We don’t know which method of primitive fire making came first. Most likely we’ll never know for sure. We can’t even say if it was a friction or percussion method. Most scientists, I know about, that researched this topic seem to believe the first fire started by a human-like species must have been made using the hand drill.
Some of those scientists claim this is a very easy way of making fire, and give examples of people from various primitive cultures, who are supposedly able to get an ember in 10 seconds. Maybe. If you are in a hot dry environment and happen to have some of the best possible materials with low combustion threshold. I suspect most people interested in learning this method live in a bit less favourable conditions and don’t have those supper materials to hand. Not to mention those guys lived in the late 19th century and would’ve mastered their skills possibly for decades as that was the only way of starting a fire they knew.
Let’s get this straight. Hand drill is not easy. It’s not like the bow drill where you can take two random pieces of more or less dry wood and make it work. Especially in places like the UK where rain is the norm rather than exception and temperatures are generally not very high. If you’ve never done this before expect your hands to hurt. A lot. You’ll get blisters which may burst and bleed. Your skin will then come off, your muscles and bones will hurt too and you’re out for days before you even got your first ember. Does that sound easy to you?
You can, of course, get a coal the very first time if you have someone experienced make the kit for you and then watch you and tell you what to do. Needless to say, this is not the same as doing it all and succeeding by yourself. Plus, even if you do succeed with somebody’s help, there is a good chance you’ll still mess up your hands.
So in this sense, there is no trick. You have to practice your coordination, stamina and thicken you skin just like you would when learning to play guitar – practising gradually longer and longer. But you can do all that, make your spindle and hearth board from the best materials available in your area and still fail. The trick to solving that problem is patience.
First of all focus on each task as if there is nothing else to do. Don’t think about the notch before you burn the pieces in. Don’t wait for the ember if you haven’t even seen smoke yet. One thing at a time and it’ll come. And remember – if you’re sweating, you’re doing something wrong.
The spindle I used in the video below, is made from a cattail or bullrush (Typha) stalk. I absolutely love to use them for hand drill as they are already perfectly straight, usually have the right diameter and are relatively soft which is good for your hands. They also work quite well with many types of hearth board materials, and grow almost everywhere in the world where there is a bit of water. The perfect length for me is between 50 and 35 cm (20 and 13″) and diameter between 6 and 10 mm. Because they are soft, they do get worn down quickly and a stalk of less than 30 cm will be difficult to use. Therefore, I tend to make a compound spindle consisting of a thicker piece with one end hollowed out (about and inch into the stalk) and reinforced with sinew, and a removable short piece which takes all the beating.
The Hearth Board
The type of hearth will depend on what the spindle is made from. For a cattail spindle it’s good to use something soft. In the video, I used a piece of long-dead poplar. Willow, slightly punky birch or even pine, spruce and ivy will work too. The hearth cannot be too thick. There won’t be as much dust as in the case of a bow drill kit, and your board has to be appropriately thiner. One centimetre (0.4″) works best for me.
If everything is dry, you’re getting a lot of smoke but the ember just isn’t forming, there’s probably not enough oxygen. The hand drill notch has to be perfect. It shouldn’t be too wide or your spindle will bore its way out of the socket ruining everything seconds before the ember formed. It can’t be too narrow because the dust needs to be able to come out freely and your ember will need oxygen to start glowing.
There is one trick I learned from a guy who calls himself Mr Wilson, and haven’t seen anywhere else. He once showed me how to increase friction when marrying the pieces together by adding a pinch of sand under the spindle. Works great and reduces the time needed to char the spindle tip and the board.