Traditional Firestarting Part I: How to Make Fire with Flint and Steel

by A Manly Guest Contributor on January 5, 2011 · 23 comments

in Manly Skills, Self-Reliance, Survival

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Darren Bush.

There is something magical about making fire from materials other than the standard Bic lighter or Ohio Blue-Tips. Moreover, it is often a better method than matches.

Using flint and steel is one of the easiest of the match-free fire-making methods. Here’s how it’s done:

The Flint

Flint isn’t really a single rock, it’s more like a loose family of rocks at about eight or so on the Mohs scale of hardness. Cherts and flints are multi-colored, depending on their chemical content and vary in hardness.

I use Niagara chert because it’s easy to find in my area – several unglaciated areas have chert deposits that are easy to harvest. The ideal flint for striking a spark has a sharp, acute edge that will take a bite out of the steel.  The flint sometimes needs to be “dressed,” or knapped with a hammer or other flint to get that proper edge. A round cobble of flint will not work until it is properly edged.

It is a common misconception that the flint particles make the spark. This is due to the average person seeing the little dark flint in a disposable lighter, and the steel wheel that does not wear, while the flint does. This is not true flint but a compound of cerium and iron that burns when scratched.

The true flint itself does not spark. Rather, the high pressure exerted on the steel causes a small curl of steel to peel off and ignite. To understand why the steel ignites, bend a coat hanger over and over again in one spot. Soon it will be so hot you cannot touch it.  That energy warms the metal. Now imagine putting all the force of your downward stroke into a microscopic flake of metal. Of course it burns!

The Steel

A good steel is made of a high-carbon tool steel. My favorite is W1, a water-quenched tool steel that I quench in oil to get it to the proper hardness. When oil-quenched, it is hard enough to resist the pressure of the flint, except for the small piece that ignites. A properly treated steel should give off thousands of sparks, if not millions, before being lost. You will certainly not wear one out. If the steel becomes too hot, it must be re-tempered before it can be used again.

The shape of the steel is a personal preference. C-steels, which are roughly the shape of a letter “C,” are most common.

U-steels are often used by folks with larger hands who can’t get them comfortably in a C-steel. They are both used in the same manner.

The Char Cloth

You can make sparks all day without causing so much as a wisp of smoke if you are not giving your sparks a happy and fruitful ground upon which to light. The best material for such fire-starting is char cloth, which is simply linen or cotton cloth that has been burned in a low-oxygen environment (like the small tin in the above illustration). A small hole poked in the top allows smoke and pressure to escape without the oxygen burning the cloth completely.

To make char cloth, pack a small airtight tin with linen or cotton patches about 2 inches square. Place the tin on some hot coals in a fireplace or campfire and let it cook for at least 20 minutes, or until the smoke subsides from the hole you poked in the top. Let it cool completely, and don’t open it for several hours or even overnight – the cloth will catch flame and burn to a cinder.

Once you have char cloth, you need…

Tinder


Everyone knows what tinder is. It’s anything that burns if a spark lands on it – dryer lint, dry grass, whatever. Finding dry tinder is another article unto itself, and there are lots of places to do so, but success depends so much on what terrain you’re in that it’s not worth talking about here. What is worth talking about is a lightweight, portable substitute: oakum.

Oakum is made from jute fibers, the same stuff gunnysacks are made of. It is normally pounded into the seams of a wooden boat as sort of a primitive caulking. A little bit of oakum is easily fluffed into a small nest, which can accept your char cloth once it carries a spark. It’s available on-line in many places; a pound will cost you about $7.00 and will last years.

Technique

It’s pretty simple, actually. First, make sure your tinder is prepared and ready to accept your char cloth. Make a nest as shown, and put it where you can reach it easily. Your fire bed should be already prepared with kindling and fuel and ready to accept your burning tinder.

Now place a small piece of char cloth on the top of the flint as shown. The goal is to shave off a very small strip of metal that will burn and land on the char cloth. Striking down at about a 30-degree angle should create a spark or two, which will cause the cloth to glow red where they land. This often happens on the edge of the cloth and is hard to see in bright sunlight. If a spark lands on the char cloth, wait and blow gently on it until you see either a glowing crescent or nothing. If nothing, go back to striking.

If you do have a glowing piece of char cloth, great! Fold it onto itself and blow gently to encourage the spark to spread. Here’s the wonderful thing about starting a fire this way – the best time to do it is in the wind, where matches are blown out quickly. In fact, the stronger the wind, the faster your char will be consumed. Place the glowing char into the prepared tinder nest and carefully fold it in on itself. Remember, you still need oxygen in there.

