A description of how to light a fire by rubbing two sticks together using the bow drill method.

The instructions below have been extracted from the instruction manual included with a fire lighting kit I produced called "Bandicoot Bills Bush Matches". It lacks some of the diagrams but is all you need to know to become proficient. It takes me about 40 seconds to produce flames, although I have done it in 20 seconds.



This kit has been put together using authentic Australian bush materials. It's purpose is to educate the user about primative fire-lighting methods and to provide the best materials and techniques for that purpose.

Before rushing in, take the time to read these instructions through carefully.


The Australian Aborigines always kept their fire sticks with them. For them, between twenty seconds and two minutes was all the time needed to produce a flame.

Fire was created with a fire-drill.

To use a fire-drill a depression was made in one piece of wood, the flowering spike of the Black-Boy Tree. A thin drill of the same material was rapidly twirled between the palms of the hand in the depression. This produced a small heap of smouldering wood powder which was tipped onto tinder, blown gently and swung in the air. The tinder would burst into flames.

Before you start.

Bandicoot Bill's Bush Matches differ a little from this method. Twirling the drill-stick between the palms of your hand is hard work, and your hands will become red and sore fairly quickly. If you wish to use this method choose a drill-stick about half the diameter of the one supplied in this kit. The thinner the stick is, the faster it will spin.

It is much easier to use a bow to spin the drill-stick. This was the method used by the American Indians.

Before starting to light a fire you will need to do some research on what is the best material to use as tinder. Some things to try are finely shredded bark, dried grass, dried bracken fern or finely teased paperbark. (If you are stuck in an urban environment just use paper tissues).

Testing Your Tinder.

Before attempting to use this kit you are strongly urged to spend some time finding out what is the best tinder to use.

To do some serious research on finding the best local tinder go about it like this. Cut a piece of cotton material about 150mm square. It is important that the cloth be cotton only with no wool or synthetics present. Old bed sheets are good for this purpose. Spread the square of cotton over the end of two sticks each about 450mm long. Hold the material over a stove to thoroughly dry it out. Eventually it will scorch and catch on fire. Allow the cotton to burn, and just before the last flames die out quickly put the charred cloth into an airtight metal container and close the lid to exclude the air.

After a few minutes you can open the container and what you have will look like burnt cloth. This burnt cotton acts exactly like the pile of smouldering wood powder that you will get from the fire-making kit enclosed.

To use this charred cotton, put a piece of it, about 50mm square in the centre of a generous handful of your chosen tinder. Direct a spark onto the cotton and it will instantly glow red and smoulder. Blow gently at first. Fold the tinder around the glowing embers and blow increasingly harder until the tinder bursts into flames. You will have to perform this feat outdoors or in an area that will not catch on fire. Sparks can be produced from a spent cigarette lighter, a sparker used to light gas fires, hard steel on flint or from a dedicated spark-maker available from camping stores.

Try this test with various types of tinder until you have found the best locally available. Keep the charred cotton in an old tobacco tin or shoe-polish tin. It is now part of your fire-lighting kit.

(NOTE that I use the word "tinder" both for the black stuff above and your shredded bark.)

Tinder from now on refers to shredded bark.

To get started you can use the tinder supplied. It is the bark from the Cabbage Tree Palm. Keep your tinder dry. It is important to practice the above because the fire-drill will only produce a pile of glowing wood powder. Having gotten that far it would be a pity to fail through lack of practice or inferior tinder.

To Light a fire.

1) Prepare a fire ready for lighting consisting of sticks, kindling and tinder.

2) Next to the fire place a handful of your best tinder on the ground. The tinder should be absolutely dry, compact and finely shredded. If the tinder is too loose the powdered wood will fall down between the fibres.

3) Place the baseboard over the centre of the tinder with the prepared surface (indentation) uppermost. The V groove should be vertical.

4) Hold the drill-stick smooth end uppermost and the other end in the indentation of the baseboard.

5) Kneel on your right knee and place your left foot on the baseboard to keep it steady. Don't stomp too hard on the baseboard as, being soft, it may crack or break.

6) Hold the bow (on top of the knot) in your right hand and pass it over the drill-stick and down. Twist the bow once in a clockwise direction. This passes the cord once around the drill-stick. Tension on the cord should be firm.

7) Place the top bearing (woody pear) on the upper end of the drill-stick to hold it in place. Braceyour left arm against the outside of your left leg.

8) Using only the minimum downward pressure on the top bearing, move the bow back and forth (slowly at first) to rotate the drill-stick. The bow should move back and forth in the direction not at right angles to the baseboard, but in the same direction as the baseboard is pointing.

9) Soon a lot of smoke will be produced, and when a pile of black smoking powder is seen beside the v-groove, stop "drilling".

10) Carefully pick up the tinder with the red hot coal at the centre and blow on it. It should glow freely. Close the tinder around it and keep on blowing. Soon the tinder will burst into flames. Quickly put it on the fire. Congratulations.


