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Fire By Friction – A High-Tech Bow Drill “Roller Bearing” Bearing Block

Sharing bushcraft skills and outdoor experiences with people is a tremendous privilege and so events and courses leave us with precious memories, but the highlight for us has got to watching somebody making their first flame using fire by friction. For some years now, especially when working with large groups and also with younger learners, we have been using a high-tech roller bearing bow drill bearing block.

The look on somebody’s face when they start generating smoke from any form of friction fire lighting kit is a magical moment from any instructor or educators perspective, there is a look of wonderment and hope. When a successful ember is created and blown to flame in a tinder bundle it’s an awe-inspiring moment to watch, according to one client it was as significant as “watching my first child being born”!

Fire by friction with the bow drill

Using the bow drill method of friction fire lighting is not a dark art and you certainly don’t have to have you kit imbued with mystical powers by a bespectacled teenage wizard from popular fiction. Successful use of the bow drill in particular it is about selecting the correct materials in the right condition, some accurate and patient knife skills, developing a solid stance and technique all followed by some micro-analysis of what is happening and perhaps more importantly what is going wrong.

With some experimentation, practice and confidence in your skills and your bow drill set creating embers in under 10 seconds can be quite easy as can creating fire in just over the minute mark. In 2011 I won the National Bow Drill Competition with a recorded time for starting to bow to creating flame in 1minute 2.4seconds and this was achieved with a borrowed set that I’d not used before.  

When working with large groups where we use pre-manufactured bow drill sets and there is no knife work by the student I noticed some years ago that our time was greatly consumed by having to constantly sharpen and reshape the bearing block end of the drill or spindle. This meant that all the while we are doing the knife work we can’t assist, coach and encourage others. With this in mind we had a tinker in the workshop, the result being a high-tech bow drill bearing block using skateboard Z809 liner slide bearings.This greatly reduced the time we were spending doing the knife work which therefore increased the number of people that walked away having certainly made their first ember if not flame, as taking ember to flame is a different story altogether!

Now some of the purists will say “that’s cheating” or “that’s not how they did it in the book I read years ago”, but it works and it certainly can make fire by friction achievable when struggling with traditional materials and techniques in a limited timeframe which can end up with people leaving a session disappointed and frustrated. Also this gives us as instructors and guides more time to help the clients and, at the end of the day, the difficulty can be raised if needed by removing the high-tech bearing blocks and going back to the traditional harder and/or greener all wooden bearing blocks.

What we have also found with the “roller bearing” bearing block is that it can promote and build better muscle memory in those new to the bow drill as the struggle and wrestle with the bearing block is greatly reduced.

Feedback from clients we have tried this with has been exceptionally positive especially from those that have either been previously taught or tried bow drill with little or no success. They have felt that their technique and stance has been greatly improved – not to mention their confidence bolstered by achieving an ember and even flame!

With this in mind we thought it would be nice to share how we make a high-tech bearing block with our readers in this photo “how to make” guide.

We took a wrist thick length of timber; sliver birch in this case and clamped it in the workshop vice for stability.

Wrist sized Silver Birch in vice at the Badger Buschraft Workshop

Then we determined the length to be cut off, we would recommend just slightly wider than the palm of your hand; this means you are gripping the soft roundness of the wood and that the edges do not bite into your skin when applying downward pressure when bowing.

Getting the right size for the bearing block

Cutting with a Laplander folding saw

Next we cleaved the round in two with a knife and baton, taking advantage of a natural drying crack. Incidentally the knife in this picture is a Wood Bear WBK-TSS from Andras Csorba in the United States.

Wood Bear WBK-TSS in action

We then chamfered or bevelled the edges of the bearing block to remove the acute edges and to make the bearing block comfortable to use. Then a cleaved half was securely mounted in the bench vice and the centre marked.

Chamfered or beveled edges to the bearing block

Centre marked on the bearing block in the vice

We then selected the drill bits from a selection of flat spade bits we keep for woodworking. The Z809 bearings we use require a 22mm bit to seat them securely. We have found that having the bearing either seated rebated or just slightly proud works better than a flush finish as it helps clients locate the bow drill easier. Care needs to be taken with drilling to ensure the bearing fits square in the seating and not at an angle.