Blowing gently will cause you to see wisps of smoke coming from the bundle. Perfect. Just keep blowing, and pretty soon – POOF! You’ll be ready to start a fire.

With practice, you will be able to start fires consistently and often faster than with conventional methods, especially in adverse conditions. If you have any questions, feel free to comment, and I’ll answer as best I can.

Read Part II: Fire from Friction.

_____________________________________________________________

Darren Bush is the owner and Chief Paddling Evangelist of Rutabaga, but he’s also an amateur blacksmith, longbow shooter, and primitive skill aficionado. He believes primitive skills are highly undervalued in modern society.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ryan Tyler January 5, 2011 at 6:48 pm

I agree that primitive skills are undervalued, and this is a solid overview of how to start a fire using flint and steel. If I may add two suggestions: before you throw away your next tin, remember that you can keep your tinder in it. However, in my experience the most important thing is to light the campfire when no one is watching. Trying to impress your wife while camping? My advice is to light the fire while she’s in the washroom.
Ryan

2 Nate January 5, 2011 at 7:03 pm

While I love traditional flint and steel, I have found that it is easier to keep this one tool with me than a flint and steel kit, or even a magnesium bar. It is called a fire piston, and works by compression igniting directly on the tinder material.

http://www.wildersol.com/

3 Adi January 5, 2011 at 8:41 pm

I love lighting my fires with flint and steel–it’s so much more satisfying to sit in front of a roaring fire you created without “help”.. Although I just use dryer lint to start mine–free and plentiful!

4 Michael January 5, 2011 at 9:46 pm

I’ve been starting fires with flint and steel for years! It is challenging, but rewarding

5 Blue Shoe January 6, 2011 at 12:08 am

Interesting article. Question: how difficult is it to start a fire without the char cloth? Granted I’m not an outdoorsman, but I’ve never heard of that before.

6 Kurt January 6, 2011 at 12:32 am

Making a fire using flint and steel is a great thing to do with a son or daughter. My son and I went into our backyard woods this past weekend and practiced our firemaking skills. We gathered the lower, dead branches of white pine trees for kindling, and then he used his new Ka-Bar knife (Christmas present) to baton some larger pieces of dry wood to add after we had the kindling burning well. We used jute that we obtained from the local craft store to catch the spark. Soon we had a nice warm fire to take off the chill from the cold wind that was blowing. The satisfaction my son had from helping build the fire and learning how to start it from a few sparks was such a rewarding experience for both of us.

7 Steve Harrington January 6, 2011 at 3:04 am

Great post. I got a flint and steel set for Christmas and just practiced using it to light a fire in the fireplace last night. Much more satisfying than matches!

8 Liverpoolpaddy January 6, 2011 at 6:26 am

I bought a firesteel a few years ago and it works wonders! With a small square of rubber cut from a bicycle inner-tube, you can perform one of the greatest feats of fire-starting.

You need to prepare the edge of the rubber by cutting little fine nicks into the edge to increase its surface area, then completely submerge the rubber,flint and steel in water (a pint glass will work if you are in a city!)

Take them all out, give the rubber a quick rub, then strike away. The rubber should ctch first time, almost straight from the water. Nothing else will light like that with all the firemaking implements completely water retardent.

9 Ted January 6, 2011 at 7:24 am

Instead of char cloth, I carry cotton balls smeared with petroleum jelly (vaseline) as backup fire starters while I’m backpacking. They compress incredibly small and a small piece can be teased out into a nice sized nest. When lit, they’ll burn for 10 minutes or more.

10 Josh Smith January 6, 2011 at 8:03 am

I’d love to see a video of this!

11 Jordan January 6, 2011 at 8:09 am

Be sure to practice before you are out in the woods! I can’t stress this enough.

My personal favourite method is to use a firesteel and cotton balls (or some other fluffy plant material at my campsite).

12 Alex January 6, 2011 at 9:15 am

When I was a kid I had my mom save dryer lint for months. I had a gallon zip top bag heaping full of that magical fire-starting fluff.

13 Brian January 6, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Great article, but I agree with Josh. How about a video for the visual learners out here.

14 dave January 6, 2011 at 5:42 pm

I slightly less primitive yet effective way, is to use a commercial flint and steel such as the one made by gerber. I use cottonballs saturated with petroleum jelly. Pull the cotton fibers apart so they are loosely held together.strike the steel above the cotton balls they will ignite very easily and the petroleum ensures that it will burn in any conditions and long enough to start a fire.

15 Tony January 6, 2011 at 8:26 pm

As a longbow and flintlock shooter I also agree that primitive skills are under used and appreciated these days. Small bits of charcol from an old fire serves the same purpose as the char cloth with the benefit of being more durable and longer burning. Like any primitive skill, practice prior to that skill being necessary is essential.

