Best woods for the bow drill create a hot coal faster. Imagine you’re shipwrecked like Tom Hanks 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 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?
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 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.
In Oregon, the Western Red Cedar, common in Oregon and Washington State is a very good bow drill wood. All parts of the bow drill come from the 'Tree of Life'. Even the cordage for the bow-string is made from the Red Cedar tree. Cedar is 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. Along the coast from San Cruz California north to the Oregon border, Redwood will be a good 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. But Redwood and other woods I mention pale in comparison to the best bow drill woods. Species of Cypress trees are abundant in the southern US.
The Best Bow Drill Woods
Blue Elderberry Spindle on Cedar Fire-board
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 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 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, Yucca 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.
The best wood for the bow drill if we take into account Hawaii. Include Oceania as a survival option as well. 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 fire wood. Hau is a soft non-resinous wood that grows 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 using Hau on Hau. And success 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".
Olomea is a harder wood than Hau and is a traditional part of the plow method. Olomea is the plow or 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. 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. 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 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. Byoria, 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
Update. Bark of tree used for a Bow Drill fireboard.
Wilderness adventures camp for teens strikes again. Yes, 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!
No doubt about it, the woods I have listed in this post are some of the best wood for the Bow Drill. Are there others wood's as good or even better? Let us know of your discoveries in your quest for fire.
Mark Wienert has been teaching wilderness survival skills to adults and teens since 1994. Become a master fire maker with Mark Wienert and Lifesong Wilderness Adventures.