The oldest way to make fire would have been to carry
a burning coal around from a natural fire, and to keep it smoldering
in dry plant material that can hold a burning coal for long periods
of time. Dry tinder can be added to the coal, and then blown on to
form flames. The problem with this method is that the coal can burn
out, and the coal needs new plant material over long periods of time
to keep smoldering. It may have been difficult to travel long
distances in wet conditions with a burning coal wrapped in such
This is how you make a friction fire that works
using the fire bow.
Rub your hands together, ok push harder and rub
faster, yes they are getting hot due to the friction, continue and
you will get water blisters due to the build-up of heat. The same
principle applies when you rub two pieces of wood - hard, fast and
with lots of friction together, however the end-result is the
formation of very hot smoking black wood powder. Add oxygen -
thermal runaway then takes place and finally the formation of a
glowing red hot ember to start your fire.
The spindle inserted into the bow string, is pushed
down via the low friction bearing, with the one hand (normally
left), into the drill hole and notch in the fire board, which is
situated above the drilling powder and ember catcher. The spindle is
then rotated to produce hot black wood powder onto the drilling
powder and ember catcher via and into the notch by friction in the
drill hole, first in the one and then the other direction, by the
pull action of the bow string that is connected to the bow stick,
which is being pushed and pulled by the other hand resulting in the
energy transfer action. The tinder nest is used to nurse the ember
into a fire. That’s the basic workings of the fire bow. Yes, this
sound’s a bit confusing … however once you start putting the whole
lot together it will make sense.
Remember, at this stage you still know squat, and
guaranteed you will not be able to get a friction fire going with
the above knowledge. Been there got the tee-shirt etc. You first
need to get started with a simple fire bow set that will work well,
so as to get the feeling. Then only should you start experimenting
and go full traditional, using more natural products.
List of items needed for your first fire bow set:
Tot glass and roll of duct tape to make the
Pliable, moist wooden stick, about middle finger
thick, with a fork at one end, slightly curved and cut to arm
length for the bow stick.
Strong Parachord, one and a half arm length for
the bow string.
Dry Meranti wooden dowel, middle to thumb finger
thick and about the length along your hand for the spindle.
eDry Oregon pine wooden board, middle to thumb
finger thick, three fingers wide and about the length along your
foot for the fire board.
Piece of thick wax paper to catch the drilling
powder and ember.
Piece of hemp to make tinder nest.
Note: The box of matches is intended to give an idea
of scale and not to start your fire with …
You will also need a good medium sized sharp knife -
one with a small saw attached is ideal (having locking blades is
safest). Lead pencil or pen could also be handy when marking out the
drill hole and notch.
Now let’s make a "lekker" (nice) fire. You won’t
believe the satisfaction of getting it going, thus don’t give up,
promise if you persevere IT WILL WORK.
Further, in the beginning get someone intelligent,
without two left hands and who has the perseverance without moaning
to help you.
Generously wrap the tot-glass with duct
tape. The tape is there to help protect you just in case
the tot-glass breaks for some or other reason: better to
be safe than sorry. Now you have your low friction
To make the bow, tie a figure of eight
knot with loop on the one end of the bow string. Place
the loop over the forked end of the bow stick. Cut a "v"
slot, big enough for the bow string, into the other end
of the bow stick.
Note: You can use your shoe for a work
bench, as shown in photo. Place the bow string into the
"v" slot, then pull to take up the slack until the
bowstring is still hanging slightly loose. Now, tie the
loose end of the bow string back over, using half
hitches. You can adjust the length of the bow string by
sliding the half hitches up or down.
Take the dry meranti wooden dowel and
cut the one end to a 60° conical point, so as to form
the spindle bearing point.
Note: Using your knife as shown gives
you stability, control, and also adds to safety. Now,
cut the other side of the spindle flat, and round of the
edges slightly, not to much, this forms the drilling
part of the spindle.
