Bow drill

A bow drill is a simple rotational hand-operated tool of prehistoric origin. As a "fire drill" it was commonly used to generate friction to start a fire.[1] With time it was adapted to woodworking[2] and other tasks requiring drilling, such as dentistry.[3]

Bow Drill with annotations
Diagram of a bow drill designed for fire starting


Bow drills were used in Mehrgarh between the 4th and 5th millennium BC.[4] This bow drill—used to drill holes into lapis lazuli and carnelian—was made of green jasper.[4] Similar drills were found in other parts of the Indus Valley Civilization and Iran one millennium later.[4]


The bow drill consists of a bearing block or handhold, a spindle or drill, a hearth or fireboard, and a simple bow. Other early versions of mechanical drills include the pump drill and the hand drill.[1]

The drill offers an ancient method of starting fire without matches or a lighter, a method that applies friction to generate heat. The heat eventually produces an ember in the burnt sawdust. The ember is tiny, smaller than the head of a cigarette, and fragile. Once the ember is formed it is carefully placed into a "tinder bundle" (a bird's type nest of stringy, fluffy, and combustible material). Once the ember is in the tinder bundle it is then carefully nurtured and coaxed into flame. Once the tinder bundle bursts into flame, it is placed into the fuel that has been assembled ready for ignition.

The spindle, carved to reduce friction at one end and maximize it at the other, is held in a hole in the bottom of the bearing block, and at the other by the base board (which also is known variously as the hearth, hearth board, or fireboard). The string of the bow is wrapped once around it, so that it is tight enough not to slip during operation. A variation on this is called the Egyptian Bow Drill. It attaches the string by wrapping it around multiple times, or actually tying it to the drill or through a hole through the drill shaft, then wrapping it.

The usual position that a person assumes whilst operating the bow drill is as follows: the right knee is placed on the ground (assuming a right-handed operator) and the arch of the left foot is on the board, pinning it in place. The left wrist, holding the handhold, is hooked around the left shin and locked in place to keep it steady so it can generate enough downward pressure and speed; achieved by pushing down with the handhold and spinning the drill. The heat of the friction between the hearth and the spindle both creates charred, fuzzy dust and causes it to ignite - forming a coal or ember. The handhold is lubricated and the spindle is carved to about thumb thickness, usually 150 to 250 millimetres (6 to 10 in) long. Another option to practice is to make the "handhold" into a "mouth-hold" piece, so it's held down by pressure from the chin/mouth, leaving both hands free.

An indentation and a "v" notch into the center of the dent is made into the fireboard and the spindle is placed on it. The notch allows a place for the dust collect while it is being abraded off the spindle and the hearth. Eventually, the friction generates heat to ignite the dust, which can be used to light tinder.

A bow drill is used to ignite an ember (left), which causes tinder to combust, creating a fire

Black Moshannon State Park Bow Drill 1
Black Moshannon State Park Bow Drill 2
Black Moshannon State Park Bow Drill 3

Other methods of include drilling part-way into a hearth made by lashing two sticks together from one side, and then drilling from the other side to meet this hole; or using the area where two branches separate. This is to keep the coal off wet or snow-covered ground.

The hearth and spindle can both be constructed from any medium-soft, dry, non-resinous wood, and work best when both are made from the same piece of wood; however, with practice almost any wood combination can be used provided the parts contain little or no resin or moisture. The most important factor is whether the wood is dry enough to ignite, as wet wood will not work; yucca, aspen, white cedar, basswood, buckeye and most willows all work very well. Combinations such as hazel and poplar also work well. The bow should be stiff but slightly limber and around the distance from the users armpit to their fingertips. The bearing block (handhold) can be made of anything that is harder than the spindle. Bone, antler, shell and stone work best, as they can be easily greased, do not create as much friction, and do not burn; however, hard woods such as maple and tulip and red cedar are quite serviceable and often easier to find and work. Some effective materials used to grease the bearing block include sebum, animal and plant oils, or even moist vegetation.



