A bow drill made from the best wood will create 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 a lighter. You can't boil your drinking water or cook the mouse you trapped for your survival stew without fire. What are you preparing 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 kinds of wood listed are great bow drill woods, but not necessarily the best in every situation.
Depending on where you are stranded, and the wood available, there are two main factors that determine the most effective bow drill wood.
- 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 Southern Red Cedar, trunk, and limb, to teach fire-making using a bow drill at my camps in California, Oregon, and Texas. Cedar is plentiful across the US.
Red Cedar is a good bow drill wood.
Western Red Cedar, common in Oregon and Washington, is an exceptionally suitable bow drill wood. All parts of the bow drill come from this tree. To first peoples of the Pacific Northwest it is known as the 'Tree of Life'.
Even the cordage for the bowstring is made from Red Cedar. All cedar species can be used for a bow drill, but cedar wood is not the absolute best.
Why are some bow drill woods better than others?
Hardwood is extremely difficult to 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 right choice for bow drill wood. Look at any of these woods. These woods are your ideal choice for a bow drill.
Coastal Cypress is a fire tree you can find along the California and Oregon coasts. Fire bow success with Cypress takes more practice to be consistent with making a coal in my experience. Cypress, like other harder-softwoods, benefits from a bit of help from fungi. Fungi weakens the structure of the wood, causing it to soften through the process of rot.
Brown Rot Fungus
Conifers are evergreen trees that naturally succumb to wood decay caused by parasitic fungi. Wood decay is caused by the most common fungus, Brown Rot fungus. Decay can be beneficial in friction fires by softening the wood structure thereby making the wood, especially the spindle part of the bow drill kit, softer. In this way, the spindle can create more friction with the fireboard.
The spindle will become weak and useless if it has too much rot. But just the right amount of decay can be helpful in our quest for success with the bow drill. The species of Cypress trees are abundant in the southern US. But Redwood and Cypress pale in comparison to the most effective 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 a cedar or cottonwood fireboard. It’s the best combination of tree and shrub I have discovered.
The benefit of using a branch from an elderberry shrub to make your spindle is it cuts down on the time it takes to carve like a wood spindle. A straight branch three-fourths in diameter or so and about 8-9 inches in length is what you want.
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 dry seed stalk of the plant, you are prepared for success.
You can use a Yucca spindle with, for example, Cedar, Redwood, or Cottonwood. But with other woods such as Cedar on Cedar, which has a considerably higher ignition point at around 800' degrees F. Compare the lower ignition point of Yucca at around 200' degrees. Then be ready to work harder to crank out an ember.
Yes, a Yucca spindle is one of the most effective bow drill woods you can use.
Cottonwood is the best bow drill wood
Based on my experience in the west, Cottonwood is the best bow drill wood for the ease of creating an ember with the bow drill method.
In Oregon, the native Black Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera) is the most common.
In Texas, Populus deltoides and Populus fremontii are native trees. These species of cottonwood are also found in California and the Southwest.
All cottonwood species in the U.S. will work with this challenging fire-making technique. Consider yourself both lucky and blessed if you have access to this amazing tree.
In the genus Salix, willows are found in every state of the union including Alaska, with the only exception being Hawaii and other tropical regions where willows are not native.
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 right, one of the finest 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 Wikipedia: "A species of linden, Basswood is often referred to as lime."
For the Midwest and further east, basswood is an excellent choice. During a winter spent in Wisconsin, I was able to harvest basswood and successfully make a bow drill fire with it. It has the same properties as cottonwood and is a smart choice for your bow drill kit.
The best bow drill wood
One of the best woods for a bow drill is Hau, Hibiscus tiliaceus, a flowering tree in Hawaii (we mainlanders know it as Hibiscus).
When dry the carved wood is light and smooth, similar to balsa. Hau has all the characteristics needed for one of the most effective friction-fire woods. Hau is a soft non-resinous wood that grows along the coastlines of many Pacific islands.
A bow drill spindle - wood discovery
At camp, we teach over twenty different shrubs and trees of North America that will work with the bow drill. Any discovery of another wood for the bow drill is exciting! 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 wore out, a new one had to be carved. This was a dilemma. The group needed to carve another spindle. But there were no cedar or other woods they were familiar with to be found. The teens thought about the properties that would make an effective bow drill spindle.
They continued 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 types available at their location, they decided to give Red Fir spindles a whirl.
Sweat and persistence ingenuity and perseverance
With much sweat and persistence, the teens succeeded in creating a burning coal which they then transferred into a tinder bundle made from a plant called Horse Lichen, Bryoria fremontii.
Bryoria fremontii, for you tinder buffs. Bryoria grows in the same area as the Shasta Red Fir in northern California. The teens' 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 an ember using a thick piece of outer bark from Jeffrey Pine (Pinus jeffreyi).
This is no small feat. Having tried using a variety of different types of bark, 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 an excellent question.
The problem with using pine wood for friction is that pine contains an abundance of pitch. Pine pitch is a lubricant. Much like adding oil to a squeaky door hinge, pitch acts the same way. It lubricates. Pitch is the sticky stuff that gets all over your hands when you're handling certain woods.
Can you use Pine Wood for the Bow Drill?
No, I would not recommend it for a beginner. As I said in the above paragraph, because of pitch, you can have friction issues due to pitch acting as a lubricant.
The key to 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.
For Now Focus on the Best Woods for the Bow Drill
For now, look for softwoods other than pine. When you have mastered the best woods for the bow drill. Try your hand at pine. You might be surprised at how successful you can be.
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 an ember using pine bark as a hearth board.
Douglas Fir Bark. Can it be Done?
Yes, Carter is at it again. During July's teen camp, we found a promising candidate: a solid piece of Douglas 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 fireboard. Success? You be the judge.
No doubt about it, the woods I have listed in this post are some, if not the best woods, for creating an ember with the Bow Drill.
Are there any other woods that are as good or even better? Perhaps, though the right bow drill wood might be the one you have growing in your backyard or neighborhood.
Have a question? Drop it in the comments section below.