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 Firemaking with flint and steel

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Join date : 2008-07-05

PostSubject: Firemaking with flint and steel   Sat Jul 05, 2008 11:15 pm

This article was so great, i had to steal it from another forum...

Firemaking with Flint and Steel
Get rid of that disposable lighter! Strike a spark and breathe it into life as was done in early times. With good materials and a bit of practice, fire making with flint and steel is quick and reliable.

When you strike a spark, you are shaving tiny pieces off the steel with the sharp edge of the flint. The pieces become incandescent from the friction. The sparks come from the steel, not the flint. The harder the steel, the smaller, and hotter, the pieces will be. The sharper the flint, the more sparks you will get. Strike down the steel with the flint at a shallow angle. Point the steel into your tinderbox to direct the sparks into your tinder. Learn to use short, choppy strokes so you can hold the steel close to the tinder without hitting the tinder with the flint. Keep your fingers back from the edge of the steel so you don't cut yourself with the sharp flint. When your flint becomes dull, chip it back to a new, sharp edge. Keeping the edge of the flint at a very shallow angle to the steel will increase the useful life of the edge.

You can also use many other minerals as your "flint". Agate, carnelian, jade, bloodstone, chalcedony, quartz, and chert all work well. Any hard stone, which fractures to a sharp edge, will do the job. Keep your striker with you, and when you see an interesting stone, try it.

You will need some prepared tinder. This can be almost any natural vegetable fiber. Cotton, linen, jute (burlap), sisal, hemp, or weeds from the field all work. A mixture of two fibers usually kindles more easily than any one fiber. Cotton and jute is an excellent combination. A wad about the size of your fist should work well. It is best shredded fine and well mixed. When I was a boy it was common to use dryer lint. This worked really well at the time, but can no longer be recommended. With modern synthetics, dryer lint is likely to contain at least some polyester or other plastic. The fumes from many modern synthetics are TOXIC. Holding a wad of smoldering tinder under your face and taking deep breaths to blow hard is a BAD THING if there is any plastic in the wad.

Only partly burned fiber catches a spark easily. Add new tinder as needed to the bottom of your tinder box so the top surface is charred from previous uses. You can greatly increase the speed and ease of your fire starting by using prepared "char-cloth". To do this, place some cotton or linen cloth in a tin with a loosely fitting lid. Hold the tin over a flame. As the cloth chars smoke will come out of the tin. When it stops smoking, the cloth is done. Set the tin aside to cool before opening. If you place a layer of the charred cloth on top of your tinder, it makes a large target for your sparks. This really speeds the process, but I haven't been able to document the use of prepared char-cloth (in the sense of cloth heated in an airless tin, as opposed to just using partly burned materials) prior to 1910 or so (Boy Scout movement). In the early periods cloth was precious, not to be wasted on fire starting. Even rags were useful in household chores, or for the cauking of boats. In the American colonial period tow was often used. Tow is the fiber of the flax plant (linen) before it is spun into thread. Cotton balls work well also. Various types of fungus were commonly used from the earliest periods. I’ve seen reports of late stone age fire starting kits with iron pyrites, fungus and coarse tinder. From the early medieval period until the invention of the match a treated fungus product called amadou was widely used to speed the process.

There are two basic ways of starting a fire with flint and steel. In the first, which I call the Boy Scout method, you hold the steel in your left hand (assuming you are right handed), and strike the steel with the flint held in the right hand to direct sparks into your tinder box or wad of tinder. To make fire, lay a scrap of char-cloth on your tinder. Strike sparks into the tinder until it glows. Fold the tinder around the glowing ember and gently blow on it. As the glow spreads, blow harder. If your tinder is dry, it will quickly burst into flame. With good materials, the whole process takes only 10 or 15 seconds. Transfer the flame to your candle (or whatever) and smother the tinder in your box for the next time. When used with char cloth, this is much the quicker method. When used with tinder that has simply been partly burned it can be rather slow, because catching an ember depends on a spark striking a surface that is chared.

