I have been messing around a little bit with my fire-making kit, experimenting with different kinds of tinder. Eons ago, back in Boy Scouts, I was taught to make a fire with flint and steel. While I’m almost never without a butane lighter in my pocket, it’s a good skill to practice. However, it requires more attention to the initial tinder, for catching a good sound spark, than using matches or a lighter. I don’t think anything beats char-cloth for catching a spark, and blowing up into a good, hot ember-glow quickly.
Just search “char-cloth” and you can find any number of great instructables and all the details you might want to know. All you really need is a metal container with a tight fitting lid that you poke a small hole into, some cotton or linen cloth scraps, and a good hot fire. The process is called “pyrolysis“… that’s what happens to organic material exposed to high heat in the absence of oxygen. Essentially, what you are making is simply cloth charcoal.
I made my batch using blue jean scraps cut into postage stamp size pieces. I put them in an old spice tin, and dropped it on a gas grill turned all the way up. All you do is wait for smoke to stop coming out of the little hole you poked in the lid. When it stops, the pyrolysis is complete. I used a pair of tongs to rotate the can three or four times and the whole process probably took about 30 minutes. In the photo on the left you can see that the finished chunks still show the weave of the material, and they still maintain a relative amount of fabric flexibility. They are not exactly fall-apart-fragile, but they are “handle with care”. I’m glad I used the blue-jean material, because I suspect that it is a little sturdier than other stuff might be. On the right is the ignited material… lit from just the one spark off my Exotac style ferro-rod. This was outside, and the single, stamp-sized piece “embered” right away and burned in the breeze for over a minute and a half. In my book, that’s plenty of time to add some light tender, blow up a flame, and get some twigs alight.
The process is so simple, that I plan on just keeping the little canister with 15-20 pieces of cut up cloth already in it out by the grill. Whenever I light up to cook out, I can just toss the can on and get double duty from the grill.
I tried out a couple of the other pieces of char cloth using other methods to cause an ember. It worked just as well with a spark thrown from the wheel of an old, “dud” Bic lighter. I was also able to get ignition using one of the credit card sized, plastic Fresnel lenses as a magnifier to focus the sun.
If you haven’t yet tried making a fire without matches, I would encourage you to do so. That first glimpse of flame, and curl of smoke give you a wonderful sense of satisfaction and capability.