The Flint, Steel & Char Cloth
Using a piece of metal against a piece of stone is something everyone who spent time in the outdoors has thought of. I remember trying, kid, hitting random metal objects against stones, and thinking that it was impossible, but in fact it is something that has been in use for a very long time. Romans, knights, vikings, and explorers, all used metal and rock to start their fires. When fur traders paddled across these lands in search of pelts, it was the flint and steel that enabled them to gum their canoes, cook their food, and dry clothes.
In regards to actually creating fire, the flint and steel was just the first step. It created the original spark. Now if you try to use a very fine and fibrous tinder to catch the spark, you would find it very difficult, almost impossible. Even in voyageur days they used something unique to catch the spark. Two kinds of tinder were generally used. Char cloth, and hoof fungus. Char cloth, or charred linen is made by heating fibrous natural materials in a tin, while hoof fungus (also known as amadou, tinder polypore, and torchwood tinder) was put in a pot, filled with urine and slow boiled for 24 hours, after which was strained, clumped and dried. Making hoof fungus tinder is something I have yet to do (there is not much appeal), but char cloth is something I regularly make.
Char cloth is essentially made by cooking natural fiber cloth inside a metal container until all that is left is carbon. Fibers which contain plastics like nylon will just melt inside the cooker, thus only fibers such as cotton and hemp should be used. I tried using jute to make char cloth and though it carbonized, it did not work well enough to catch a spark. Hemp was also a little difficult as the fibers were not fine enough to burn immediately upon a spark landing on the materials as cotton does, though as a tool to stretch the life of the cotton char cloth, it held an ember quite well.
Using char cloth to create a fire is a preparation step. If you were to bring flint and steel on the trail, I would recommend making your char cloth in advance. Char cloth is also very useful if you carry a swedish firesteel. The spark generated by the firesteel works just as effectively if not more when using char cloth.
To make your char cloth, you will need a few things.
1. Cotton linen.
I prefer to use old jeans- their usually tightly knit, and very easy to get your hands on.
2. A metal tin with an easily removable airtight lid.
Altoid tins and tea tins work great, it really depends on how much char you are making, and what resources you have available. I recently tried making char with a cheeze wiz jar. It was neat to be able to watch the slow burn of the jeans, but the rubber gasket inside the container makes the char smell terrible, and after cooling the jar the glass shattered, making it pretty unsafe. Also, as you need the embers of the char cloth to fully extinguish prior to exposing to oxygen, it did not work as the breaking glass caused the char to continue burning. Whatever the vessel make sure the inside is clean as it could affect the outcome of the cloth.
3. Hole punch or knife.
When you heat the jeans, the chemicals and dyes burn off. If the mental container does not have a hole in it, then the lid would pop off. If the lid comes off, OR the hole in the can is too big, the materials will ignite and burn the materials to ash. Be careful when using your knife as you do not want to damage the point or the edge, or lose a finger, I guess.
4. Hot embers.
A fire would cause the materials to ignite and a flame will extend out the hole of the tin, so a solid base of hot embers is needed. If it gets to hot inside the tin anyways, once the smoke coming out of the tin hole is lessening, a fire might ignite.
5. Hole plug.
Once the char is ready to come off the fire, a plug will be needed to stop oxygen entering the container and causing the char to continue burning. For this I use a stick. Before placing the tin on the fire, use your knife to shave down the stick so that it fits the hole in the tin.
6. Tongs or hot mitts.
After the char is complete it needs to come off the fire and something to get it off the fire will be needed.
So the fire is down to embers, your tin has an air hole, the jeans are put in the tin loosely. The air hole stick is carved and you are thinking safety. Placing the tin on the fire, smoke will slowly start to creep out. Eventually smoke will be billowing out like a steam engine. It is important to keep a close watch as overheating the tin can cause ignition and burn the jeans. If a fire ignites, move the can to a cool place, blow it out, and then find a place in the embers that is not as hot. Eventually the the smoke will slow and once it is very very whispy/ non-existant, its time to plug it. Just because there is no smoke, does not mean the embers arent glowing. That is why plugging it is important to stop the burning. After it is plugged, make sure there is no air getting in and place the tin in a safe stop so your dogs/kids/you do not accidentally tip it over or get burned.
Once the tin is cool, your char cloth should be ready. A common problem is when the char is being created, the embers cool and it will appear the char cloth is finished. Its pretty easy to tell what is and is not ready. If its brown or still has dye in it, its not ready. The char cloth should be crisp and completely black. If a piece is half charred, you can rip it off and put the rest back in the tin to cook it. The bigger the piece of jean, of the more it is layered inside the tin, the longer it will take to cook.
