Hand drill is an elegantly simple technique of fire-lighting.
Yet it is commonly seen as a more advanced technique of friction fire-lighting than the bow-drill method.
This is not necessarily the case.
It is just a different technique.
In terms of determining which technique may be more difficult in particular circumstances, you must also consider the context, the competence of the practitioner, the environment and the prevailing weather conditions.
The combination of these factors will determine the most appropriate method when one of these techniques must be relied upon for a fire.
Bow drill has become a central part of bushcraft teaching, certainly in the UK. There are several reasons for this.
Bow drill is the most widely-applicable technique of friction fire lighting. This is true in both terms of environmental conditions and available materials.
From cold, wet conditions to warm and dry conditions, bow-drill will work as long as you have suitably robust cordage material. You can also choose from a wide range of materials with which to construct your bow drill set.
Hand drill, on the other hand, is somewhat more fussy.
It is most suited to warm and dry environments such as found in parts of Africa as well as Australia. It is most commonly associated with the indigenous peoples of these areas.
In a survival situation, bow drill has the advantage that you can go and make a set and create fire immediately.
Hand drill, by contrast, often requires you to seek out quite specific materials to make the set – particularly the drill – then often requires some time to prepare these materials so that they are in the correct condition for use. This makes the technique one that is less immediate and therefore potentially less useful in a general survival scenario.
Once you have a hand drill made, however, it is often quicker and easier to create an ember with this technique than it is to create an ember by making a bow drill set from scratch. Hence, indigenous peoples who use hand drill typically carry the drill with them as part of their equipment, often along with arrows. This is certainly true of the bushmen of the Kalahari and the Hadzabe people of Tanzania.
So, what about using hand drill in temperate conditions such as the UK?
Well, hand drill is an elegantly simple technique of friction fire lighting and when used competently is very effective. Similar to the case in Africa, you need to prepare the drill in advance. Also similar to the case in Africa there are more choices available for the hearth than there are for the drill.
It is worth noting that the ember created with a hand drill is generally much smaller than that created with a bow drill. This means there is less heat in the ember, which in turn means it is critical that you properly prepare the tinder in which you will place the ember.
If you’re a beginner with hand drill in the UK – or more widely the northern temperate environment such as found in Europe and parts of North America – then a good drill material to start with is a member of the Sambucus sp. commonly known as elder.
Elders put up straight shoots which can be used to make a very good hand drill. The best shoots are often secondary growths which are striving to head upwards out of the bush to reach the light. Even though they have a pith in the middle, they have quite thick sidewalls. You always should select a live shoot. If the bark of the shoot is green it is too young. Wait until the bark is grey before harvesting for a potential hand drill. The diameter of the harvested shoot should be about 15 mm at the base.
To prepare the drill, first the bark should be scraped off. This can be done with the back of your knife and is quite straightforward. Even the straightest looking shoots will have kinks and slight bends in them. These need to be straightened out. What you’re aiming for is a drill that is dowel-straight.
The best way to achieve this is by the application of heat. Your campfire is ideal. You need a good base of embers to provide an even heat. By passing the drill over the heat, concentrating on the area that needs to be straightened, the drill will be softened sufficiently so that it can be manipulated into a straighter configuration.
Keep working on the drill, straightening out the kinks until you are happy that it is straight as you can possibly get it. The drill then needs to be allowed to dry before it can be used. During this drying period you should check regularly that the drill is drying straight and not reverting to its previous shape. As before, any kinks or bends should be removed by applying some heat and bending the relevant area.
For your hearth, one of the best materials to use in combination with elder is dead, dry clematis. This is not the most common of plants. It likes to grow on chalky soil such as found on the North Downs and close to the coast in Kent. Other materials that you might like to try for hearths include, willow, sycamore, Norway maple, field maple, cedar and aspen.
As with the bow drill, you should aim for a hearth of the same thickness as the diameter of the drill. A small depression is created, into which the drill is seated. You then cut a notch approximately one-eighth of the circle.
There are several good, easily-available sources of tinder in the northern temperate zone. One of them is the outer bark of honeysuckle. Any tinder should be prepared as thoroughly as possible, generally in order to make it finer and increase its surface area.
Hand drill technique
In terms of technique, you have less mechanical advantage than with bow drill. The technique, however, requires less physical coordination. From having taught both techniques, it seems that people naturally find the coordination required for the hand drill technique easier than the bow drill technique. The weak link in the chain is the condition of their hands.
Hand drill – and the clue is in the name – requires the use of your hands to propel the drill directly. This requires some grip between your hands and the drill which, in turn, causes some wear and tear on the palms of your hands. Over time, your hands – like your feet when walking barefoot – gain some conditioning. This makes progress with learning hand drill potentially painfully slow to begin with or, if you rush it, just painful.
A common difficulty is not applying sufficient pressure in order to generate the requisite friction. A sign that there is not enough friction is dust that is too light. Light dust shows you are removing material but it is not getting hot enough.
It is very easy for real beginners to do too much too soon with soft hands and either blister the hands or remove skin. This can also happen to people who are adept at the hand drill technique, having achieved fire by this means many times before but not practiced it for some time. To be on top form with hand drill you need to maintain your hands in good condition. This means practicing hand drill regularly.
What about floating hands?
Frankly, I have nothing against the floating hands technique per se but I do think it muddies the waters. For beginners learning what they really need to know to create a fire by this technique, the concept of floating hands gets in the way. You don’t need it. Furthermore, I have never seen a person who truly relies upon hand drill for day-to-day fire-lighting use floating hands. The most important part of hand drill technique is spinning the drill combined with downward pressure.
So, my advice is to keep it simple and practice this combination, i.e. spinning the drill with downward pressure. If I can give one tip with respect to this, it would be to spin fastest when your hands are close to the top while using light pressure; then, as your hands descend the drill apply more pressure with a lower speed. This seems to be the best overall combination. You then need to return to the top of the drill as rapidly as possible and repeat.
If you feel that you are not rotating the drill for long enough or achieving a sufficiently long descent of the drill, then the easiest solution is not to start to learn floating hands technique, but to get a longer drill. Again the Hadza provide a great example of this with their very long drills.
With hand drill, practice certainly makes perfect but when learning you should know when to stop. My overall advice to hand drill novices would be to practice little and often, building up hand condition.
Also stick with the same materials until you achieve an ember. Once you have achieved an ember several times with elder on clematis, for example, then you can start to experiment with other drill materials are other hearth materials, varying one at a time.
Most of all, don’t be afraid of hand drill. Soon, you too will be able to harness this simple and elegant fire-lighting method.
Advance Your Bushcraft Skills
If you’re interested in advancing your bushcraft skills in areas such as hand drill in a structured way under expert guidance, then our Intermediate Wilderness Bushcraft Course could be right for you. Check it out via the link below:
Intermediate Wilderness Bushcraft Course (6 days)
The Intermediate Wilderness Bushcraft Course starts where most bushcraft courses finish. Extending and expanding on bushcraft fundamentals, this course will allow you to take your skills and knowledge to the next level and gain an increased understanding of nature, bushcraft and yourself.
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