In the second method, which I call the traditional method, you hold the striker in the right hand. In the left you hold a shard of flint with a bit of chared material on the back of the flint just behind the edge. When you strike the flint hot sparks should skate into the peice of char causing an ember. Then you transfer the ember to your tinder and proceed as above. This is just a bit slower since you have to transfer the ember to the tinder, but it is more certain if your materials are marginal. The spark doesn't have to travel as far, and is likely to burn hotter and longer in the char or tinder.

I expect both methods were used. I've seen a description of firestarting in a handbook for house servants from the early 1800's. It describes the first method, where sparks are struck into a tinder box. Evidently char cloth was not used, since the manual states that a "common serving girl" should be able to produce flame within twenty minutes. The second method was probably more common however. It works much better with small pieces of char, amadou or tinder tubes (see below). Also some period tinder boxes had the sriker built into the edge of the box, so it would have been impossible to use it to strike sparks into the box.

If you smoke, or shoot a matchlock musket, you don't need an actual flame for a light, only an ember. In this case you may find a tinder tube to be handier. This is a tube an inch or two long, 1/4" to 1/2" in diameter, with a length of cotton rope inserted. The end in the tube is charred. To get a light, push an inch or so of the charred end out of the tube. Hold the charred end on top of your flint near the edge. Strike down the edge to skate a spark into the charred end. Blow gently to spread the ember over the surface of the rope end. After lighting your pipe, snuff by pulling the end back into the tube and closing the end with your thumb. Be careful not to rub off the char, or it will be difficult to get a spark to catch the next time. The whole point of the tube is to protect the char. Period tubes sometimes had a cap for the end of the tube. A piece of wire shaped like a fish hook was attached to the cap. The hook was inserted into the cotton rope, and was used to pull out the charred end. After use, the rope was pulled back to draw the cap tight and smother the ember. This was the period pocket lighter, and the best examples were finely made of precious materials such as silver or even gold. In more modern times the tube was updated with the addtion of cigaratte lighter type wheel and flint to produce the spark. During WW I and II they were used in the trenches because they didn't produce a flame to draw sniper fire. In the rural parts of Spain they are still in use, and are called Shepherd's lighters.

A tinder tube is much handier than loose tinder, but does not produce an actual flame. Of course you can always transfer the ember to your tinder, and puff it into flame. I've been told that it's possible to light a candle with one, but I've never managed it myself.

Recently there as been increased interest in using the back of a knife blade as a firesteel. This has been sparked by some books on wilderness survival recommending the method. I’ve had limited luck with it. To get a spark, the slivers of steel must be small enough to become incandescent from the friction. Most knives are not hard enough, and the pieces gouged out are too large to become hot enough to form a spark. In my experience you need a minimum of about 60 on the Rockwell scale to get sparks with the methods described above. Even then you will have to work at it. The most common knives that are this hard are the carbon steel Mora knives. Stainless steel blades of any hardness do not seem to work.

If you are using the softer steel found in most knife blades, you can still get a spark by holding the edge of the flint at more of a right angle to the steel, so as to scrape rather than carve off pieces. This reduces the size of the pieces and increases your chance of getting a spark. It requires more force, and is hard on both the flint and the knife, but it does often work. You won’t get as many sparks as you would with a real firesteel, but you only need one spark in the right place to get your fire.

Since you will be getting fewer sparks you may find it better to strike the steel against the flint as mentioned above. This improves your chance if getting a spark into the char. The downside is that you need to be very careful not to cut yourself in the process. This isn't a problem if you are using a folder. Just keep the blade folded into the handle while you are striking.

Striking the back of the blade with the flint is less efficient but much safer. Hold the knife at an angle with the point in a wood surface and the tinder under the blade. This stabilizes the blade for a firm strike.
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PostSubject: Re: Firemaking with flint and steel   Sat Jul 05, 2008 11:16 pm

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.
(See also "Tips for Fast Fires with Flint & Steel")

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?

Early Failures

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.

Generating Sparks

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.
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PostSubject: Re: Firemaking with flint and steel   Sat Jul 05, 2008 11:19 pm

Tips for Fast Fires with Flint & Steel, by J. Gottfred.
Starting a fire with flint and steel at public demonstrations can be a great way to kindle an interest in history. When you make a flame using two very unlikely-looking objects (a hunk of rock and a piece of metal), people's jaws drop in amazement— especially if you are fast. Demonstrations often include a flint and steel fire-lighting contest. The winner makes a flame in the shortest time.

