Posts Tagged With: flint and steel

The Caveman Catalyst in Your Tinderbox

by Todd Walker

The Caveman Catalyst in Your Tinderbox - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

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 - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

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 - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

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 - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

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 - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

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

P.S. – You can also keep up with the Stuff we’re Doing on TwitterPinterestYouTubeInstagram, and Facebook… and over at our Doing the Stuff Network.

P.P.S – If you find value in our blog, Dirt Road Girl and I would appreciate your vote on Top Prepper Sites! You can vote daily by clicking here or on the image below. Check out all the other value-adding sites while you’re there…

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Copyright © by Survival Sherpa: Content on this site (unless the work of a third-party) may be shared freely in digital form, in part or whole, for non-commercial use with a link back to this site crediting the author. All links in articles must remain intact as originally posted in order to be republished. If you are interested a third-party article, please contact the author directly for republishing information.

 

Categories: Bushcraft, Camping, Doing the Stuff, Primal Skills, Self-reliance, Survival Skills | Tags: , , , | 11 Comments

Be Anti-Fragile: Prepare Modern but Practice Primitive

by Todd Walker

Skills get swallowed by survival gear. Depending on the latest knife, gun, or shiny-survival-object may seem like a smart plan.

The thing is…

Plans and reality are not the same thing.

Be Anti-Fragile: Prepare Modern but Practice Primitive | www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Nothing’s wrong with reliance on modern survival gear. I own my fair share of modern tools of self-reliance. Thousands of fires can be started with a butane lighter. But what happens when modern equipment and gear fail? And it will fail. And rust. And get lost. And wear out.

Abrupt Changes Ahead

To handle change, you’ll need skills that gain from disorder and disaster.

There may come a time when our instant gear gratification mentality can’t be satisfied and you have to depend on your own hands to make what you need. From cordage to cutting tools to combustion… these skills won’t rust or wear out with use!

Practicing primitive goes beyond building redundancy in gear. Stone age technology connects you to your ancestral past, no matter which part of this dirt ball your family tree grew. In this context, you appreciate the deep understanding of “primitive” people, their skills, and their knowledge required to use available resources.

It takes time and energy to develop these skills. Take fire craft as an example. Once you practice friction fire or flint and steel, the skill of building a proper tinder bundle to blow your primal ember into flame makes your modern fire craft efforts more successful.

The Burning Secret of Flint and Steel Fire | www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Flint and steel is a long-term fire-making option for your kit

Shortsighted moderns discount flint and steel as antiquated. Precisely! Practicing primitive gives you options and options make you Anti-Fragile.

Anti-Fragile Skills

Anti-Fragile didn’t originate with me. Taleb coined the term in his paradigm shattering book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. This book causes…

Altered thinking.

Considering the fragile world we’re in today, we need a new blueprint for self-reliance. One that benefits from disorder, randomness, and shock.

Just as fire feeds on obstacles, so do skills. Anyone who owns a skill faced high barricades that made them stronger. Anti-fragile people are much better at doing than talking.

Doers do. Talkers talk. The two are clearly unequal. Doers become anti-fragile.

Knowledge, Skills, Resources

Doing the Stuff  of Self-Reliance with your modern gear, with your knowledge, with your resources, in your area is the only way to build resilient skills. But we want more than resiliency. As Taleb explains,

“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”

Dirt time with modern tools aids in future, unpredictable survival events. Hours of practice and testing with your cutting tool of choice shows little deviation in the outcome. The modern space blanket in your kit is a proven emergency lifesaver. With use, you’ve discovered your gear’s limitations and abilities.

You need dependable, bomb-proof gear. To some degree though, predictable equipment and tools lull us into fragility. Meaning… we become too gear dependent.

To be clear, I’m an advocate of carrying a basic kit before heading into the woods… or anywhere else for that matter. But, again, could you benefit from the harm of lost or broken tools in the wilderness?

The answer depends on whether or not you have the knowledge and skills to use available resources from your environment. There’s no substitute for investing in skills and knowing how to use local resources. As much as I’d like to try white birch bark as tinder, heard it’s good stuff, we’re fresh out in my neck of the woods. No worries… you can’t walk far in my woods without finding resin rich fat lighter littering the forest floor.

Understand that specialized skills and specific resources are needed to replace the 5 C’s of Survivability (Cutting Tool, Combustion, Cover, Container, Cordage). These tools are the hardest to replicate from the landscape. However, it’s doable.

A.) Cutting Tools

Would I willingly trade my fixed blade knife for a stone tool? Not a chance! Unless I’m forced into that situation, I’ll always choose the modern knife as my primary cutting tool. However, stone age technology paved the way for us moderns.

When Primitive Skills and Prepping Have Sex | www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Scott Jones demonstrates how to make an arrowhead from glass

Without mad flint knapping skills, you can create stop-gap edged tools from bipolar flaking. So easy a caveman can do it!

B.) Combustion

Modern sure-fire is packed in all my fire kits. They’re consumable. Mother Nature provides unlimited primitive sure-fire if you know where to look. Your anti-fragile pine responds to shock by exuding flammable resin to protect its life, and, in turn, gives you fire and life.

