How To Make a Fire Using a Drill, Hearth Board and Tinder

by Will on July 20, 2009

Fire Making – Overview and History

That's Hot!

That's Hot!

Developing the skill to make fire was a major leap in the ability of the human species to control it’s environment. Fire making allowed early humans to handle harsher winters and cook game meat in order to avoid illness and parasites. The big advances that came with the ability to control fire are viewed by many scholars as critical turning points in our species’ early advancement, migration, and evolution.

Early humans were surely exposed to naturally started fires, which occur most often due to lightning strikes. And primitive fire making techniques probably arose quickly after the dawn of man. The advent of fire making predates recorded history so the exact details of when and where the technique were developed are open to speculation. It was likely a small band of hunter gatherers who developed the technique. Then from there it was probably perpetuated through cultural transmission.

One of the first techniques for primitive fire making is assumed to be the hand drill. This method is assumed to be one of the first because it requires simple and readily available materials and very little advanced tool making skill. This is a technique which is still used today by many survivalists who prefer it’s simplicity and reliability over more advanced ways of starting a fire.

The hand drill fire making technique is known as a “friction fire”, because the source of combustion is from heat generated through the friction of rubbing two materials together. A ‘drill” is spun using the hands while being pressed into the “hearth-board,” until sufficient heat and sawdust have been created to start combustion. A drill must be spun hard, fast, and for a considerable time before enough heat can be generated. This fire making technique is simple in concept, but even experienced survivalists will admit that hand drill fires are not successfully made without considerable physical effort.

The right materials and proper technique, combined with strong determination, could make the difference if you are stuck in a survival situation. As you can imagine a fire is a vital asset to survival in the wilderness, so the ability to make one in adverse situations is an important piece of knowledge. Fire, in a survival situation, can provide heat, light, and protection from predators, plus the ability to cook otherwise inedible foods, sterilize water, and warn search crews of your presence and location.

How To Make a Hand Drill Fire

Picking a “Drill”

Finished fire drill

Finished fire drill

The quality of the drill is a critical variable in the success of a hand drill fire. A drill must be as strait as possible, and preferably around 2 to 2.5 feet in length. Often it is easier to find a longer stick and break off a section that would make an appropriate drill. An ideal width for a drill is ring or pinky finger width because this size drill is easily spun between the hands. Since the drill will be spun in the hands it must not have any sharp surfaces or branches sticking off of it. The drill is not a tool that requires much, or any, modification. The key to a good drill is finding the right stick.

Dry tinder for making a fire

Dry tinder for making a fire

With all fire making materials, how dry that they are will be an important factor in success. Clearly the drier the materials are, the better they are for making fire.

Picking a “Hearth-board”

The hearth-board is the piece of wood that the drill is spinning on top of. A good hearth-board will be a fair sized piece of wood with a consistent flat surface. Many users of this technique prefer a commercial piece of wood which as been cut to a rectangle. This is because the rectangular piece of wood has perfectly flat surfaces and is easily secured under the foot when attempting to make a fire. However, naturally found pieces of wood work fine as long as they provide a good flat surface and can be appropriately modified for a hearth-board.

Hearth board before drilling a hole

Hearth board before drilling a hole

When traveling through the wilderness it is advised that you keep an eye out for good fire making materials throughout your day. This will increase the likelihood that you find the perfect potential tool. In other words, waiting until you really need a fire before you start trying to make preparations is a good way to set yourself up for disaster.

The Basic Materials: A stick that’s good for a drill; A board that will be used to make the hearth-board; a bunch of very fine and dry material for once you have smoldering dust.

Making the Hearth-Board

Cutting a hole in the hearth board for the fire drill

Cutting a hole in the hearth board for the fire drill

To begin making the hearth-board you will need a knife. You want to start roughly 1/2 inch from the edge of the flattest surface of your selected material and use a knife to start making a small hole or dimple in the wood. This is the spot that the end of the drill will sit in when it spins. So try to match the size of this hole to the size of the drill end. The hole only needs to be roughly 1/4 inch deep to start.

Finished Hole in the Hearth Board

Finished Hole in the Hearth Board

Once the hole has been created you will need to cut a notch into the edge of the hearth-board to create a way for char dust to escape the hole as the drill spins. This can be done by making a “V” shaped cut between the edge of the hearth-board and the hole that you just created. Please consult the pictures provided to ensure that you understand this process.

Starting a Fire

Using the fire drill, hearth board and tender to make fire

Using the fire drill, hearth board and tender to make fire

To make the fire you want to hold the hearth-board under your left foot (if you are right handed) with the flat surface that you modified facing upwards. It is important to place a leaf or piece of bark under the hole in the hearth-board in order to catch the sawdust that will make the fire. Next you will place the end of the drill into the hole on the hearth-board surface. It is good to spin the drill slowly 10-20 times just to allow the shape of the drill end and the hearth-board to fit together.

How to place the fire drill in to the hearth board

How to place the fire drill in to the hearth board

Once the fit of the drill and hearth-board feels secure it is time to start spinning the drill quickly.  Do this by placing the shaft of the drill between your palms and moving your hands back and forth in opposing directions (like rolling dough between your palms). As you spin the drill with your hands you must also force it downwards into the hearth-board in order to increase friction between the two objects. It takes a little work to develop the skill to spin the drill quickly while also applying ample downward pressure. As you spin and press downward on the drill your hands will work their way down the shaft and must be repositioned as they get too low. Being able to quickly reposition your hands and continue spinning the drill will play a big role in how quickly you are able to start a fire, if at all.

If you are spinning the drill quickly enough then you will be generating saw dust which should be falling out of the hole, through the notch that you put in the side of the hearth-board. If you are spinning the drill fast enough you will begin to smell heated (or burning) wood, and eventually also see smoke rising from the drill and hearth-board. Once you see smoke rising don’t stop spinning the drill. You are close, but you have not completely started combustion. Keep an eye on the accumulating pile of saw dust as you continue to spin the drill as quickly as you can. Once this pile of sawdust begins to glow and smoke then you have reached combustion.

The smoldering pile of sawdust must be quickly added to some fine and dry fuel materials like dead grasses, cattails, or cotton balls in order to generate a flame. The bark or leaf placed below the hearth-board to catch the dust is convenient because if allows you to efficiently handle and move the smoldering sawdust. Gently blowing on the smoldering dust and dry fuel will help to make the materials catch flame.

Remember that starting a fire with a hand drill is not a physically easy task. It requires technique, speed, endurance, and the proper tools in order to work correctly. It would be a good thing for you to try doing this in your backyard or while out on a recreational camping trip. This would give you the opportunity to get the idea and to develop technique with the use of the drill before your life dependeds on those skills.

There are a few ways that the hand drill technique can be modified to make it easier. One popular method adds an extra tool to the hand drill setup to allow for easier spinning of the drill. This technique is referred to as bow and drill fire making. There are also easier ways to start a fire by using flint or some type of magnifying lens.

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