In this article, I will give the reader already familiar with flint and steel some suggestions on how to light fires faster. I will explain exactly how flint and steel generates sparks, and then give some tips on how to increase your fire-lighting speed. (If you haven't yet lit a fire with flint and steel, you will want to read 'Making a Fire with Flint and Steel' (Vol. I, p. 2-7) first to learn the basics.) After reading this article, I hope readers will reach the point where lighting fires with flint and steel has become as quick and easy as using a match.

Just how fast are we talking about? In fire lighting contests, my best time has been eight seconds. Usually ten to fifteen seconds is all that is needed in order to go from the first strike to a flame. When I first started learning to do this, my times were much worse— two minutes or longer was pretty typical in those days!


Let's start right at the beginning— making sparks. Everyone is probably clear on the general idea : you hit a chunk of flint with a piece of steel, and sparks fly off. But what are the sparks?

You can easily answer this question by conducting an experiment. Lay out a piece of newspaper, and strike a few good sparks above it with your flint and steel. Then pick up the newspaper at the edges and carefully pour the contents onto a sheet of white paper. With the naked eye, it won't look like much— just a little dirty grit and some small rock chips. If you tilt the piece of paper, some of the small gray gritty bits scoot down the page much faster than the rest. The material can easily be sorted into two distinct groups (fast & slow) this way. Have a look at the fast guys with a stamp magnifier or jeweler's loupe. Behold! They are tiny balls : gray, shiny, knobby-surfaced spheres that look a bit like they are made from pencil lead. If you hold a magnet under the paper, the little spheres will roll and cavort, piling one on top of the other in the strong magnetic field. It is clear that they are made of iron.

Captured Sparks— These tiny spheres are formed as molten, white-hot steel flies through the air. These little globules are the sparks that ignite your tinder. (Image taken trough a microscope. Printed image 32X actual size.)

When the steel struck the flint, the energy in the blow was converted to the heat of friction between the rock and the steel. This heat was so great on some small portions of the steel that small, white-hot molten blobs flew through the air making glowing sparks. Incredible as it may seem, the spheres were made as the blob of molten steel flew through the air, making a natural spherical shape. (The sphere has the smallest surface to volume ratio of any three-dimensional object). As the tiny spheres cooled, solidified, and dimmed, they disappeared from view.

If you look with your magnifier at the other pile of material (the 'slow' pile), you can see all kinds of other forms. Some pieces of steel haven't melted at all ; they are just shavings. Others look like comets with a round head and one or more tails attached. I have even seen little strings of pearls : little spheres each a little smaller than the next, piled one on top of the other.

So now we know what the sparks are. They come from the steel, not from the flint. The flint simply acts as a knife, slicing off tiny shavings of steel. Does the rock have to be flint? The experiment suggests that the only requirement for the rock is that it must be hard enough to shave off bits of the steel, and not the other way around.

Geologists have classified the hardness of rocks into a scale from one to ten, with talc being the softest (1) and diamond being the hardest (10). Talc is so soft that almost anything can scratch it, including a fingernail. Diamond is so hard that nothing but another diamond can scratch it. On this scale a fingernail has a hardness of about 2½, a penny is around 3½, a typical knife blade is around 5½, and tool steel is about 6½ (Hamilton et. al., 10).

Fire steels vary in hardness from about 5½ to 6½, depending on their composition and tempering. Just because a fire steel is made out of tool grade steel or an old file does not necessarily mean that it has a hardness of 6½. The blacksmith who made the steel must re-temper its face to attain the ideal hardness.

The harder the steel is, the more difficult it is for the rock to tear little chunks out of it. To tear out small chunks of progressively harder steel, more and more energy is required. At some point, the energy required to pull a bit of steel from the face of the fire steel is so great that the steel is melted in the process, and a spark results. With a softer steel, slivers of steel can be cut from the face without generating enough friction to melt the steel. Little nearly-invisible shavings go flying, but no sparks are seen.

A fire steel with a hardness of 5½ will generate sparks, but they don't stay hot for long. A fire steel with a hardness of 6½ is capable of generating long lasting, hot sparks ideal for the fast ignition of your tinder. This explains why some fire steels don't seem to work very well— they may not have the right hardness.

