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A Friction Fire Inquiry: Bow Drill
By Storm

      The Past: During the winter of 1999 I was fortunate enough to teach at an outdoor school in southern California with Jeff Stauffer, now the Ethnobotanist of that school and an adjunct primitive skills instructor for Raven's Way Traditional School in Arizona. It was then that I first became aware that fire lay dormant within sticks, ready to expose itself with a little coaxing from humans. Jeff would reverently bring out his bow drill set, knead together a tinder nest, and with about fifteen seconds of bow-draw, an ember would magically appear. A spark was planted inside me at that very moment.

Friction fire ember in Clematis.       I moved to California at the top of 2000 and mostly lost that valuable, one-to-one mentoring that has served to bring into each successive generation the exact duplication of skills necessary to promote us into the future. So I began to rely on the wisdom of elders in print: books, journals, newsletters, correspondence and Internet. I was inspired by the local work of Dick Baugh, who offered encouragement and guidance. I was amazed at the variety of theories and techniques that surrounded friction fire. My amazement turned to confusion, however, when some applications consistently worked for me while others did not. Questions revolving around the nature of friction fire began to burn within me, questions that only I can answer for myself. Thus began an experiment. Here are the queries I wished to address:

      1. Which local woods worked best?
2. Do woods used on themselves (e.g. buckeye on buckeye) generally perform better than woods used on other species (buckeye redwood)?

      For the past eighteen months I gathered bow drill spindles and hearth boards from every single species of tree, shrub, liana and forb within a half-day walk of my home within the redwood forests of Loma Mar, California. As I collected such diverse materials as madrone, pear, and blackberry, I labeled and then dried the pieces for at least a week (in the house) before using them. I ended up with three or four spindles and a few hearth boards from each of the forty-four native and non-native species I was able to identify.

      After cutting a piece of hairy honeysuckle for the bow, purchasing 500 feet of parachute cord, and finding a stone handhold in the tidepools, I began to attempt ember-making with all 1,936 possible combinations of the woods. Incredibly, the bow and handhold (which never heated up!) survived the entire experiment, while I ended up using around 400 feet of the cordage. Knowing from the onset that one of my goals was to add to the current amount of available information, I determined that the best way to relate what I felt was going on was to quantify the amount of effort I was putting into each attempt at an ember with a particular combination of woods. Effort ratings ranged from 1 (easiest) to 4 (very difficult), with a 5 representing the failure to get an ember. A summary is represented in Table One.

      The Present: Over the course of thousands of ember-making attempts, I developed an affinity for certain wood species. Elderberry, buckeye, clematis, redwood and box elder seem the more reliable bow drill woods in this area. Table Two ranks the woods in order of overall performance (easiest to most difficult).

      While amassing the data I became concerned with the subjective nature of this endeavor. Interpreting effort expenditure can be highly variable, depending on such volatile factors as daily health, time of day, mindframe, energy level, and so on. One statistical procedure that can help gauge the coherency of the data is based on the overall average of the effort ratings. Since this is a comparative study, I had to quantify an average effort and assign it a number (in this case, 3). One could also argue that as I became increasingly proficient with the bow drill, my estimations would become skewed. So I looked at how close the average effort rating was (over all 1,936 data points the average was 3.22) to my initial average effort estimation (3.00). If these two numbers were significantly different, then I would conclude that the experiment was lacking in consistency, but I think that they are sufficiently similar.

      It is interesting that while the overall average effort of all wood combinations is 3.22, using woods on themselves is just slightly lower, 3.18, the difference seeming insignificant.

      The Future: One purpose of this article is to broadcast this data in hopes that others will experiment with woods in their areas and share their findings.

      I've nearly finished a separate hand drill experiment that involves seventy-two California species of spindles and just four species of hearth boards (no sense going overboard again). I have further concentrated on the role of wood density, incorporated the value of nascent growth for spindles, and am exploring the best woods for producing non-notched spindle coals. I am also investigating the use of polypore mushrooms and rocks as potential hearth boards.

      I would appreciate hearing from anyone regarding any of these endeavors!

