How to start a campfire by using an improved hand drill

Editor’s note: This article was originally written by our friends at OFFGRID. Check out their site for more survival-related tips.

If you’ve ever tried to start a fire without modern tools, you’ll certainly know one thing: It’s hard work. The widely known traditional hand-drill fire starter uses a notched horizontal board, a vertical shaft or spindle and friction from rubbing your hands together in the prayer position. With enough patience, luck and the right conditions, you can get an ember burning with this basic method.

However, the hand-drill method is time consuming, often frustrating and basically guaranteed to give you painful blisters on your palms.

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Fortunately, there are better ways of primitive fire-starting, many of which expand upon the hand-drill method.

Photo: Courtesy of Primitive Technology/OFFGRID
Photo: Courtesy of Primitive Technology/OFFGRID

First of all, there’s the bow drill, which uses a curved bow and string to spin the spindle (saving your hands from blisters). This method is pretty well known, but here we’ll be sharing two others that might not be as common: the cord drill and the pump drill.

A rock with a hole through the center will act as a flywheel for cord drills and pump drills. Photo: Courtesy of Primitive Technology/OFFGRID
A rock with a hole through the center will act as a flywheel for cord drills and pump drills. Photo: Courtesy of Primitive Technology/OFFGRID

Both the cord drill and pump drill are based on the hand-drill spindle and board, but add what is known as a flywheel. The flywheel is a disc-shaped stone or piece of pottery that retains rotational inertia and makes the spindle want to keep spinning.

A wound cord is added to the top of the drill spindle and pulled apart repeatedly to spin the shaft and flywheel.

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Here’s a video from Primitive Technology that does a great job of illustrating the hand-drill fire starter, as well as the cord drill and pump drill:

As you can see from the video, the pump drill adds one last element: a board with a hole that attaches to the spindle and cord. This makes the cord drill even easier to use.

Obviously, making a flywheel from pottery and firing it in a primitive oven is beyond most people’s abilities, but Primitive Technology shows how that’s done as well.

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The host even uses flint knapping to craft a drill bit that resembles an arrowhead, so drilling out notches in the fire board is easier. These are all useful techniques that go beyond simple fire-starting and could be valuable to any survivalist.