Sometimes it seems that the subject of starting a fire with flint and steel has been hashed and rehashed in every living history publication or buckskinning book I've ever picked up. The vast majority of these articles have been well written by folks who know what they are talking about. Why is it, then, that I've never had the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment of starting a fire by this method even after many attempts? Could it be that I was missing something? Or that my particular way of thinking was not putting the pieces together properly? Or, perhaps, is it much simpler than I was trying to make it? The answer is "Yes" to all of the above. So for those folks who have always wanted to start a fire from flint and steel, while amazing friends and family, I add this humble prose to the tomes written on the subject. Along the way we will also learn about steel, cloth, and hopefully, ourselves.
Do you remember in school when the teacher passed out the test and at the top of the page it said "Read all the directions before answering any questions."? At the very bottom of the third sheet it also said "DO NOT answer any of the questions above. Simply place your name at the top of the first sheet and hand the test in." I was the guy in the back of the class that sweated through the whole test while everyone else had left the room. I encourage you to read the complete set of instructions before you start. I can assure you it will make all the difference in the world.
As any good craftsman will tell you, a product is only as good as the materials used to make it. I will explain the individual items in detail before we start. These are the initial items you will need: some cotton cloth, an air-tight metal container, a piece of steel and a piece of flint. Now, these are only the initial items needed to "catch a spark". In addition, you'll need some "tinder", a candle, and some very small, dry slivers of wood or twigs. We are now ready to start our fire, right? Well, not quite. We still need to talk about the specifics of the materials.
Let's start with the cloth. Some years back, in an effort to protect us from ourselves, "da guv'ment" made regulations which stated that many types of cloth used in making clothing and bedding had to have a fire retardant chemical added to them. This fire retardant chemical causes the greatest single problem in our fire starting effort. Not just any old 100% cotton cloth will do. For the optimal results, I went to the cloth store and bought about a half yard of 100% cotton cloth about the weight of pillow case cloth or bed sheet material. I also made sure that on the end of the bolt was the word "Flammable". I cannot over-stress the importance of this word. After mastering fire starting with this cloth, you can experiment on your own with other types and thicknesses of cotton. I also have found it wise not to explain to the sales clerk why I want "Flammable" 100 % cotton cloth. At best, they look at you funny; at worst they call the BATF. ("So, officer, I guess the handcuffs mean I'm not getting a warning ticket?")
Next, let's talk about the metal container. This will be needed to turn the cotton cloth into char cloth or, as most old timers call it: char. I use an old one-pint varnish can. It is a convenient size, has an air tight lid and is fairly durable. Anything bigger would be cumbersome, and besides, char is best when made in small quantities. Be sure that ALL paint or varnish has been removed from the can. Only one modification needs to be made to the can. In the center of the lid, make a hole with a small nail slightly larger than a pencil lead. Now we have our can ready.
To make char, take the cotton cloth and cut into approximately 2 x 2 inch squares. Place eight of these, stacked on top of each other, in the metal container and tightly close the lid with the hole in it. Place the container upright on a hot plate and set the hot plate to 'HIGH'. The hole in the container will release the smoke and pressure in the can as well as limit the oxygen in the can so that the cotton will carbonize but not burn. Many people say to let the cotton cook until the smoke quits coming out of the hole. I've found that if left that long the cotton turns to brittle charcoal. Good char will be black and carbonized, but still flexible. It usually takes about five minutes to obtain good char in my paint can if I start with a cold hot plate. Over cooking is easy to do, so you might want to experiment. After you take the can off the hot plate, DO NOT open it until the can is completely cool. Opening the can right away will allow oxygen in and the cloth will catch fire. This is not what we want. Be patient and let the can cool.
The striker is next. The best type of steel to create sparks is high carbon "tool steel". Very simply, tool steel is used in making many types of tools. The best tool steel can be found in old files, letter or number punches, hacksaw blades or knives. Now, a word to the wise, fellers. If you use your wife's brand new mill bastard for this process you will have more sparks in more places than you care for. She will not be a happy camper. I hammered my striker out of an old 3/8 inch letter punch. Old files work well, too, - just be sure they are past their prime. The next most important thing, if you're making your own striker, is to remember to temper it when you're through shaping it. This just means to heat it to a cherry red color and quench it in brine or diesel oil. If you don't want to make a striker, you can buy one from traders or catalogs for around ten dollars. A good striker will be made of high carbon tool steel with a dull knife edge with which to strike the flint.
