Using the best woods for the bow drill fire starter will create a hot coal faster. Imagine you’re shipwrecked like Tom Hanks in Castaway. Stranded on a Pacific island with no matches or lighter. You can't boil your drinking water or cook the mouse you 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 bow drill kit. And what, you ask, are the best bow drill woods anyway?
"The Best Bow Drill Woods"
These first few woods listed are great bow drill woods.
But not the best woods for the Bow Drill.
Depending on where you're stranded and the wood available. There are two main factors that decide the best bow drill woods.
- Availability and species of wood
In a forest, you might expect to find dead and dry limbs from a tree such as Cedar.
Matter of fact I use Cedar, trunk, and limb, to teach the bow drill at my camps in California, Oregon, and Texas. As Cedar is plentiful across the US.
Red Cedar is good Bow Drill wood
In Oregon, the Western Red Cedar, common in Oregon and Washington State is an exceptionally good bow drill wood. All parts of the bow drill come from the 'Tree of Life'. Even the cordage for the bowstring is made from the Red Cedar tree. Cedar is good wood for the bow drill but not the absolute best.
Why are some bow drill woods better than others?
Hardwood is extremely difficult for use in friction fire making. The harder the wood the more difficult it is to create friction. Take Oak as an example. The Janks hardness rating for Red Oak is 1290 to Red Cedar’s hardness rating of 320. That is a stark difference in hardness. So, we can say success starts with our wood choice.
Are Softwoods the best choice for the bow drill?
Focus on the softwood woods I have provided here. These are your best chance for success for fire with the bow drill.
California has the coastal Redwood tree. (Sequoia sempervirens). Another great wood for the bow drill.
Coastal Redwood have good friction fire making properties like Cedar. Along the coast from San Cruz California north to the Oregon border, Redwood will be an excellent choice for you.
The Monterey Cypress is another tree you can find along the California and Oregon coast. Cypress takes more practice to be consistent in making a coal. Species of Cypress trees are abundant in the southern US. But Redwood and Cypress pale in comparison to the best bow drill woods.
The Best Bow Drill Woods
Blue Elderberry Spindle on Cedar Fireboard
To make an ember fast using a bow drill, use a Blue Elderberry, spindle on cedar or a cottonwood fire board.
It’s one of the best combinations of tree and shrub I have found.
The benefit of using a spindle from the elderberry shrub cuts down on the time it takes to carve a spindle. 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 on a softwood hearth board 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. If you have access to the plants dry seed stalk, then prepare for success.
You can use a Yucca spindle on say, Cedar, Redwood, or Cottonwood. But 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, a Yucca spindle is one of the best bow drills woods you can use.
In Oregon, the native Black Cottonwood Populus balsamifera is best. In Texas, Populus deltoides and Populus Tremonti are native trees. These species of Cottonwood are also found in California and the Southwest.
All Cottonwood specie in the U.S. will work for this challenging fire-making technique. Consider yourself both lucky and blessed if you have access to this amazing tree. It is my expert opinion Cottonwood is the best Bow drill wood 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 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.
American Basswood grows in the northeastern US. It also grows from southeast Manitoba east to New Brunswick, southwest to northeast Oklahoma, southeast to South Carolina, and west along the Niobrara River to Cherry County, Nebraska. According to Wikipidea. A species of linden. Basswood is often referred to as Lime.
So, for you folks out east who are looking for an excellent bow drill wood. Bass wood is an excellent choice.
During a winter spent in Wisconsin I was able to harvest Basswood. And was successful with making a bow drill fire with it. It has equivalent properties that you find with Cottonwood. A smart choice for your bow drill kit.
The best bow drill wood
The best wood for the bow drill if we consider Hawaii. Include Oceania as a survival option. This useful wood is the flowering tree Hau. Or to us mainlander's, Hibiscus; Hibiscus tiliaceus.
This excellent wood when dry is so light and soft it reminds me of Balsa wood. Hau has all the characteristics needed for the best friction firewood. Hau is a soft non-resinous wood that grows along the coastlines of many Pacific Islands.
A bow drill spindle - wood discovery
At camp, we teach over twenty different shrubs and trees of North America that will work for the Bow Drill. But when a discovery of a new wood for the bow drill the excitement is great. A few years ago, at our 28-day Teen camp, the apprentice staff and students discovered a wood that was not on our list.
Shasta Red Fir, Abies magnifica.
Over time bow drill spindles wear out from use
As a Cedar spindle wears out a new spindle is made. This was their dilemma. They needed to carve a new spindle. But there was no Cedar to be found. The teens thought about the properties that makes a good bow drill spindle.
And 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 much 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. Bryoria fremontii, for you tinder buffs.
Bryoria grows in the same general elevation as the Shasta Red fir. The teen's ingenuity and perseverance made them successful in their quest for fire
Bark of Pine used for a Bow Drill Fireboard
This season our staff member Carter H., was able to produce a coal using a thick piece of outer bark from Jeffrey Pine, (Pinus jeffreyi).
This is no small feat. Having tried myself many times using a variety of different barks, I had no success. Watch Carter demonstrate his Bow drill technique. Not once, but twice. Bow Drill Jeffrey Pine Bark Fireboard and Bow drill Success Twice!
Pine is a softwood. Why is pine not on your list of bow drill woods?
This is a great question. Pine has a softwood rating after all. Then why is Pine not recommended for the bow drill?
Why? Because Willow has no pitch. Pitch is that sticky stuff that gets all over your hands when you're handling pine. The problem with pine wood is it can become impregnated with pitch which acts like a lubricant to friction. Much like adding oil to a squeaky door hinge.
So, hunt for the softwoods other than pine for now. When you have mastered the best woods for the bow drill. Then try your hand with pine. You might be surprised how successful you can be.
No doubt about it, the woods I have listed in this post are some if not the best woods for the Bow Drill. Are there others wood's as good or even better? Perhaps. Though the best bow drill wood might the one wood you have growing in your neighborhood. Have a question?