Art II. Making Fire with Flint & Steel. By J. Gottfred
Being a 'how to' on all aspects of producing a fire in the eighteenth century manner by using flint and steel, by a gentleman who has done it successfully.
I have always been intrigued by the idea of lighting a fire with flint and steel. I have often read in period novels how someone reached for their tinder box and lit a cheroot. Statements of this kind make it sound as easy as striking a match, but was it really that simple & fast?
Many survival or scouting books give different instructions on how one can start a fire with flint and steel. These books suggest various materials that are supposed to catch the spark. I have tried many of them, and I can attest that the people who wrote those books had obviously never tried it! I tried all of the following materials without success : punk (the powdery dry rot from the insides of fallen logs), cottonwood fluff, fine dry grass, fine wood shavings, dry moss, and various lichens. None of these materials worked, although they all made excellent small kindling once I gave up and used a match.
The Problem Solved
For a clue, I turned to my copy of the Oxford Universal Dictionary, which defined tinder as "a flammable substance used to kindle a fire, especially charred linen" [my italics]. At about the same time, I stumbled upon an article on fire-starting by Mr. Warren Boughton in which he describes how to make charred cloth. I followed Mr. Boughton's recipe, and the results were amazing. When a spark hits charred cloth, it creates a tiny red spot, which slowly grows like a glowing fairy ring. It is impossible to blow out ; in fact, the more wind there is the better, as the spark simply gets hotter and hotter. The only way to put it out is by suffocation (which preserves the rest of the charred cloth for future use), or by dousing it with water (which ruins the char cloth). The amazing thing is that with the magic of charred cloth, in windy weather it is easier to start a fire with flint and steel than it is to use a match!
Making Charred Cloth
Here is how to put together your own tinder box, so that you can make a fire the same way that people did two hundred years ago. First, you will need some cloth. Linen is the traditional fabric, but 100% cotton works just fine, and it is a lot cheaper! You must be sure to use only completely natural fabrics. This is for two reasons ; first, synthetics didn't exist two hundred years ago, and secondly, they don't char —they melt, and leave you with a useless mess! Cut the cloth into pieces. I have had success with patches as small as two inches square, but I would suggest that you start with patches that are about four to five inches on a side.
Next, you will have to find a small tin can with a tight lid. A small paint tin would work. I have used both a small twist lid tobacco tin and a tea tin with success. You will have to punch two small holes —one in the top and one in the bottom of the can. The holes should be less than 1/8" in diameter. You should have two little twigs on hand, about six inches or more in length and whittled so as to fit snugly into the holes you punched in the tin. Some tongs will be needed to remove the hot tin from the fire safely.
Build a fire, and let it die down until you have a nice bed of roasting coals. (You could probably use a charcoal barbecue for this, if that is more convenient.) If this is the first time you have used your tin, I would strongly suggest that you put it in the fire to burn off any paint or oils that might be on the can. If you don't, these materials will ruin your first batch of char cloth. When the tin is black with peeling paint, take it out of the fire, let it cool, and brush off the ash. You will be left with a dark, mottled steel effect that has a certain charm.
Once your tin has been cleaned out, put the pieces of cloth into the tin, and tighten down the lid. Place the tin on or near the coals, and watch it carefully. The secret to charring cloth is that it is an anaerobic process — the chemical transformation of the cloth occurs only in the absence of oxygen. If air is present, then the cloth will not char ; instead, it will burn to ashes and be useless. As the cloth heats up, it gives off volatile gasses which rapidly fill the interior of the tin, driving out the air. These gasses are then vented to the outside of the tin through the tiny holes in the top and bottom. You will see these hot gasses ignite when they hit the air, and tiny jets of flame will come out of both ends of the tin. A lot of smoke also comes out of the holes of the tin, and this is what you must watch for. When the volume of smoke dies down, turn the tin over ; this will ensure even charring of the cloth, and will usually cause an increase in the volume of smoke. Once smoke has ceased to come out of the holes, then the cooking process is finished. Using your tongs, pull the tin out of the fire and immediately plug the two holes with the twigs. If air gets into the tin while it is still hot, then the cloth will burn to ashes. Set the tin aside and wait ten minutes for it to cool before you open it.
