The Best Bow Drill Woods

by Mark on June 18, 2015

The Bow Drill

Knowing what types of  bow drill woods are the best for making fire will go a long way towards success in your quest for fire. Imagine you’re stuck on a desert island with no matches, or lighter. You remember reading something about rubbing sticks together to make fire but what type of wood should you use, what woods are available for making a fire with the bow drill?

Learning the Bow Drill 2010

Bow Drill – First Circle Camp

Creating fire by rubbing sticks together was a lifelong dream

Creating fire by rubbing sticks together was a lifelong dream for me from an early age. As a child I would often play at fire-making by rubbing sticks together and at such a furious pace that I could get the sticks very hot but never any fire.

This perplexed me as I had heard through the grapevine of youth that this is how Indians made fire and more then anything I wanted to be like Indians and learn all the skills needed to live a happy and wonderful adventuresome life I imagined they lived.

Depending where you live and what’s readily available for harvest you may use wood from a tree such as Cedar as I do for a primary wood for the Bow drill. Search US Plants Database. I also use Willow, Aspen, Juniper, and even the often difficult to create fire with Alder, in a pinch.

And if I want to make a hot ember fast you can’t beat a Blue Elderberry Sambucus cerulea  spindle on a cedar or cottonwood fire board. It’s one of the best combinations of tree and shrub I have ever used.


Yucca, has one of the lowest ignition points you can use for creating an ember with your bow drill. So if you have access to this plant, then prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

If on the other hand you’re using other woods such as Cedar (which has a higher ember ignition point at around 800′ degrees F) compared to around 200′ degrees F for Yucca, then be prepared to work much harder to crank out an ember.


In Oregon, the native Black Cottonwood Populas balsamifera is found. In Texas, Populus deltoides and Populus fremonti also found in California and other parts of the Southwest should be sought out.

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 wood and tree.


The Willow or Salix, where there are over 30 species of this shrub in California alone and you will find willow in every state of the union including Alaska with the only exception being Hawaii and other tropical geographies where willow does not grow as a native shrub.

A popular wood and relatively easy to find, Willow has a low ignition point for friction fire making.


Open to debate, but possibly one of the best wood for the bow drill friction-by-fire and bringing us to the number 4 of the best and plentiful Bow Drill woods if we take into account Hawaii and Oceania as a survival option.

Baswood Tilia americana, some wood argue should be listed in the top 3 best bow drill woods

The flowering tree Hau, or to us haole’s and 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 3 excellent woods for the bow drill I have 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 most pacific Islands.

When I learned to use this wood for fire-by-friction I used Hau on Hau and it worked great once I got the hang of it. Traditionally in the Fire Plow method a harder plow wood, Olomea, was used by Hawaiians and perhaps other Polynesian peoples.

 A new bow drill wood for us

I teach a list of over 20 different woods and plants of North America that will work for using the Bow Drill fire technique. However whenever a discovery is made of a new wood that works well and gives me another fire making option the excitement is great.

A few years ago at our Teen camp our apprentice staff and students discovered a wood that was not on our fire making wood list for the bow drill: Shasta Red Fir, Abies magnifica.

Both the spindle and fireboard were carved from a piece of dead and dry Shasta Red Fir and with a bit of sweat and persistence the teens succeeded in creating a hot coal which they transferred into a tinder bundle made from Horse Lichen, or Byoria, which grows in the same general elevation as the Shasta Red fir.

I am delighted to attribute this discovery to Jolie Kaner, head of staff, and Nathan Granados staff member and long time student and also Nolan Beck and Jippe Beltman our apprentices who worked extremely hard  at turning the Red Fir spindle and 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 woods for Bow Drills you will find. Are there others woods equally as good or better then I named? Perhaps, If so we would like to hear about them, your discoveries, mishaps, and stories in making fire using the bow drill method are welcome and helpful to other folks who drop by on their own quest for fire.

Mark Wienert has been teaching wilderness survival skills to both 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 Contact Us today. We look forward to hearing from you.





The Amazing Blue Elderberry

by Mark on August 9, 2014

The Amazing Blue Elderberry

I am a push over for the wild blue elderberry. An amazing shrub that offers the forager a tremendous bounty of uses. Parts of the elderberry can be used for making fire, musical instruments, hunting weapons, traps, and in late summer and autumn prepare the ripe blue elderberries for a sweet and delicious syrup.

“The syrup is, as you imagine, a beautiful rich purple color, incredibly delicious on home made pancakes, vanilla ice cream, or in elderberry cream pie!

Elderberry Cream Pie from Wild Edibles

The elderberry is a shrub that we cover in depth at outdoor survival Camp. Elderberries grow in riparian habitats, road banks, meadows, and damp forest openings, up to timberline.

