How To Make A Hand Drill Fire
I am very excited today because you are about to learn how to make a fire with just two sticks and your bare hands. This is one of the most connecting primitive skills that you can learn and something I have literally done hundreds of times.
This is an ancient skill that has been passed down from generation to generation for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. Largely it was the domain of the men of the tribe to create and tend the fire, however it is a skill I feel everyone can learn and connect with.
Once you have the ability to create fire with nothing but two sticks and your bare hands, you will feel a sense of confidence and surety that you will be able to keep yourself warm if you have the right materials to make primitive fire.
In this article you’ll learn how to make primitive fire by using the ‘hand-drill’ technique. This is known as making ‘fire by friction’ and other common ways of doing this include the bow-drill technique and the fire saw.
Primitive Fire Materials:
As a brief overview, these are the materials you’ll need to make primitive fire with the hand-drill technique:
1 – Spindle
2 – Fire Board
3 – Tinder Bundle
In this article I’ll go in depth how to not only find these materials but also how to prepare them properly to make primitive fire.
Primitive Fire Technique:
Once you have the materials, next you’ll need to know how to use them in the right way to make your own fire. This is done via knowing the correct technique to create your fire.
As a brief overview, these are the steps to creating your own primitive fire:
1 – Creating the coal
2 – Creating the flame
3 – Tending your fire
Later in this article you’ll learn in depth how to use the right technique to create your own primitive fire with just two sticks and your bare hands.
Once you have the basic materials and technique to make primitive fire, we will then go deeper into the teachings about making primitive fire. Personally I find creating primitive fire can take me on a deep inner journey of self-discovery when I approach it in the right way.
At the end of the article I will also give you an overview and summary of the process so that you have everything at your fingertips to create your own fire with two sticks and your bare hands.
How To Select The Right Spindle
Firstly, when you are collecting the materials for making primitive fire by friction, it is important to harvest these materials with both honor and respect. The materials you will be using have once come from part of a living plant. Therefore, part of the essence and spirit of that plant will be used to create primitive fire.
When collecting the materials I always use my inner voice to ask that part of the plant whether it would like to be part of creating fire. Then I listen with my inner hearing to what it has to say and always respect it’s whishes.
Physically, primitive fire works via the heat produced by friction between the spindle and the fire board. The spindle is the long stick that you rotate between your hands and the fire board is the piece of wood that the spindle rests upon.
The faster you rotate the spindle and the more downward pressure you exert upon the spindle, the more heat is produced at the interface with the fire board. When this heat becomes great enough, then a coal is formed.
What happens during this process is that you transfer the kinetic energy from your body through your arms and hands into the rotation of the spindle and into the heat energy which is produced by friction.
With the selection of the spindle, there are a number of factors you need to look at for best results:
1 – A straight piece of wood. If the spindle is warped then it will tend to jump around as you rotate the spindle with downward pressure. Although the spindle does not need to be dead straight, personally I find the straighter the spindle then the easier it is to rotate in a uniform manner, especially as my hands slide down the spindle when I start exerting more downward pressure.
2 – A long piece of wood. As you rotate the spindle with downward pressure, your hands will naturally slide down the spindle towards the fire-board. The longer the spindle then the less you’ll have to ‘stop and start’ to bring your hands back up towards the top of the spindle again. Each time you stop and start, the fire board loses an amount of heat. That is why a long spindle works better than a short spindle. However, if the spindle is too long then I find the top tends to ‘whip’ around at the top and it is difficult to maintain fast rotation of the spindle. Personally I find a spindle about as long as my arm works well to balance both keeping the heat in as well as avoiding the ‘whipping’ effect.
3 – Width of the spindle. Personally I find a spindle around the same width as my little finger works best. I have managed to create a coal with the hand-drill technique with a spindle wider than my thumb, as well as a spindle narrower than a pencil. With the larger diameter spindles I find it’s more difficult to build up enough heat in the fire board to create a coal. With the smaller diameter spindle I find that it tends to burn through the fire board a lot quicker and therefore have to cut notches more often than need be. Personally, I find a spindle about the width of my little finger works well to balance both getting enough heat into the fire board and doesn’t burn through the fire board too quickly. Likewise, I also find that when the spindle is about as long as my arm and about the width of my little finger then it also doesn’t whip around too much when exerting more downward pressure and rotation.
