Fire with flint and steel (history alert!)
Back in the days when I was “Tanglefoot” the buckskinner, one of the skills I learned was making fire with flint and steel.
Back before the invention of Bic lighters and even before matches,
most people made fire by striking a flint with a piece of steel to make a spark. The spark would fall on some type of material that would hold the spark and could be blown into a hot coal.
One of the most common materials that was used was ‘charred cloth’.
A strike-a-light kit.
Since I learned this skill I have always carried a “Strike-a-light” Kit in my back country vehicles.
My kit consists of a piece of flint, a steel striker, a tin of prepared char, a char burning tin, some un-chard 100 percent pure cotton cloth, some old (untreated) jute rope and a few small pieces of sap wood.
The heart of the system is the flint, the steel and the char.
Everything else is extra.
Out of Char.
The last time I used the strike-a-light was to start a fire for the last weenie roast we had on the Gila River.
At that time I noticed that the char was about used up so I needed to make more.
Making charred cloth.
I found some cotton muslin material while I was looking for the leather to make the new door pull for the jeep so I decided that I should make some char to refill my strike-a-light kit.
To make char, I take several strips of cotton cloth and make an accordion fold in the strip.
I fill the burning tin (that is the one with the hole in it) with the strips of cloth and put it over a fire.
Usually this is done on a campfire but any high heat source will do.
I used an electric stove once but it smoked up the house so I don’t do that anymore.
This time I used my small gas barbeque and let the can smoke until the smoke stopped. Then I removed the can and let it cool. Don’t open the can until it is cool or you may end up burning all the char up.
When you heat the can up, the cloth inside is burned without oxygen and becomes char (this is the same method used for making charcoal).
The hole in the top of the can is to let the gasses escape but not allow the cloth inside to burn up. When it is done you have some very delicate charred cloth as you can see on the right of the above picture.
In the past I have used other materials for char such as the inner bark (Cambrian layer) of a dead cottonwood tree.
It worked but was extremely delicate and didn’t travel well. Almost any organic material will work as long as it is charred not burned and is light enough to catch the spark. Briquettes don’t work to well.
The cotton cloth was also used for patching a ball when loading a muzzle loading rifle so the mountain men always carried some cotton cloth with them to use as patching and char.
Okay, so now I have the char made and my strike-a-light kit assembled and in the jeep. I also carry a Bic or two but I still like to start campfires the traditional way with flint and steel.
How to Make Fire Without Matches.
Okay, so now you probably want to know how to make fire without matches.
Here is the drill;
Make a nest of dry grass, thin bark or leaves.
If I can’t find any suitable materials I use the old rope in my kit and strip it down to individual strands, role it up into a ball and then form it into a small nest. I also put a little bit of scrapings off the sap wood into the nest to extend the time the nest will burn.
Take a small amount of char (one or two folds is plenty) lay it on the flint and hold it down with your thumb, Strike the flint a glancing blow with the steel near the char and watch for sparks hitting the char.
As soon as you see a piece of char glowing red, start blowing on the char and place it in the center of the nest and continue to blow on it folding the nest around the char until the nest catches fire. Set the nest in the fire pit and add very small dry twigs and leaves. Continue to blow lightly until the fire catches the twigs and leaves. Continue to add larger sticks until you have a good blaze.
That’s all there is to it.
It sounds like a lot of steps but it really doesn’t take much longer than using a match and newspaper and is a lot more magical.
I hope you enjoyed this little trip into the past and maybe learned something new.