Bushlore Topics > Fire!

catching a spark

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thanks MN,sportsman,
i'll try a lil'surfin

Keith H:

--- Quote from: hayshaker on February 01, 2017, 03:25:21 PM ---many here have experimented with all manner of materials.
mainly steel&stone ect,,,
i have found that old files can work quite well.
even a sliver of high carbon steel leftover
from cutting out a knife blank.
what i would like to hear is some of your
experiments and what were your conclusions.
pictures please, :)

--- End quote ---

To make a good fire steel you need to use a high carbon steel, like an old metal file. Many originals were made from old files such as the one I use now which was made in the 18th century.

Some of my fire steels & siliceous rocks.



Careful what you ask for Hayshaker!!! lol

Percussion Fire Ignition

    There are many whom disparage the use of Flint and Steel (aka F&S) in these modern times. In so doing they merely sky their own ignorance. Far from being outmoded or outdated, it is the most sustainable form of fire ignition that is also quick, easy and reliable to use. More than merely as a fun way to explore and interact with our world, we can also use F&S while reenacting historical events and reconnecting with the lives of our ancestors. It should be noted that numerous cultures (including but not limited to the ancient Egyptians, Vikings, Romans, Inuit, Fur Traders, etc) all relied upon F&S in all weather conditions at all times of year all across the globe. Indeed, F&S was the dominant method for igniting fires for more than 15,000 years. Nothing is that popular nor lasts that long without good reason!

    Beyond those reasons, we can also appreciate just how much F&S can teach us. Should we choose to do so, we can learn about hundreds of types of rocks, plants and fungi. Being aware of their existence, how to identify them, where they are likely to be found, of their characteristics and their uses as regards to fire is a great start. We can then continue to learn more about them including their edible, medicinal, cordage, shelter, and many other characteristics as well.

    When discussing Flint and Steel (aka F&S), it should be noted that we are never referring to the "flint" found in lighters, such as a Bic or Zippo. Lighter "flints" are actually made of ferrocerium. Which is a mixture of rare earth metals: cerium, lanthanum, neodymium and praesidium. These are mixed with iron and magnesium to form not only lighter flints but also ferrocerium rods (aka ferros). Such as those sold by Light My Fire, Coghlans, etc. When working with lighter "flints", we should be aware that they are much softer and more susceptible to water than ferros. Unlike lighter "flints", ferros work well when soaking wet. Indeed, I have immersed ferros and fatwood for weeks then immediately produced flame with them. There are many methods and tinders that can be used with empty lighters or ferros to produce embers or flame.

    That being said, it occurs to me that the term "Flint & Steel" is far too limiting. "Percussion Fire Ignition" is much more appropriate, though a bit more cumbersome. The reasoning behind this is that there are numerous items that can be used as each constituent part. First there is the "Flint", which is used to scrape off minute pieces of a pyrophoric material. Next there is the "Steel", of which the sparks are generated. Then there is the "Char", which is the tinder used to catch the sparks and form an ember. Finally there is the "Tinder Bundle", which takes the ember to flame. It cannot be stated often enough: each of these four constituent parts can be found in many forms in most areas of the world. In other words, they are neither rare nor difficult to source. The only thing lacking is knowledge!

    There are hundreds of types of rocks, plus carbide steel, that work as the "Flint". Many of these rocks (such as quartz, granite, etc) can be found all over the world. Some of the types of rocks that have worked for me include: agate, coral, dolomite, granite, jasper, onyx, sandstone, etc. Also many types of chalcedonies, cherts, flints and quartzes that I have not looked up the proper names for. The main thing that each of these types of rocks have in common is they are comprised of significant amounts of quartz. The other key here is hardness. For any object to be used as the "Flint", it must be harder than and sharp enough to scrape off tiny bits of the "Steel". Thus we have numerous options when sourcing our "Flint".

    For the "Steel" object in F&S we can use several types of rocks (pyrites), titanium, many types of steel and a few species of bamboo. Steels that I have used successfully include: 1055-1095, L6, O1, O2, W1 and W2. Larry Roberts has a vid using A2.

It should be noted that it is not necessary to have a specially made striker. Improvised strikers such as allen wrenches, axes, chisels, files, fish hooks, golf clubs, hammers, hoes, knives, machetes, mattocks, Olfa blades, pick axes, pitchforks, putty knives, rasps, rakes, razor (utility) knives, screwdrivers, saw blades, shovels, etc have worked for me. Most saw blades are excellent improvised strikers. (Such as hand saw, bow saw, hacksaw, etc. Note: very few SawzAll blades have worked.) Many shovels work exceptionally well. Most titaniums do not work at all, though the faces of drivers (golf clubs) and Ti hammers work. Again, the striker needs to be in that sweet spot of hard enough without being too hard.  Of course some objects will work better than others, so experiment and see what works for you. As we can plainly see, sourcing the "Steel" is not nearly as difficult as most currently believe.