4 – Soft wood. Personally I find using a spindle that is relatively soft works well to create primitive fire with the hand-drill technique. By ‘soft’, I mean that I can embed my finger nail into the spindle when I press firmly with my thumb. I find that if I use a hard wood then it is difficult to build up enough heat into the fire board to create a coal. Likewise, I have found that if I try to make fire with a spindle that is too soft and ‘punky’, then the wood tends to crumble into the fireboard and not enough heat builds up to create a coal.
Some woods that work well for the hand-drill spindle include:
Soto Yarrow Hibiscus Flea Bane
Yucca Mule Fat Mullein Grass Tree
Once you have found a spindle that is straight, as long as your arm, the width of your little finger and is soft enough to embed your finger nail into then you’ll need to prepare it properly.
The first is with the tip of the spindle. Personally I find that if you round off the tip of the spindle into a blunt point works well – especially when you are burning in a new hole into your fire board. If the tip of the spindle is too sharp then you will burn through the tip relatively quickly and if the tip is too blunt then I find it takes a lot more effort to start the burning-in process. However I find the tip works better when it is more on the ‘blunt’ side compared to on the sharp side. As you start to burn the spindle in further then you’ll find that the tip will naturally form a blunt point.
After you have shaped the tip properly, there is not a lot more to do to prepare the spindle. Obviously if there are any small rough points or high points on the spindle then it pays to smooth them off. I find that if there are any points like this on the spindle then I tend to get blisters on my hands a lot quicker than normal.
The other point to make about the spindle is the surface. If you leave the outer bark on the spindle then depending on the wood, over time this can become slippery – which makes it more difficult to transfer your kinetic energy into the heat energy required to make a coal. For example, I find the outer bark on ‘flea bane’ and ‘stinking roger’ becomes quite slippery after a few times of making primitive fire.
To counteract this, I will take either a serrated knife or sharp stone to make longitudinal cuts along the length of the spindle. That way I’m able to get a better ‘grip’ on the spindle and therefore am better able to transfer my kinetic energy into the heat energy caused by friction to create a coal.
Using these principles in both selecting and preparing the spindle will make it a lot easier for you to create a coal with the hand-drill technique.
How To Select The Fire Board
The fire board is the piece of wood that you place the spindle into. When you rotate the spindle with downward pressure in the fire board, it not only generates heat but also starts to form little pieces of wood dust that later ignites when the heat reaches a high enough temperature.
It is important to select a fire board that works in conjunction with the spindle to give you the best chance of creating fire by friction. The main point to take into consideration when selecting your fire board is to select a ‘soft’ wood.
What I look for is a wood that is soft enough for me to be able to embed my finger nail into. Just like the spindle, if the fire board is made from a wood that is too hard, then I find it’s difficult for me to generate enough heat to create a coal. Likewise, if the fire board is too soft then I find I will tend to burn through the fire board too quickly and that it tends to disintegrate before enough heat is transferred into the fire board.
A number of woods from around the world which tend to work well for the fire board include:
Cotton Wood Elderberry Willow Basswood
Aspen Saguaro Cedar Grass Tree
Once you have selected the right wood for your fire board, the next step is to prepare it in the right way so that you can create fire with your bare hands.
The first is to cut the fire board into the right dimensions for optimal results:
1 – Length. This isn’t a big factor in creating primitive fire, however I find having the fire board a bit under a foot in length works well. That’s because when you are using the hand-drill technique you’ll need to stabilize the fire board with one of your feet so that it doesn’t jump around when rotating the spindle with downward pressure. If the fire board is loo short then it is more difficult to stabilize it with your foot. If you are on unstable ground and your fire board is longer than this then again it is difficult to stabilize the fire board.
