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Fire Lighting with Flint and Steel

There is a human fascination for fire which perhaps springs from its seemingly magical nature. In my work as a living history interpreter a simple fire lighting demonstration often impresses my audience far more than hours of painstaking craft work

Here I am going to take a moment to tell you about flint and steel, the  method I most regularly use. Why flint and steel? why not any of the other methods available? The answer is simple, most of the other methods require ideal conditions, lots of practice and more than thirty seconds to get a flame.

Campfire-400

First and foremost we must look at the steel. Early "steels" were made of iron that had been case hardened and it is the hard casing that yields the results, however this needs re-hardening regularly. For our purposes I would recommend a high carbon steel instead.

Striking the steel

Beware! many of the ready made steels I have seen being sold for this purpose do not work well, if at all. Do not buy a steel without trying it first, if the vendor will not let you try, treat it as suspect.

The flint is important too. I have found that the darker black it is the better it strikes. There is certainly evidence that this dark flint turns up as archaeological finds in many areas where it is not native long past the stone age.

A sharp edge works best and depending upon your preferred method this can be acute or almost square.

I will try to explain the methods of striking sparks with words and not pictures. If my understanding of what is happening is correct, we are using the flint to shave tiny slivers of steel from the surface of our striker. This causes heat at the moment of separation which superheats the loose slivers and they appear to us as "sparks". This being the case the flint needs to strike the steel at an angle that planes the surface with a sharp edge. You can either hold the steel still and strike down with the flint or strike the flint with the steel. The strike should be quick but not too hard. A little practice with either method, should soon produce a good shower of sparks, if it does not, try altering the flint or strike angle slightly until it does. Now we need some tinder.

There are a few ways of making tinder, I use pure linen scraps and an empty shoe polish tin to start with. Pierce the lid of your tin with a small hole and then put it into a good fire to burn off any residue of the polish. Remove the tin and let it cool. Now pack the tin with as much of your scrap linen as you can fit in without it hanging out of the edges when the lid is replaced. Return the tin to the fire in a spot where you can observe what happens.

Tinder Box

Our tinder is going to be a form of charcoal or “charcloth” so the object is to part burn the linen in the tin with a minimum of oxygen. We can watch the tin to see when it is ready. The first signal is a plume of smoke issuing from the hole in the tin lid, this is often, but not always, followed by a jet of flame. The heat of the fire and the amount of linen will dictate how long you will have to wait until all the smoke and flame have ceased. Now remove the tin carefully with some tongs and let it cool.

My Tibetan fire lighting pouch.

When the tin is opened you should see a blackened wad of dark cloth-like material somewhat smaller than you put in. You can see some in the small tin in the picture to the left.

This is your tinder and if you break a sheet off, you should be able to light it with the sparks from your flint and steel to create a tiny glowing red ember. This ember should smoulder for some time and if you blow on it it will spread faster.

The final ingredient needed is something to turn our ember into a flame. For this we can use waste linen again. When flax or linen is combed before spinning, the coarse and broken fibres are often discarded. This scrap is called "tow" in Old English and almost the only thing you can make of it is a poor cloth called "tow rag". However if it is very dry it is quite inflammable due to a high content of linseed oil. If we take a small amount and wrap it around our glowing tinder, we can now blow upon the ember and as the ember increases the temperature of the tow it should burst into flame quite spectacularly. Mind your fingers, beards or long hair by the way.

Blowing on the ember
Flame!

Pure linen fibre can be obtained from spinning and weaving suppliers but plumbers hemp works almost as well and if it is not dry enough, small amounts can be dried either in a warm billy can or in the sun on a dry day.

 Occasionally you can do all this but the ember will not quite generate enough heat to ignite the tow. This is usually because the tinder has been made of a slightly synthetic mix. It really does need pure cotton or preferably linen to work well and it is important to keep the tinder and tow as dry as possible. A small metal container like a snuff tin makes a good tinderbox.

Experience has also taught me to keep it close to my body where my body heat will keep it dry in unfavourable conditions.

Of course we could just use a match or a lighter, and in an emergency I would without any sense of shame, but if you have never created fire from such basic materials then it is very difficult to explain the deep sense of satisfaction gained from such a simple task.

You can also make fire by rubbing sticks together, but it’s an even better way of keeping a bunch of boy scouts busy all night.

 

You can find a few more fire lighting tips on the projects pages

 

Cooking over and use of an open fire should only be done where it is safe to do so and with the permission of the land owner. In all other places, use a stove.

 

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