What’s your local go-to natural sure-fire tinder?

Do I start all my fires with a bow drill? Nope. I carry a lighter and ferro rod. Do I practice primitive fire with different, local wood? Yup. I’ve found pine, poplar, and cedar to be my favorites.

Here’s my personal primitive skill of the month… hand drill fire. I’ve harvested dry mullein and yucca stalks for this experiment. Dirt Road Girl just smiles and watches patiently in the car as her wild husband gathers resourses in the right-of-way. I love my wife!

Be Anti-Fragile: Prepare Modern but Practice Primitive | www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Mullein and Yucca stalks for my hand drill experiment

The hand drill should be a comfort zone buster. Stay tuned for my blister update!

C.) Cover

Caught in the elements without manmade cover will quickly drain your core temperature. To combat heat loss, build primitive shelters with available debris. Calories will be burned, but if this your only shelter option, it’s worth it.

Be Anti-Fragile: Prepare Modern but Practice Primitive | www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Rock outcrops and ledges are ready-made shelter

You may get lucky and find a rock outcropping or cave for hunkering down. Even with ready-made natural shelter, add a 4 to 6 inch layer of compressed leaves or natural material in your bedding area as a barrier against conduction.

D.) Container

Keep an eye out for other people’s trash. Sad to say, folks are trashy in the woods. But this could be a bonanza for your survival. Glass bottles, drink cans, and plastic are all useful and should be grabbed up.

Again, crafting or burning natural containers from wood takes time, resources and skill. Expedient containers for water can be made from bamboo, if available. Turtle shells make great bowls. Baskets can be weaved from plants or crafted with tree bark. If you’re so fortunate as to find a vine of gourds, you’ve just located container heaven. Of course, gourds are a cultivated crop that originated in the wilds of Africa. If you locate a gourd vine, you’re probably close to civilization anyhow.

E.) Cordage

Many natural fibers can be made into functional cordage in an emergency situation. Simply twisting fibers together without fancy reverse twists will provide strong cordage. Roots and vines can be used to lash shelters.

Be Anti-Fragile: Prepare Modern but Practice Primitive | www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Yucca plant behind my school

 

Learning to make natural cordage is a skill every outdoors person should undertake. Get in the habit of collecting natural material when trekking or hiking through your woods. Inner fibers of trees like Tulip Poplar, Red Cedar, and Black Locust make excellent cordage. Nettle, Dog Bane, and Yucca are great cordage plants in my area.

Be Anti-Fragile: Prepare Modern but Practice Primitive | www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Down and dirty yucca cordage

The skills that give you options when modern gear fail will be of the primitive type. My journey into learning primitive skills continues. You never master primitive skills. There’s always something else to learn from thousands of years of history!

Taking the sage advice of Dave Canterbury to Prepare Modern but Practice Primitive has given me options… and made me a little more Anti-Fragile.

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,

Todd

P.S. – You can also keep up with the Stuff we’re Doing on TwitterPinterestGoogle +, YouTube and Facebook page… and over at the Doing the Stuff Network on PinterestGoogle +, and Facebook.

P.P.S – If you find value in our blog, Dirt Road Girl and I would appreciate your vote on Top Prepper Sites! You can vote daily by clicking here or on the image below. Check out all the other value-adding sites while you’re there…

Thanks for Sharing the Stuff!

Copyright: Content on this site (unless the work of a third-party) may be shared freely in digital form, in part or whole, for non-commercial use with a link back to this site crediting the author. All links in articles must remain intact as originally posted in order to be republished. If you are interested a third-party article, please contact the author directly for republishing information.

Categories: Bushcraft, Lost Skills, Self-reliance, Survival, Survival Skills | Tags: , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Burning Secret of Flint and Steel Fire

by Todd Walker

I remember singing around church campfires as a kid, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going…”  Anyone who has attempted to start a fire with just one spark understands that… it ain’t that easy.

The Burning Secret of Flint and Steel - www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

 

Prepare modern and practice primitive. You won’t catch me in the woods without several Bic lighters. When I really need to start a fire, I whip out my Bic. For primitive fire craft, I may start a fire by friction. If those modern fire starters fail, primitive practice will pay off.

Before the advent of butane lighters and matches, flint and steel was the method of choice for fire starting. In the 17th and 18th century, longhunters, woodsmen, and towns people alike relied on this method. In the woods, charred plant material in a tinder box would receive sparks from the steel. Char cloth was for city folk. Dried tinder material was placed on top of the ember while in the tinder box and blown into flame. Closing the lid of the tinder box smothered the charred material for later use.

Hopefully, this article sparks your interest and sheds some light on the traditional mountain man method of making fire. Long beards and tasselled buckskin are not prerequisites to appreciate sparks flying from steel.

The Burning Secret

This article is a blend of how-to with a dash of curious survival science. Armed with new knowledge, you’ll be able to explain to your buddies the little-known secret of steel’s ability to spontaneously combust.

That rusty shovel in your shed is producing heat. It doesn’t feel hot to the touch but rust (oxidation) produces heat. Just not fast enough to burn the barn down.