Problems Encountered when Charring
Properly charred cloth should be a uniform black. If there is still color left in the fabric, then you did not cook it for long enough, or the tin was not hot enough. I have found that putting it back in the fire to cook some more yields an inferior product. I would suggest that you start again from scratch. The cloth should not be sooty, although the pieces right next to the holes in the tin tend to be so. The cloth, although weak, should not disintegrate, fall apart under its own weight, or be ashy. Properly charred cloth requires a gentle force to tear it, and it should not leave black marks on the fingers when handled. If this happens, then you have over-cooked the cloth, or air got into the tin either during or after cooking. When cooking, I have found that heating the tin beyond a very dull red can lead to over charring — the tin only needs to be hot enough to induce the smoke to flow from the holes. Although it sounds like it might be difficult to get it just right, it really isn't. Just wait until the smoke stops flowing from the holes, wait maybe thirty seconds longer just for luck, then plug the holes and you will get a usable product. The length of time that it takes to cook varies depending upon the amount of cloth that you have in the tin. I generally do only about a dozen pieces at a time in a small tin, and this usually only takes about five minutes to cook, but I never time it, I always go by watching the smoke.
To use the char cloth, you need to generate a spark. You will need a length of hard high-carbon steel. When I first started out, I used the bare steel handle of a metal file. Later, when I got a local blacksmith to make a replica fire steel for me, I got him to make it out of an old file that he had in the shop. Every other kind of steel that I tried was too soft to produce a good spark. Fortunately, old steel files are relatively easy to find. For flints, I have used flint, jasper, and locally found chert. You can obtain these materials from a rock shop or lapidary supplier.
I hold the flint in one hand, and strike it a downward blow with the steel. When I used the steel file, I was able to get sparks that would work, but they were weak. Once I had a replica fire steel, I was able to generate sparks that bounced a couple of feet, and hurt when they landed on my hand —that is the kind of spark you want to strive to generate! When you can hear your sparks fizzing as they fly, you know you have achieved your goal!
Creating a Flame
The first time you attempt to make a fire, I suggest the following method. Place a nice nest of small kindling on the ground. Select a nice piece of char cloth for tinder, and place it on top of the "nest". Hold your flint over the cloth, and strike away! When a spark has been caught, pick up the nest of kindling, and fold it around the cloth. Hold it above the level of your face (to avoid getting smoke in your eyes) and blow gently. Within a few seconds, your bundle should burst into flames. David Thompson wrote about the 'Canadians' (voyageurs) waving their tinder in the air to get a flame. It works, but blowing is easier to control when you are a beginner.
Once you have had a little practice, you can try another method which I now use all the time, and which is great if the ground is snowy or wet. Take your piece of tinder and fold it down to a compact square. Place this on top of a flat flint so that the edge of the tinder is right next to the edge that you are going to strike. Hold the flint and tinder tightly with your thumb, and strike. More often than not the tinder catches a spark on my first strike. I then put away my fire steel and flint, and take a handful of dry small kindling out of my tinderbox, place the tinder on it, fold it over, and away I go. If I smoked, I could probably light my cheroot straight from the compact, glowing tinder. Folding a piece of tinder this way is also a great way to increase its heat, which really helps when your small kindling is shavings or thin sticks that you have split from your large kindling with a knife. With a little practice, I have been able to generate a flaming pile of small kindling in as little as 20 seconds. With more practice, I have no doubt that I can improve on that time!
Use of the Burning Glass
Another way to get a spark onto your tinder is to use a 'burning glass'. A magnifying glass of the Sherlock Holmes variety will instantly start your tinder glowing. My tinder box, which I purchased from a reproductions supplier in the United States, has a tight friction-fit lid that also contains a magnifying glass. I use it to hold my tinder, fire steel, and a little bit of small kindling for wet conditions. It looks period, and works great! (How often have you heard the phrase 'Keep your tinder dry'? Well, now you actually have to do it!)
Charred cloth appears to have been the universal tinder two hundred years ago, but what did people use when cloth was too precious a commodity to burn? What did the voyageurs, traders, and Indians use? In his Narrative, David Thompson noted that 'a Canadian never neglects to have touchwood for his pipe.' (p. 199). Touchwood is a kind of fungus that grows on tree trunks. The voyageurs likely charred this to turn it into tinder. In fact, I suspect that just about any charred organic material will work as tinder. All of those materials that I tried so long ago in their 'raw' form would probably have worked reasonably well once charred.
Use of Old Fire Remains
What if you have run out of charred cloth? I have had success using the remains of the previous evening's fire by using my knife to cut down to the deep charred layer of a partly-burned log. Such a layer will catch and hold sparks, although not as easily as with charred cloth. If the sun is out and you have a burning glass, you can get it glowing hot in a few seconds.
That is all there is to it! It is surprisingly easy and fast once you have had a little practice. Start experimenting, and if you have any suggestions or comments, please write to the editor and they will be printed in the 'Company Dispatches' column.
Thompson, David. David Thompson's Narrative, 1784 - 1812. Richard Glover ed. Champlain Society : Toronto, 1962.
Copyright 1994-2002 Northwest Journal ISSN 1206-4203. May I copy this article for my class?