Once you have obtained the striker, it is time to go in search of flint. Flint is found in many parts of the country. Some of it is of better quality than others, but the main thing to keep in mind is that all we want is a rock that will generate a spark. I have my best luck finding flint in river beds. After flaking off a section of the rock, strike the sharp edge of the rock with the striker a few times. This is done by holding the striker slightly off perpendicular to the flint edge and striking the flint edge with a sharp, glancing blow. If you get a spark, you're in business. If flint is not readily obtainable in your area, a rock shop can be a great place to get some or some of the buckskinning catalogs actually sell it.
The last item we need to have that is of a specific nature is "tinder". I always thought I knew what tinder was. It was grass and small sticks that would catch fire easily. Well, that's not quite the sort of tinder we're talking about here, but close. The tinder I'm referring to here is natural fiber that will catch fire extremely easily. Traditionally a substance called "tow" was used as tinder. Tow is lint created from flax or hemp. Flax tow can still be purchased from catalogs, but "da guv'ment" frowns on hemp, in any form. ("Honest, officer, I'm just using it to start fires!") Some of the best material I have used lately is the lint from the lint screen in a clothes dryer. As long as it's not compacted too tightly, it works great. As I have a solar clothes dryer, I'll have tell you about cruising the laundromats in my area, sometime. Jute also makes good tinder. The easiest way to get jute is to buy jute string and untwist it into its separate fibers. I have also used sisal by unwinding sisal string, but jute works better.
Now we have our char, striker and a piece of flint, and a hand full of "tinder". All that is left is a generic candle and some very small, dry slivers of wood or twigs. To make a full-blown camp fire it is also wise to have other sizes of wood ready, as they will be needed.
NOW we are ready to try to start a fire. These instructions are for a right handed person. If you're a south-paw, you will have to stand on your head for these instructions to work properly. Place a handful of tinder in your left hand. On top of this place a swatch of char. On top of the char, place your flint so that about a third of the char is sticking out past the edge of the flint that you are going to strike with the steel. Maneuver this pile around in your left hand so that you are able to hold the tinder, char and flint with your hand and still have the edge of the flint exposed so that you won't hit your hand with the striker.
Quite a few people believe that the sparking property is in the flint, but it is not. What really happens is that when the steel strikes the flint, the flint shears off a tiny piece of steel. The resulting spark is the high-carbon sliver of steel burning for an instant due to the high temperature generated by the friction between the steel and flint. Following this line of reason, we want to strike the steel to the flint so that we can better direct the spark to the char below the flint. Always remember that the flint slivers the steel, not the other way around. This will help you direct the spark more accurately.
Once a spark lands on the char, immediately blow a light puff of air toward it. It doesn't have to be a strong blow, just enough to allow the char to catch. The char will then begin to smolder. Set the steel and flint down and gently wrap the tinder around the smoldering char while GENTLY blowing on the smoldering char. With the tinder in contact with the smoldering char SLOWLY increase the intensity of the blowing. Soon the tinder will ignite in open flame and you're done. Well, not quite.
The VERY FIRST thing you want to do with your new-found flame is to light the candle. That way, if the tinder goes out, you won't have to do this all over again. After you've got the candle lit, set the lit tinder down and begin to add VERY small slivers of wood, twigs or dried grass. DO NOT use leaves. They smolder but rarely burn. We want flame. As the small slivers and twigs catch fire, add SLIGHTLY larger twigs and sticks. Keep building the fire up until you can place large pieces of wood on it.
I know folks who will take their candle and trim the sides away from the wick slightly before they strike a spark. They take the slivers of candle wax that they cut off and press them onto some the small wood slivers they intend to ignite with the tinder. This does two things. First it makes the candle easier to light and it makes the small slivers ignite quicker. Also remember that heat inherently travels upward. After the char is smoldering and the tinder is gently wrapped around it, turn the tinder so that the char is on the bottom and direct your blowing from underneath the mass. This will allow the heat of the char to increase and travel upwards into the tinder at the same time. These are a few tricks of the trade.
If you did not succeed in this, I will admit that there is a very small, ineffable part of the process. If you have tried several times following these instructions carefully and still have had no luck, I would suggest watching someone else start a fire with flint and steel. There are living history demonstrations and rendezvous going on all over the country and the participants are always glad to show off their skills. Ask one of them. I'm sure they will be happy to oblige. In the mean time, keep your tinder dry and try not to set anything important on fire.