Posts Tagged With: tonteldoos tinderbox

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

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: , , , | 13 Comments

How to Make a Pocket Tonteldoos (Tinderbox) for Flint and Steel Fires

by Todd Walker

Forgive me for butchering the pronunciation of tonteldoos in my video below. No matter how it’s spoken in Afrikaans, this portable tinderbox just became my favorite fire-starter for spark ignition fires. Simple, yet effective!

How to Make a Pocket Tonteldoos (Tinderbox) for Flint and Steel Fires -

Tonteldoos is a small town in South Africa who’s name actually means tinderbox. Information on the traditional tinderbox itself was a bit scarce as I researched. I was fortunate enough to find a description of a tonteldoos in a Facebook learning group shared by a gentleman (Eben) raised in South Africa. I built mine based on his helpful instructions.

Thank you, Eben, for sharing some history and the idea of making this pocket tinderbox!

Tonteldoos History

The tonteldoos was introduced in South Africa by European settlers in the 17th century. The tinderbox was an effective and portable method of creating fire up until the introduction of stick matches in the mid 1800’s. As wars tend to do, the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902) created a scarcity of stick matches causing people to revert back to the traditional tonteldoos to start fires in homes and afield.

Even after the war ended and matches became widely available, the use of this traditional tinderbox continued through to the mid 20th century. Testing my pocket tonteldoos, I can certainly see why. It’s easy to make, easy to use, and employs one of man’s time-tested ignition sources – flint and steel.

Tonteldoos Testing

Consistent ignition with flint and steel requires a dry source of charred material. Once the material catches a spark, the glowing ember is placed in a tinder bundle and blown into flame. With marginal or damp tinder, I’ve gone through several pieces of char from my fire kit before reaching ignition temperature.

This pocket tinderbox offers a controlled solution to eating up all your charred material. Here’s how…

With the tonteldoos, the only material consumed is at the end of the tube. The remaining un-charred material is preserved within the cylinder. Saving this valuable next-fire resource is the smart move.

I tested two methods…

  1. Char all the cotton material before inserting in the tube
  2. Char only the cotton material protruding from the end of the tube

By far, the best results came from charring the end of the material (method #2).This is the traditional method used for tonteldoos.

Method #1 failed, as I suspected, due to the fragile nature of charred material. It’s difficult to push crumbly material through a tube without turning it to dust. The charred rope provided an awesome glow but was consumed too quickly.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Make Your Own

After reading Eben’s description, my possum mentality kicked in as I walked to my shop. I needed a metal tube and cotton material. I considered using a small, gutted Maglite but the diameter would not allow me to push the material up with my finger. The same goes for 1/2 inch copper pipe unless you’ve got really skinny fingers.

I dove into my scrap copper from previous plumbing jobs. If you don’t have copper lying around, home improvement stores sell all you need.

Here’s what I came up with for my tonteldoos…

Stuff you'll need

Stuff you’ll need

Material and Tools

  • 3/4 inch copper pipe about 4 inches in length
  • Two 3/4 inch copper caps – bought new for about $1.50 each
  • 100% cotton material – several strands from a mop head works well
  • Cordage is totally optional
  • Scissors or sharp knife
  • Copper wire if you make a loop through the end caps like mine
  • Drill and drill bit the diameter of the wire used to make the loop
  • Pipe cutter
  • Flint and steel

Step 1: Cut Pipe

Cut a 4 inch section of 3/4 inch pipe. Ream each end of the pipe with the attachment on the pipe cutter – or use a file. This removes burrs from snagging the cotton material as it passes through the pipe.

Pipe reamer attachment

Pipe reamer attachment

Step 2: Pack the Pipe

Any 100% cotton material would probably work. I had a new industrial mop head lying around I had intended to use as char rope. Perfect!

Cut several strands off a mop head and feed them through the pipe with a twisting motion until 1/4 inch of material is sticking out of the top end of your cylinder. Let the bottom end run wild. You can remove the excess later.


Char the 1/4 inch of material with an open flame. I used my new Mullein Slush Lamp… just because! Any open flame will do.