Now make a hole with your knife point
into the drilling part of the spindle, about a third of
the diameter of the spindle wide and deep. The end
product can be seen in the photo.
The reason for the hole in the middle is
scientific, yes believe it or not. When you rotate a
wheel the middle moves less distance, thus slower when
compared to the outer edge.
To optimise the drilling part of the
spindle we remove the inner less effective section, so
as to focus all of our energy on the faster moving outer
Loading the spindle correctly into the
bow is important. Take the spindle in your left hand and
hook the drill through the bow string. Twist the spindle
backwards and hook the bow string.
The spindle should now be slightly
spring loaded, if not, adjust the bow string tension
using the half hitches (as previously explained). It is
important that the spindle is on the outside of the bow
string, and not between the bow string and the bow
stick. Further, the less the bow curves the better, as
you will have more control. The bow string must not be
too tight, or else the spindle will be difficult to
handle, as it would twist and jump all over the place,
further the excessive friction with the bow string can
result in the string breaking.
Let’s mark out and start to prepare the
fire board. Place the spindle onto the dry Oregon pine
wooden board and draw a pencil line. Draw a second line
about two spindles wide vertically across the first.
Make a 15° conical hole with your knife, using a
twisting action, into the wooden board at the crossing
points of the two lines.
Note: Using your thumb at the knifes
point gives you good control and also helps with safety.
need to "burn-in" the drill hole for the fire board.
Fill the conical hole you made with your knife with dry
small grained sand, so as to increase the friction.
Place the bridge of your left foot onto the fire board,
about one thumb distance away from the conical hole.
Your right knee should be behind, and in
line with the ankle of your left foot. Make sure you are
comfortable. Now, load the spindle onto the bow string
(as described in step 4 above), holding with your left
hand the tot-glass bearing on top, and the bow with your
Place the drill of the spindle into the
sand filled conical hole. Hold the spindle up-right (90°
to the fire board), and push slightly down with your
left hand, while securely holding the tot-glass bearing.
To make life easier support your left
hand by holding it against your left leg, this will help
prevent your hand from moving all over the place once
you start with the drilling action. Ok, now you can
start "burning-in" the drill hole. Rotate the spindle by
rhythmically pushing and pulling the bow, in a "sawing
Don’t forget to breathe. Some folks are
so focused they faint, breathe in when you pull the bow
and exhale when pushing. Now, if the spindle does not
rotate, slightly decrease the downward pressure, or if
the bow string is slipping on the spindle, increase the
bow string pressure by squeezing it with your right hand
onto the bow stick. If the drill makes a squeaking
sound, increase your downwards pressure, until the sound
disappears. Keep on drilling, smoke will start to come
from the drilling hole and stop once a black (or dark
brown) drilling powder forms. Carefully remove the
spindle from the drilling hole and tap the black
drilling powder from the fire board onto the drilling
powder and ember catcher.
Great, you have a "burnt-in" black drill
hole on your fire board. Now, you need to cut a 30 to
45° "v" notch, into the fire board at the drill hole.
Note: The "v" notch does not reach the centre of the
black drill hole it’s about one third away. First mark
the "v" onto the fire board, also mark the sawing lines,
opening up slightly in the form of a dove tale away from
you, on the side of the fire board. The reason for this
shape is that when you have generated the hot black
smoking drilling powder in the notch you will need to
pick-up the fire board without disturbing the pile. This
slanted edge "v" notch was found to be best. Carefully
cut out the "v" notch along the lines.
Note: Using your shoe and left hand as a
make shift vice helps. Throw back the black drilling
powder from the drilling powder and ember catcher into
the drilling hole.
We need to prepare the tinder nest. Take
a piece of hemp and pull and divide it into small
tufted-up pieces, like cotton wool, (make sure you do a
good job, the finer the better, as you will be sorry
later if not).
Note: Keep the hemp residue that falls
below. Now, shape the plucked out hemp into the form of
a birds nest, and throw the fine residue into the
centre. You will be making far better tinder nests from
all sorts of natural materials later – however, we must
first get you going using this simpler one.
