Make Fire with a Eskimo Style Pump Drill

Using the same friction principles better known as used with the Bow & Spindle, this variation utilizes sophisticated but simple principles of physics to enable virtually anyone to turn the spindle.

Fire-making Eskimo Pump Drill

by PapaD Wright


This fire making Pump Drill started as a homemade Christmas stocking-stuffer toy that I modified for the real deal of making fire by taping a longer piece of wood onto the smaller wooden block counter-weight in order to develop enough centrifugal force to get enough friction for fire. This version appears in the video clip making an ember.

I have heard these called Iroquois Pump Drills. I won’t dispute that the Iroquois Indians may have used these, as may have many other Native Americans, but as a matter of academics, these appear in archaeological digs in abundance in Alaska thousands of years before the Iroquois even had their own identity. One such example is a dig near Kotzebue, Alaska, on the NW coast just above the Arctic Circle. Prior to being a dig, this site was my playground for a time as a gument brat when Dad worked for the FAA at the station in Kotzebue. I have seen many fascinating artifacts right from the sand and tundra.

Nannucck, the Inventor

Nannucck is  a prehistoric Eskimo* with predisposed curiosity and keen skills of observation. He briefly rests, enjoying the rays of a low midnight sun. His rest is deserved, but rare during the summer. He knows his family’s life depends upon putting up food enough for most of the ten months of winter; he has been arduously preparing  the meats from his most recent hunt. The summer is halfway spent and he is feeling less frantic now as he watches the carcasses he has hung on tripods of driftwood. He knows the long days will soon yield to harsh cold and darkness. It is a familiar sight by now, as an adult–one observed since childhood and by untold generations before him.

Gusts of Arctic wind gently spin the hanging masses of seal and Beluga, amid wooden racks of drying salmon and Shea-fish. Nannucck is a successful man known for his bravery, hard work, and natural inclination for solving problems. He is often called on by fellow villagers for his wisdom and clear thinking. A notion gnaws at Nunnucck as it has for a few summers while he watches the undulating bundles of meat rise and fall. The wind spins them up one way until they can rise no farther and then the motion reverses to spin back down and back up the other way. The cycle has always been fascinating and is now hypnotic against the backdrop of fatigue and pastels reflecting on the bay. Nannucck almost dozes.

Somewhere between not quite asleep and emerging images from dreams, a creative process comes full circle and awakes Nannucck with a start. He no longer feels fatigued as he rises to reach the secondary shaft of his harpoon, the smaller one fashioned from the leg bone of a Caribou cow. It is the primary shaft of moose bone traded from the spruce people beyond the coastal tundra that Nannucck prizes most–but his vision demands a lighter segment. He first removes the green stone harpoon head from the socket at the lower end of the shaft, then he unfastens the hide thong to release the shaft from the much heavier primary segment.

Nannucck now loops the leather thong over the notch at the top of the shaft with equal lengths hanging along each side and turns the shaft, wrapping the thong in an even twist along the shaft. He holds the shaft upright and places it against his calloused palm. His brow furrows as he studies how to make his minds-eye vision approximate his makeshift counterpart. He sorts through the fragments of dried bone and driftwood he has stacked aside for his family’s winter enterprise. His bone knife expertly gouges and pries until a foot-long piece of smooth wood has a hole through its center. He runs the bone shaft through the hole and ties the hanging thong to the ends of the perpendicular  wooden piece.

Nannucck gazes at the hanging meats. The wind has now calmed. The protected inlet Nannucck’s Arctic home is now almost glass-like, belying the angry whitecaps that frequent the brief summer. The twisting undulations have all but subsided, but Nannucck intuitively knows that he must invoke the centrifugal forces of inertia as a final piece to bring his vision to life. He has experience with the twirling bolas used to snare waterfowl as they fly from their nesting grounds on a nearby peninsula; commonsense tells him he will need a counterweight to keep the spindle in motion after completing the first downward push. A spinal facet from the heap of bleached remains from past harvests provides a suitable weight which he deftly threads onto the bone shaft and secures it with a leather thong from old fish racks.

Finally, Nannucck selects a smaller fishing point from his kit of knapped green stones and affixes it into the socket at the end of the shaft. No more than half an hour has elapsed from start to finish before Nannucck is smiling broadly to himself and spinning a hole into a piece of ivory with much less effort and precision than he ever imagined. He clutches half of a half-dried salmon with his invention to carry home, making his way past the sand and gravel to higher ground along the path to his hut. He hopes Chuccukaka will awake so he can share his cleverness with her.


Nannucck is pleased with his invention. He sees many possibilities for increasing productivity of items his family will make from bone and ivory during the frozen winter months. They will trade the items locally and with wayfaring traders who will take them far along established trade routes. This prehistoric Eskimo* inventor has no idea that his pump drill will also make its way across the Bering Straight into Asia, Europe, and beyond. It will one day find the artisans of Egypt and Israel. It will make its way east and south into the anterior and to the opposing coast of the American Continent, past the mountains and jungles of the equator, and to the islands and a continent of the South Pacific.

Nannucck has no clue that his flash of creative vision will change how the world works–and revolutionize how many peoples make fire around the world. But tonight he will sleep well, knowing he is on his way to having food stockpiled for another winter and possessing a new approach to old problems.

* No offense is intended by the use of the term Eskimo. No one really knows where it came from or to whom it originally referred, but those native residents of the Alaskan Arctic with whom I am acquainted today are proud to claim this designation–whether or not they may actually be descendants of those ancient peoples represented in this story by Nannucck–recent efforts by academics and politicians to relabel them as Inuits notwithstanding. These Eskimos are among the best natured people I know.

You can find the full details of how to make and use a pump drill for fire making including videos at the following link One Hundred Ways to Make Fire without Matches


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