Bow drill demo
A pump drill

A pump drill is a simple tool used to make holes in light materials by hand and has been in use for centuries. The drill itself is composed of: the drill shaft, a narrow board with a hole through the center, a weight (usually a heavy disc) acting as a flywheel, and a length of cord. The weight is attached near the bottom of the shaft and the hole board is slipped over the top. The cordage is run through a hole near the top of the shaft and affixed to either end of the hole board so that it hangs just above the weight. The end of the shaft usually has a square hole made to fit certain sized auger bits or a simple triangular bit made to cut while rotating in both directions.

To use, one hand is placed on the hole board while the other turns the shaft to wind the cord around its length, thus raising the hole board to near the top where the cord becomes taut. Placing the tip against the material to be drilled and held upright, a smooth downward pressure is exerted on the board, causing the drill to rapidly spin. Once the bottom is reached, the weight is relieved and the drill allowed to rebound re-winding the cord around the shaft and the process is repeated. It is a skill simple in concept, but takes some practice to master and greatly speeds up the process of making small holes.


A hand drill with a hearthboard.

The hand drill is a similar tool, but uses a longer, thinner spindle; and instead of a bearing block and bow combination, the downward pressure and spinning is achieved by rubbing the hands together around the spindle. As the hands move downward to the base, where the drill is pinched and the hands are brought quickly to the top one at a time. This can be made unnecessary by cutting a nock at the top of the drill, tying a cord through this, and then putting your thumbs through loops in the cord. However, skilled operators can either maintain pressure with their hands almost stationary vertically; or, in a movement comparable to floating, can "float" their hands back to the top of the drill. There is a more limited choice of materials to use with this method, needing much softer materials, such as mullein, yucca, cattail, and root wood.


The strap drill is similar to the bow drill but has no bow. The socket piece is shaped to be held well by the mouth, so that both hands may be free. The strap is held between one hand and the other, and wrapped around the spindle, such that rapidly moving the hands left and right spins the spindle to create friction with the fire board as in the other techniques.

See also


  1. ^ a b Frederick Webb Hodge (1 July 2003). Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico V. 1/4. Digital Scanning Inc. pp. 402–. ISBN 978-1-58218-748-8.
  2. ^ Roger Bradley Ulrich (2007). Roman Woodworking. Yale University Press. pp. 30–. ISBN 0-300-10341-7.
  3. ^ Nisha Garg; Amit Garg (30 December 2012). Textbook of Operative Dentistry. JP Medical Ltd. pp. 103–. ISBN 978-93-5025-939-9.
  4. ^ a b c Kulke, Hermann & Rothermund, Dietmar (2004). A History of India. Routledge. 22. ISBN 0-415-32920-5.

External links


The bamboo-copter, also known as the bamboo dragonfly or Chinese top (Chinese zhuqingting (竹蜻蜓), Japanese taketombo 竹蜻蛉), is a toy helicopter rotor that flies up when its shaft is rapidly spun. This helicopter-like top originated in Warring States period China around 400 BC, and was the object of early experiments by English engineer George Cayley, the inventor of modern aeronautics.In China, the earliest known flying toys consisted of feathers at the end of a stick, which was rapidly spun between the hands and released into flight. "While the Chinese top was no more than a toy, it is perhaps the first tangible device of what we may understand as a helicopter."The Jin dynasty Daoist philosopher Ge Hong's (c. 317) book Baopuzi (抱樸子 "Master Who Embraces Simplicity") mentioned a flying vehicle in what Joseph Needham calls "truly an astonishing passage".

Some have made flying cars [feiche 飛車] with wood from the inner part of the jujube tree, using ox-leather (straps) fastened to returning blades so as to set the machine in motion [huan jian yi yin chiji 環劍以引其機]. Others have had the idea of making five snakes, six dragons and three oxen, to meet the "hard wind" [gangfeng 罡風] and ride on it, not stopping until they have risen to a height of forty li. That region is called [Taiqing 太清] (the purest of empty space). There the [qi] is extremely hard, so much so that it can overcome (the strength of) human beings. As the Teacher says: "The kite (bird) flies higher and higher spirally, and then only needs to stretch its two wings, beating the air no more, in order to go forward by itself. This is because it starts gliding (lit. riding) on the 'hard wind' [gangqi 罡炁]. Take dragons, for example; when they first rise they go up using the clouds as steps, and after they have attained a height of forty li then they rush forward effortlessly (lit. automatically) (gliding)." This account comes from the adepts [xianren 仙人], and is handed down to ordinary people, but they are not likely to understand it.

Needham concludes that Ge Hong was describing helicopter tops because "'returning (or revolving) blades' can hardly mean anything else, especially in close association with a belt or strap"; and suggests that "snakes", "dragons", and "oxen" refer to shapes of man-lifting kites. Other scholars interpret this Baopuzi passage mythologically instead of literally, based on its context's mentioning fantastic flights through chengqiao (乘蹻 "riding on tiptoe/stilts") and xian (仙 "immortal; adept") techniques. For instance, "If you can ride the arches of your feet, you will be able to wander anywhere in the world without hindrance from mountains or rivers … Whoever takes the correct amulet and gives serious thought to the process may travel a thousand miles by concentrating his thoughts for one double hour." Compare this translation.

Some build a flying vehicle from the pith of the jujube tree and have it drawn by a sword with a thong of buffalo hide at the end of its grip. Others let their thoughts dwell on the preparation of a joint rectangle from five serpents, six dragons, and three buffaloes, and mount in this for forty miles to the region known as Paradise.

This Chinese helicopter toy was introduced into Europe and "made its earliest appearances in Renaissance European paintings and in the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci." The toy helicopter appears in a c. 1460 French picture of the Madonna and Child at the Musée de l'Ancien Évêché in Le Mans, and in a 16th-century stained glass panel at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A c. 1560 picture by Pieter Breughel the Elder at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna depicts a helicopter top with three airscrews."The helicopter top in China led to nothing but amusement and pleasure, but fourteen hundred years later it was to be one of the key elements in the birth of modern aeronautics in the West." Early Western scientists developed flying machines based upon the original Chinese model. The Russian polymath Mikhail Lomonosov developed a spring-driven coaxial rotor in 1743, and the French naturalist Christian de Launoy created a bow drill device with contra-rotating feather propellers.In 1792, George Cayley began experimenting with helicopter tops, which he later called "rotary wafts" or "elevating fliers". His landmark (1809) article "On Aerial Navigation" pictured and described a flying model with two propellers (constructed from corks and feathers) powered by a whalebone bow drill. "In 1835 Cayley remarked that while the original toy would rise no more than about 20 or 25 feet (6 or 7.5 metres), his improved models would 'mount upward of 90 ft (27 metres) into the air'. This then was the direct ancestor of the helicopter rotor and the aircraft propeller."Discussing the history of Chinese inventiveness, the British scientist, sinologist, and historian Joseph Needham wrote, "Some inventions seem to have arisen merely from a whimsical curiosity, such as the 'hot air balloons' made from eggshells which did not lead to any aeronautical use or aerodynamic discoveries, or the zoetrope which did not lead onto the kinematograph, or the helicopter top which did not lead to the helicopter."

Bare Island projectile point

The Bare Island projectile point is a stone projectile point of prehistoric indigenous peoples of North America. It was named by Fred Kinsey in 1959 for examples recovered at the Kent-Halley site on Bare Island in Pennsylvania.

Battle of the Centaurs (Michelangelo)

Battle of the Centaurs is a relief by Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo, created around 1492. It was the last work Michelangelo created while under the patronage of Lorenzo de' Medici, who died shortly after its completion. Inspired by a classical relief created by Bertoldo di Giovanni, the marble sculpture depicts the mythic battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. A popular subject of art in ancient Greece, the story was suggested to Michelangelo by the classical scholar and poet Poliziano. The sculpture is exhibited in the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, Italy.

