Thursday, August 25, 2016

Making Fire with Flint & Steel

A great demonstration that never fails to impress visitors at the Stephenson House, is creating fire using flint and steel. Kids and adults are equally impressed. Small children often think it's magic (and how cool is that?). It will take some practice to get the technique perfected but it's totally worth it, plus you never know when you might need such a useful skill (like, as a contestant on Survivor or when lighting a flaming arrow to shoot at an attacking horde). Here is a step-by-step guide to making a fire using flint and steel. 

The basic items needed:

  • a piece of steel - procured from a blacksmith or mercantile. Be sure your steel is properly hardened or it will not make a spark.
  • charcloth - made of linen or cotton fabric  Check that your fabric does not contain modern components like polyester. 
  • flint - have a piece big enough to hold easily between your thumb and first finger.
  • tinder - old rope such as jute or hemp that can be cut into 3" sections, separated and shredded. 
  • tin box - used to make charcloth and keep supplies dry when stored.
  • kindling and wood - when building a fire in a hearth start out with small sticks and wood pieces. Don't use larger pieces until you have a good fire base.
  • more dried tinder -  dried leaves, old paper, pine cones, etc. to help build the fire.
Additional items you might find useful but are not necessary in order to do this demonstration.
  • fat wood matches - small slivers of fat wood to act as a simple match once you have a flame.
  • candle - to light with a fat wood match.

Small kindling stacked log cabin style between two andirons.  Inside the 'log cabin' are dried leaves.

Begin by stacking small pieces of dry kindling 'log cabin' style in your hearth. I use small wood branches from the yard and/or very thinly chopped pieces from a small log. In the photo above, I've used both types. Don't start off with big logs because you'll never get a fire going (not unless you've brought a whole lot of lighter fluid or a flame thrower and I definitely don't recommend either option). Be sure your wood is seasoned and very dry. Green or wet wood will not work. Once you've created the 'log cabin' then fill the center opening and spaces between the sticks with dried leaves, grasses, old paper, pine cones, etc.  Use what you have on hand. Here I've only used dried leaves.

Gather a stack of smaller logs to use once your base fire is going strong. Put them close to where you are working so they are within easy reach in order to feed the fire.

Now the fun begins! There are four main ingredients needed to make what I call a 'nest-o-flame'; flint, steel, charcloth, and rope tinder.

Find a good-sized piece of flint. It should be big enough to hold between your thumb and first finger with a portion extending past both. Flint is a hard sedimentary form of the mineral quartz. It comes in a variety of colors ranging from pink to black. It's important the piece you'll be using has a sharp edge to strike the steel against.

Several different colors of flint. Flint has a 'milky' quality to its color that makes it easy to pick out of a pile of rock.

Take some old jute rope that is no longer good for anything (Use only untreated, natural fiber rope). Cut it into 3" lengths so its easy to unravel. Begin shredding the sections until you have a small bundle of strings that resemble a bird's nest. See the photo below. This nest is the tinder used to get a flame started.

We have a large supply of old jute rope at the site. Rope is usually made up of several strands twisted together. Cut the rope into 3" sections for easy shredding. You'll want to shred enough to make a small bird's nest slightly bigger than the one pictured above.

Charcloth will be used to catch the spark. 

To make charcloth: cut cotton or linen fabric into small pieces and fill your tin box. The tin box needs to have a hole in the top (or a small one drilled through both the lid side and box lip then matched up). Place the lid on the box. On a day you have a fire burning in the hearth, put the tin box into the hot coals. A flame about 2"-3" high will shoot out of the hole in the lid. Once that flame stops you'll have charcloth. Use fire tongs to remove the box from the fire and let it cool. DO NOT PICK-UP THE TIN BOX WITH YOUR HANDS UNTIL IT COOLS! (Seems obvious, but there's always someone....)

The next ingredient needed is charcloth. This item is what will 'catch' the spark from the flint and steel striking together, ultimately igniting the nest. (See above instructions on how to make charcloth) There are a couple different methods used when catching a spark. What will be shown in this tutorial is the way I was taught many years ago and it's worked pretty well.

Charcloth is laid on top of the flint.

Place a piece of charcloth on top of your flint. The edge of the charcloth should be close to the sharp edge of the flint but not over it. Hold the steel in your dominant hand (the hand you write with) and the flint/charcloth in the other hand. Keep the flint/charcloth horizontal with the floor (see photo below), keeping your thumb and fingers away from the striking edge. You will be striking/skimming the sharp edge of the flint with the flat edge of the steel. It's important to slide the steel down the sharp edge of the flint in a striking motion; fast and hard but barely skimming the flint edge. This will be the hardest part of the demonstration to master. 

I am holding the steel in my dominant hand and the flint in the other. All of my fingers are positioned away from the edges. You will cut your knuckles if they make contact with the sharp edge of the flint. 

Charcloth laid on top of the flint. Strike the flint by skimming the steel down the sharp edge of the flint.

When the steel strikes the flint in the correct way you will have sparks fly from the contact point. The charcloth is used to catch these sparks. It may take several strikes before a spark lands on the charcloth. Once a spark 'catches', the charcloth will begin to glow red hot. Place the charcloth on the 'nest' and gently fold the nest over it. It's important that you don't fold the nest too tight or you will suffocate the spark. Keep the nest loose but cover the spark and start blowing on the area where the spark is glowing. Rotate the nest if necessary and keep blowing. If all goes well, the nest will catch fire. Be ready for the ignition of the flame because you'll have to move fast to avoid burning your hand.

Sparks from striking the flint with the steel. Note: I do not have any charcloth in this photo but it was a good image of the sparks.

Once the charcloth catches a spark it will begin to glow red hot. Place it on the nest.

Loosely fold the nest over the charcloth.

The nest with the burning charcloth wrapped inside.
Blow on the nest. You may need to rotate and re-wrap the nest to encourage it to catch fire.

Success! I have FIRE!!!!!

If you have prepped a hearth as discussed above then put your 'nest-o-flame' into the center of the log cabin and tinder. The tinder will catch fire. Add more tinder if necessary until the kindling starts to burn. Once the kindling is burning, add the smaller split pieces of wood, a few at a time. Don't throw everything on it at once or you may put it out.

Once the nest catches fire, place it in the prepped kindling and tinder.

Larger pieces of kindling are added as the base layer begins to burn.

If everything has gone according to plan, you will have a nice fire burning in the hearth. Keep in mind this demonstration can cause injury (you are playing with fire). At some point, you will cut your knuckles, singe a fingertip (or ten) and burn a little hair (who really needs eyebrows anyway?). Please do not attempt this demonstration without the appropriate items and area listed (not a good idea to do this in a room without a working fireplace...again stating the obvious). I would recommend having a bucket of water or a fire extinguisher on hand...just in case.

**Want to see more? Check out this "Making Fire, Part 1: Flint& Steel" video I filmed at the 1820 Col. Benjamin Stephenson House. There is even a bonus less on making charcloth.