Wild blue elderberry: Sambucus cerulea and S. racemosa range from British Columbia south to California. S. mexicana ranges from northern California south into Mexico and east into Nevada and southwestern New Mexico.  The S. callicarpa species (Pacific red elder) grows in coastal habitats from southern Alaska to central California.

Basic Elderberry Syrup

1 quart blue elderberries
Juice of one lemon
3 cups water
1 tbsp cornstarch or flour
1/4 cup sugar or honey

Crush elderberries, add 1 cup of water and sugar or honey,
and simmer for 15 minutes.  Strain, and then add 2 cups of water
to the seeds and pulp and strain again.
Add to the liquid the lemon juice and adjust sugar if desired.
Bring to a boil and thicken slightly by stirring one-tablespoon cornstarch
or flour in one-tablespoon cold water and stirring this into the simmering syrup.
Makes 5 cups
According to the author of this recipe, “This syrup has few equals when used over pancakes or ice cream.”  I have to agree, completely and happily.

I first began working with this shrub when I lived in the Sierra’s where I discovered the local Mi-Wuk community has used that blue elderberry extensively for many thousands of years as an important part of their material and musical culture.

Warning! Blue elderberry and more so, the red elderberry, contain the compound hyrocyanic acid, a compound that may lead to mild cyanide poisoning if consumed in large quantities uncooked.  The bark leaves, and roots contain the highest concentrations of the acid.  The flower clusters are non-toxic, edible, and medicinal.  If the elder berries are red, do not eat them raw!  They need boiling or drying before consumption!

Cooking or drying removes any toxicity from the blue elderberries, and this is our recommendation before consuming the berries!

A few of the very neat survival applications about the elderberry wood is its soft center pith which can easily be scraped and removed to make a hollow stem.  Straight long shafts of the wood can be made into a serviceable “Blow Gun,” and shorter sections of the wood are split part way and hollowed for clapper stick.  (A musical instrument enjoyed by the Pomo and Mi-Wuk peoples.)

If you are using the elderberry stalks green, you will want to carve off, strip, scrape, and remove all the green bark, and let the wood dry some.  A spindle made from the elderberry is excellent either for the bow drill or hand drill friction fire making process.

If you are a fan of the Man vs. Wild or Born Survivor series with Bear Grylls, Bear made fire in the Sierra episode using a long slender spindle from the wild blue elderberry.

The reason I really wanted to share the blue elderberries many qualities is elderberry cream pie, makes my mouth water just thinking about it.  We have been harvesting the ripe berries this fall.  With great anticipation and delight, we have cooked and reduced the berries in preparation for making elderberry syrup.  The syrup is the main ingredient you must make first before you make the actual elderberry cream pie itself.

We almost did not get a picture of the pie it went so fast.  Oh, and the syrup is, as you imagine, a beautiful rich color, incredibly delicious on home made pancakes, vanilla ice cream, or in elderberry cream pie!  The berries make an outstanding wine.

The berries are important food for, Western blackbird, House Finch, Red-Shafted Flicker, Ash-Throated Flycatcher, Black Headed Grosbeak, Scrub and Steller Jays, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Bullock’s and Hooded Oriole, and Phainopepla.  Please leave some berries for the birds.

Remember; positively identify any plant before use, edible, medicinal, or utilitarian application.

Recommended reading:
Edible and Useful Plants of California” by Charlotte Bringle Clarke (Great wild food recipes include the elderberry pie and syrup I am sharing here.)

“Edible and medicinal Plants of the West” By Gregory L. Tifford

Elderberry Cream Pie

3 eggs, separated
2 Tbsp grated orange or lemon peel
3/4 cup elderberry syrup
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
1/3 cup of sugar
pinch of salt
1/4 tsp cream of tarter
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1 baked 9-in pie shell.

Blend over heat until smooth:  the egg yolks, elderberry syrup, unflavored gelatin, 1/3 cup sugar, and salt.
Do not boil.  Add grated orange or lemon peel and pour into a bowl; refrigerate until slightly firm.

Do not refrigerate too long, (like overnight), just until it is slightly firm, this does not take very long. Otherwise, you will not be able to blend the whipped cream and meringue with the jelled juice.
Beat the egg whites until stiff and add cream of tarter and 1/4 cup sugar, beating continuously.

Beat heavy cream until fluffy and fold half into the egg-white mixture.
Fold the egg-white mixture into the refrigerated sauce.
Pour into pie shell and garnish with remaining whipped cream.
Serves 6

The Amazing Blue Elderberry, Thank you Charlotte Clarke, for the delicious recipes!



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