Struggling With Friction Firelighting – Bow Drill Troubleshooting Guide

Paul Pinkerton

When it comes to Bushcraft and Survival friction fire lighting can be seen high up there on the skills to learn list, At Outdoor Revival we think that everyone should have a go at this.

It’s a great feeling when you create that ember and then convert it to flame and spend the rest of the evening knowing that the fire was created by you with your own two hands, it’s an amazing feeling as well as a very useful skill to have.

Sometimes, especially when you’re starting out you get a bit stuck, something’s not quite right with your setup or your technique and it gets frustrating and disheartening, we’ve all been there.

But don’t fear, here’s some tips on how to get your Bow drill friction firelighting back on track…

Bow-Drill Troubleshooting Guide


Suggestions for right handed users using nylon rope.

Begin with this sequence and modify for individual wood combinations

Start nice and easy with moderate pressure and speed to “warm-up” kit.

Then increase downward pressure. Should see billowing smoke.

Build up dust.

Then lighten pressure and increase speed until you cannot physically continue or can sense or see the slight change in smoke shape indicating a coal has formed. Give it all you got!



The spindle flies off fireboard:

Practice perfect form and take time to carve perfect kits.

Keep bow level with ground.

Do not use an arcing motion, watch your backstroke.

Keep spindle perfectly straight. Envision a line from your collar bone to your knee, to the center of the handhold, to the center of the spindle, and down to the fireboard.

Keep the arch of your left foot centered on the fireboard, adjust only when you are familiar with your tendencies of poor form.

Grease handhold to reduce friction.

Keep handhold flat, do not tip up or down.

Take smooth, slow strokes at first and slow your inner self down too.

Avoid short, fast strokes.

You need more concentration on form.

Stop cursing.

String moves up on spindle:

Keep bow level, no arcing motion.

Spindle wobbles:

Find a stiff bow, one that does not bend and is not deeply curved.

Carve a deeper hole in the handhold or use a softer wood.

Keep curve of left wrist perpendicular against your shin bone in a tight lock.

Use a larger handhold that fits your hand and has a good grip.

Feel awkward/no balance:

Swing right foot left or right to correct form and act as tripod.

Take shoe off for proper placement on fireboard.


Kit squeaks:

Grease handhold.

Grind with clean sand or carefully scrape off black glaze in bowl or on spindle.

Use extreme downward pressure to burn through glaze.


A nipple forms at end of spindle:

Your notch is cut too far into the bowl.

Your spindle is not held straight and is moving the bowl towards the edge of fireboard.

Spindle skips turns/does not rotate/cannot use much downward pressure:

Tighten string so it’s an effort to twist spindle around rope.

Find rope that does not stretch.

No Smoke or Dust:

Use entire length of bow in long, smooth strokes to increase surface area.

Increase downward pressure from your handhold, use not only your left arm but whole chest to help.

“Circle” around spindle is inside of rope.

Find a softer wood. Use your fingernail to test for softness, it should easily puncture.

A hard glaze has formed. See squeak section.

No Coal/Lots of smoke:

Inspect dust for color and form.

Light Brown: not enough downward pressure.

Black long shards: too much downward pressure.

Ask the wood what it needs. Don’t believe all cedar for example responds the same.

Coal forms and then goes out:

Do not blow on it.

Let it grow and “harden” before you try to move it.

Carve a wider notch to allow more air.

Carve a curved V-notch instead of a pointed one.

Cultivate patience and gratitude.

Smoking handhold:

Use more pitch in handhold.

Use a harder wood than spindle or fireboard.

Too tired to get coal:

Don’t squeeze your hand on the bow. All you need is a gentle grip.


Rest a few seconds before speeding up, keep spindle resting in bowl to retain heat.

Find a partner to help.

I have seen skinny 11 year olds start a fire. I have also seen stiff adults who can barely bend over start a fire by raising the kit off the ground. Much of our ability comes from our hearts not our physicality.

Bow Drill components – Hearth, Spindle, Bow,Bearing block

Natural Cordage keeps breaking:

Keep cordage from touching itself.

Angle your bow across your body.

Use an arcing motion.

Work through as many problems as you can with synthetic fiber. Blindfold yourself. When you finally do not have to be present in every aspect of fire-making, then try using natural cordage. Concentrate solely on your cordage not touching itself.



Nikki van Schyndel

Adventurer – Wilderness Guide – Expert Tracker & Primitive Survivalist
Tired of waiting for her plane to crash or a worldwide technical disaster to create a real-life survival emergency, Nikki paid someone to abandon her on a deserted island in the wilderness for nearly two years, testing her skills and learning the truths of survival. From dream home to lean-to, diamonds to bear claws, Nikki shares this incredible journey in her bestselling book Becoming Wild.


jack-beckett is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival