Monday, November 7, 2011

Char Clothe for Flint and Steel

For many years I've tried to live by the rule of three; a backup to a backup to a backup. Life, being the hard mistress she is doesn't always allow us to follow this rule, but I try.

A couple of days ago, with full knowledge Sweet Wife (and let's admit it, yours truly) wanted a fire with the approach of our first nice cold front, I prepared a small tin for char clothe. As you know char clothe (carbon) made from one hundred percent cotton or other natural fibers is an excellent means of producing fire utilizing flint and steel.

I'll let my simple photography tell the story....

Use any old one hundred percent cotton t-shirt. In the picture above I used one of my twenty year old Jimmy Buffet shirts. You will need a small metal container with a tight fitting lid. Punch a small hole in its top to allow gases to escape. Don't forget the hole....cut small sections from the shirt.

Fill the tin, but not tightly...just fill it. The carbon sheets (when finished) will come out in layers.

Above, my cigar tin filled.

Notice the small hole in the middle of the tin....just large enough to allow the gases to vent. Your tin size isn't crucial. In the next picture you'll notice mine is fairly small.

Tools of the trade. A very good friend of mine attends yearly primitive mountain man events. A couple of years ago I asked if he'd bring me back a couple of steels and a few pieces of flint. I like the steels, the flint, not so much. The flint works, but I like mine in larger chunks. Small pieces tend to force you to work harder to produce sparks. Remember, the flint 'chips' off small portions of steel, the spark, with ignites the char clothe. Larger flint eases the task, and saves a lot of skinned knuckles. I prefer the steel to the left in this picture. The flint is just behind the steels atop the cotton strips.

 Above two pictures; one of the steels and how it fits my hand. It works, but it's not my favorite.

A nice piece of flint, kinda small but it will throw sparks. Notice the white ridge of stone running along the top of the black section of chips off easy...careful with your eyes.

I like this steel. It has heft....

Another shot of the second steel...notice how it fits my hand....not good.

Tin packed and into the fire. Don't worry about placement of the tin in the many preach it MUST sit atop glowing coals. Bull hockey. Just make sure the lid is tight, otherwise the cotton will burn too quickly. When the gases finish venting from the hole, it's finished and ready to be pulled from the fire. Let it sit and cool. Mine glowed cherry red at the end. Don't panic.

Finished. Now you have char clothe.

A single piece of char clothe ready to accept a spark from your flint and steel. Once you have a glowing spark in the clothe, gently blow and place in your 'bird's nest' of tender and you have fire.

See those two glowing white eyes....if seen with the naked eye they'd be red...these are the product of a couple of sparks from my flint and steel and after the char had cooled. It sits on my fireplace mantle.

If you've found this interesting, and I hope you have, run over to YouTube or other primitive sites and blogs and do a bit of research. I know in a world filled with good old Zippos and Bics it my seem silly or far fetched to use flint and steel to start fires, but at least you'd have a skill few others possess much less understand. And besides, it's fun.

If all else fails, flick that Bic.



  1. Nice post. While I've used flint and steel -and bow drills for that matter, I'm a big fan of firesteels. Keep one on my keychain and always have it with me.

  2. I made char cloth last year when camping. Just filled an empty steel can (vegetables, beans, whatever) with the cotton squares, put some heavy duty aluminum foil tight around the top with a small hole and set it on the coals. You can tell it's working by the blue flame that comes out of the hole. When it stopped burning/smoking I removed it. Presto - char cloth! It impressed the folks at camp too, not a bad trick. Thanks for sharing your photos.

    Can't seem to figure out how to make a profile on here, so I'll remain anon.

    Unbreakable, AZ.

  3. Good tutorial! I had never heard of char cloths. Now that you showed me how to do it I'll have to get me some flint and steel too. I have a feeling I might be needing it.

  4. One of the highlights of my buckskinning days was teaching a pack of Boy Scouts how to start campfires with flint, steel, and kindling from windfall. It was during a primitive "freeze out" weekend, so they appreciated the knowledge. Amazing how quickly a layer of frost & some snow flurries will motivate a teenage boy to start a fire.

  5. Good post, It's always good to remember the way it used to be done, who knows we may have to again one day.

  6. Very cool tutorial. Flint and steel is something I don't have yet, but wish I did. A couple of fire rods are in my pack and the back of the saw blade on my Swiss Army knife throws the sparks real well. I have seen char cloth used before and never really gave it much thought until just now when I can see that it stores well.

    Thanks for the info. I'll give this a shot sometime.

  7. I have yet to get the bow drill to work like Six Bears, but have made a bunch of char cloth. I never really messed with the flint/steel combo, but I do have ferro rods all over the place around here and like them a lot. I found that an old shoe polish can works great for making and storing char cloth(store it in one without the hole of course). Thanks for posting this. It seems like a bunch of folks had never heard of it. Looks like you're a real ed-u-kat-or.

  8. Very interesting but I think I've been traumatized by the fact that you used a Jimmy Buffet t-shirt...I think I still have all mine.

  9. Sixbears, thank you.

    Unbreakable, understand...will standby while you find you groove with goggle..thanks for stopping by and don't be a stranger.

    Denise, it's a handy skill, and fun. Thanks.

    Rev. Paul, what's that old saying, necessity is the mother of invention...thanks.

    Duke, very true. Thanks, Bubba.

    Casy, you're welcome. I like my rods too, but like my redundancy.

    HillBilly, thank you. Bow and drill takes much practice, but I know you can do it...

    ProudHillbilly, it was hard to cut up that old shirt, it was at least 25 years old and full of holes...I'll use the rest for cleaning patches, bore great. Thanks.

  10. Might I suggest #0000 steel wool, and any lighter that will make sparks. The steel wool will catch fire right now, and instantly you've got fire.

  11. But why do we have to go through all of that trouble? Wouldn't it be better to use a lighter, Why do we have to do it this way it sounds so hard? Why would we have to have fire? Can't we just use the oven and the microwave? It would be so easy to just cook food that way. Why? I don't understand?

    Sorry I just had to wine a little thanks for a good post.

  12. Kerry, yes indeed, steel wool and a nine volt battery will start fire all day long. The object here is to learn a primitive skill as a back up. Thank you.

    Rob, no sweat, and you're welcome....

  13. Very nice indeed. I must try to make some myself. Thanks for the instructional post!!!

  14. Never heard of this prior to reading this. Thank you so much for the instructions.

  15. i will keep this simple, Dear Friend.

    Thank You.

    u no hoo

  16. PioneerPreppy, you're welcome, and thanks for the comment.

    mmasee, you're welcome. It's fun.

    kymber, again, you're welcome.