Quest For Friction Fire – Part 1

Friction Fire Bowdrill

When it comes to primitive survival skills, you can’t get more technical than fire by friction. Just because our ancient ancestors mastered this art, it doesn’t negate from the level of skill one needs to get that ember turned into a blazing fire.

In our day, there are more than a few ways to make fire, all depending on how lazy you’re feeling at the time. Break out the trusty Bic or Blastmatch or any commercial style fire starter and you’ll have a fire going in no time. But I always felt I was cheating the system somehow, which was pretty much the case. So to test myself, I started to leave all the shortcuts at home. No lighter, no tinder bundles made of lint, no gimmicks. By the time I cleared out all the gadgets, I had nothing left but my Swedish Fire Steel. Once I was figured out the best sources for natural tinder in my AO, the rest was easy. Well not completely easy, it takes a little skill to get good with the ferro rod. But once you get it down, it’s not hard to get a tinder bundle fired up.

Using the ferro rod and natural materials is about as simplistic and “primitive” as a person can get. But it’s just not quite as primitive as I would prefer. So the inevitable had to happen, the quest for friction fire!

Friction Fire

When we talk about fire by friction, it’s as “simple” as rubbing two sticks together. Now there are more than a few ways to “rub” those sticks. The Aborigines use the fire thong, natives in southeast Asia use the fire plow and then of course ancient people from around the world perfected the use of the bow drill setup.

The bow drill is the most common method that you see in use today so I figured that would be the best setup to start with considering the wealth of information on the subject. Browse Youtube or Google and you’ll be knee deep in information on the subject, some of generalized, some basic and a very few detailed depictions of the process.

The main reason why the bow drill is so popular is due to the mechanical advantage you get from using the bow & bearing block (hand hold).  Here’s a diagram to demonstrate the basic components of the setup:

Friction Fire Bowdrill

Research Phase

Once I did a little digging, it was easy to see that maybe the most critical key to success is choice of wood. Pick a wood that is too soft or dense with moisture and you’ll end up on the wall of fail, along with others who just couldn’t get that ember going and gave up after much effort with little to no results. Nobody likes failure but hey, it goes with the territory when you’re trying out new skills. If you’re afraid of failure, odds are you’ll never try and if you never try, you’ll never learn and well you know the rest.

After a few days more days of research, I made a checklist of the possible choices for wood. This list is based on the trees in my neck of the woods which is Eastern Tennessee. This area is basically a rain forest, but a temperate one which means it’s a usually a mild forest within a zone that receives heavy rainfall. As I’m writing this post, it’s raining and has been off and on for nearly a month, it surely feels like a rain forest, minus the parrots.

Temperate Rain Forest:

The best woods are listed below, keep in mind these are options for my area obviously it may differ for your region:


Now that I had a list, it was time to hit the forest and track down the lucky candidate for my project.

Sourcing Materials

First off, one does not just simply find the right tree without knowing what to look for in a tree. Obviously, the wood must be dead since you must have dry wood for the spindle and hearth board. Standing dead wood is the best and deadwood on the ground is most likely going to be wet/damp and not a good choice. So with my trusty tomahawk in hand I set off to find my material. I’m very good at identifying some of the basic trees in my area, oak, hemlock and cedar. However, I’m not so good at the other ones on my list such as willow or cottonwood. As a result the trip turned out to have the benefit of helping me with my tree identification skills and giving me a chance to break in my new Cold Steel Rifleman Hawk.

After about 15-20 minutes of searching and consulting my tree ID guide, I was completely unable to find willow, cottonwood or even basswood, live or dead. But as usual, there was more than enough cedar in the area. So I lucked out by finding a standing red cedar rather large in size, but quite dead. Despite the size of the tree, I decided to take it down, since I had my tomahawk and well, it was a good excuse to break it in. After 10 minutes of non stop chopping, the cedar finally gave in and gravity did the rest.

Once I had it down on the ground, I broke out my trusty Silky PocketBoy and set to work cutting out a portion for the bow drill. I suppose I could have used the tomahawk, but to be honest, I preferred to keep the noise to a minimum. Once I had cut out the section, I tossed it in the pack and headed for home.


As is true of anything in the forest, you have to overestimate the time and effort it takes to get a task completed. Anything  you see demonstrated on Youtube has been chopped and edited, giving the impression that things are much easier and faster than in real life. Overall, it took me nearly two hours to hike into my location, find the deadwood, chop it down, process it and hike back out. Chopping, cutting and hiking up and down ravines isn’t easy. Even the simple task of finding the deadwood takes time and energy.  The key to success is remembering to slow down, always observe your surrounding and don’t rush.

In part II, I’ll detail the process of cutting the wood down to size and making the fireboard, spindle and bearing block.  I don’t expect this process to be easy, but I do expect the outcome to be worth the time and energy I put in. I can’t promise I’ll get it down on my first attempt, or my 2nd or my 10th, but this whole fire by friction thing will happen, you can bet that! In the meantime, I’m going to head back out to the forest and find myself some more deadwood, just in case the red cedar doesn’t work out. That’s the name of the game, having a backup and then when you have that, having another backup!

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