Mas­ter­ing the Hand Drill


Modern Pioneer - - Con­tents - By Alan Hal­con

| 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.”

Down­ward Pres­sure

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.


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.


The au­thor shows his mule­fat drill and his hearth made from ash. PHOTO BY CHRISTO­PHER NY­ERGES

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