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Fire: The Hand Drill
There are several ways to start a fire without using matches or modern tools. Examples of this include: Fire plows, fire pistons, bow drills and hand drills as well as numerous variations on each of those methods.

Bow drills are the friction fire tools that many are familiar with, and for good reason. They are very effective. Normally in my classes, I can get a the majority of folks starting their first fire using a bow-drill within 3 hours. As an example, the last bow-drill fire class I held - outside, with just tarps and porch roof to keep the rain directly off of the working spaces, 100% of the students had an ember, and about 80% had a fire within the 3 hours class. This is quite a bit harder to do with that kind of humidity in the air, and exemplifies the efficacy of a bow drill.

After getting an ember, it must be placed in tinder and blown into a flame
fire hand drill
A bow drill gives the mechanical advantage of cordage wrapped around a spindle that turns the spindle very fast. Much faster and longer than can be done with a hand drill. For this reason, it is much easier to start with a bow-drill if you have cordage. However, if you don't have cordage, then you have to make some out of either natural (plant or animal fibers) or man-made (clothing, shoe strings, etc) first.

While cordage or cordage material is probably going to be available most of the time, there is still nothing quite as satisfying as being able to start a fire with nothing but your hands,two pieces of wood and something sharp enough to carve a notch in a soft piece of wood. To start a fire for warmth, for cooking or for survival in this manner truly creates a level of connection with the earth and your local ecosystem that is indescribably rewarding. Even though this is a more advanced concept in regards to the skill, technique and practice it takes, a hand drill is a simpler in regards to the pieces you need to find, create and work with.

So where to start?

The first thing you need for any type of friction fire is the correct type of wood. There is a "rule of thumbnail" for wood to be used for friction fire. Press into the wood with moderate pressure with your thumbnail. If you can create an indentation in the wood, then it is probably soft enough to use. For a hand drill, there is less room for error and it helps to use a wood that is on the softer end of the friction-fire spectrum.

Sotol, a cousin of the Yucca plant
sotol fire starter
There are several plants in the Southwest USA, and specifically in the Texas Hill country that are amazing survival plants when it comes to fire starting. One of my favorites is called Texas Sotol. Texas Sotol is a member of the Agave family, and very much like its yucca cousins.

What makes this plant such a wonderful plant for starting a primitive fire is the center stalk of this plant which blooms in the fall then dies. The size of this stalk is much larger than most of the yuccas, which makes it perfect for splitting in half and creating fireboards from.

The center stalk of the Texas Sotol
sotol fire starter
Components of a hand drill:

For the hand drill, you only need a spindle and a fire board. The spindle is ideally about the diameter of a pencil. It doesn't have to be this skinny, but the fatter it gets the harder it will be on your hands (deeper tissue bruising, not just the surface skin blisters), especially if they are not hardened. For the spindle, you can whittle down the narrow end of a sotol stalk. I also use one of the varieties of milkweed that grows in the hill country, which makes a good, natural spindle. There are several other plant species of plants and even grasses in this region that appear initially to be good spindle material. However, the dry stem needs to have the strength to hold up to the rotational force placed on it while pushing and rotating the spindle with your hands which will narrow down that list quickly. There are other methods to work with the more delicate spindles, but that is beyond the scope of this blog entry.

For the fireboard, Texas Sotol is again an excellent wood; probably the best wood I have found yet in this region.

Sotol Fireboards and Milkweed Spindle
sotol fireboard milkweed spindle

The fire board needs to be flattened out on both sides, and should not be more than about 3/4" thick at most. Once the fire board is flat on both sides, carve out a notch that forms a "V" at the center of the spindle hole. An additional trick is to hollow out a little section on the undersection of the fireboard, which concentrates all the char which will form as you turn the spindle, into a little larger denser pile, making it easier to get the ember to form within the char.

Underside of hand drill fire board- concave section
hand drill fire board
You will want to set the spindle into the wood and spin it enough to get a deep impression of the hole. The normal rule of thumb for a hand drill that I like to use is that the hole is set in from the edge about 2 times the diameter of the spindle.

You will want to move between carving the notch and setting a spindle hole impression a few times back and forth, as one effects the other a little. In the end, the notch needs to have its apex at the center of the hole that you are drilling with the spindle.

The concept is that you fill the notch area with char as you are spinning the two pieces of wood together. Char is very finely ground wood that rubs off as you create friction between the two surfaces. Once you get the temperature hot enough, the char will form an ember, which will (if it has oxygen) continue to grow and pull more char into the ember. It’s sort of like watching a raindrop grow as it touches other raindrops. In order for this to happen, however, the notch and the small hollowed out area under it need to be filled with char.

Turning the Drill n

Once you have everything carved and ready to go, place the fireboard on some kind of surface that the char and ember will fall onto. I like to use flat pieces of bark. Ashe juniper bark works great for this.

There are many different techniques for spinning the hand drill. You can put it on something about table height, stand and lean over it, or sit in a few different positions. I prefer to just sit cross-legged. The hand drill spindle is fairly delicate and can’t handle a ton of downward pressure, so this keeps me from pushing down to hard and either drilling through the fireboard before I get an ember, or breaking the spindle from too much pressure.

Try to spin from fingertip to fingertip, to get as much spin on it before it stops and changes direction. Start spinning near the top and slowly move your hands downward. There is a technique (which I will not go into here) called “floating” that some people like to use to move their hands back up the spindle while still turning. This is a good technique, but with if you have good wood, good setup (notch carving, etc), good spinning technique and calluses, you can get easily an ember without having to use a technique like floating.
hand drill fire techniques
That covers most of the main points of starting a hand drill fire. My suggestion is that if you are serious about starting a hand drill fire you find/make a decent spindle, and practice spinning it in your hands a little bit every day (just spin the spindle in your hands while you’re sitting around, no fireboard or anything) to build up the proper calluses and get the technique down. After a week or so of this, it will make it a lot easier for you to create a hand drill fire.

20 degrees this morning. Wow… that’s cold for SA. Get that fire going and stay warm!