Mastering the Hand Drill

by Christopher Nyerges

Nyerges is the author of "Enter the Forest," "Urban Wilderness," "Guide to Wild Foods," and other books. He is the former editor of Lament, the magazine of Greater L.A. Area Mensa. He has been teaching outdoor classes since 1974. Together with his wife Dolores, they operate the School of Self-Reliance. For information on his classes and books, contact School of Self-Reliance at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041 or

For millennia, fire has often meant the difference between life and death. This is no less true today than it was thousands of years ago. We have just removed ourselves from raw nature to the point that we are no longer as aware of our dependence on fire.

In primitive societies, there were countless ways to produce a fire, to maintain the fire, to transport the fire. Fire was a focal point of daily life and of the society at large. Fires were often prominent in ceremonies and feast days. But more practically, the fire was warmth and protection. Fire was used for cooking and boiling and sterilizing. Fire was used for tool making and metal-making. In many cases, fire was used in the very end when the old ones died, cremation being a quick and sanitary way to handle dead bodies, and also symbolizing the spirit rising upward with the smoke.

Today at camping and backpacking stores, there are countless gadgets available for starting that all-important fire. There are at least a dozen such gadgets, ranging from about $5 to $60. And in spite of the vast array of such items, I still opt for the cheapest and simplest: The Doan magnesium fire starter, which is nothing more than a solid block of magnesium to which a sparker is attached. There are no moving parts, nothing to refill, no problem if it gets wet. They last for years and produce thousands of lights.

Of course, there are also butane lighters and matches. But matches and lighters can get used up. Gadgets can get lost or misplaced. Since fire is so critical, it pays to know some of the ancient ways to create fire, methods that have stood the test of millennia.

When I realized the importance of fire in wilderness settings, I took the time to master the use of the bow and drill, one of the many historical methods of making fire by aboriginal peoples the world over. I estimate that I have spent thousands of hours on the bow and drill, with every conceivable combination of woods. Today I am a master of the bow and drill (My father's response: "Yeah, but what about a college degree?").

I have made fire with the pump drill, though it takes a lot more set-up to get it ready to go. I have made fire with the fire piston, though this seems an unlikely primitive fire starting method since the measurements of the cylinder and shaft must be so exacting.

According to anthropologists, the most common method of making fire in the past was the simple hand drill, which consists of only the drill and the hearth.

For about the past year, certain participants of my wilderness field trips have made the mastery of the hand drill a top consideration. We have regarded these outings incomplete if we didn't all get down in the dirt and make a fire with the hand drill.

Largely due to the insistence of "regulars" in my classes, we have all mastered the hand drill together. There is James A. Nunnelley, the martial artist and Dude McLean the music publisher, and when they were in attendance, we would always try various ways to make a fire, experimenting with the many nuances of the hand drill method.

We used mulefat, willow, and other woods for drills, mulefat being best. The best drills have proven to be about two to two-and-a-half feet long, and no thicker than a half-inch at the thickest end. Though willows are well-known, and common throughout the world, mulefat is not as commonly known. It does grow in much the same territory as willow, also preferring water. It is sometimes referred to as mock willow or seep willow, though it is botanically unrelated to the willows. Most folks who see mulefat for the first time think it to be some sort of wild grass or reed. AmerIndians used the long straight shafts for arrow and spears, as well as hand drills. I also use the straight twigs for chop sticks, and the Cahuilla Indians (of the modern Palm Springs area) used the plant for a number of medicinal applications, including a wash for balding hair.

[The common name mulefat most commonly refers to Baccharis viminea and B. glutinosa, but the name is sometimes applied to other Baccharis species as well.]

We've tried many woods for the hearth or base piece, including redwood, cedar, willow, ash, and mulefat. In the beginning, our "inner circle" decided that the best combination was the mulefat drill and the cedar base. This meant all of us working together, taking our turn to spin the drill onto the base.

Then Alan Halcon, the videographer, began attending, and quickly became a part of the inner circle. On his first outing, having never tried this method before, Alan managed to make a fire using the hand drill -- all by himself. This is partly due to his persistence, and partly due to the fact that he'd make a good double for Arnold on a movie set. His large upper body musculature is ideal for success with the hand drill, since the hand drill requires strength and stamina. By contrast, a smaller-bodied person would do better attempting to make a fire with the bow and drill since the greater use of technology allows one to persist without having great strength.

Alan's successes notched things up a bit, and now we were all constantly trying to improve our fire skills and increase our speed. Our experimentation showed us that while the mulefat was still the best local wood for the drill, we started getting better results with a willow base. This was generally a half-round of willow, typically a leftover from making an archery bow. While Alan was typically able to get a coal by himself, the rest of us would work in sequence, again seeing how fast we could get that coal.

I should add that I had tried -- unsuccessfully -- on several occasions to create a coal with the hand drill all by myself. I had never succeeded. If you have never done this, then it may be hard to appreciate the pain involved. At a certain point, the rubbing of my palms onto the drill and the downward pressure on the drill was enough to completely exhaust the strength in my upper arms, shoulders, and upper back.

