Posts Tagged With: Char cloth

The Caveman Catalyst in Your Tinderbox

by Todd Walker

The Caveman Catalyst in Your Tinderbox -

The human love affair with fire is intimate and ancient. Over the flames we cook, celebrate, spin tales, dream, and muse in the swirls of wood smoke. Fire is life. Its warming glow draws us like moths to a flame.

It’s not a stretch to believe that a Stone Age chemist recognized the idea of using carbon for future fires. Disturbing the leftover carbon ashes from the night fire, she stares at sparkles of light glowing like the pre-dawn stars above. She carefully nurses a baby “star” back to life to warm her hearth and home.

It ain’t rocket surgery. Even cavemen knew the importance of the sixth most abundant element in the universe.

Carbon and Future Fires

The game of chasing lightning strikes for each fire was no longer required. This unreliable practice was abandoned for twirling sticks together to create enough heat to initiate the combustion of blackish, carbonized dust. Even with a dependable friction fire apparatus, a more elemental plan was stumbled upon for their next fire. Carbon was the caveman catalyst for future fires.

The Caveman Catalyst in Your Tinderbox -

Carbonized dust glowing from friction.

Charcoal speeds up that wonderful exothermic reaction of combustion. Align a convex lens perpendicular to full sun on different non-charred tinder material. Smoke will rise in a minute. Do the same with charred material and a glowing ember is birthed in seconds. Weak flint and steel sparks produce the same glow.

When material containing carbon is heated without enough oxygen, charred material is the result. We teach our students to make char cloth at school. One side of the Fire Triangle is neglected by heating material in a closed chamber (Altoids tin). [I have a class set of Altoids tins stored in an old cassette tape container. Only a few students have ever heard of these “ancient” musical devices.] The lid hinge vents the volatile gases as the material is heated. When baked, the black charred material takes a spark from flint and steel.

Un-Burned Carbon in Ashes

Over the years, David West sparked my interest in the role of wood ash impregnated in tinder through his experiments on his channel. View his entire Ashed Tinder Playlist here. This, my pyro friends, has been a game-changer for me. Rubbing wood ash on any tinder material accelerates the combustion process.

Saving wood ash from previous fires has become an important part of my fire kit. A few years ago at a Georgia Bushcraft Gathering, I had a young kid ask during a Rudiger Roll (fire roll) demonstration why I added ashes to the cotton ball before rolling between the two boards. I had no real scientific explanation. I just did what I saw David West do.

Here’s my theory. Though wood ash looks nothing like charcoal, enough non-burned carbon remains in ash to significantly lower the temperature required to ignite tinder. Saturating any un-charred tinder (inner bark, jute twine, plant fiber, cotton material) with wood ash provides an excellent fire extender. In the video below, David shows a 4 foot strip of ashed denim burning/smoldering for 3 hours in time-lapse.

Following the lead of Stone Age chemists, making plans for future fires was smart. The thumb drill (lighter) was several millennials away from store shelves. Fire was not automatic. I make it a habit of separating burning logs in the fire pit at the end of each class at school. These partially charred sticks of cellulose are the stepping stone for the next morning’s fire lay. No need to start from scratch each day when charcoal is plentiful in the fire pit.

Carbon Steel and Rock

Flint and Steel was the most popular fire-making method up until matches and lighters lit up our world. Even without iron strikers, sparks could be delivered to charred material using the right combination of stones. The common catalyst in all primitive fire methods is carbon.

Modern re-enactors and nostalgic woodsmen continue to use flint and steel as fire starters. The method takes less energy and practice than fire by friction. The typical flint and steel kit consist of a high-carbon steel striker, a sharp rock (doesn’t have to be flint – any hard, silica based rock will work), and char cloth in a metal container.

However, cotton cloth does not grow in the woods. For a flint and steel kit to be sustainable long-term, natural materials can be carbonized.

My best experiences using charred natural material include:

  • Punky wood – Decaying wood which is spongy when squeezed between thumb and finger. My favorite is the sap wood of Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). I’ve had good luck finding it on the underside of blown down cedars in the right stage of decay.
The Caveman Catalyst in Your Tinderbox -

Punky cedar sap wood has a stringy consistency which makes great char material.

  • Pithy weed stalks – Crack open the woody stalk of dead Mullein (Verbascum) and remove the spongy pith. Cook it in a container like char cloth for an excellent F&S spark-catcher.
  • Natural tinder/cordage – Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) twisted cordage has worked but not as well as the previously mentioned materials. Yucca (Asparagaceae) cordage works as well.

The only non-charred natural material I’ve found to consistently take a weak spark from F&S is:

  • Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) – This fungus grows on birch trees in higher altitudes. It is called True Tinder Fungus as it will catch a spark from F&S. It also will smolder for a long time for a fire extender.
The Caveman Catalyst in Your Tinderbox -

Thin slices of chaga ignited with flint and steel sparks.

I have friends who have achieved F&S embers using other non-charred material. Phillip Liebel, instructor at Flint and Steel Critical Skills Group, discovered that the inner lining of gourds will take a spark from F&S. It’s a very fine, papery material which burns rapidly. Joshua Enyart, founder of Flint and Steel Critical Skills Group, has used the Milkweed (Asclepias) pod to make fire with F&S. I’m sure there are other non-charred natural material out there that will work. Just recently I attempted the following with no success…

  • Dog hair – Moose, our oldest rescue dog, sheds fine clumps of hair. A few sparks landed and fizzed out without catching. Looked promising.
  • Cattail duff – White fluffy stuff is always worth trying. Still a no-go for me.
  • Mullein pith – Did not work. I sliced some to form a fine, triangular edge. Sparks landed on the edge with no glow.

The above works well when carbonized, except dog hair. In my experience, any natural tinder material you’d normally use to build a tinder bundle will take a spark from F&S when charred. The exception to this is fat lighter’d (aka – fatwood). Don’t char fat lighter’d in a tin. You’ll end up with resin coating the bottom of your container.

Non-charred and Un-natural F&S Ignition 

Good luck finding the elusive steel wool tree in the wilderness. I keep a pad of 0000 steel wool in my pack for cleaning axes and tools in the field. For stubborn tinder, add a pinch of steel wool and strike it with F&S. Once the spark catches and begins to spread like tiny dynamite fuses, the tinder becomes super-heated from rapid oxidation.

Gun powder will also ignite with F&S sparks. Flintlock rifles utilized this technology to explode powder and launch projectiles down range. A modern woodsman will likely have a cartridge of some kind which contains gun powder. Carefully remove the bullet from the brass cartridge and pour out a small amount of powder charge. Be ready to transfer the heat from the lit powder to your tinder material. It goes up in a flash.

Carbon Ash Experiments Coming

The South African tonteldoos pocket tinderbox I made rides in my F&S kit. It works well as long as the charred surface is charred well. With sporadic use, the dark char turns brownish from knocking around in my kit. In a future post, I plan to experiment with the mop head strands to see if impregnating them with wood ash will aid in ignition on brownish charred ends. This should be interesting.

The Caveman Catalyst in Your Tinderbox -

A student achieving ignition with the Tonteldoos.

We’re also planning a post on making charred material without the typical metal container. Stay tuned.

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,

~ Todd

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Categories: Bushcraft, Camping, Doing the Stuff, Primal Skills, Self-reliance, Survival Skills | Tags: , , , | 13 Comments

An Easy Char Cloth and Accidental Char Pad Tutorial

by Todd Walker

To build a fire, you need three items: fuel, heat, and air (oxygen). Eliminate air from the fire triangle and all you’ll get is smoke and charred material.

That’s the point, right? We’re making char cloth.

Doing the Stuff with Fire: Easy Char Cloth and Accidental Char Pad Tutorial

Char cloth in a tinder bundle

Charred plant-based material is created by using two sides of the fire triangle – heat and fuel – and withholding oxygen.

It’s a simple process that takes little time but creates valuable a starter for fire building. Here’s what you’ll need to make your own char cloth. As a bonus, I’ve included my accidental char pads made from 100% cotton makeup remover pads!

I made this DiY fire piston and needed char cloth for a test run. It was an epic fail! Well, not epic really. I made the groove too deep on the wooden shaft causing the o-ring to loose air pressure when I slam the piston together.

Doing the Stuff with Fire: Easy Char Cloth and Accidental Char Pad Tutorial

My failed attempt at a DiY fire piston – I’ll let y’all know when I work out the kinks.

You learn by Doing the Stuff with your DiY gear. Fail forward, remember! I’ll share what I’ve learned on this fail in a later post.

For now, let’s make some char cloth… and char pads.

DiY Char Cloth Material List

100% cotton fabric – I used an old bath towel (turned shop towel). You can use a bandana, t-shirt, dish towel, or, as I discovered, makeup removers.

Metal container – Altoids tin, paint can with lid, or bucket. Your container doesn’t need to be air-tight.

Doing the Stuff with Fire: A Char Cloth and Accidental Char Pad Tutorial

Cutting tool, cloth, container, punch

Heat source – Camp fire, grill, fireplace, backpack stove, or any fire will do. I used my cooker with a spare grill grate to support my tin.

Step 1: Cut up strips of cloth into 2×2 inch squares. Procession not required.

Step 2: Punch a small diameter hole in the top of your container to allow smoke/gas to escape when heat is applied. This step could probably be skipped with Altoids tins as the lid hinge holes allows smoke/gas to escape as well.

Doing the Stuff with Fire: Easy Char Cloth and Accidental Char Pad Tutorial

Any sharp, pointy object will work

Step 3: Loosely layer the cloth squares in your container. A tightly packed tin may not char all the surface area of your material. I placed 7 squares of thick towel in my tin.

Doing the Stuff with Fire: A Char Cloth and Accidental Char Pad Tutorial

Step 4: Close the lid and set the container on your heat source. In under a minute, you should begin to see smoke streaming from the vent hole. This smoke/gas is flammable and will ignite if it comes in contact with the fire source.

Doing the Stuff with Fire: A Char Cloth and Accidental Char Pad Tutorial

When the smoke or fire stops coming from the vent hole, your char material is ready.

Your cloth should only take a few minutes (3 to 5) to fully char.

If you open the lid while the container is in the fire, you’ve added the third side of the fire triangle and your material will burn instead of char.

Step 5: Remove the container from the fire and allow to cool. Open the lid and remove your charred material. The charred cloth is delicate, so be careful when separating.

Doing the Stuff with Fire: Easy Char Cloth and Accidental Char Pad Tutorial

Charred cloth is ready!

Now to test the charred cloth. I used a modern ferro rod. Char cloth will catch a spark from old school flint and steel as well.

Doing the Stuff with Fire: Easy Char Cloth and Accidental Char Pad TutorialBefore you lay sparks to your char cloth, gather and build a dry tinder bundle. It’s been raining for two days here. I found some dead grass and leaves under shelves behind my shop and shaped it into a bird’s nest. I placed the char cloth inside the nest and showered sparks on the char.

Once lit, cup the bird’s nest in your hands and gently blow into the bundle. Done correctly, you will create…

Doing the Stuff with Fire: Easy Char Cloth and Accidental Char Pad Tutorial


Store your char cloth in a sealed container in your fire kit. I dug around in my surplus B.O.B. box to find an empty 35mm file canister. In my rummaging, I found a package of 100% cotton makeup remover pads purchased years ago.

Aha moment! What can I say. Thought they’d come in handy one day. And they did…

Accidental Char Pads

These pads are marketed for removing makeup and nail polish without leaving cotton fibers behind. I loaded my tin with 5 pads and followed the same procedures for making char cloth. This won’t work with plain ol’ cotton balls.

Doing the Stuff with Fire: Easy Char Cloth and Accidental Char Pad Tutorial

I’ll bet the ladies already have these on hand.

To my surprise, the char pads caught and held a spark even better than the char cloth.

Doing the Stuff with Fire: Easy Char Cloth and Accidental Char Pad Tutorial

Puffy char pad

Doing the Stuff with Fire: Easy Char Cloth and Accidental Char Pad Tutorial

Film canister filled with char pads

And yes, this is one of the reasons I pack Killer Cotton in my emergency kits.

If you enjoyed this DiY preparedness tutorial, please share it with your friends! As always…

Keep Doing the Stuff!


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Copyright Information: Content on this site (unless the work of a third-party) may be shared freely in digital form, in part or whole, with a link back to this site crediting the author. If you are interested a third-party article, please contact the author directly for republishing information.

Categories: Bushcraft, Camping, DIY Preparedness Projects, Doing the Stuff, Preparedness | Tags: , , | 26 Comments

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