What about the hardness of the 'flint' you use? Flint, chert, jasper, and quartzite all have a hardness of about 6½. Granites are in the 6 range. Obsidian (volcanic glass) is in the 5 to 6 range. Any of these rocks are strong enough to generate sparks. Many metamorphic rocks, especially quartzite, are also hard enough to generate sparks.

Although all of these materials will work, obsidian, quartzite, and granite quickly wear away and lose their sharp edges. Only the hard, non-grainy flint, chert, and jasper are strong enough to shave away the hardest steel and resist crumbling away in the process. Incidentally, chert, jasper, and flint are all different forms of the same mineral— chalcedony. They are all composed of precipitated silicon dioxide (Hamilton et. al., 130-131).

There is nothing magical about flint ; many other hard rocks will work to generate sparks. From a historical perspective, this suggests that Natives and fur traders found their own hard rocks to use to make sparks. I have never seen 'fire flints' in lists of trade goods. Flint, chert and jasper are the best rocks for fast fire lighting, and the harder fire steels are better.

Preparing and Holding the Flint

The idea is to use the flint like a knife to shave off tiny bits of steel. Bashing a billiard-ball shaped piece of flint is not going to produce many sparks, yet some folks do just that. The idea is to break that billiard ball so that you have a sharp edge. In fact, the best thing to do is to use a nice, palm-sized flake of flint, and keep its edge sharp by knapping it now and then with a small hammerstone. (See 'Making Stone Tools', Northwest Journal Vol. VII, pp. 30-37, for pointers.)

If you hold the flint in one hand with the sharp edge angled upwards towards the descending steel, the flint edge will slice off a nice shower of hot sparks.

The Stroke

The trick to generating hot sparks is not to hit the flint hard, but to hit it fast. The energy contained in the force of the blow is a function of the weight of the fire steel multiplied by the square of the speed. For example, if you hit a flint with a steel of one unit of mass with a speed of one unit of velocity, you will get one unit of energy. If you double the weight of the steel (or 'use more strength' by striking harder with the steel) then two units of mass times the square of one unit of speed will yield twice the energy. But, if you keep the weight of the fire steel the same, and double the speed, then one unit of mass times the square of two units of speed yields four times the energy.

So speed makes all the difference. It takes a while to get that flint up to speed, so don't use a short stroke with the fire steel! Tapping the flint with a twist of the wrist is not going to give you the energy you need. You must practice taking a long stroke at the flint, bending the arm at the elbow, and accelerating the steel through at least a foot of space before it contacts the flint.

One good stroke should be all you need. A good stroke with a good steel against a sharp freshly-knapped flint will produce extremely hot sparks that fly through the air for at least two feet, make a fizzing sound as they fly, and feel like tiny pin-pricks when they hit the back of your hand. That's the kind of spark you want to generate every time you use your fire steel. Incidentally, I prefer fire steels that are at least half an inch thick— it keeps your knuckles away from that sharp flint edge! For the same reason, I always strike the steel against a convex flint edge, never against a concave one. Use the steel itself to guard your knuckles.

Catching the Spark

Once you are generating hot sparks, you need to catch them with your charred cloth. There is a simple trick that I use which almost guarantees catching a spark on the first strike.

Consider again what is happening. The sharp flint is shaving off tiny blobs of molten steel— which side of the 'knife' are the savings going to come from? If you are holding the flint with the edge angled upwards towards the steel, and striking down with the steel, then the shavings are going to scoot along the top of the flint. Yet many people are under the impression that the sparks travel downwards from the point of impact. (This view makes perfect sense if you thought that the sparks were coming from the flint.)

To catch the sparks, take three or four pieces of charred cloth, fold it in half, and place the cloth on top of the flint so that the many stacked edges of the cloth are right next to the sharp flint edge. Hold the charcloth onto the flint in this position with your thumb. Make sure that the edges are 'fluffed up' so that you have a large surface area to catch the sparks right next to the flint edge.

One good stroke is all you need to catch a spark using this technique, and best of all, you can do it standing up, sitting down, in a canoe, or on a horse— it's much more convenient that crawling around on your hands and knees in the mud!

