Mastering the Hand Drill
TECHNIQUES TO ACHIEVE “SPEED COALS”
| Techniques to achieve “speed coals”
Asurvival situation, by definition, means a threat to life. It means one is facing an emergency and that failure to mitigate this situation quickly can lead to loss of life. So, imagine—to my bewilderment—how I felt when asked to write an article on the hand drill for Modern Pioneer’s sister publication, American Surivival Guide.
First, I thought, That is about as antisurvival as one can get! Why? Because it can be very difficult to start a fire with the hand drill on a good day and nearly impossible on a bad one. I’ve seen many skilled men (myself included) fail terribly with the hand drill when the pressure was on. Most people who try the hand drill can go a lifetime without ever actually making a fire with it.
In other words, to regard this as a viable survival skill is irresponsible, in my opinion. It’s better left as a skill to demonstrate a bygone time, showing what native people did to start a fire when nothing else was available, rather than as a survival method. At best, in a survival situation, it’s viable scope is possibly limited to prisoners of war or people with no gear truly lost in the wilderness. Beyond that, any prudent person would properly prepare with numerous ways to make a fire before heading to the outdoors.
According to the great Mors Kochanski, speaking about the less-difficult bow and drill:
“A person who knows how to light a fire with a bow drill won’t allow himself to be caught in the bush without matches. And if you’re the type of person who causes yourself to be caught in the bush without matches, you’re likely too stupid to know how to light fire with the bow drill.” Harsh words, but true.
“… it can be very difficult to start a fire with the hand drill on a good day and nearly impossible on a bad one.”
Why a Drill Then?
Why are the hand drill, the bow and drill and other friction fire methods included in so many survival manuals if they are not viable survival methods? Frankly, I’m not exactly sure.
I got interested in making a coal this way, because I wasn’t sure it could actually be done. I became obsessed with perfecting the art. It was a personal challenge. I’m often credited with holding the world record for achieving a coal with the hand drill (two seconds). And although that might be true, I more routinely fall within the three- to fivesecond range, depending on the materials.
Here are the techniques I’ve used to help achieve what I call “speed coals.”
After coaching thousands of students through the use of the hand-drill, I’ve found that the single biggest problem they have has to do with downward pressure, or rather, the lack thereof.
Assuming the wood used is properly cured (thoroughly dry and free of moisture), and the wood densities and sizes are optimum, the single biggest reason for failure, in my experience, is lack of downward pressure. Even while I am personally present to help coach a student, the ability to apply downward pressure is the biggest hurdle everyone seems to have.
Speed is important, but downward pressure is of greater importance, and I often demonstrate this by decreasing my spinning speed and increasing my downward pressure. Almost instantly, I still develop smoke. However, if I decrease the pressure and increase the speed, I rarely get smoke.
Fix the Problem
No two people are built the same; and really, the size of the person doesn’t matter.
I’ve had fairly muscular men fail at getting the hand drill coal, while much leaner, older women successfully achieve a coal. What mattered was their ability to apply the pressure where it was needed.
Here are some common positions for doing the hand drill and how they affect your ability to apply downward pressure:
The Prayer or Kneeling Position: As with the seated position, your body weight is centered over the ground under your rump. And, as with the seated position, you rely solely on your arms to apply sufficient downward pressure.
The Seated and Crossed-leg Position: The seated position comes in a couple of variations, either crossed leg or one leg slightly extended to hold down the hearth. In either case, your body weight is centered over your rump, which is in contact with the ground. In this position, you are completely dependent on your arms to apply sufficient downward pressure to achieve a coal. For some, this is viable, but for most, this can be very difficult.
The Bow-drill Position: In what I call the bow-drill position, you raise up off your rump and shift your weight forward and nearer over the top of the drill. However, in this position, your arms are still extended. As a result, the ability to apply downward pressure is still reliant only on your arms.
The Short-stance Position: By closing your stance and keeping your elbows bent (instead of outstretching your arms), you can shift more of your weight over the drill, effectively allowing you to apply more downward pressure.
“‘A person who knows how to light a fire with a bow drill won’t allow himself to be caught in the bush without matches.’”
The Test and Results
Several years ago, I conducted an experiment to see how body positions
affected my ability to apply downward pressure.
With the aid of a standard bathroom scale and my favorite hand drill at the time, I took up the different positions. While applying as much downward pressure as I could, I recorded my results.
Prayer position 20 pounds Crossed-leg position 19 pounds Bow-drill position 23 pounds Sitting position 19 pounds Short-stance position 31 pounds
You can see that the short stance allows you to apply more downward pressure than all of the others. This equates to the ability to produce a coal faster than using the other positions. By doing this, you will also be less fatigued.
I tried the prayer position by also getting up on my knees instead of sitting on my calves. This small change in position shifted my weight forward, closer to the action. The result: the amount of pressure applied jumped from 20 to 30 pounds. This position is great but doesn’t allow you to hold the base under your foot as the short-stance position does.
Use Your Hands Correctly
Another simple little tweak that helps improve your ability to apply downward pressure is to use the meaty portion of the palms, the section of the palm that is at the base of the pinky. By slightly opening your palms—not too much—and shifting the contact points to those sections of your palms, you can more easily dig into the drill and apply more downward pressure.
Use the fatty portion, or blades, of the hands.
PHOTO BY ALAN HALCON
D. A. The seated and crossed-leg position
B. The bow-and-drill position
C. The kneeling or prayer position
D. The short-stance position PHOTOS BY ALAN HALCON
The author examines shafts of mulefat, an ideal wood for the hand drill.
PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER NYERGES
The author shows his mulefat drill and his hearth made from ash. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER NYERGES