      About the Author: Storm (1969 - 2008) grew up in northern Maine, where he attained a B.S. in Ecology. Working westward as a logger, ecological field technician, farm laborer, National Marine Fisheries Service Observer, bar-room bouncer, and most naturalist/aboriginal skills teacher, Storm headed out into the woods in February 2008 and didn't come back. His website remains online at: www.StoneAgeSkills.com.


Table 1. Effort Rankings For Bow Drill Ember Attempts. Non-Natives Are Underlined.
Effort ratings range from 1 (easiest) to 4 (very difficult), with a 5 representing the failure to get an ember.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HEARTHS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BOWDRILL - Effort Ratings

 

aca

map

box

buc

ald

mad

sag

coy

lil

cle

hor

dog

haz

cyp

s.b.

euc

bur

ivy

toy

o.s.

tan

hon

lup

app

wax

pin

plu

che

fir

pea

oak

cof

rho

goo

ros

bla

thi

wil

eld

rw

ced

bay

huc

gra

 

Acacia sp.

Acacia

3

2

3

1

4

5

3

2

5

2

2

4

3

1

3

4

5

3

5

5

2

2

1

3

3

2

4

3

2

3

3

4

2

2

3

4

2

5

1

3

4

4

3

3

 

Acer macrophyllum

Big-leaf Maple

3

2

3

2

3

3

1

3

4

2

4

3

4

2

3

2

3

4

5

2

4

2

3

3

3

2

2

3

1

2

3

2

3

3

2

2

4

5

1

2

2

2

4

3

 

Acer negundo

Box Elder

4

2

3

3

4

5

2

3

5

2

3

3

4

4

4

3

3

2

5

5

5

1

4

1

3

4

3

2

2

1

3

4

4

2

1

3

2

4

1

2

2

2

4

2

 

Aesculus californica

CA Buckeye

2

1

2

1

3

3

2

4

2

1

1

3

3

3

3

1

2

1

3

2

4

1

3

1

3

3

2

3

2

2

3

3

2

1

1

2

2

2

1

2

1

2

4

1

 

Alnus rhombifolia

White Alder

3

3

3

4

4

5

2

4

5

2

5

3

2

3

4

4

3

4

5

5

5

2

4

3

4

4

4

2

2

4

3

4

5

4

2

4

3

3

2

1

3

3

4

3

 

Arbutus menziesii

Madrone

4

5

5

4

4

5

5

3

3

3

3

4

4

3

5

5

5

4

5

4

5

5

5

5

5

5

5

2

4

3

5

3

2

4

5

4

4

4

3

4

5

4

3

4

 

Artemisia californica

CA Sagebrush

3

4

2

3

3

5

3

4

3

2

3

4

5

3

4

2

2

4

5

5

4

4

5

4

5

3

2

4

3

2

5

4

5

3

2

5

3

4

2

3

2

2

4

1

 

Baccharis pilularis

Coyote Brush

4

2

5

3

5

4

3

3

3

4

2

3

3

2

2

3

4

3

5

5

5

4

3

3

4

3

4

3

1

3

5

5

3

3

3

4

4

3

3

3

2

3

4

3

 

Ceanothus thyrsiflorus

CA Wild Lilac

2

3

2

3

4

5

3

4

4

3

5

3

5

4

2

2

3

3

5

5

5

4

4

4

5

3

2

4

2

3

4

5

3

2

3

4

4

4

2

3

4

4

5

4

 

Clematis ligusticifolia

Clematis

3

2

2

2

3

3

3

3

3

1

3

3

4

3

3

1

4

4

3

5

4

3

2

2

4

3

1

2

2

2

2

4

4

2

1

2

3

2

1

2

3

3

4

4

 

Conyza canadensis

Horseweed

4

4

1

2

3

3

2

1

4

3

1

3

4

3

3

2

3

3

3

3

1

1

3

4

4

3

1

3

3

1

5

5

4

3

3

5

4

3

3

2

1

3

4

2

 

Cornus sericea

Amer. Dogwood

2

1

4

2

3

3

2

5

4

3

2

4

4

2

4

3

3

3

3

3

4

4

5

3

3

3

2

2

2

4

4

4

4

4

3

5

4

3

2

3

3

4

5

4

 