Battle of the Centaurs was a remarkable sculpture in several ways, presaging Michelangelo's future sculptural direction. Michelangelo had departed from the then current practices of working on a discrete plane to work multidimensionally. It was also the first sculpture Michelangelo created without the use of a bow drill and the first sculpture to reach such a state of completion with the marks of the subbia chisel left to stand as a final surface. Whether intentionally left unfinished or not, the work is significant in the tradition of "non finito" sculpting technique for that reason. Michelangelo regarded it as the best of his early works, and a visual reminder of why he should have focused his efforts on sculpture.

Celt (tool)

In archaeology, a celt is a long, thin, prehistoric, stone or bronze tool similar to an adze, a hoe or axe-like tool.


A cist ( or ; also kist ;

from Greek: κίστη or Germanic Kiste) is a small stone-built coffin-like box or ossuary used to hold the bodies of the dead. Examples can be found across Europe and in the Middle East.

A cist may have been associated with other monuments, perhaps under a cairn or long barrow. Several cists are sometimes found close together within the same cairn or barrow. Often ornaments have been found within an excavated cist, indicating the wealth or prominence of the interred individual.

This old word is preserved in the Swedish language, where "kista" is the word for a funerary coffin.

Cumberland point

A Cumberland point is a lithic projectile point, attached to a spear and used as a hunting tool. These sturdy points were intended for use as thrusting weapons and employed by various mid-Paleo-Indians (c. 11,000 BP) in the Southeastern US in the killing of large game mammals.

Eden point

Eden Points are a form of chipped stone projectile points associated with a sub-group of the larger Plano culture. Sometimes also called Yuma points, the first Eden points were discovered in washouts in Yuma County, Colorado. They were first discovered in situ at an ancient buffalo kill site near Eden, Wyoming by Harold J. Cook in 1941. The site, named after discoverer O. M. Finley, eventually yielded 24 projectile points, including eight Eden points, eight Scottsbluff points and one complete Cody point, both other sub-groups within the Plano group. Eden points are believed to have been used between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago by paleo-indian hunters in the western plains.

Eden points are the most common paleo-indian projectile points found today. They have been discovered across the western plain states, including Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, and Montana.

Fire plough

A fire plough (or fire plow) is a firelighting tool. In its simplest form, it is two sticks rubbed together. Rubbing produces friction and heat, and eventually an ember. More advanced are "stick-and-groove" forms, which typically uses a V-shaped base piece of wood, and a "friction stick" as the activator.The typical fire plough consists of a stick cut to a dull point, and a long piece of wood with a groove cut down its length. The point of the first piece is rubbed quickly against the groove of the second piece in a "plowing" motion, to produce hot dust that then becomes a coal. A split is often made down the length of the grooved piece, so that oxygen can flow freely to the coal/ember. Once hot enough, the coal is introduced to the tinder, more oxygen is added by blowing and the result is ignition.

Folsom point

Folsom points are a distinct form of knapped stone projectile points associated with the Folsom tradition of North America. The style of tool-making was named after the Folsom Site located in Folsom, New Mexico, where the first sample was found by George McJunkin within the bone structure of a bison in 1908. The Folsom point was identified as a unique style of projectile point in 1926.

Grattoir de côté

A Grattoir de côté (translates from French as Side Scraper) is an archaeological term for a ridged variety of steep-scrapers distinguished by a working edge on one side. They were found at various archaeological sites in Lebanon including Ain Cheikh and Jdeideh II and are suggested to date to Upper Paleolithic stages three or four (Antelian).

Grinding slab

In archaeology, a grinding slab is a ground stone artifact generally used to grind plant materials into usable size, though some slabs were used to shape other ground stone artifacts. Some grinding stones are portable; others are not and, in fact, may be part of a stone outcropping.

Grinding slabs used for plant processing typically acted as a coarse surface against which plant materials were ground using a portable hand stone, or mano ("hand" in Spanish). Variant grinding slabs are referred to as metates or querns, and have a ground-out bowl. Like all ground stone artifacts, grinding slabs are made of large-grained materials such as granite, basalt, or similar tool stones.