2 – Width. Again, the width of the fire board doesn’t really matter too much in the creation of the coal. However, I find having the fire board around 1 ½ inches in width works well. That’s because over time as I cut more notches into the fire board I’ll work my way along the fire board. If I have the fire board around 1 ½ inches wide then I have enough width to also cut notches into the other side of the fire board and therefore don’t need to create a new fire board.
3 – Thickness. This is important when preparing your fire board. Personally I find having the fire board about as thick as my thumb works well when creating primitive fire with the hand-drill technique. If I have it any thinner than this then I’ll tend to ‘burn through’ the fire board relatively quicker than normal. If it is thicker than this, then it takes more time and effort to build up enough wood dust in the notch to create primitive fire. However, when the fire board is around as thick as your thumb then I find this gives a good balance between not burning through too quickly and not having to build up too much wood dust when igniting the coal.
4 – The ‘notch’ angle. This is critical when creating your fire board. In order to create the coal you will need to create wood dust so that the coal has ‘food’ to live on. Plus you also need to make sure the coal as enough oxygen to ‘breathe’. Putting a notch in the fire board both allows a space for the wood dust to collect as well as providing a space for the oxygen to enter the newly formed coal.
I have tried different angles for the notch from both very narrow through to very wide and have found a notch angle of about 60 degrees works best for both allowing the oxygen to access the coal, as well as a space for collecting the wood dust.
5 – The ‘notch’ position. The position of the notch is also important in creating primitive fire with the hand-drill technique. If you place the apex of the notch too close to the edge of the fire board then the spindle tends to ‘slip’ out of it’s place. However if the notch is too far away from the edge of the fire board then you’ll have to expend more energy to cut the notch into the fire board. Personally I find having the apex of the notch at the location of one spindle diameter away from the edge of the fire board works well.
In order to cut the notch into place, there is a special technique to do so.
If you cut out the notch first, then it is quite difficult to ‘burn’ the spindle in to that exact location. That’s because as you rotate the spindle it tends to jump around and I find it’s next to impossible to center the spindle exactly if I cut the notch first.
A better way is to mark out the location of the apex of the notch. This is one spindle diameter away from the edge of the fire board. Then I place the center of the spindle end at this location and mark out a circle around the outside of the spindle. Then I’ll dig around this mark down to a depth of around 1 mm, to leave a 1 mm depression in the fire board that is the exact same diameter as the spindle.
Then I’ll ‘burn in’ the spindle at this location before cutting out the notch so that I know the spindle will fit snuggly into the notch.
In order to ‘burn in’ the spindle, it’s just a matter of placing the spindle in the depression you’ve just created in the fire board and rotating the spindle with downward pressure. We’ll cover the right technique to do this later in the report, however in the ‘burning-in’ process I find that if I concentrate more on downward pressure than rotation that it is easier to burn the spindle in. I also find that if I make the depression ‘even’ so that there are no high points in the depression that again it is easier to burn in.
Another little ‘trick’ I’ve found when burning in the spindle is that if I crush up a little bit of charcoal and place it in the depression that again it is easier to burn in.
Once you have burnt the spindle in, then it’s just a matter of marking out the 60 degree notch and cutting it out. I’ve also found it’s important to make sure the apex of the notch doesn’t extend past the center of where the spindle sits. If it does, then it’s more likely for the spindle to burn through the notch at an angle and therefore ‘jump’ out of position.
How To Select The Tinder Bundle
Once you have created a coal with the hand-drill technique, the next step is breathe ‘life’ into the coal with your own breath to create a flame. There are a number of ways to do this, however one such way is through a tinder bundle.
A tinder bundle is a nest-shaped arrangement of dry fibrous material that catches fire easily. The larger the surface area of the tinder bundle, the easier it is for that material to catch on fire in the form of a flame. That is why fine material works well for a tinder bundle – it as a large surface area.
There are a lot of different materials that work well for the tinder bundle, however I usually try to create a two-layered tinder bundle.
For the inner layer I place super-fine material and on the outer layer I try to place larger and coarser material (… but still fine).