Corylus cornuta var. californica

CA Hazelnut

3

2

2

3

5

5

4

5

4

2

3

4

3

4

3

3

4

1

5

4

5

3

3

4

4

3

5

5

3

3

4

4

5

3

3

5

3

4

2

3

2

4

5

4

 

Cupressus abramsiana

SC Cypress

2

4

4

4

4

3

3

5

3

2

2

4

5

2

3

4

3

3

4

4

5

3

4

2

5

5

2

2

4

4

3

4

3

3

3

3

3

3

3

3

4

3

4

4

 

Cytisus scoparius

Scotch Broom

1

3

5

1

5

5

3

4

4

3

4

3

4

2

3

2

3

2

5

4

2

3

3

2

5

5

5

4

3

3

4

3

4

3

2

4

4

3

1

1

2

2

4

4

S

Eucalyptus globulus

Eucalyptus

4

3

2

2

2

5

1

5

3

3

1

3

3

2

4

4

4

3

4

4

4

5

2

2

4

3

4

3

4

4

5

4

1

3

2

5

3

2

1

2

2

3

4

5

P

Euonymus occidentalis

Burning Bush

5

3

2

2

4

5

4

5

4

2

4

4

5

3

4

4

3

5

4

4

5

3

2

4

5

2

2

5

2

4

5

4

4

2

2

5

4

4

4

4

3

3

5

3

I

Hedera helix

English Ivy

4

2

4

1

3

4

2

3

4

3

4

4

3

1

4

2

4

4

5

4

3

3

3

5

4

1

2

4

3

4

4

5

5

3

3

5

3

2

1

2

3

2

4

4

N

Heteromeles arbutifolia

Toyon

3

5

3

2

4

4

5

5

5

3

5

5

3

5

4

4

3

4

5

2

4

3

4

4

5

5

3

2

2

4

4

5

3

5

5

5

3

4

3

3

3

4

5

3

D

Holodiscus discolor

Ocean Spray

2

4

4

3

4

5

3

5

3

2

3

5

4

4

3

4

4

3

2

3

5

3

4

4

4

4

5

4

1

2

4

4

3

3

5

3

5

4

1

3

2

2

3

2

L

Lithocarpus densiflorus

Tan Oak

1

3

5

2

5

4

4

3

3

4

5

4

5

4

4

2

4

4

4

3

5

5

4

3

5

5

2

4

3

4

4

4

2

3

5

4

4

5

2

2

3

3

4

3

E

Lonicera hispidula var. vacillans

Hairy Honeysuckle

2

2

4

1

3

3

3

3

3

4

3

2

2

3

4

4

3

4

2

3

5

1

2

3

3

2

1

3

1

2

4

5

5

3

4

2

2

3

1

1

2

4

3

3

S

Lupinus arboreus

Tree Lupine

4

3

3

2

4

5

5

3

4

3

5

2

4

4

3

2

4

4

4

4

4

4

5

3

2

4

4

2

3

2

5

4

2

2

4

5

3

2

3

3

4

4

5

2

 

Malus sp.

Apple

2

3

2

1

3

5

3

3

3

1

3

4

4

2

5

2

4

2

5

5

3

1

2

4

4

2

3

3

2

3

3

3

3

5

2

4

4

2

3

2

3

4

5

3

 

Myrica californica

Pac. Wax Myrtle

3

3

4

2

3

4

4

3

4

2

2

4

5

5

4

2

2

2

4

5

4

4

4

4

4

3

2

3

3

1

3

4

2

4

4

5

3

4

3

3

4

4

5

5

 

Pinus radiata

Monterey Pine

4

2

3

2

4

4

3

5

3

2

2

4

3

3

3

3

2

2

4

3

4

1

2

2

3

3

3

3

2

2

2

3

4

3

2

3

3

3

1

1

2

1

3

2

 

Prunus cerasifera

Cherry Plum

3

3

1

3

4

4

4

4

3

4

5

3

5

3

4

3

4

4

2

5

4

3

3

3

5

3

5

3

3

2

4

4

4

5

3

3

3

5

3

2

3

5

5

3

 

Prunus sp.