You are now ready to make the hot powder
created from the drilling action, which will then be
nursed into a red hot ember by carefully adding oxygen.
This is the ember that will be introduced into the
tinder nest to finally start the fire with.
Let’s get some hot smoking black
drilling powder. Place the drilling powder and ember
catcher onto a level firm surface, with the fire board
above. Repeat step 6 above, but remember you already
have drilling powder in the drill hole, and don’t stop
when more black drilling powder forms. Continue, until
the "v" notch completely fills, and pushes a heap
outwards, with black drilling powder. Keep this up.
By now you will be sweating and
breathing hard, until the black drilling powder is hot
enough to smoke by itself, indicating that thermal
runaway has started to take place. Do an extra twenty
strokes, just for luck, before you stop.
Carefully remove the spindle from the
drilling hole while holding the fire board absolutely
still. Continue to hold the fire board using your left
hand and then even more carefully remove your left foot
without disturbing the hot smoking black drilling
powder. Don’t be in a hurry, take your time.
Tip: Ask a friend to help, especially
the first time. Let the person put their right foot onto
the fire board, and hold the bearing and spindle with
both hands, supported by their leg. You then put your
left hand onto their right foot to help with your
balance, and then with your right hand operate the bow.
Your friend then pushes down the tot-glass bearing, and
keeps the spindle upright. You’d be surprised how
teamwork helps, especially if your friend cheers you on
Now we need to nurse the hot black
smoking drilling powder into a red hot ember. Keep
holding the fire board absolutely still with your left
hand. Then, start moving the air by gently waving with
your right hand above the smoking black drilling powder.
Increase the oxygen flow, by gently blowing air with
your mouth and lips over the smoking black drilling
powder until a small red ember becomes visible.
Don’t blow too hard, or you will blow
away the drilling powder, and you will have to start all
over. Please, be patient, don’t rush, you are nearly
there. Once you have an established red hot ember, you
remove the fire board by gently pushing your knife point
down the one side on the "v" notch onto and holding down
the drill powder and ember catcher while carefully
lifting back the fire board. You now have a smoldering
red hot ember.
We now need to carefully transfer this
glowing ember and hot smoking drill powder, as shown in
photo (a) into the tinder nest. Carefully take the drill
powder and ember catcher in your right hand, without
disturbing the ember and drilling powder heap, and take
the tinder nest in your left hand, now gently transfer
the glowing ember and hot smoking drill powder into the
middle of the tinder nest. Put down the drill powder and
ember catcher, and take the tinder nest with glowing
ember in both hands.
Ok, the grand finale, now let’s start
the fire. Fold the tinder nest over the glowing ember.
Gently start blowing air into the nest, in the area the
ember is situated. The tinder nest will start smoking,
blow harder, and harder, don’t stop until the tinder
nest suddenly bursts into flames.
You’ve done it - you have created flames
to start a big fire with. All you have to do now is to
put this burning tinder nest into your pre-prepared fire
pile, and that’s it a fire started with a fire bow.
You have the tricks to do the deed, now
go for it, and if you don’t get it working blame the
person you see in the mirror when you brush your teeth
in the morning, good luck and enjoy the moment of
Wallace Vosloo is an Engineer and Scientist by
profession. His family has lived in Africa since 1696
and he has a deep love for the continent. He is a
practical outdoorsman and loves traditional hunting, axe
and knife throwing, longbow shooting, black powder
rifle- and cannon shooting, salt and fresh water fly
fishing and tracking. The art of survival is Wallace’s
main field of interest and his passion is to transfer
these old forgotten skills to young hunters.
For those "comfortable gentlemen" … you can purchase a complete
fire bow set, exactly as used in the article above and ready for
action from Gavin "Slow Match" Margrate at e-mail address email@example.com
or phone him on +27 (0)82 469 3236.