Char Cloth and Firelighting
Packing your char cloth along with your flint and steel or swedish fire steel is a great idea. Char cloth weighs virtually nothing, and its a handy thing to have, but if you make a fire, have your kindling, and drop the char cloth-turned ember into the kindling, not much will happen. Connecting the ember of the char cloth to kindling is all about work. The key, is in the tinder. Small, fibrous, and a lot. What I use is old mans beard, or witch hair. It is the green or black lichen that grows on trees. In the rocky mountains here in Alberta. I pre harvest the lichen, and make sure it is bone dry. Along with some other small, fluffy bits of dead, dry vegetation, I can get a flame in a matter of minutes. What I learned on though, was dried alfalfa. Bundling it to look like a nest with a handle, we would place a sufficient amount of char cloth carrying an ember into its centre. With the wind at our backs, keeping our elbows tucked in, we would raise our hands to our faces, and blow. Not bagpipe blow, but enough to foster the ember. The better we did, the more smoke would be produced, and eventually- ignition. After that, the burning bundle would be placed in our pre make kindling and we would build the fire up.
A problem that can arise from using the char cloth method, is that you run out. So to curb the problem, I use a char extender. This can be anything that carries an ember. Punk wood, dried pith from the centre of reeds, more charred materials, or king alfreds cake (cramp balls) found in the UK. Always make sure you have enough and are prepared!
Flint & Steel
Now that the char cloth has been made, it is time to get comfortable with making sparks.
Swedish fire steels are pretty straight forward. Place the tip of the steel onto the cloth, place the striker on an angle on the steel, and flick. It is a much easier process than using flint and steel, though I would say it is better to have practiced and be comfortable when you do not need it, as opposed to add to your potential stresses when you do not.
Before using the char cloth, practice getting the spark without as you will just damage the cloth until you are ready. Here are the steps to getting getting the char cloth lit.
1. Grasp the stone in your non-dominant hand.
2. Hold the striker in your dominant hand. Remember to hold neither too tightly.
3. Strike the stone with the striker, glancing it off a sharp edge. It should hit and slide, using something of a flicking motion. If you are chipping the stone quite a bit, you are probably striking too hard. Angle of the steel should generally be vertical, the stone should be roughly parallel to the ground. The area of the steel that touches the stone should be roughly the length of the striker itself. Remember to follow through, striking down. Once getting a spark, you should notice that the sparks are shooting downwards.
4. Place a piece of char cloth between a finger and the underside of the stone. You will want to line up the edge of the flint you are striking, and the char cloth so that the spark can be caught.
5. Once if you think a spark has hit the char cloth, blow on it to find the hot spot.
6. Place the glowing char cloth into your tinder and begin to blow gently. More and more smoke should appear until ignition. Watch to ensure that the cloth is not burning out. If it is almost out of fuel, add more char cloth to the already glowing char cloth. Upon touching, the ember will pass from cloth to cloth easily.
7. Once you have ignition, keep adding fuel, and voila!
What is flint? Describing flint, I would say that it is a rock with similar properties to glass. To help us get a better idea of what it actually is I refer to a book titled Ultimate Guide to Wilderness Living by John and Geri McPherson. The book also describes flint as a natural glass and labels it as a quartzite. Flint varies in colour and is usually surrounded by a cortex- a rough outer that makes it look like a normal rock. Now flint is a quartzite, and many describe the varieties of glass like stone as ‘flint’, though they are not. Other kinds of this stone include chert and obsidian. Really though, your ‘flint’ does not need to be stone at all. It can be any hard object with a sharp edge, such as porcelain and petrified wood. Another kind of glass like stone I use is obsidian, which is formed through volcanic processes. Obsidian is generally black and is much more brittle than flint, making it a bit more hazardous to work with. Try out different things and figure out what works best for you.
I would like to start out that I am not a chemistry expert, but have done quite a bit of research into how the process works. I have written this second as to help better understand how the flint and steel works. If there is something missing please send me an email and let me know as I am always trying to learn more.
Here is a very condensed version on steel strikers. What kind of steel do we need? Generally, a high carbon steel works best. What is high carbon steel mean? High carbon means that roughly 1.5 to 2% of the steel is made up of carbon, making the steel more brittle. This enables the flint to shave off micro pieces of steel upon being struck. The moment steel touches air, it begins to oxidize. Though you can not tell, your steel striker has already begun to oxidize although maybe it has not yet begun to rust. Oxidization releases heat, but because of the size of the steel striker, it the heat is absorbed by the whole. The oxidized outer layer protects the inside of the steel from further decomposition- this is important to us as the fresh inner steel, which is important because as it is shaved away, the micro pieces oxidize at a high temperature creating a spark as it releases heat. So, quickly, steel quickly glances the flint, a very small piece of steel is thrown from the striker which ignites due to its contact with air.
The last tidbit of information I am going to leave here is about voyageur era strikers. I came across an interesting bit of information regarding voyageur strikers as issued by fur trade companies. Made in England, these strikers are foraged round, or tear drop shaped. They were thin- generally 1/8th or 1/16th of an inch or thinner. The strikers were issued to the men with other goods for their journey into Canada and the US.
If you have any questions regarding the article, or have any additional information/corrections, please feel free to send me an email at email@example.com. Thanks for reading!
Keep your paddle in the water