Wild Cherry

4

1

2

2

5

4

3

4

4

3

3

1

5

2

3

2

2

5

3

4

3

2

5

4

4

3

4

3

2

4

5

3

5

4

5

3

3

5

2

1

5

4

3

1

 

Pseudotsuga menziesii

Douglas Fir

2

2

3

2

2

5

3

3

4

2

1

4

4

3

2

3

2

3

4

4

3

2

3

1

2

3

2

1

2

4

2

3

3

4

1

3

3

2

1

2

2

3

3

3

 

Pyrus sp.

Pear

5

4

2

2

2

4

5

5

4

1

4

3

3

4

5

2

3

4

4

5

2

2

2

5

5

2

2

4

1

4

4

4

3

5

1

3

3

3

2

1

2

1

5

2

 

Quercus wislizeni

Interior Live Oak

5

4

5

4

5

5

4

5

5

4

4

4

4

5

4

4

5

4

3

5

3

5

4

3

4

3

3

2

2

5

5

5

2

2

3

4

5

5

3

2

4

3

5

5

 

Rhamnus californica

Coffeeberry

4

2

5

2

5

4

4

4

2

3

1

5

4

2

1

3

4

2

5

5

4

4

4

5

5

4

2

1

3

3

5

5

2

3

4

4

4

3

2

2

3

3

3

1

 

Rhododendron macrophyllum

Rhododendron

4

3

3

3

5

5

4

3

5

2

4

3

4

3

4

2

3

2

2

3

5

3

4

2

3

4

5

2

3

2

5

3

4

4

4

4

4

5

4

1

1

5

4

2

 

Ribes menziesii

Gooseberry

3

4

5

4

2

5

2

4

5

2

3

2

4

3

1

4

2

3

4

4

2

4

5

3

5

3

1

3

2

1

3

4

4

3

3

3

2

5

1

3

3

3

3

2

 

Rosa gymnocarpa

Wood Rose

4

2

2

1

2

5

3

3

3

1

4

3

3

4

2

4

3

5

4

5

4

4

3

3

4

2

2

4

1

3

5

3

3

2

2

4

4

4

1

1

3

3

4

3

 

Rubus discolor

Hm. Blackberry

4

4

5

5

4

5

2

5

5

2

3

5

5

4

5

5

4

3

4

5

4

1

4

5

5

4

5

4

2

5

4

5

3

5

4

4

5

3

2

3

5

4

5

5

 

Rubus parviflorus

Thimbleberry

2

3

1

1

2

3

4

4

3

2

4

3

4

5

3

4

3

4

4

4

3

4

4

3

3

2

4

4

2

2

4

5

3

5

3

3

2

3

1

2

3

3

5

3

 

Salix sp.

Willow sp.

2

1

3

2

3

3

3

4

3

4

1

4

5

5

4

3

3

2

2

4

3

2

2

4

5

4

2

2

1

3

3

3

3

4

4

5

3

2

1

1

3

4

5

5

 

Sambucus mexicana

Blue Elderberry

3

2

2

1

2

2

2

2

3

1

2

1

1

1

1

4

2

2

3

4

1

1

3

5

3

2

2

3

2

4

2

3

2

1

1

2

2

2

2

1

1

4

2

1

 

Sequoia sempervirens

Coast Redwood

1

3

4

1

4

4

3

1

3

2

2

2

4

3

2

4

2

1

3

3

1

1

4

3

3

3

1

2

4

2

3

3

5

2

3

3

3

1

2

2

2

3

2

4

 

Thuja plicata

W. Red Cedar

4

2

3

2

2

4

3

2

3

3

3

2

1

3

3

2

3

2

4

4

3

2

5

3

3

2

3

2

3

2

4

4

3

4

3

5

3

3

2

1

3

4

4

2

 

Umbellularia californica

CA Bay Laurel

3

3

3

1

4

4

4

4

3

1

4

2

2

3

2

4

4

4

4

5

5

2

3

2

4

5

3

3

3

4

5

4

3

4

4

5

3

5

3

2

1

3

4

3

 