The 'Bird's Nest'

To make a fire, you need to have three things : heat, fuel, and air. The spark you caught on the charred cloth is your heat source, but you will need more fuel to make a flame. This is done by placing the charred cloth in a 'bird's nest' of small kindling (dried grass, paper strips, wood shavings, etc.) and blowing on it to create a flame.

Consider what is going on here. The idea is to generate heat, so tune your bird's nest to accomplishing that goal. Many folks start out with a bird's nest of dried grass that is the size of a robin's nest, and so loose you can see lots of daylight through it. This will work, but not in championship time! To get a fast flame, start with a bird's nest about four inches across, and squish it down into a tight compact mass. I use nests that are so small that I can hold them in the same hand as my flint.

You need to compact the small kindling so that it keeps in the heat that your charred cloth is generating. You don't need to keep it 'open for air' because you supply the air by blowing on it like mad! Use three or four pieces of charred cloth to generate heat fast.
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PostSubject: Re: Firemaking with flint and steel   Sat Jul 05, 2008 11:19 pm

The Fast Action

Now, here is how I light a fire in championship time.

Before striking :

— Inspect the flint, and knap the edge so that it is good and sharp.

—Find small kindling for your bird's nest. Nice dry grass works just fine for small kindling. Shreds of paper birch and wood shavings from your workbench are great too.

—Crush the small kindling so that the air spaces between the bits of kindling are one-eighth of an inch in diameter or less. Stuff the bird's nest into the palm of the hand that you will use to hold the flint.

—Take three or four pieces of 3" x 3" charred cloth, fold them in half, and place them on the flint as described earlier.

—Hold the charred cloth with your thumb, and support the flint with your fingers. The bird's nest will stay stuck in the palm of your hand, so you don't need to hold onto it at this time.

Now it's time to strike :

—Angle the flint upwards towards the steel.

—With a long, smooth motion, strike the flint with the steel.

—Drop the steel and pick up the charred cloth. Do not blow on the charred cloth at this time! The spark will not go out.

—Drop the flint (but hold onto the bird's nest), and using both hands quickly fold the charred cloth one or two more times to increase its density. Be careful not to smother the spark!

—Place the charred cloth in the center of your bird's nest, and then hold the nest above your face. Cup the nest with both hands in order to help keep in the heat. Some folks seem afraid to do this for fear getting burned. I assure you that the heat does not build up so fast that getting burned is a danger. (If for some reason the thing suddenly bursts into flame à la Hollywood, at least you have the satisfaction of having won the competition!)

The action so far should have taken you less than three seconds.

From this point on things are a bit more chancy. How fast you get a flame depends upon what you have for kindling and how dry it is. Remember that it is very important to hold in the heat until you have a flame. Keep those hands cupped around the birds nest!

I have found that the best way to proceed at this point is to give the dense piece of charred cloth a long, strong blast of air. Just empty your lungs into the thing. This action will turn the charred cloth into a little nugget of hot coal. If, when you pause for breath, you don't have a flame, then blow again, but perhaps somewhat more gently. However, at this stage too much wind is better than too little wind. When you pause for breath a flame will appear if things are hot enough. Remember, blowing will not make the charred cloth go out!

All of this blowing is another good reason to do this standing up. You can hold the bird's nest over your head so that you don't choke on smoke when you inhale ; also, you are in a great posture to let out a good blast of air. Two or three good puffs of air should be all that you need to get a flame.

If blowing makes you faint, and you are not doing this in competition, there are a couple of other methods you can use. You can fold the bird's nest around the charred cloth, and then simply lift it up into the wind. If there is no wind then you can simply wave it back and forth for a while. This will usually produce a flame in a minute or so. Or you can take a tin can, punch a whole bunch of large holes in it, and attach it to a string. Pop your bird's nest into the can and whiz it around with the string for a while until it bursts into flame.


When you have learned these methods for flint and steel firestarting, there is one more thing you can do to increase your speed : practice! The more you use flint and steel, the more natural and familiar flint and steel fire starting will become. Furthermore, flint and steel has two major advantages over matches : it is windproof and childproof! (It can be a bit messier, though.) Use your flint and steel to start campfires and fireplace fires year round and you will be in top form the next time some cocky voyageur challenges you to a contest!
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