Making Fire from Flint & Steel

Duane Zilm
The Leader, June/July 1990

At B.C.'s Central Okanagan Cuboree last fall, district organizers brought in the Kelowna Black Powder Club to give the Cubs a Mountain Man demonstration. The show, often loud and smokey, highlighted some of the skills early explorers, hunters, trappers, and fur traders needed to survive in the harsh wilderness. We were treated to a fascinating demonstration of firearm safety with muskets and flintlocks, firemaking, and other early Canadian frontier skills.

The firemaking demonstration was most memorable because it was so dramatic. From a leather pouch hung on his belt, the Mountain Man pulled a waterproof brass box containing his firemaking equipment--a piece of flint, a steel, some tinder, and a few pieces of blackened cloth he called "char".

He formed a bird's nest from the tinder and placed the char on it, struck the flint against his steel to produce sparks, and captured one of the sparks on the char. Then he slowly walked around the large circle of Cubs with bird's nest and char in his hands to show them the spark. Back at his original position, he held out the bird's nest above his head and blew on it. The tinder exploded into flames.

To say the Cubs were wide-eyed would only begin to describe how we adults felt. The leaders of the 1st Lakeview Pack talked about it several times after the Cuboree and agreed to use flint and steel as the basis of an excellent activity for our winter Cub camp.

I volunteered to organize the flint and steel and agreed to provide each Cub a firemaking kit. As one of our camp activities, we would take a wilderness hike and, under leader supervision, have Cubs lay a fire from materials available in the bush and light it using their flint and steel kits.

Making the Kit

A project such as this is of interest to both Pack and Troop Scouters. Although we provided the firemaking kits for our Cubs, Scouts might enjoy a project where each makes his own. A flint and steel firemaking kit has four components; a piece of flint, steel, char cloth, and tinder.

Flint: I needed 26 kits for Cubs and one for each of our four leaders. Acquiring the flint was the first hurdle. I called some local rock shops to no avail. Fortunately, one of our leaders has a friend who belongs to a Black Powder Group in the U. S. He was able to put us in touch with a source. Unfortunately, I am not sure exactly where our flint came from, but it worked well. I have heard that you can also use chert and a type of agate, but I have not tried either of them.

Steel: The person who demonstrated the technique at our Cuboree told me that old files with the rough part ground away make ideal steels. Since I didn't think I'd be able to find enough old files to make 30 firemaking kits, I searched for an alternative.

During my search, I discovered that you can't use just any steel. In order to get sparking, you need steel with a fairly high carbon content. And all files don't work, as I discovered when I struck some of the files in my workshop with my flint and was unable to generate a spark.

I also tried knives and steel rods with little or no success. After much experimentation, I finally discovered that hacksaw blades made of carbon steel work like a charm. I bought "Goldflex Standard Steel" hacksaw blades manufactured by SANDVIK of Sweden at Beaver Lumber for $1.79 each. One 25 cm blade made two steels.

To mount a steel, cut a block of wood roughly 30 mm x 90 mm x 18 mm and bevel one long edge. Mark the blade in the centre, put in a vise, and bend back and forth until it breaks in two. Drill a 3 mm hole in the broken end of each piece.

To finish, use the vise to bend down the ends of the blade so that it fits lengthwise on the block (see illustration). Position the blade with smooth edge exposed along the bevelled edge of the block and attach with screws. Sand the blade to remove any paint and smooth the saw teeth. To produce sparks, strike a flint on the smooth exposed edge of the blade.

This steel performs very well at a price hard to beat.

Char (Charred Cloth): You can make char from many organic materials but the most popular is 100% cotton cloth. To turn it into char, you heat it until it smoulders and turns black but doesn't burn. I am uncertain of the physics, but char cloth glows red where a spark hits it and the glow slowly spreads. If you blow on it, the very hot glow spreads quickly.

Making the char was the most fascinating part of making the kits. It also consumed most of the time involved. You need a metal tin. One with a friction fit lid is best, I learned, and a jam tin with the type of metal lid that presses down tightly apparently also works well.

Punch a small hole (1.5 mm) in the top of the tin to allow smoke to escape during the charring process. I bent a coat hanger around the tin to serve as a primitive but workable handle for moving the tin around in the fire.

I had to experiment a bit with my rag bag. I discovered that charring a lightweight cotton fabric produced char that was too flimsy and unable to hold a spark. A textured cotton hand or bath towel seemed to be thick enough and held a spark fairly well, so I cut an old towel into pieces approximately 5 cm x 6 cm and placed them into my tin. I was able to fit in about 30 of them without compressing them too much.

