Using the best woods for the bow drill fire starter will create a hot coal faster. Imagine you’re shipwrecked like Tom Hanks in Castaway. Lost in central Texas or stranded on a Pacific island with no matches or lighter. You can't boil your drinking water or cook the mouse you trapped for your survival stew without fire.
What are you going to do? In your panic, you remember reading about rubbing sticks together to make fire. But what type of wood would you use for the parts and pieces of your bow drill kit. And what, you ask, are the best bow drill woods anyway?
"The Best Bow Drill Woods"
These first few woods listed are great bow drill woods.
But not the best woods for the Bow Drill.
Depending on where you're stranded and the wood available. There are two main factors that decide the best bow drill woods.
- Availability and species of wood
In a forest, you might expect to find dead and dry limbs from a tree such as Cedar.
Matter of fact I use Western and Eastern Red Cedar, trunk, and limb, to teach the bow drill at my camps in California, Oregon, and Texas. As Cedar is plentiful across the US.
Red Cedar is good Bow Drill wood
The Western Red Cedar, common in Oregon and Washington is an exceptionally good bow drill wood. All parts of the bow drill come from this tree. To indigenous peoples of the Pacific northwest it is known as the 'Tree of Life'.
Even the cordage for the bowstring is made from the Red Cedar tree. Cedar is great wood for the bow drill but not the absolute best.
Why are some bow drill woods better than others?
Hardwood is extremely difficult for use in friction fire making. The harder the wood the more difficult it is to create friction. Take Oak as an example.
The Janks hardness rating for Red Oak is 1290 to Red Cedar’s hardness rating of 320. That is a stark difference in hardness. So, we can say with confidence success starts with a good wood choice.
Are Softwoods the best choice for the bow drill?
Yes, softwoods are the best choice for bow drill wood. Focus any of these these woods. These woods are your best choice for the bow drill.
California has the coastal Redwood tree. (Sequoia sempervirens). Another great wood for the bow drill.
Coastal Redwood have good friction fire making properties like Cedar.
Along the coast from San Cruz California north to the Oregon border, the coastal Redwood will be an excellent choice for you.
Coastal Cypress is a fire tree you can find along the California and Oregon coast. Fire bow success with Cypress, takes more practice to be consistent with making a coal in my experience. Cypress, like other harder softwoods benefit with a little help from fungi. Which breakdowns the woods structure, softening, through rot.
Brown Rot Fungus
Conifer, are evergreen trees that naturally succumb to wood decay by parasitic fungi. The most common fungus, Brown rot fungus, over time causes wood decay. Decay can be beneficial in friction fire by softening the wood structure thereby making the wood, especially the spindle part of the bow drill kit, softer. Thus, provides more friction by the spindle with the fire board.
To much rot in the spindle will make it useless. But just the right amount of decay can be helpful in our quest for success with the Bow drill. Species of Cypress trees are abundant in the southern US. But Redwood and Cypress pale in comparison to the best bow drill woods.
The Best Bow Drill Woods Friction Fire Combinations
Blue Elderberry Spindle on Cedar Fireboard
To make an ember fast using a bow drill, use a Blue Elderberry, spindle on cedar or a cottonwood fire board.
It’s the best combinations of tree and shrub I have discovered.
The benefit of using a spindle from the elderberry shrub cuts down on the time it takes to carve a spindle.
As the blue elder spindle grow round. A Spindle 3/4" diameter or so and about 8-9 inches in length is good.
Try a Yucca spindle on a softwood hearth board for creating an ember with your bow drill. The Yucca flower stalk has one of the lowest ignition points for a spindle you can use. If you have access to the plants dry seed stalk, then prepare for success.
You can use a Yucca spindle on say, Cedar, Redwood, or Cottonwood. But you’re using other woods such as Cedar on Cedar. Which has a higher ember ignition point at around 800' degrees F compared to around 200' degrees for Yucca. Then be ready to work harder to crank out an ember.
Yes, a Yucca spindle is one of the best bow drills woods you can use
However, it is my expert opinion, in the west. Cottonwood is the best Bow drill wood for the ease of creating a coal with the bow drill method
In Oregon, the native Black Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera) is best and common.
In Texas, Populus deltoides and Populus Tremonti are native trees. These species of Cottonwood are also found in California and the Southwest.
All Cottonwood specie in the U.S. will work for this challenging fire-making technique. Consider yourself both lucky and blessed if you have access to this amazing tree.
Willow or Salix, you will find in every state of the union including Alaska. With the only exception being Hawaii and other tropical geographies. There willow does not grow as a native shrub.
A popular wood and easy to find along creeks, rivers, and wetlands. Willow has a low ignition point for friction fire making. And when conditions are good one of the best bow drill woods.
American Basswood grows in the northeastern US. It also grows from southeast Manitoba east to New Brunswick, southwest to northeast Oklahoma, southeast to South Carolina, and west along the Niobrara River to Cherry County, Nebraska. According to Wikipidea. A species of linden. Basswood is often referred to as Lime.
So, for you folks out east who are looking for an excellent bow drill wood. Bass wood is an excellent choice.
During a winter spent in Wisconsin I was able to harvest Basswood. And was successful with making a bow drill fire with it. It has equivalent properties that you find with Cottonwood. A smart choice for your bow drill kit.
The best bow drill wood
The best wood for the bow drill if we consider Hawaii. Include Oceania as a survival option. This useful wood is the flowering tree Hau. Or to us mainlander's, Hibiscus; Hibiscus tiliaceus.
This excellent wood when dry is so light and soft it reminds me of Balsa wood. Hau has all the characteristics needed for the best friction firewood. Hau is a soft non-resinous wood that grows along the coastlines of many Pacific Islands.
I discovered the uses of Hau for myself when consulting with Discovery's Channel, Man vs Wild. During the Desert Island episode.
A bow drill spindle - wood discovery
At camp, we teach over twenty different shrubs and trees of North America that will work for the Bow Drill. But when a discovery of a new wood for the bow drill the excitement is great!
A few years ago, at our Survival Camp for Teenagers, the apprentice staff and students discovered a wood that was not on our list of bow drill woods.
Over time bow drill spindles wear out from use
As the Cedar spindle they used to make fire wore out a new spindle must be carved. This was the teens dilemma. The teenagers needed to carve a new spindle. But there was no Cedar or other woods on the best woods list to be found. The teens thought about the properties that make a good bow drill spindle.
They went on to find a piece of dead and dry Shasta Red Fir ( Abies magnifica.) that fit the spindle requirements. Because that was all the wood type available at their location, they decided to give Red Fir spindle a whirl.
Sweat and persistence ingenuity and perseverance
With much sweat and persistence, the teens succeeded in creating a hot coal. Which they then transferred into a tinder bundle made from a plant called Horse Lichen. Bryoria fremontii, for you tinder buffs.
Bryoria grows in the same general elevation as the Shasta Red fir in northern California. The teen's ingenuity and perseverance made them successful in their quest for fire
Bark of Pine used for a Bow Drill Fireboard
This season our staff member Carter Hayes was able to produce a coal using a thick piece of outer bark from Jeffrey Pine, (Pinus jeffreyi).
This is no small feat. Having tried myself using a variety of different barks, I had no success. Watch Carter demonstrate his Bow drill technique. Not once, but twice.
Pine is a softwood. Why is pine not on your list of bow drill woods?
This is a great question. Pine has a softwood rating after all. Then why is Pine not recommended for the bow drill?
The problem with using pine wood for friction fire is pine contains pitch. Pitch acts like a lubricant to friction. Much like adding oil to a squeaky door hinge, pitch acts the same way. It lubricates.
If you don't know, pitch it's that sticky stuff that gets all over your hands when you're handling wood such as pine.
Can you use Pine Wood for the Bow Drill?
Yes! A spindle made from Pine or even the hearth board can be used for the Bow Drill. As I said in the above paragraph, because of pitch, you can have friction issues due to pitch acting as a lubricant.
The key with using Pine wood, in my experience, is harvesting wood from older trees where the bark has peeled off. Stay away from the limbs but use the interior wood of the trunk to carve out your kit.
Bow Drill Fatwood Video
Since we're on the topic of pitch. Here we have taken it to the extreme using a bow drill fireboard impregnated with pine resin. This is known as Fatwood. As you know friction is reduced by pitch.
What Carter is attempting to do is even more difficult than getting a hot coal using pine bark as a hearth board.
So, hunt for the softwoods other than pine for now. When you have mastered the best woods for the bow drill. Then try your hand with pine. You might be surprised how successful you can be.
Douglas Fir Bark Bow Drill Coal. Can it be Done?
Douglas Fir Bark for a Bow Drill Coal? Yes, Carter is at again. During July's teen camp we found a likely looking candidate. A solid piece of Douglass Fir Bark, (Pseudotsuga menziesii). Watch our YouTube video as Carter spins an amazingly short cedar spindle, (I don't know how he can use such a short spindle), on a Douglas Fir fire board. Success? You be the judge. Carter making a smoking coal with a Douglas Fir hearth board.
No doubt about it, the woods I have listed in this post are some if not the best woods for the Bow Drill. Are there others wood's as good or even better? Perhaps. Though the best bow drill wood might the one wood you have growing in your backyard or neighborhood. Have a question? Drop it in the comments section below.