Some of the materials I use for the inner layer include:
thistle down cat-tail duff
fern-tree duff grass seed heads
stringy bark ‘processed’ bark*
* If I can’t find any fine inner tinder I can create some by processing some dry bark. For example, some of the eucalyptus drop long pieces of bark. By simply scraping my knife back and forth along these pieces of bark I can scrape off little shavings of fluffy material and I find this works really well for the inner part of the tinder bundle.
Some of the materials I use for the outer layer include:
palm husk fine grasses
For the outer layer, I also tend to try and break these up further by rubbing them back and forth between my hands. As I do this, tiny little splinter-like pieces usually break off the main pieces – thus adding more surface area to the tinder.
Once I have gathered and prepared the tinder material, I then shape the outer tinder into an elongated nest shape about 1 – 1 ½ inches thick. Then in the middle of the tinder bundle I’ll place the finer tinder material.
What I find happens with this tinder arrangement is that the inner fibers tend to catch into ‘coal’ very easily and therefore produce a lot of heat when you blow into it. However, it is then the outer layer of coarser materials that actually burst into flame from this inner concentrated heat.
Another little trick I sometimes use, especially if I’m faced with wet or damp conditions is to either crush up some charcoal or some pine pitch and place this throughout the tinder bundle. We’ll go more into the actual technique of blowing into the tinder bundle later in the report.
How To Make A Coal
The first part of this is getting into the the right ‘state’ to create the coal. Now, like a lot of things in life – if your ‘ego’ tries to create the coal, you will have a much, much harder time to create a coal. Ultimately ‘you’ – as in your identity – doesn’t create the coal. It’s more about getting yourself out of the way and allowing the coal to come through you.
So even before I start the technique to creating a coal, I will consciously let all of my thoughts and all tension within my body to drop to the ground. I consciously go into a state of ‘no-mind’ and ‘no-tension’ and just sit within that space for a few seconds.
Next I will cast my mind back and connect with all of the ancestors from the past who have passed this down through thousands of generations. Simply remembering and honoring all of the ancestors who have passed this ancient skill down through the many generations.
After I connect with the ancestors I will then call in the ‘spirit of the fire’ by closing my eyes and picturing an image of fire – and with my inner voice I then ask the spirit of the fire to guide me and to come through me.
When I am connected in this state I often find that my breathing becomes quite slow and rhythmical and that there’s not a lot going through my mind. When I’m in this space I often find that creating fire comes a lot easier.
So that’s about getting into the right ‘space’ to allow the spirit of the fire to come through you, and the next part is about the actual technique to create a coal.
Then it’s a matter of setting up the fire board the right way. I place a sturdy leaf underneath the notch of the fire board. This leaf catches the wood dust that falls out of the notch and also collects the coal which forms within the wood dust.
Then with the technique, personally I find it’s best to kneel on one knee with my leading foot placing a slight downward pressure on the fire board. That way the majority of my weight is placed over the fire board and therefore I don’t need to press down as hard with my arms because I allow my body weight to place most of the downward pressure.
I also find that the shorter my stance, the more downward pressure I can place on the spindle. It’s a little more awkward at the start, however if you bring your trailing knee closer to the fire board and shorten your stance you will be able to place more downward pressure through the spindle and onto the fire board.
Then it’s just a matter of starting to rotate the spindle between the palms of your hands. To do this, apply pressure onto the spindle by pushing your hands together and rubbing them back and forth. The harder you push your hands together, the more downward pressure you can apply without sliding down the spindle as much.
When first starting out, the idea is to firstly generate heat into the fire board. If you go out too hard at the start, then you will tire yourself out before building up enough heat to create a coal. So just go at a walking pace at the start, with the main intention to just get heat into the fire board.
There is a little ‘trick’ here that is called the ‘floating technique’ – where you can actually rotate and apply downward pressure onto the spindle without your hands sliding down the spindle. The way to do this is rather than just going back and forth with your hands, instead rotate your wrists so that your hands travel in an arc up and down as you go back and forth when rotating the spindle. The ‘arc’ allows you to place downward pressure whilst at the same time rotate the spindle and without your hands sliding down the spindle.