22mm flat spade driil bit for the Z809 bearing

With the bearing fitting snugly we then need to ensure that the inner ring of the roller bearing, that we want to move freely, is not fouled, this requires an inner ring to be drilled with a slightly oversized bit, we used a 14mm flat spade bit.

14mm for the inner moving ring of the Z809 bearing

22mm seating and 14mm inner rebate for the Z809 bearing

Next you will need some methylated spirits or similar to degrease the bearing and some suitable adhesive to glue the bearing in place, we used a rapid setting epoxy adhesive.

Meths, epoxy adhesive and cotton buds

With the roller bearing degreased and dry we carefully applied the mixed epoxy adhesive to the inner wall and high un-rebated base of the block. Care needs to be taken to apply the right amount of glue – too much might foul the bearing. A good applicator and a nice bit of recycling is to use the stick of the cotton bud we used to degrease the bearing.

Carefully applying glue to the side wall and top of the bearing mount

With the glue in place carefully slot in the bearing and ensure that it is fully inserted and leave so the adhesive cures.

High-Tec Roller Bearing Bearing Block

Once dry give it a try.

Time to make five minutes each, cost for glue £3.00, cost of bearings 40p each, watching somebody create fire by friction for the first time PRICELESS.

If you give these “roller bearing” bearing blocks a try let us know how you get on!

All the best,

Phil and Co.


#7 Phil Brown 2013-06-21 08:00
Hi Julian,

The bearings I found under skateboard parts on good old eBay.

All the best,

Phil and Co.
#6 Julian 2013-05-26 16:16
Hi Phil

I'd like to make some of these hi tech bearning blocks for our Scouts to use. As has been mentioned time and strength is not always on our side and I think using one of these would give us a useful advantage when teaching younger people.

Can I ask where you bought the bearings ?

#5 Martin 2013-01-18 12:54
I understand where the "purist" sentiment comes from with respect to the comment about carrying a lighter and petrol. However, for those learning who might lack time, or for whom it is important to see some kind of success during a lesson, I think the use of aids such as this can be helpful. After all, the effort still has to be put in, its just that with a roller bearing, more of the energy put in will end up at the right end of the drill. I look at it in the same way I see stabilisers on a bicycle - they aren't meant to be there forever, and they don't defeat the object of riding a bike. they are there to give confidence and facilitate good technique with the immeasurable benefit of seeing success in a reasonable time.
#4 Phil Brown 2013-01-07 14:02
This is a comment left via email from fellow bushcraft instructor Dave Nott:-

Hi Phill
I completely get the concept.
When dealing with young and in some cases-disabled people, the end result can outway the materials having to be perfect.
I have seen sea shells being used along with bottle tops and stones with holes in them. At the end of the day the ember comes from the opposite end of the spindle anyway.
I thought bushcraft was about making yourself as comfortable in the bush as possible, nothing wrong with ingenuity to help the disadvantaged.
I use shredded newspaper for my "birds nest", costs nothing and is biodegradeable.
Happ days.
Dave Nott
#3 Darryl Gough 2012-11-14 13:56
Hi Phil,
I work for our local authority supporting Looked After Children and Care Leavers. it pleased me to see your 'assist' idea to make fire by friction with the aid of a bearing. A number of our children and young people do lack in confidence and or may have differing abilities. I think this idea coupled with Dave Watson's idea of using a leaver will go a long way in esuring that our young people have a better chance of reaching the outcome of creating Fire by Friction.

Yours thankfully

#2 Phil Brown 2012-10-08 08:46
Hi Richard,

Thanks for the comment and your thoughts.

I think the whole point of this item and article is to endeavour to make some incredible experiences slightly more accessible to some that might struggle with more traditional methods or for those of limited ability, physically challenged and the young getting their first ember is a very powerful and possibly life changing moment.

Also the use of more traditional methods can be used at any stage and different wood combinations can obviously be used to make the task easier to achieve or more challenging.

Getting people of all ages and abilities actively involved in bushcraft opens so many doors and opportunities for an enriched lifestyle and a love of life-long learning in so many diverse fields of study.

I hope this answers you question.

Kindest regards,

#1 Richard@Home 2012-10-05 17:27
Isn't the point of fire by friction to use primative techniques and naturally found materials? Otherwise you might as well pack a lighter and a can of petrol...

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