You see, rust is a sign that your tool is burning… very slowly, but burning none the less. When iron comes in contact with air, a chemical reaction called oxidation begins. Oxidation produces rust and heat.

How can you manipulate oxidation to create fire?

In simple terms, speed up this exothermic reaction until you see sparks.

Iron is a pyrophoric material that ignites instantly when it comes in contact with oxygen. The reason that rusty shovel hasn’t set your hay on fire is that the steel is in a big hunk of metal slowlyburning“. The heat from oxidation is absorbed in the atmosphere before ignition can happen.

For steel to spontaneous combust, you must…

Increase the Surface Area

Need a fire fast?

A proper fire lay requires surface area. You need wood in pencil-lead size, pencil size, and thumb size wood with even finer hair-like material in the tinder bundle. Even with highly combustible fatwood, surface area matters for quick ignition. Take a thumb-size piece of fat lighter and try lighting it with a ferrocerium rod. You might do it, but only after scraping the rod to a nub. Now you’ve wasted a resource.

The Burning Secret of Flint and Steel Fire | www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Example: Breaking this tiny block off a solid cube made of 1,000 tiny blocks creates more surface area

Instead, create lots of surface area by removing resin-rich shavings into a pile. Then make a feather stick from the fatwood (more surface area). One or two strikes from your ferro rod and you’ll have a flaming pile of pine shaving to ignite the feather stick. The same principle applies to iron’s ability to spontaneously combust. You have to create surface area.

Note: Before we continue, let’s clear up a common misunderstanding about ferrocerium rods and flint and steels. Yes, they both throw sparks but each has different properties. Mainly, ferro rods produce 3,000º F sparks while flint and steel sparks are in the 800º F range. Generally, flint and steel needs charred material for ignition. Ferrocerium will ignite un-charred material, marginal tinder, and melt tarps… ask me how I know.

Flint and Steel vs Ferrocerium

Flint and Steel

  • Steels will last a lifetime or longer
  • Has a longer learning curve but very dependable and rewarding
  • Less forgiving than ferro rods
  • Temperature of sparks hover around 800º F
  • In a pinch, the spine of a high carbon steel knife will throw sparks when struck with flint rock if that’s all you have
  • Works in wet conditions
  • Very old method… if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Ferrocerium

  • 3,000º F sparks – and globs of molten metal from softer ferro rods that burn longer after being removed from the rod
  • Consumable – not a big concern if your life depends on making fire with marginal tinder
  • Easier to manipulate with less practice
  • Broken glass, 90º knife spine, metal strikers, flint rock can strike sparks from ferro rods
  • More forgiving than flint and steel
The Burning Secret of Flint and Steel Fire | www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Dirt Road Girl making fire with a ferro rod

Now, back to flint and steel.

Striking steel with a hard object like flint/chert breaks off tiny pieces of steel with greater surface area than the original hunk of metal. These small particles meet oxygen and spontaneously combust. Sparks fly!

Flint and Steel Fire Craft

What you’ll need to start a fire with flint and steel… mountain man style.

  • A hard, brittle steel (iron and carbon) – old files work too
  • A rock harder than the steel – flint, chert, quartz, etc – with sharp edges
  • Charred cloth or plant material – learn to make your own char cloth here

Here’s two methods to use your flint and steel…

Hold the steel in your strong hand and the flint in the other. Lay a piece of char cloth over the top of the flint and hold it near the edge of the rock with your thumb. In a downward motion, strike the stationary flint with your steel in a smooth motion. Be careful not to hit your knuckles on the sharp rock. Once a spark lands on the char cloth, you should have a glowing ember growing in circular fashion.

The other method is to hold the flint in your strong hand and strike the stationary steel. I use this method when lighting charred plant material in my char container. It’s a safe way to strike sparks off the spine of a knife. Keep the knife stationary and strike the spine with the flint.

Flint and steel are becoming my preferred method for starting fires. Here’s a quick video on the science behind flint and steel with a demo at the end.

My daddy made a living welding and plumbing. Growing up, my hands were no stranger to side grinders. I wore out many grinding disks shooting streams of glowing sparks. What I didn’t realize then was that these tiny particles of iron were igniting when they came in contact with oxygen. I’d assumed they glowed from the friction of the grinding wheel.

Now you and I know the burning secret.

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,

Todd

P.S. – You can also keep up with the Stuff we’re Doing on TwitterPinterestGoogle +, YouTube and Facebook page… and over at the Doing the Stuff Network on PinterestGoogle +, and Facebook.

P.P.S – If you find value in our blog, Dirt Road Girl and I would appreciate your vote on Top Prepper Sites! You can vote daily by clicking here or on the image below. Check out all the other value-adding sites while you’re there…

Thanks for Sharing the Stuff!

Copyright: Content on this site (unless the work of a third-party) may be shared freely in digital form, in part or whole, for non-commercial use with a link back to this site crediting the author. All links in articles must remain intact as originally posted in order to be republished. If you are interested a third-party article, please contact the author directly for republishing information.

Categories: Bushcraft, Camping, Doing the Stuff, Gear, Preparedness, Self-reliance, Survival | Tags: , , , , | 21 Comments

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