This is a good way to generate heat in the fire board without expending too much energy. In fact, I’ve even managed to create a coal with the floating technique with a mullein spindle on tobacco bush – however it did take quite a bit of finesse!
Once you have built up heat in the fire board by going at a walking pace, the next step is to slowly build up both the pace of rotation and extent of downward pressure. I call this a ‘jogging’ pace and at this point you will probably start to get some smoke and dust forming at the point where the spindle meets the fire board.
When you are going at jogging pace, your hands will naturally slide down the spindle towards the fire board. When you get toward the bottom, the idea is to keep the pressure between the fire board and spindle quite tight. To do this, I find it’s best to continue pushing down with one hand and bring one hand up to the top of the spindle. Then bring the other hand up to the top of the spindle and start drilling again. If you don’t keep the downward pressure on the spindle during this transition then you’ll probably find the spindle will pop out of the notch and you’ll lose a lot of the heat that you’ve built up in the fire board.
After around 20-30 seconds of ‘jogging’ pace, you will find there’s most likely a lot of smoke coming from the tip of the spindle and that a lot of dust is starting to push out of the notch. The dust should be dark brown/black in color.
It’s at this point that you should end with a final sprint. This is when you really increase both the speed of rotation as well as the downward pressure on the spindle. Lactic acid will probably start building up in your arms and you won’t be able to sustain this sprinting pace for very long.
I find this is the point where it’s more important than ever to be in both a state of no-mind and no-tension. It is almost like you are a hollow bone and are allowing the spirit of the fire to guide your actions. Simply allow the spirit of the fire to guide you during this critical final stage in creating a coal. You will know you’re in alignment when your actions appear to be flowing – almost like you have a sense of ease and grace coming through you.
You will know a coal has been formed when you can see a thin stream of smoke coming out of the wood dust – as opposed to coming out of where the spindle meets the fire board. This thin stream of smoke from the fire board indicated that the spark of creation has dropped into the wood dust and is growing within the wood dust in the form of a coal.
Each time this happens is a magical, magical experience and some people say it is the closest men will ever come to giving birth. It is always humbling to allow the spirit of the fire to come through you and create the life of an orange glow within the black wood dust.
A lot of beginners will now rush this stage, however the main point is to stay with your breath and simply allow the coal to grow within the wood dust – much like coals grow within a fire.
How To Make A Flame
Again, during this stage I will spend time reflecting on all the ancestors who have passed this technique down from generation to generation and also thank the spirit of the fire for coming through.
Then I will gather the tinder bundle and thank all the plants who have given part of themselves in the creation of the tinder bundle.
I then put a little hollow right in the center of the tinder bundle and slowly pick up the leaf which has the coal resting on top of it. Then I honor the fire spirit again and gently place the coal in the center of the tinder bundle and gently wrap the tinder bundle around the coal.
The word ‘inspire’ means to ‘breathe life into’. So during this stage you are breathing life into the coal in the the form of a flame. Just like all ideas created with a spark, it’s then a matter of putting energy into them to bring them into birth.
Likewise with the flame – you need to use your own breath to breathe life into the spark to birth it into a flame.
What I find however is that most beginners will hold the tinder bundle too far away from them during this stage. However, the closer you hold the tinder bundle to your lips the more oxygen goes into the coal and therefore the higher the chance of creating fire.
The other little ‘trick’ is to hold the tinder bundle slightly above your mouth – rather than blowing downwards on the tinder bundle. The reason this works is that hot air rises and when you slightly raise the tinder bundle you are effectively trapping this heat within the tinder bundle and thus increasing your chances of ignition.
What you’ll probably also find is that if you blow too hard on the coal – especially at the start – that you can actually break the coal up into little pieces and that pieces of it may fly out of the tinder bundle. The way around this is to actually wrap the edges of the tinder bundle around the coal and again start blowing at a ‘walking’ pace. The idea at the start is to just turn the inner fluffy material into a coal.
Once the inner layer has coaled up, then you can add more and more oxygen to the tinder bundle – finally ending with a final sprint.
If you still can’t get ignition into a flame at this stage, there is also the ‘figure-eight’ technique where you close up the tinder bundle and wave it above the ground in the shape of a figure eight. This allows for a lot of oxygen to get into the tinder bundle and sometimes when I have been unable to allow a flame to come through, this has been the only way to allow the flame to come through.
Much like the coal, the first time you create the flame is a magical experience – to take two sticks and use your bare hands to create fire!
Once you have the flame, the next part is to either allow the fire to naturally live it’s life and go out or to add fuel to the vulnerable flame and create a fire.
How To Tend Your Fire
Some traditions feel it’s not right to put a fire out because they feel that fire is a living entity and to put it out is like ‘killing’ the spirit of the fire which has come through.
Usually I will personally allow the fire to run it’s own course rather than intentionally putting it out – unless there are dangerous conditions that warrants extinguishing the fire.
On this note, it is most important to both observe and obey the current fire conditions put out by the authorities. For example, here in Australia we have ‘total fire ban’ days where it is not permitted to light a fire and on other days there are certain precautions which must be met such as minimum cleared area surrounding the fire. Please observe all safety concerns whilst lighting and tending a fire.
If you do choose to build your fire up, there are a number of methods to do so.
One of the most effective ways I build fires is to create a ‘tee-pee’ structure. This is where you start with small twigs and sticks in the middle on the tee-pee and then add larger and larger sticks to the tee-pee. Personally I find adding in a couple of layers of leaves between the sticks allows the fire to ‘take’ more easily.
The basic principle with fire is that ‘hot air rises’. Therefore if you can add pieces of wood on top of the fire, then you are in a good chance for building up your fire. You’ll also find that smaller pieces of wood – such as twigs and small pieces of kindling will ‘take’ quicker than larger pieces because they have a larger surface area per volume.
So when I’m building up a fire, I will place a number of piles of sticks starting from small twigs at the start up to bigger and bigger sticks and place these on in order of size.
What you’ll also find when you start experimenting with different woods is that some woods will burn more easily than others. For example, some of the lighter woods such as pine will burn a lot more intensely however some of the harder woods such as mallee root won’t burn as intensely but will burn for a much, much longer period of time.
It is very important to continually tend your fire because the effects of a fire going out of control can be disastrous.
Hand Drill Fire Summary
Thank you for reading this article about how to make primitive fire with two sticks and your bare hands via the hand-drill technique.
There is a lot to take in if this is your first time making primitive fire with the hand-drill. So I’d just like to finish with a basic summary of gathering and preparing the materials, as well as the basic technique:
Made from a soft wood, straight and about as long as your arm. Make sure to round the tip and consider removing the bark with a serrated knife or roughing it up with a sharp stone.
Made from a soft wood shaped to around thumb thickness. The ‘apex’ of the notch should be 1x spindle diameter from the edge. The center of the spindle is located at the apex of the notch. ‘Burn in’ the spindle before cutting out the 60 degree notch.
Made from fine, dry and ‘fibrous’ material. Make inner layer from soft, very fine material. Make outer layer from thicker fibrous material. Make into the shape of an ‘elongated’ nest.
Honor ancestors and connect with the ‘spirit-of-the-fire’. Allow yourself to be moved by the fire spirit rather than ‘ego’. Start at a ‘walking’ pace with the ‘floating’ technique with long strokes. Move up to ‘jogging’ pace by increasing speed of rotation and downward pressure. End with a final sprint… being guided by the spirit of the fire.
Honor the tinder bundle. Gently place the coal into the tinder bundle and wrap it around the coal. Breathe life into the flame by placing it close to your lips and gently blowing. Continually increase the intensity of your breath until it bursts into flame.
Tending Your Fire:
Keep it safe to the conditions. Either make a tee-pee structure or start with small pieces of kindling and build up to larger pieces.
Each time you create fire, reflect on the teachings it’s given you. Reflect on the question: ‘How does this relate to what’s going on in my life and what have I learnt?’
Like all skills, making primitive fire by friction with the hand-drill technique takes practice to not only become proficient at but to also master. Please let me know how you’ve gone with practicing this skill and some of the things you’re learning.
For the Earth,