    A further note on the "Steel" component is that, contrary to popular wisdom, the key is not the carbon. Indeed some stainless steels have as much or more carbon than some high carbon steels. Rather it is the hardness. Most stainless steels are too hard to work as the "Steel" with F&S. Steels from 57-63 HRC work, with 59-61 HRC being the sweet spot.

    Now on to the "Char" or tinder used to catch the sparks from F&S. Many quite mistakenly believe that there are very few natural materials that can be charred and used successfully with F&S. The truth is there are hundreds of natural materials from plants and fungi that can be charred (plus at least two dozen that do not need to be charred) that will catch the sparks from F&S yielding an ember. Far from being limited to only cotton cloth, we can make char from hundreds of species of plants and fungi. Char can be made with or without a tin or container of any kind. Even some green woods, green leaves, live wet fungi, etc can be charred and will catch sparks from F&S if you are knowledgeable in their selection and charring. Amazingly there are at least two dozen natural materials that will catch sparks from F&S and produce an ember in their *raw* and *uncharred* state. We can also use char mixes (mixtures of charred and uncharred materials) to catch sparks from F&S. Punkwood and cattail fluff are two of the better known natural materials that make excellent char and are a great place to start when learning which natural materials work. Of course all chars and char mixes are excellent coal extenders. Thus chars help in starting fires with most ignition methods, and thus are very useful to be proficient in. As we have seen, sourcing the "Char" component is absurdly easy.                     
    Contrary to popular misconception, most tins do not need any holes made in them. Hundreds of millions of people made fire with F&S for the last 15,000 years without putting a metal container in a fire. Further, we do not even need a container of any kind to make char. For tins that do need holes (very tight fitting lids, screw on lids, waterproof, etc) a 1/16" hole for every pint of capacity is generally sufficient. Altoids tins in particular vent too much already and do not need any additional holes. The optimal location for a hole (if needed) in any tin with a removable lid is through both the side of the lid and side of the tin. We can then align the holes while making char, then move the holes out of alignment the rest of the time to protect the char. This works with any symmetrically shaped tin with a removable lid. There are several methods for making char without putting a tin in a fire. Indeed, useable char can be quickly and easily made without a container of any kind.     

    It should be noted that while any plant or fungi can be properly charred then used with many ignition methods (such as a ferro, solar, etc) or as a coal extender, only certain natural materials will catch sparks from F&S when charred. Now may be a good time to point out that there are only two methods by which we can make char: limiting oxygen while heating or by smothering. Heating in an anaerobic environment (such as by "cooking" in a tin on a heat source or by burying and then building a fire over it) is called "pyrolysis". Smothering, or snuffing, is achieved by setting the tinder material on fire, then extinguishing both the flames and the embers. There are numerous methods by which we can effect this. Covering with ashes, dirt, etc or by placing in a mostly airtight container are the most commonly used.

    Green twigs from a Tulip Poplar and green mullein leaves are among the more unusual chars that have worked for me. Most fungi work well when charred. Most softwoods (even when not punky) work with F&S when charred. Remember that cotton is a natural plant fluff. This is important because most plant fluffs work well when charred and several work uncharred. It cannot be stated often enough that punkwood and cattail fluff are the most commonly available of the natural materials that work extremely well as char. White rot punkwood from softwoods works much better than red rot. (Fascinating that the fungi responsible for white rot perform essentially the same functions as charring!) Primo softwood white rot punkwood not only makes for some of the very best char (catching the sparks more easily and growing the ember more quickly than charcloth), it can also catch sparks from F&S in its uncharred state.   

    I have long noticed that most people make and use char from only one source at a time. Nothing wrong with that, merely believe it is worth mentioning that we can mix chars with each other or with uncharred materials. (Note: these uncharred materials must each be good coal extenders.) Char mixes are an ancient Native American practice of mixing uncharred material with charred for use with catching the sparks from F&S. I have found that mixing at least one third char (with the remainder being good coal extenders) yields consistently good results. Plant fluffs and dusts from good coal extenders have a remarkable ability to hold the ember in their center. This makes for a robust and long lived ember, which can be important in adverse conditions or when struggling with less than optimal tinder bundle materials.

     There are many methods for producing flame with and without a tinder bundle or tinder at all beyond what is needed to catch the sparks. As we now know, making char is very quick and easy.

    Here are a few of my favorite links about F&S. Everything they are doing, I have been doing in the Upper MidWest region of the USA with local materials in all weather conditions (pouring rain, four feet of snow, -23F, etc) for many years. 

Paul in Malaysia.
Sustainability and First Fire/Emergency Fire with F&S. 

Keith Burgess in Australia.
No Charcloth Flint and Steel Fire Lighting.

Susan Labiste in California, USA.
Paleolithic Stone on Stone Fire.   

Numerous skilled people performing experiential archaeology on this forum.

A couple more Paleo links on F&S, chars and uncharred tinders.



I went to split rock quarry to look for flint. The map shows a Flint bed in the floor of a ravine or valley. I went but didn't find anything that'd work. Maybe the shores of lake Ontario would offer more.

Worth a try. The shores of Michigan and Superior have been good to me.   


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