Best woods for the bow drill create a hot coal faster.
Imagine you’re shipwrecked like Tom Hank’s in Castaway. Stranded on a Pacific island with no matches or lighter. Or, lost in east Texas. You can’t boil your drinking water or cook the mouse you just trapped for your survival stew without fire. What are you going 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 fire kit. And what, you ask, are the best bow drill woods anyway?
Some great bow drill woods that work. But not “best bow drill woods”.
Depending where you’re stranded and the wood available. There are two main factors that decide the best bow drill woods. Availability and type of wood. In a forest, you might expect to find dead and dry limbs from a trees such as Cedar.
Matter of fact I use Cedar, trunk, and limb, to teach the bow drill at all of my camps in California, Oregon, and Texas. As Cedar is plentiful across the US.
In Oregon, specifically, the Western Red Cedar, common in Oregon and Washington State is a very good Bow wood. All parts of the bow drill can be made from this ‘Tree of Life’ as it is known. Even the cordage for the bow-string can be made from the Red Cedar tree. I consider all cedars to be a very good wood for the bow drill but not the very best.
California has the mighty coastal Redwood tree, (Sequoia sempervirens), another great wood for the bow drill. Coastal Redwood has good friction fire making properties like Cedar. And if you live along the coast from San Cruz California north to the Oregon border, Redwood will be a good choice for you.
The Monterrey Cypress is another tree you can find along the California and Oregon coast. Cypress takes more practice to be consistent in making a coal. But Redwood and other woods I mention pale in comparison to the best bow drill woods. (Species of Cypress trees are found in abundance in the southern US.)
The Best Bow Drill Woods
Blue Elderberry Spindle on Cedar Fire-board
For making a hot ember fast you can’t beat a Blue Elderberry, Sambucus cerulea, spindle, on cedar or cottonwood fire board. It’s one of the best combinations of tree and shrub I have found. And using a spindle from the elderberry cuts down on spindle carving time as the blue elder spindle grow round. A Spindle 3/4″ diameter or so and about 8-9 inches in length is good.
Try a Yucca spindle 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. So if you have access to the plants dry seed stalk, then prepare to be pleasantly surprised.
You can use a Yucca spindle on say; Cedar, Redwood, or Cottonwood. If however, you’re using other woods such as Cedar on Cedar (which has a higher ember ignition point at around 800′ degrees F) compared to around 200′ degrees for Yucca. Then be ready to work harder to crank out an ember. Yes, Yucca is one of the best bow drills woods you can use.
In Oregon, the native Black Cottonwood Populas balsamifera is found. In Texas, Populus deltoides and Populus Tremonti are native. These species of Cottonwood will also be found in California and the Southwest.
All Cottonwoods throughout the U.S. will do nicely for this difficult and challenging fire-making technique. Consider yourself both lucky and blessed if you have access to this amazing tree. In my opinion is Cottonwood is probably the best Bow drill wood overall for the ease of creating a coal with the bow drill method.
Willow or Salix, you will find in every state of the union including Alaska with the only exception being Hawaii and other tropical geographies. There willow does not grow as a native shrub. A popular wood and relatively easy to find along creeks, rivers, and wetlands. Willow has a low ignition point for friction fire making. And when conditions are good one of the best bow drill woods.
Possibly the best wood for the bow drill if we take into account Hawaii. Include Oceania as a survival option as well. Would be the flowering tree Hau. Or to us main lander’s, Hibiscus; Hibiscus tilliaceus. This excellent wood when dry is so light and soft it reminds me of Balsa wood.
Like the other best bow drill woods I mentioned, Hau, has all the important characteristics needed to become successful in friction fire making. Hau is a soft and non-resinous wood and readily available along the coastlines of many Pacific Islands.
The Fire Plow friction fire is a Polynesian method to create a hot coal from wood. I first learned this method by just using Hau on Hau. And succes was mine once I got the hang of the technique. The fire plow is the fire making technique made famous by Tom Hanks in the movie “Castaway”.
Traditionally another wood is used with Hau for the Polynesian Fire Plow method. Olomea. A a harder wood, It is used for the plow itself. Being the spindle so to speak and the Hau wood used as the fireboard. I can understand why Hau is so popular in Oceania for fire making. It definitely ranks as one of the best bow drill woods in the world.
A bow drill spindle – wood discovery
At camp, we teach over 20 different plants of North America that will work with the Bow Drill fire technique. However when a discovery of a new wood for the bow drill is found the excitement is great.
A few years ago at our 28-day Teen camp, our apprentice staff and students discovered a wood that was not on our list for the bow drill.
Shasta Red Fir, Abies magnifica.
Over time bow drill spindles wear out from use
As the Cedar spindle wore out a new spindle was needed. The teens found a piece of dead and dry Shasta Red Fir that fit the spindle requirements. Because that was all the wood type available at their location they decided to give Red Fir spindle a whirl.
Sweat and persistence
With a lot of sweat and persistence, the teens succeeded in creating a hot coal. Which they then transferred into a tinder bundle made from a plant called Horse Lichen. Byoria, for you tinder buffs. Byoria grows in the same general elevation as the Shasta Red fir. The teen’s ingenuity made them successful in their quest for fire.
I am happy to attribute this discovery to Jolie Kaner, head of staff, Nathan Granados staff member and long-time student, along with Nolan Beck and Jippe Beltman. Our two apprentices who worked extremely hard at turning the Red Fir spindle on Cedar fireboard into a glowing hot ember. Excellent work!
No doubt about it, the woods I have listed in this post are some of the best wood for Bow Drill you will find. Are there others wood’s as good or even better? Will let you discover that in your own quest for fire.
Mark Wienert has been teaching wilderness survival skills to adults and teens since 1994. If you would like to learn the bow drill, fire-by-friction and become a master of fire we urge you to visit our Calendar of Upcoming Camps.
We look forward to meeting you at camp where you can try out the best bow drill woods.
The Best Bow Drill Woods