Dude had begun bringing a short length of cord on the outings, and there was a small loop tied to each end. This was a device which gave you a technological edge when using the hand drill. Each loop went over each thumb, and the middle of the cord would slip into a small groove cut into the drill. This allows one to continually exert downward pressure without your hands going all the way down the drill, with the need to quickly bring your hands to the top again.

Did I mention that this method of fire-starting causes lots of blisters on the palms of your hands, and maybe on the outer edge? Did I mention that sometimes you get blisters on your blisters? James, Dude, Alan, and myself all have thick calloused skin on that part of our hands where we spin the drills.

On day while I was cooking acorn pancakes at the campfire, James and Dude were demonstrating how to use the thumb cords with the hand drill. They were using a mulefat drill and a willow base. I was impressed at how well they were able to do, so when the acorns were cooked, I tried again. On either my second or third attempt with the leather thong tied to each thumb, I managed to create a coal just before I nearly passed out from exhaustion. I quickly put it into a compressed pile of mugwort leaves and blew it into a flame. That felt good, to finally get a flame with the hand drill. Still, there were those thumb thongs. Could I ever actually do it by just spinning, with no cords.

It would be another month before I succeeded.

This time only Dude, Alan, and myself were on an afternoon wild food expedition. We'd already collected a wild food salad, and now we were getting serious about making fire. Alan had done some experiments and found that a piece of dried ash -- a scrap from a bow project -- was even better than the willow for the base. He created a coal all by himself using an elderberry hand drill and an ash base. It only took him 12 seconds! That gave him another record to beat, so he continued to make coals using a mulefat drill and ash base. He seemed to consider himself an abject failure since he could not beat his 12 second record that day. He got as close to it as 14 seconds, a time that I consider Ph.D. level of fire-starting, but Alan still persisted. [Keep in mind that the record for bow and drill -- considerably easier -- is 6.5 seconds. Alan's 12 seconds is probably the record. Has anyone beat 12 seconds with a hand drill?]

[Footnote: On 10 a.m., on Thursday, November 9, Alan told a visiting friend, Barbara Wade, that he could produce a coal with the hand drill in 12 seconds, and she didn't believe it. So Barbara timed Alan, and, lo and behold, he beat his own record. Using a mulefat drill and an ash base, and working on the cement floor of his garage, he produced a coal in 8 seconds, and then again in 6 seconds. As far as we know, this 6 second feat is the world's record.]

Alan urged me to give it a try, using a mulefat drill and ash wood for the base piece. I tried it, produced smoke, and continued to spin and spin until my shoulders and arms gave out. I figured eventually I could and would do it, but not that day. Alan told me not to stop, that I should just rest and then try again. We kept the accumulated pile of charred dust in the notch of the fire board to help save time, and that seemed to be a crucial factor. The coal never coalesces in the notch until you have accumulated a pile of char at least as tall as the fire board is thick. I didn't think I would be able to do it, but it was just the three of us, and I wasn't concerned with how I looked, so I tried it again to humor Alan.

I got smoke right away, and spun, spun, and quickly brought my hands to the top, and continued, but just couldn't keep it up. My arms were again exhausted after an effort of perhaps two minutes, and I stopped. We did not move the fireboard or the char as I lie there dejected in the dirt, but just casually observed it since sometimes you can actually get a coal a few seconds after you have stopped.

Wonders never cease! After about 10 seconds, we noted that the char was still smoking, and soon there was that glowing cherry coal. I was elated, and could scarcely believe that I succeeded.

Later Alan said, "I wish I could have captured the look on your face the moment you realized you had a coal, but it caught me by surprise." It was very exciting, and I could barely believe I'd done it. I had to take it all the way to a flame, and again I carefully put the coal into some dried mugwort, puffed on it gently, added some pine needles and dried grass and after a few seconds, poof!, another fire.

We began to realize the near-religious fervor with which people of the past attended to fire, and dealt with fire, and talked about fire. Little did we realize that we'd become a sort of fire cult, with each minor nuance of the "ceremony" akin to the various ritualistic movements in a complex religious high ceremony.

Our little "fire cult" mastered a skill that has stood the test of time, and each one of us could take this basic skill almost anywhere on the earth, and duplicate it to make fire should the need arise. That is an awesome ability, one that no insurance policy could ever buy, and it provides a feeling of security that no psychologist could ever impart. Not only that, but we have a great time doing this. We all had to increase our personal awareness to find what we needed on the trail to make fire. And then we needed to work together as we refined each aspect. And we competed not against each other, but against our own limits and records. We probably didn't know it at the time, but we were entering into our own "inner chapel," that place within that gets tested in times of adversity and challenge. We were taking ourself to this limit voluntarily, and gaining a great lesson in the process.

Because we learned by doing, and through the pain of our bodies, we gained for ourselves that solid brick of practicality upon which is the sine qua non for any and all philosophy, religion, and social structures to arise. Had we only talked about the problems associated with making fire in a primitive setting, we'd be like any other four drunks at a bar, eating peanuts, sharing silly opinions and theories, getting fat, and wasting our lives.

Copyright © 2001 by Christopher Nyerges.
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