Lamoka projectile point

Lamoka projectile points are stone projectile points manufactured by Native Americans what is now the northeastern United States, generally in the time interval of 3500-2500 B.C. They predate the invention of the bow and arrow, and are therefore not true "arrowheads", but rather atlatl dart points. They derive their name from the specimens found at the Lamoka site in Schuyler County, New York.

Pesse canoe

The Pesse canoe is believed to be the world's oldest known boat, and certainly the oldest known canoe. Carbon dating indicates that the boat was constructed during the early mesolithic period between 8040 BCE and 7510 BCE. It is now in the Drents Museum in Assen, Netherlands.

Plano point

In archeology, Plano point is flaked stone projectile points and tools created by the various Plano cultures of the North American Great Plains between 9000 BC and 6000 BC for hunting, and possibly to kill other humans.

They are bifacially worked and have been divided into numerous sub-groups based on variations in size, shape and function including Alberta points, Cody points, Frederick points, Eden points and Scottsbluff points. Plano points do not include the hollowing or 'fluting' found in Clovis and Folsom points.


In archeology, a racloir, also known as racloirs sur talon (French for scraper on the platform), is a certain type of flint tool made by prehistoric peoples.

It is a type of side scraper distinctive of Mousterian assemblages. It is created from a flint flake and looks like a large scraper. As well as being used for scraping hides and bark, it may also have been used as a knife. Racloirs are most associated with the Neanderthal Mousterian industry. These racloirs are retouched along the ridge between the striking platform and the dorsal face. They have shaped edges and are modified by abrupt flaking from the dorsal face.


Suiren (Chinese: 燧人, pinyin: suì rén) appears in Chinese mythology and some works which draw upon it. Suiren (literally, "Fire Maker") is credited as a culture hero who introduce humans to the production of fire and its use for cooking (Wu 1982, 51, and Christie 1968, 84). He was included on some ancient lists of the legendary Three August Ones, who lived long before Emperor Yao, Emperor Shun, and the emperors of the earliest historical Chinese dynasty (Xia), and even before the Yellow Emperor & Yandi. Suiren’s innovation may have been the bow drill which dates back at least to the Indus Valley Civilization.

Tool stone

In archaeology, a tool stone is a type of stone that is used to manufacture stone tools,

or stones used as the raw material for tools.Generally speaking, tools that require a sharp edge are made using cryptocrystalline materials that fracture in an easily controlled conchoidal manner.

Cryptocrystalline tool stones include flint and chert, which are fine-grained sedimentary materials; rhyolite and felsite, which are igneous flowstones; and obsidian, a form of natural glass created by igneous processes. These materials fracture in a predictable fashion, and are easily resharpened. For more information on this subject, see lithic reduction.

Large-grained materials, such as basalt, granite, and sandstone, may also be used as tool stones, but for a very different purpose: they are ideal for ground stone artifacts. Whereas cryptocrystalline materials are most useful for killing and processing animals, large-grained materials are usually used for processing plant matter. Their rough faces often make excellent surfaces for grinding plant seeds. With much effort, some large-grained stones may be ground down into awls, adzes, and axes.


In archeology, a uniface is a specific type of stone tool that has been flaked on one surface only. There are two general classes of uniface tools: modified flakes—and formalized tools, which display deliberate, systematic modification of the marginal edges, evidently formed for a specific purpose.

Yubetsu technique

The Yubetsu technique (湧別技法, Yūbetsu gihō) is a special technique to make microblades, proposed by Japanese scholar Yoshizaki in 1961, based on his finds in some Upper Palaeolithic sites in Hokkaido, Japan, which date from c. 13,000 bp.

The name comes from the Yūbetsu River (湧別川, Yubetsugawa), on the right bank of which the Shirataki (白滝遺跡, Shirataki Iseki) Palaeolithic sites were discovered.

To make microblades by this technique, a large biface is made into a core which looks like a tall carinated scraper. Then one lateral edge of the bifacial core is removed, producing at first a triangular spall. After, more edge removals will produce ski spalls of parallel surfaces.

This technique was also used from Mongolia to Kamchatka Peninsula during the later Pleistocene.

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