Vaccinium ovatum

Huckleberry

1

1

2

3

5

5

4

4

5

2

3

4

4

2

5

3

5

3

5

5

3

3

3

1

4

4

2

3

4

2

2

5

2

4

3

5

5

4

3

2

3

3

4

3

 

Vitus californica

Wild Grape

2

4

5

1

3

5

3

5

4

2

1

2

3

3

4

2

4

1

4

3

2

5

5

2

2

3

3

2

2

4

4

5

3

2

3

3

3

3

1

2

4

3

2

2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table Two
Preferred Bow Drill Materials
of the Central Coast Section
of the California Floristic Province
Great

 

Achillea millefolium

Yarrow

Conyza canadensis

Horseweed

Acer negundo

Box Elder

Aesculus californica

CA Buckeye

Baccharis salicifolia

Mule Fat

Sambucus mexicana

Blue Elderberry

Sequoia sempervirens

Coast Redwood

Typha latifolia

Cattail

Acer macrophyllum

Big-leaf Maple

Artemisia douglasiana

Mugwort

Cirsium vulgare

Bull Thistle

Cytisus scoparius

Scotch Broom

Pseudotsuga menziesii

Douglas Fir

Scrophularia californica

CA Figwort

Sonchus oleraceus

Sow Thistle

 

 

Good

 

Erigeron sp.

Fleabane Daisy

Umbellularia californica

CA Bay Laurel

Verbascum thapsus

Common Mullein

Helianthus sp.

Garden Sunflower

Lonicera hispidula

Hairy Honeysuckle

Salix sp.

Willow

Solidago spathulata

Coast Goldenrod

Cornus sericera

American Dogwood

Rubus parviflorus

Thimbleberry

Silybum marianum

Milk Thistle

Urtica californica

Stinging Nettle

Vitus californica

Wild Grape

Alnus rhombifolia

White Alder

Artemisia californica

CA Sagebrush

 

 

Difficult

 

Ceanothus thyrsiflorus

CA Lilac

Chlorogalum pomeridianum

Soaproot

Dipsacus fullonum

Fuller's Teasel

Eriophyllum staechadifolium

Seaside Woolly Sunflower

Euonymus occidentalis

W. Burning Bush

Holodiscus discolor

Ocean Spray

Myrica californica

Pac. Wax Myrtle

Rubus discolor

Himalayan Blackberry

Thuja plicata

Western Red Cedar

Prunus cerasifera

Cherry Plum

Rosa gymnocarpa

Wood Rose

Escallonia macrantha

Escallonia

Mimulus aurantiacus

Sticky Monkeyflower

Rhododendron occidentale

Western Azalea

Tamarix parviflora

Smallflower Tamarisk

Baccharis douglasii

Marsh Baccharis

Larix sp.

Tamarack

Lithocarpus densiflorus

Tan Oak

Madia elegans

Tarweed

Pteridium aquilinum

Bracken Fern

Symphoricarpos albus

Snowberry

Acacia sp.

Acacia

Calocedrus ducurrens

Incense Cedar

Corylus cornuta

Hazelnut

Cydonia oblonga

Quince

Grindelia stricta

Marsh Gum Plant

Phyllostachys sp.

Bamboo

Rhododendron macrophyllum

Pacific Rhododendron

Salix lutea

Yellow Willow

 

 

Extremely Difficult

 

Arbutus menziesii

Madrone

Baccharis pilularis

Coyote Brush

Conium maculatum

Poison Hemlock

Cupressus macrocarpa

Monterey Cypress

Eucalyptus globulus

Blue Gum Eucalyptus

Hedera helix

English Ivy

Heteromeles arbutifolia

Toyon

Juniperus communis

Common Juniper

Lupinus arborus

Tree Lupine

Malus sp.

Apple

Pyrus sp.

Pear

Rhamnus californica

Coffeeberry

Ribes menziesii

Canyon Gooseberry

Rumex crispus

Curly Dock

Ulmus minor

Smooth-leaved Elm

Vaccinium ovatum

Evergreen Huckleberry

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Foraging the
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