Bushcraft: How to Start a Fire with Flint and Steel

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Photo by Aaron Schmidt.

Fire is so basic, so fundamental to the human experience that it’s hard to imagine anything more transformative. This is especially true for those who love the outdoors, where living becomes as fundamental as it gets: stay hydrated, stay warm, stay fueled. Fire is usually necessary for at least two out of the three.

If you think the idea of instantaneous access to fire is intoxicating to the outdoor enthusiast, imagine how it was to ancient and not-so-ancient cultures. Can you imagine what a little butane lighter would have meant to a voyageur? The history of the development of quick-to-use firestarters shows just how important people considered convenient access to fire.

As great as matches are, they have issues. They can get wet and be rendered worthless. Waterproof matches are expensive and are difficult to light. Sometimes matches just fail. I recently opened one of my match safes and found that the 40 or so strike-anywheres were worthless. When I tried to light one on a rough surface, it went pfffft and the head of the match crumbled. These were stored in an airtight case, and they still went bad.

Moral of the story: matches and moisture don’t mix well.

Then there are lighters. The opening, lighting and closing snick of a Zippo is permanently burned in our collective auditory memory, and I would use mine more if I could just keep it out of the washer. BIC lighters (3 for $4.95 at the checkout of any grocery store) are great, and from my experience, they go through the washing machine at least five or six times more than the Zippo.

Moral of the story: I suck at lighters.

I don’t remember the first time I saw someone start a fire without a match or a lighter. It was probably on a black and white TV (and probably staged by a faux Comanche on Bonanza). A few years later I saw my scoutmaster light a fire with a bow and drill. It was magic.

Years later I became interested in primitive skills just to understand them and inform my outdoor experiences. What I found surprised me. No, I do not think sealskins and driftwood are better for making kayaks than polyethylene. I think if the native cultures had access to molds, resins and aramid cloth, they would have given birch bark a wide berth.

What I found was that sometimes the old ways worked better than the new ways. Not in a hipster sort of way, where technology is eschewed for fashionable reasons. Hipster backpackers in their 60/40 cloth raincoats get wet and are thus authentically hypothermic. But in some cases, older is better.

Photo by Darren Bush.
Photo by Darren Bush.

One place I found this to be true is in fire starting, in particular, flint and steel. I carry one in my regular gear. I have never dressed in period clothing and participated in a fur trade reenactment, and yet I carry a basic piece of equipage that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.

The concept is simple. You concentrate a lot of energy into a very small space, creating heat. The force of striking a steel against the edge of a hard, sharp rock creates a small shaving of steel, and with all that energy the steel ignites.

Hopefully that piece of steel lands on fertile ground, in this case, a piece of material that has been charred to where it is just dying to have heat applied to it so it can combust. When it does, a fire is created. It’s a very small fire, but when properly coaxed and expanded with the addition of oxygen, it doesn’t take long for the fire to grow rapidly into a proper conflagration.

In fact…the stronger the wind, the faster the fire will catch. Isn’t it cool how old might be better sometimes?

Flint and steel. Photo by Darren Bush.
Flint, steel and char cloth. Photo by Darren Bush.

How This Works

To make a fire with a flint and steel, you need four things: a flint, a steel, something to catch the spark, and a nest of tinder to hold the something that catches the spark. Of course, you should have your fire laid out so it can accept the tinder as soon as you have a fire going. Whatever you prefer (tipi, log cabin, pile of sticks, etc.), just make sure there’s a place for your fledgling flame.

The Flint: Flint is a type of quartz (7 on the Mohs Scale of Hardness for minerals) that is easily shaped for use with a steel. I use chert from the Niagara escarpment because it’s all over in my area (even though I live 700 miles from Niagara Falls). The ideal flint has a sharp edge that will catch the edge of the steel. If you have a flint cobble, that’s fine, you can dress it with a hammer (whack on it) to break it so that there’s a good edge to work with.

The Steel: If you have ever taken a coat hanger and bent it back and forth rapidly to try to break it, you noticed that it gets quite warm. That’s because you’re concentrating energy into a small area. Now imagine striking down with some force and focusing all that energy into a spot that’s less than a millimeter square. That effort, when properly channeled, will cause steel to ignite.

You may know that steel alloys are not all created equally, but you may not know that there are hundreds of alloys, and several suitable for creating steel. A lot of folks use old files, since when properly tempered they make a predictable spark. I use an alloy called W1, often used for tool making or cutlery.

Photo by Darren Bush.
Photo by Darren Bush.

The Spark Catcher: You need a nice, welcoming place for your spark to land. It has to be something charred that will catch the spark and nurture it. There are several materials that will work: a piece of charred, punky wood, or a piece of dried yucca stalk, also charred. The material most commonly used, however, is char cloth.

Char cloth is basically a natural fiber cloth that is cooked in the absence of oxygen. I use cotton cloth cut into small pieces, 4 or 5 centimeters square. I put it in a small, metal, airtight tin I got from choking down some French hard candies from La Vie de La Vosgienne. The French should stick to Coq au Vin. But I digress.

These tins are airtight, so I poke a hole in the top with a tiny brad just so the top doesn’t blow off. I put the tin in the fireplace and wait for smoke to stop coming out from the pinhole. When I open the tin I find small squares of cloth just as I put them in the tin, but just a chocolate brown toasty color instead of white.

Char cloth is not magic, but it feels like it. A tiny spark touches it and immediately it glows red. Blow on it a little and the red grows hotter. Funny thing is that the harder you blow (or the wind blows) the hotter the char cloth burns. If there is no wind, I find a piece of char cloth will burn for several minutes, so there’s no urgency to act quickly. Even if there is a breeze, don’t worry about it.

Tinder: This is just something to give the char cloth somewhere to fulfill its destiny. It’s often a nest of dried grass or something similar. When practical, I carry oakum, a teased fiber made from unravelling hemp or jute rope. Used for caulking wooden ships, it’s a perfect material for catching a spark, and a few weeks supply weighs nothing.

Photo by Darren Bush.
Photo by Darren Bush.

Starting A Fire

It’s simple; easier than using matches.

Take your flint in your left hand (if you’re right handed), with the char cloth just underneath the sharp edge of the flint. Strike the steel down against the flint, as if you were trying to shave off a small piece of the edge of the steel, because you are.

After a few strikes a spark will land on the char cloth and you will see a faint glow. The glow will create a ring of red as the ember spreads out away from the point of contact. Fold the char cloth into a smaller square and place it into the nest of tinder, and fold the tinder over the top to make a small ball. Smoke will float out through the tinder, and a few puffs of air will increase the flow. A steady blow and your tinder will burst into flame.

Put your tinder ball under your carefully prepared campfire. Stand back and enjoy it. The more wind, the better.

–Stay tuned for more BushCraft primitive skills tips with Darren Bush.

–More SKILLS from CanoeKayak.com

Photo by Aaron Schmidt.
Photo by Aaron Schmidt.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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