What’s the best wood for a bow drill?
Should I use hardwood or softwood for a bow-drill? I've heard different things.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
The key to fire-by-friction methods like the bow drill and hand drill is to use soft, non-resinous wood. So a wood like pine, while being soft, is not going to work due to the sap, which causes convective cooling of the wood dust you’re trying to light.
You’re better off using a wood that has a low ignition point. Physics aside, the best options are dry yucca stalks, cottonwood, cedar, aspen, and basswood. Which you use depends on where you are. Back East, I used cedar and basswood for all of my primitive firemaking tools. In the Southwest, yucca is king, followed by cottonwood and, as a last resort, aspen. With an ignition point of just 200 degrees fahrenheit, yucca is the finest firemaking material in North America—it will spoil you.
A typical bow-drill set looks like this in Arizona: yucca stalk for both drill and fireboard; an arm-length, finger-thick, slightly-curved bow (I like to use a dead juniper branch); buckskin or dampened rawhide for the cord (or 550 paracord if being 100 percent primitive isn’t an issue); and a handhold made of something harder than the drill, such as oak, juniper, antler, or bone.
If you would like more information on the mechanics and techniques of making and using bow drills and hand drills, read up on it in the Bulletin of Primitive Technology.