My first efforts were a disaster. I lit a fire in my fireplace and placed the tin directly in the flames. I had been told to watch for smoke to come out of the hole in the lid (which it did), then to leave the tin in the fire until I could no longer see smoke escaping (which I did). I removed the tin from the fire, allowed it to cool, and opened the lid to find something just a little better than congealed ashes.

Back to the drawing board. For my next effort, I moved the tin out of the flames but still close to a very hot fire. In about five minutes, the lid of the tin blew off. So much for that attempt.

I finally discovered and mastered the technique. Put the tin over smouldering coals and heat it slowly. Smoke will soon pour out of the hole in the lid. If it begins to billow out from the edges of the lid, the tin is getting too hot. Move it further from the heat.

After 40 to 60 minutes, no more smoke will appear and the char is ready. Remove the tin from the fire and plug the hole with a piece of wood to prevent air from igniting the char. Let cool for several minutes. When you open the tin, you will find several completely blackened pieces of cotton that, although delicate, are fairly easy to handle.

Using this technique, I made four or five batches of charred cloth from a single hand towel. Between batches, I scoured the lid and rim of the top of the tin with a rough cleaning pad to ensure it would keep a tight seal.

Tinder: You can use a number of things to make the tinder. Strands of hemp rope work well, and so do strips of toilet or tissue paper. We chose sisal rope because that was what the Mountain Men used during the demonstration that sparked this whole thing.

Cut the sisal into 15 cm lengths for your kit. When you are ready to make fire, separate the strands into their component fibres and bundle them up to form a nest.

For a successful firelighting experience, use small pieces of dry wood, grass or bark to build a fire base out of the wind. Have ready an ample supply of dry kindling.

Take one or two strands of the sisal in your kit and separate the fibres, then form the mass of fibres into a nest and place a piece of charred cloth on the nest. Put the nest on the ground out of the wind, position the steel 6 cm to 8 cm from the char, and strike the flint to produce sparks.

Not every spark will catch. You may have to make several strikes before you get one hot enough to ignite the char. You know you have caught a spark when a tiny spot on the char begins to glow red. When you blow gently, the small red glow will expand and quickly spread through the char.

Lift the nest and glowing char from the ground, hold it above your head and about 15 cm from your mouth, and blow while manipulating the tinder fibres into contact with the glowing cloth. You will generate quite a bit of smoke until the tinder catches flame.

When the tinder ignites, it literally bursts into flame. Quickly drop the burning mass onto your fire base and coax the fire into a blaze.

Our Cubs mastered flint and steel firelighting far better than I'd imagined. At camp, we demonstrated the technique and gave each Cub his kit components in a freezer bag to keep them dry. The Cubs all made up a sisal bird's nest to put in the kit.

We gave them 15 to 20 minutes to practise making sparks by striking the flint on the steel. This is the part I thought they'd have the most difficulty with but, after about 10 minutes, nearly all of them were able to make sparks.

We were ready. The Cubs bundled up and we headed out on a vigorous 40 minute wilderness hike into high country, which we cleverly disguised as a firemaking expedition. On higher ground, the vegetation was thin and they could safely light fires under supervision.

We organized the pack into small groups of two to four and showed them how to form a safe firepit by clearing a place in the snow. Then we showed them how to forage for dead and dry twigs, dried flowers on shrubs, dried bark, and dried grasses. They needed help to get started, but each of the seven groups managed to light a fire with flint and steel. One group successfully coaxed their fire to a very healthy state with no assistance from a leader.

All in all, it was a very successful outing. We generally direct one of our winter camp themes towards teaching Cubs something about survival techniques. In this instance, we had taken them into the wild with no matches, paper, or firewood and helped them learn how to start a fire under less than ideal weather conditions.

The Cubs, I know, shared the thrill of learning a skill that gave them another taste of independent living. For me, the real thrill was seeing a 200 year old largely forgotten technology work so well.

Program Links
Green Star 7
Woodsman Badge 2a
Winter Cubbing Badge 5d

You can also tie in the activity with Green Star 3 (a flint and steel firemaking kit might be part of a Cub's emergency kit) and Blue Star 15 (relate the skill to an early Canadian explorer's life).

Scouter Duane Zilm works with the 1st Lakeview Cubs, Kelowana, B.C.