Charring the cotton mop head strands

Charring the cotton mop head strands

Once the end is charred, pull the wick down from the bottom end so the charred end is even with the top of the pipe. Place the cap on the smoldering end to extinguish the embers. Now cut the excess material from the bottom end of the tinderbox.


Step 3: Attach Wire Loops to Caps

This is completely optional. I added loops to my caps for three reasons…

  1. Tying cordage to connect the two loops may aid in keeping the caps found in the field.
  2. A steel striker can be attached to the cordage.
  3. Cordage can be tied to keep the end caps secured if you actually carry your tonteldoos in your pocket while tramping through the woods.

If the end caps fit loosely, tweak the pipe ends by lightly tapping them with a hammer to take them out of round. Not too much or your cap won’t fit (square peg in a round hole). Another way to tighten the cap connection is to solder the caps on and then remove them. The layer of solder would make the caps fit tightly once cooled.

How to Make a Pocket Tonteldoos (Tinderbox) for Flint and Steel Fires -

The blood knot before tightening

How to Make a Pocket Tonteldoos (Tinderbox) for Flint and Steel Fires -

Blood knot tightened to secure caps

Or just tie them securely with a blood knot (how to tie a blood knot video here) as mentioned in #3. For this part, you’ll need a loop on each end cap…

Drill two holes in each cap the diameter of a piece of copper wire. I stripped a section of scrap 12 gauge wire to form my loops. Needle-nose pliers are most helpful for this task. I opted not to solder the wire inside the cap since bending them down inside each cap held the loops in place securely.

How to Make a Pocket Tonteldoos (Tinderbox) for Flint and Steel Fires -

Copper wire bent in the bottom of the cap

How to Use Your Tonteldoos

As with any charred “next-fire” material, keep the tonteldoos in a dry place in your haversack or fire kit. I keep a couple of pieces of chert/flint inside my square tinderbox (pictured below) with other charred material and finely processed tinder material. The tonteldoos fits perfectly inside this large tinderbox.

Every thing fits in the tinderbox

Every thing fits in the tinderbox

To ignite the charred end of the tonteldoos, push the wick from the tube bottom with your finder so that 1/8th inch of the charred wick is exposed. Hold the cylinder in your non-dominant hand with your pinky and ring finger. Hold a sharp piece of chert/flint between your thumb and pointing finger. The tinderbox should be below the flint so the sparks have a better chance of landing on the wick – unlike the photo below.

How to Make a Portable Tonteldoos (Tinderbox) for Flint and Steel Ignition -

Dirty hands and dirt time!


Strike down lightly and repeatedly over the edge of the sharp stone so that sparks are produced and hopefully land on the charred end. The tiny shards of metal oxidize and spontaneous combust to produce 800 degree sparks hot enough to create a glowing ember on the charred wick.

Spontaneous combustion from flint and steel

Flint and steel showering sparks on the tonteldoos

Once a spark finds its mark, a glowing ember appears. Blow the ember to spread the glow over the end of the wick.

How to Make a Portable Tonteldoos (Tinderbox) for Flint and Steel Ignition -

Should look like a lit cigar when ready


Of course, you’ve prepared fine to course tinder material beforehand and shaped a stellar tinder bundle (a.k.a. – birds nest). I use two methods to ignite tinder bundles with my pocket tondeldoos.

First, place the glowing end of the wick directly into the finest part of your tinder material and blow to ignition. Be sure to push the wick out of the tube a bit so as to make good contact with the fine tinder.

The other method is to use the glowing end of the tonteldoos to ignite a fire extender like punk wood, black sooty mold, etc., etc. Then place the fire extender in your bird’s nest and blow it to flame.

Here’s our video demonstrating my DiY tonteldoos…

If you want a portable, long-lasting, reliable source of char for flint and steel ignition, give the tonteldoos a try. I think you’ll be pleased.

Be sure to let us know your results and any other creative ideas to build one.

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,


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

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, DIY Preparedness Projects, Doing the Stuff, Frugal Preps, Lost Skills, Preparedness, Self-reliance, Survival, Survival Skills | Tags: , , , , , | 41 Comments

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