1) Keep the downward pressure to a minimum otherwise the drill stick will cut too quickly through the soft base-board.

2) At first the drill-stick should be rotated slowly until it "beds in". Then the drill should be rotated very quickly.

3) Friction under the top bearing should be kept to a minimum. If this is not the case try lubricating it with a piece of soap or graphite.

4) If the cord starts to slip on the drill-stick apply pressure to the cord with the fingers to tighten it up. Shorten the cord by re-tying the knot.

5) In use, the bow should be 75-100mm above the ground.

6) If the hole in the baseboard or the drill-stick takes on a glaze roughen them both up to create more friction.

7) If the drill keeps jumping out of the baseboard, carve or grind a blunt point on the lower end of the drill.

What next?

When you have used up the four prepared areas on the baseboard you can cut more of your own. To do this make two parrallel cuts across the baseboard 3mm deep and 20mm apart. These cuts can be made with a serrated-blade knife or a fine-toothed saw. Chisel out the top surface in between. Push your knife into this exposed area and give it a twist to leave a shallow conical indentation to take the drill-stick. Carve a blunt point on the lower end of the drill stick. Start the hole by "drilling" as if to start a fire. The purpose is to get the hole started at this stage.

Stop drilling. Make a "V" cut in the side of the baseboard. This notch should cut into the side of the hole to allow the hot powder to escape. You are now ready to start a fire. This new hole should not be closer than 50mm from either end of the baseboard or another hole, to prevent splitting.

Spare Parts Manual

Parts No 001 and 002. The base board and drill-stick.

Both are made from the flowering spike of the Blackboy Tree Xanthorrhoea. This low, grassy-looking plant grows all over Australia. Also known as the Grass Tree it flowers after a bushfire. About nine months after the fire the flowers have disappeared, the seed cases are opened and the seeds dispersed. This is the time to harvest the light, dried-out stem. It is one of the few timbers suitable for this method of fire starting. The stem has just the right characteristics, grinding to a hot tacky powder. This wood is the secret to this method of firelighting.

Part No 003 Woody Pear.

The "fruit" of the Woody Pear Tree Xylomelum pyriforme consists of an extremely hard pear-shaped seed case. Half of this "pear" is used as the top bearing. It has all the right properties of hardness, shape, feel, and comes with a suede-like covering. The natural indentation, which forms the bearing surface, has in most cases been enlarged a little to make it work better. On drying out or after a bushfire the Woody Pear splits open releasing the two seeds within. Each seed falls to the ground, spinning like a helicopter on the way down. Aborigines used these seeds as a food source. Of course any piece of hardwood with a hole in it will serve the purpose if the Woody Pear is not available, or even a shell.

Part No 004. The bow . A bow can be cut from any tough timber. Finding a piece strong enough and with the right shape can be quite a challenge. A little spring is desirable. Some good species to pick from are tea trees in the bush or lemon or orange trees from the garden. Choose a section where a branch takes off.

Part No 005. The cord. The properties to look for in a cord are low stretch and a good grip. The cord supplied in this kit is nylon "starter cord".


The removal of plant material from National Parks, and most other places is forbidden. Get permission to collect your materials from the landowner first. For this reason private land is the best place to start. Good Luck.

The world's smallest bow drill fire-by friction set challenge:


Let's see who can make the world's smallest fire-by-friction set. The rules are:

1. The honor system holds. No cheating!

2. The set must be reasonably reliable at creating a glowing ember..

3. To avoid embarassing the winners by forcing them to accept prizes they

don't really want there won't be any.

4. The criteria for winning are very arbitrary.

5. Submit the dimensions of your miniature bow drill in the following


6. Submit a photo if you can


Submitted by Dick Baugh, March 22, 1998:


Spindle: Baccharis viminea (Mule fat )

.315 in (8 mm) diameter X 3.30 in ( 84 mm) long


Hearth board: Calocedrus decurrens (California incense cedar)

4.0 in (100 mm) X 1.25 in (31 mm) X .35 in (9 mm)


Socket: Arctostaphylos sp. (manzanita)

2.1 in (52 mm) X .75 in (19 mm) X .45 in (11 mm)


Bow: Showy bottlebrush

9 in (230 mm)


E-mail us at "Richard A. Baugh" dick_baugh@compuserve.com

The world's smallest bow drill fire-by friction set challenge:

Richard Baugh I think I've gone one better.

Inspired by your challenge, on the 25th of April 1999 I constructed the following bow drill which achieved flames.

Spindle: Flowering spike of the grass tree, xanthorrhoea resinosa, 47mm long, 10mm diameter.

Hearth board: Flowering spike of the grass tree, xanthorrhoea resinosa, 50mm long, 17mm diameter.

Socket: Seed case of the woody pear, xylomelum pyriforme, 47mm X 37mm X 15mm.

Bow: Black wattle, callicoma serratifolia, 160mm.

Michael Smith, Nelson Bay, Australia.

EMAIL splash@hunterlink.net.au

Back to INDEX