Fire Starting – Hand Drill

A hand drill is one of the oldest and simplest methods of starting a fire. A hand drill works by creating heat through friction, thus creating an ember that can then be used to start a fire. It’s best suited for fire starting in dry climates.

fire drill method of Fire starting

Before attempting to use the hand drill, you want to make sure you have a good amount of tinder. One of the most important parts of any friction fire-starting method is the type of tinder you use to turn the ember into a flame.

Tinder Bundle


Your tinder bundle should be made up of stringy, fluffy, and combustible materials like dry grass, wood shavings, cattails, bark fibers, and punkwood. Once you have the tinder materials, make sure to  fluff them up and create as much surface area as possible for the ember to ignite.

Follow these steps to use the Hand Drill Method

  1. Make sure you have a tinder bundle prepared and ready to go.
  2. Cut a V-shaped notch in a board, then start a small depression with your knife tip. Set a piece of bark, or a big leaf underneath the notch to catch your ember.
  3. Place the spindle, which should be about two feet in length, in the depression. Then, while maintaining a good amount of downward pressure, roll the stick between the palms of your hands, running them very quickly down the stick.
  4. Keep doing this until the spindle tip glows red and you get an ember.
  5. Tap the board to get the ember onto your leaf or piece of bark, then transfer it over to your tinder bundle and blow into the bundle until you get a flame.

If you have a hard time with this method or your hands start to ache, a bow drill can be used in the same fashion. Check out our instructions for building and using a bow drill.

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    • Ive started fires w the bow drill probably 100 times now w about 10 diff types of wood ive found and carved out in the woods, some from scratch, some id let it dry out a few days but the only time ive had any success w the hand drill was one time when I used yucca, everything else seems to hard but I’m new to this.

  1. There is much talk about this technique but no one ever shows how long it takes to make an ember. Also, it tears your hands up. Why are you not showing the use of a bow?

    • The bow drill although an efficient method has several drawbacks. First the string used in this technique is worn out extremely fast. This problem could become catastrophic in post apocalyptic conditions. (SHTF) With no reliable way of purchasing suitable bow string you would be forced to create your own. This would be time consuming and quite unreliable as the friction caused by the bow method would very likely cause the string to tear. The hand drill method although challenging and time consuming now would serve you extremely well in the future.

    • On tv they already have or know where ther materials are there gonna use, they already know how dry it is and of course there not going to show you the times they failed. Friction fire is not a guarantee. Any standing dead wood you find out in the woods is going to have some moisture in it and if your carving out a set from scratch to get a fire going right than you often have to do several repeated burn ins to get your spindal and that part of the hearth board dry enough bf you even try for a ember.

    • Yep, your right but I have been able to do it 4or 5 times it takes practice and you have to basically work on training your hands and get them in shape for the job and keep them in shape,as I can testify by the blisters I acquired today because I had stopped practicing and my hands had gotten out of shape. It is a skill that you have to keep training at least make one every week to keep your hands in shape.

  2. ive tried and all i can get is smoke and bloody hands. i think its to humid here. the only way i got it to work was by chucking the stick in my screw gun. and even then it took about three minutes.

  3. Its REALLY important to have the right woods. I got a hand-drill set from a friend, both pieces made of Yucca, and I’ve made 3 fires from it (my first hand-drill fires EVER). If its all set up, it takes me about 3 – 4 minutes to get an ember.

    • Same here, that’s the only time I started a fire using a hand drill was using yucca. Now the bow drill ive had success with many times w many different types of wood but even thats not always easy.

  4. Yes, the wood is pretty important, especially matching your spindle and floorboard from the same tree or better yet the same log. When I worked at a Scout camp in the Midwest, they had this program called Firecrafter where one of the requimements was to build a 15 minute fire-by-friction from boys 13-18. They used the bow-drill method but not quite what’s shown here. They had a shorter spindle (ankle to knee) and used a gripping log called the thunder head and put their body weight onto it. It took the boys a few days go get an ember/’spark’, but many of us staff were able to do it in under 10 minutes due to sheer practice. They exclusively used Red “slippery” elm.

  5. The main point, as always, is to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best. I always carry a lighter in my pocket, but I can consistently get fire with a bow drill or a hand drill. Sometimes in as little as 10 seconds with a hand drill. I’m always glad to teach this to anyone who wants to learn. I live near Murfreesboro, TN for anyone who is interested.

    • Would really like to learn how to do the one stick
      fire but too far away(Mills River, NC) Would be
      interested what spindle material is available here
      in Western NC that would work.

      • I also live in western NC and for the bow drill ive had success with poplar, cedar, sycamore, sourwood, pine, hemlock, maple, privet, birch, and a few others I dont know what they were. As far as hand drill, idk, ive only started a fire w yucca, and I cheated using thumb loops to keep my hands in one place.

  6. Wood selection downward pressure and speed is key to the hand drill as far as it being easy like the article states I would have to say that it is not, but with the proper training and materials it can be. My first ember with a hand drill was basswood and red cedar there are a lot of good woods to use sotol and yucca being the easiest but that can spoil you.

  7. Like I said sotol and yucca are the easiest woods to use but their so easy they may spoil you when you need to step up and use a harder wood. I live in pa and there are tons of linden or basswood here that’s what I use also all cedars are great and alot of people like plants for their spindles like cat tail,horse weed, mullien, anything with a pith I’ve used the baby chutes off a box elder before as well other woods are willows elms cottonwood balsam fir tamarack cypress white pine buckeye elderberry paw paw and I’ve seen a video where a guy used a clematis vine.

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