16 Jeff Wagner January 7, 2011 at 4:22 pm

We have several video clips on the Wilderness Solutions website showing flint and steel without charcloth as well as fire by friction. http://www.wildersol.com/FlintSteel.html

17 Aaron maier January 8, 2011 at 1:00 pm

If anyone has done bow drilling before. Tell me what preference you have for fire boards I’ve used mine up and pine isn’t to nice to work with anymore

18 Ben January 10, 2011 at 5:18 pm

I have a question to do with frequency of the strike, I find that it can be quite difficult without blindly striking very quickly, I must admit i have never been taught by anybody; I have read the basics, but last weekend i was trying to start a fire using the above method without any joy. I eventually gave up and used a match as everybody else I was camping with was ancy to get the fire under-way.

19 Tim Raveling January 13, 2011 at 11:28 am

I just got a new firesteel for Christmas and spent quite some time trying to figure out how it works. Turns out it’s not actually the energy of the strike (or the friction of the strike) that causes the spark.

Iron is pyrophoric, which means that it heats up on contact with air, during the process of oxidation. That means if you have a big chunk of iron, only the very thin layer of material on the surface of the piece can heat up before it oxidizes, and the heat is dissipated throughout a large amount of metal.

When you use a flint, though, you chip off very tiny pieces of non-oxidized iron. Each of those particles has a large surface area relative to the amount of iron, which is very small. It’s that ratio that counts: the oxidation on a tiny particle of iron is enough to light it on fire at quite a high heat. That high heat is one of the reasons it works so well.

20 Pat January 13, 2011 at 7:57 pm

I like using flint and steel to start my camping stove. Turn on the gas and strike so the sparks land on the burner. It’s a whole lot safer than using a match and it doesn’t matter if it’s wet or windy.

21 Darren January 15, 2011 at 12:26 pm

There’s clearly a lot of interest here…and a lot of good ideas. Thank you.

Dryer lint works great for tinder, especially after you dry some cotton flannel sheets. keeping a tin or film canister works great. Cattail fluff works pretty good too.

I also keep cotton balls infused with petroleum jelly and they work well for emergency starts (you can smear them on the bottom of a piece of kindling). All good ideas.

Charcoal instead of char cloth — yep, that works too and you have the advantage of not having to carry char cloth. I just find that char catches a spark easier, but that’s my experience. I need to expand my techniques, I think. Thanks for the kick in the bum. Something similar that I used to use out in the western deserts a split piece of yucca stalk, charred by a fire. You can carry that around easier than char (it’s less fragile) and it catches sparks beautifully.

I have magnesium strikers too, and keep one in my emergency bail out bag. If it’s windy, I find the shavings blow away unless you’re very careful (or lucky), and if you mis-strike and hit the leaf or whatever you’re using to catch the shavings…it’s over. The one-handed Gerber-like plunger types are better, I think. They throw a lot of sparks and work great with the aforementioned cotton/petroleum jelly combo.

A video…good idea. I will have to build another striker…I just gave mine away to a canoe guide in Ontario. I can also do a video of how to make char cloth, which is fun to do anyway.

I actually have a piece written on fire pistons but I probably won’t publish it here. They are cool, though, and I have a couple, one I built from leftover osage from a longbow project. Don’t use it too much, not sure why.

The question about fire by friction…there’s another article coming soon on AofM. Bow drill and hand drill. Fun stuff.

22 FireSteel.com January 25, 2011 at 1:50 pm

Yes, iron and other elements will spontaneously ignite upon contact with oxygen in the air. This is also known as “rusting” or oxidation.

When you break off a tiny piece of iron by hitting your your flint against a firesteel, that tiny piece of iron oxidizes as it flies through the air. The process of oxidation produces heat. Because a small particle has a very large surface area relative to its mass, while oxidizing it glows red hot for a short time due to the accumulated heat of oxidation.

We use high carbon steel for making firesteels because this kind of steel is brittle – making it easier to break off tiny pieces when struck with a flint or other hard object.

The “modern” firesteels contain rare earths such as the element cerium, which also oxidize upon contact with oxygen in the air. These are often rod shaped, come with or without a handle, and easily produce a huge shower of sparks – much easier to use than the steel and flint of yesteryear.

Survival experts and outdoorsmen have taken to carrying these modern firesteels as they are much easier to start fires with. One firesteel can light thousands of fires before wearing out, they work even wet, have no shelf life (as long as they are stored dry).

23 vh March 7, 2014 at 9:40 am

THANK YOU! This is exactly what I needed for a scene in the current novel I’m scribbling. Could not be better. :-D

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