This creates a channel to direct the hot dust into one spot on a leaf or piece of bark. 

Now, repeat the above steps and begin using the bow drill again. The key is to start slow, warming up and the wood and developing a rhythm. Once this happens you can speed up the process. DO NOT stop once you see smoke. This is where it gets tricky knowing when to stop, which is why lots of practice is required. After seeing smoke I continue using the drill for at least another fifteen seconds and a good cloud of smoke is being produced. 

When you do stop it is critical to take things very slowly, I cannot emphasize that enough! Slowly, remove the spindle from the board and place everything to the side without moving the fireboard. Place both hands on the fireboard and while holding it down, remove your foot. Gently tilt the board towards the collection area and gently tap it.

The goal is to create a large enough ember that the dust pile will continue to smoke on its own for about thirty seconds to a minute. Gently blow on the ember or use your hand to gently wave around it to provide some airflow. Once the ember is self-sustaining, gently transfer it to a tinder bundle and continue to gently add airflow to the ember. From here continue coaxing the ember into a flame. 

Pump Drill 

Luckily this method is similar to the bow drill method so it won’t need as much explanation. However, there are some differences in setting up the tool. It consists of six parts. 

  1. Fireboard
  2. Spindle 
  3. Crossbar (handle)
  4. Cordage 
  5. Flywheel 
  6. Collection area for the dust. A leaf, piece of bark, etc. 

Here is a video to get you started:

The fireboard setup is going to remain the same as the bow drill setup. 

The spindle is essentially going to be the same however it is going to need to be able to fit through the crossbar (handle) section. So size does come into play when picking out those two pieces. 

The crossbar needs to be a long flat piece of material. You are also going to need to be able to drill a hole in the middle of it. Another option for the crossbar is to create it out of two pieces instead of one. As long as there is a gap in the middle of the two pieces where it can easily slide up and down the spindle it will work. 

Once the crossbar is fashioned to accept the spindle, position it halfway to two-thirds of the way down the spindle. Take a piece of cordage and string it from one end of the crossbar, up and over the top of the spindle, and down to the opposite end of the crossbar. Attach the cordage to all three points by cutting out notches. 

The flywheel is the trickiest because it is a bit of a balancing act. Again, the spindle needs to be able to go all of the way through the flywheel but they both need to be firmly attached. One piece of troubleshooting advice for later on. When performing this task, if the spindle is skipping out of the hole in the fireboard then the flywheel is too light. If the spindle is binding in the hole then the flywheel is too heavy. Adjust the weight accordingly. 

Once everything is together, place the spindle into the hole in the fireboard. Turn the spindle, while holding the crossbar, so that the cordage is twisted around the spindle. This will cause the crossbar to be pulled up towards the top of the spindle. Now, while doing your best to balance everything, press the crossbar downward. This will pull on the cordage, causing the spindle to spin. At the end of the spin, the spindle should automatically reverse its direction, causing the cordage to wrap up again and reset, allowing for another downward push of the crossbar. This sounds awkward, and to be honest, at first, it is. But once you find your groove this method is less frustrating than a bow drill. 

Hand Drill 

The hand drill method is very much like the first two methods except it is much easier to setup. It consists of four parts. 

  1. A spindle 
  2. A fireboard 
  3. A collection device. A leaf, piece of bark, etc. 
  4. Your hands

Here is a video to get you started:

Everything about the fireboard remains the same for this method as it did for the bow drill. 

The spindle is going to need to be thinner in diameter and longer. At least several feet long. 

Once the fireboard is prepared, place the end of the spindle into its spot.

Next place both hands at the top of the spindle with the spindle sandwiched in between your hands. Work your hands back and forth to turn the spindle while at the same time creating downward pressure on the spindle. Once you reach the bottom of the spindle, quickly move your hands to the top of the spindle. This process will be repeated until you have a self-sustaining ember. 

Getting the right rhythm and motion for your hands can be tricky. But one of the best ways I have heard this described is to think about the hand motions used in the song “The itsy bitsy spider.” 

Fire Plough 

Stretch and flex your muscles before attempting this because it is going to wear you out. This method consists of two parts. 

  1. Fireboard
  2. Plough

Here is a video to get you started:

The size of the fireboard does not matter, it just needs to be stable with a flat section to work with. To create a flat section, use a knife to carve away the outer bark and wood. 

Next, select a branch that is easy to hold in your hands. Use a knife to smooth out any rough sections where you will be holding onto it. Also, use the knife to carve the end of this branch so that is tapered. 

The final step is to use a knife to carve out a shallow trough in the fireboard that is at least half of a foot long.

Now comes the fun part. Use the branch (plough) in a back and forth motion while creating downward pressure along the length of the trough. Start slow and work up the pressure and speed. Hot dust should begin to collect at the end of the trough furthest away from you. 

The real trick to this method, as with all of these methods, is not knocking the dust pile everywhere during one of the strokes. 

Wrapping It Up

I hope that you enjoyed this article about four popular and effective methods on how to start a fire with sticks. Remember that these methods are not easy but they are easier when the right materials are used and you practice, practice, and practice!

Stay warm and stay prepared!

Bryan Lynch

Bryan grew up in the Midwest and spent every waking moment outdoors. Learning how to hunt, fish, read the land, and be self-reliant was part of everyday life. Eventually, he combined his passions for the outdoors, emergency preparedness, and writing. His goal was to spread positive information about this field. In 2019, Bryan authored the book Swiss Army Knife Camping and Outdoor Survival Guide. His second book, Paracord Projects For Camping and Outdoor Survival, is scheduled to be released on March 2, 2021.