Traditional Fire starting : How to Make Fire with Flint and SteelThere 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:
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.
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 SteelA 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.
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 ClothYou 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…
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.
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
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.
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.
Traditional Firestarting : Fire from Friction
If you want to understand how fire by friction works, consider the time you slid down the slide at the playground and realized you were going way too fast. You tried to slow yourself down by grabbing the sides of the slide, but your hands soon became too hot to hold on. If you never had this experience, think about how warm your hands get sliding down the rope in the gym. Hot stuff, right?
Imagine concentrating all that energy into a small space. Properly concentrated, a little bit of friction can create a fire very quickly. The trick is patience, patience, and then more patience. “You can’t hurry love,” said Diana Ross. “You just have to wait. Love won’t come easy; it’s a game of give and take.” So is fire by friction. You can’t hurry fire.
The TheoryTo create a fire you need heat, fuel, and oxygen. The heat is supplied by friction between the spindle and the hearth board. The fuel is supplied by the hearth board eroding and creating punk: fine, dark brown powdery stuff. The oxygen is provided by Mother Nature. Simple as that.
The EquipmentThe hard part is choosing the right materials for a spindle, a hearth board, and a bow. Hearth boards are best made of a softer wood like cedar. I use old shakes; they work great. I have also used cottonwood and willow in a pinch, but nothing smells as good as cedar when you’re starting a fire. Some like catalpa wood.
Spindles should be long, straight pieces of wood. In the west, folks often use mule fat (the bush, not the equine lipid). Horsetail works well too. I find that a good cedar or fir spindle works great. It should be about 9 or 10 inches long and the same thickness, about ¾ to 1 inch, throughout the length of the spindle. If the thickness varies, the string will crawl toward the narrow part of the spindle.
The bow should be a flexible piece of wood with enough spring to maintain tension on a piece of rope. I use willow limbs, but you can use a number of things.
The socket (the top part of the whole equation) should be a harder wood like walnut or oak and should be comfortable to hold. I have used elm or ash; my current socket is half a piece of ash. Osage orange is wonderful and is good for a bow as well if you can get a nice piece bent in the right place.
The TechniqueFirst, grease the top of your spindle. I rub it in (what’s left of) my hair, behind my ears, along my nose, anywhere there are skin oils. If you have some fat, soap or grease, a little dab will do. That means the spindle will NOT have friction on the top but will on the bottom, where it meets the hearth board.
The Hand Drill
The hand drill is nothing new, but it’s much harder. The thumb loops are a modification by wonderful artist/primitive skills advocate Dino Labiste. The concept is identical, except you need to use your thumbs to apply downward pressure. The spindle is not consumable, so small pieces of wood are carved into “bits” you place in the spindle. Same rules apply–slow, methodical and rhythmic movements, no speed demons or anything like that. Patience wins.For more information about primitive fire by friction, If you’re interested, you can purchase fire-by-friction materials there. It’s a blast. I especially enjoy the contest to build the smallest fire-by-friction set.
Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Darren Bush.
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.