Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Lighting a Fire with Flint and Steel

Previously I briefly mentioned how to start a fire with a ferrocerium rod. You can see the post here. These days many people incorrectly refer to that method as “flint and steel”. The reality is that the ferrocerium rod is a modern fire-making implement. The true flint and steel method has been around for millennia and works in a slightly different way.

When using a ferrocerium rod to make sparks, the striker actually shaves off pieces from the rod, which then heat up into sparks. With the flint and steel method, the flint actually shaves off pieces from the metal, which then oxidize and create sparks. These sparks are much duller, and require a very fine tinder to catch.

The overall fire starting method with fling and steel will be very similar to that with a ferrocerium rod-you will simply need an extra step with a very fine tinder to catch the initial spark.

The tools required for the task are very basic. They consist of a piece of sharp flint, a carbon steel striker (or the spine of a carbon steel knife), and the extra fine tinder.

Your basic tinder bundle for the fire will look very much like that for the ferrocerium rod fire. You will need some finely shredded grass or a fine fiber like cotton, scraped birch bark, or cattail pollen, gradually moving to courser materials. Before the spark or ember can reach that tinder bundle however, you will require an extra tinder. The faint sparks from the flint and steel will not ignite simple cotton or birch bark shavings. What you need is a specially prepared, extra fine tinder to catch the initial spark. There are several different materials from which it can be made, but the easiest method is to just char some plant material. A piece of charcoal will work fine, so will charred cattail pollen.

IMPORTANT-the material has to be charred, not burnt. To char the material, it has to be heated without igniting. This happen naturally with charcoal from the inner core of the wood, but with finer materials, you will need a metal container (or another method of excluding the flame) in which to place the material before tossing it on the fire. The Altoids tin you see above does the job well. You do not need to make any holes in it; just place the material inside, close it, and place it on the fire. It is done when all the material has turned black. The easiest material to use for this is cotton cloth. This creates a tinder that is easier to manipulate when done. A thick piece of denim works the best, but so will any cotton fabric. This is often referred to as charcloth.

Once you have the charcloth, take a small amount and place it on top of your piece of flint. Hold them in one hand, and using the metal striker, strike the edge of the flint in a downward motion.

Sparks will fly, and hopefully one will end up on top of the charcloth. This should take one or two strikes.

At this point, there is no rush. The charcloth will glow for a while. Take your tinder bundle and place it inside. Now begin blowing until you have a flame.

It is a very simple method, as long as you have prepared tinder. That is why in that Altoids tin a carry the flint, steel striker and some charcloth.

There are some other items you may consider. In the picture below you see a nice brass container of similar size to an Altoid tin and a tinder tube.

The container is just a nice container. The tinder tube however has a purpose. It serves to replace the charcloth. The tinder tube is nothing more than a cotton rope in a small brass tube. You have to initially ignite the end of the rope and then put it out. This will char it. You can then use that end in the same way as the charloth. Place it on top of the flint, and wait for a spark to land on it. Put the end in your tinder bundle and blow it to flame. Once done, pull the rope inside the tube, and the ember will go out. It works well, but I find it harder to ignite the tinder bundle with this method than simple charcloth because the whole time you are trying to make sure you can withdraw the tube when the flame catches. That is why I don’t use this method, but you may like it.


  1. Okay guys, there is a subject that I didn’t want to jump into in the body of the post, but I should mention here. There is a bit of an issue about the use of the term “tinder”, in particular when using this method of fire starting.

    There is a general definition of tinder that you will find in most dictionaries, which is simply “an easily combustible material used to start a fire”. That is the sense in which I have been using it, referring to any material which can be ignited with a match or spark (from flint and steel or firesteel) and used to start a fire.

    You should be aware however, that there is a more concrete definition used by some people which holds that the term “tinder” should only apply to material that can be ignited by a spark from flint and steel. All the other materials are referred as kindling. There is some historical bases for this use, although I am not sure if it was ever the only definition.

    These days you will see the term tinder used to describe numerous materials which can not be ignited with flint and steel, including most commercially produced tinders. The more general use can be seen in terms like “tinder bundle”, which in many cases may not be ignitable by flint and steel.

    This is not in any way definitive, and I don’t want to tell you how to use the word, I just want you to be aware of the issue.

    I want to thank Keith for pointing this out to me, as I am sure there were other people here thinking the same thing. I recommend seeing his videos on flint and steel use and tinder preparation:

    No Charcloth Flint and Steel Fire Lighting:

    Field Preparation of Plant Tinder:

    The above post only shows the basics of flint and steel use, and I think the videos will give you the next step, showing you how versatile this method of fire lighting can be.

  2. I always enjoy reading your posts, especially this one. I just started my first fire from flint and steel the other day. Great feeling to be self reliant and not dependent on modern means of fire starting.