When it comes to making fire, there are numerous ignition methods that one may choose to practice with. While cigarette lighters and matches are very practical and convenient ways to get your fire lit, there is just something satisfying about using a traditional flint and steel kit to get the job done. Sometimes people who are new to the field get the terms “flint and steel” confused with what is actually a ferrocerium rod (ferro rod for short) and striker. While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, the truth is they are very different tools and require different skills to use successfully. For the sake of this article, I will be using the terms flint and steel to describe the traditional kit which consists of a high carbon steel striker and a hard rock such as flint, chert or even quartz. These rocks are actually harder than the steel striker and the sharp edges are used to drive sparks off of that striker in order to ignite charred material into an ember. This ember can then be paired with tinder material to achieve ignition.
Flint and steel ignition can be more challenging than using a ferro rod due largely to the difference in the temperature of the sparks they throw. Modern ferro rods throw sparks that can range anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This is in contrast to the sparks driven off of a steel striker which range between 500 to 800 degrees Fahrenheit. This difference means that a ferro rod has the ability to light proper tinder materials directly aflame where as a flint and steel kit is traditionally used to light charred material in order to create an ember. This ember is then introduced into a tinder bundle and blown into flame. While this process is in no way difficult, it is a skill that requires a bit of practice to really understand and own.
For me personally, flint and steel has to be one of the most important ignition methods, especially when thinking for the long-term. I say this largely because A single steel striker has the potential to ignite fires for a lifetime. This is definitely in contrast to the majority of commercial ferro rods on the market today. Most of these advertise that they can provide anywhere from 3000 to as many as 12,000 strikes or more. While this can last someone a long time relatively speaking, it is nowhere near the service life of a good sized steel striker. There are many antique steel strikers still around today that are easily over 100 years old and just as functional a tool as they were when they were originally forged. I don’t believe there will be many of the ferro rods we are currently carrying in our kits today that will still be functional in a 100 years. Not only do they wear out with use eventually, but they have a tendency to degrade over time. This is true especially when they are not properly stored and get exposed to moisture and the elements.
To effectively use a flint and steel set to make fire you will need some type of charred material to catch the sparks you make. Many people use charred cotton cloth for this purpose. It is important that you use only 100% cotton cloth for this process as any synthetic materials will only melt and will not give you usable char. The process for making charred cloth or charred anything for that matter is to simply burn it in the absence of oxygen. The best way to achieve this in small batches is to cut up scrap cotton material such as an old t-shirt, flannel shirt or blue jeans and place small 1 to 2 inch squares into a metal container such as an Altoids tin or something similar. This tin can then be placed in a fire and burned for a while (15 to 30 minutes or more). You want to make sure the material is completely charred through to make it effective so a little longer is better in my opinion. As long as the container stays sealed, you don’t have to worry about over charring your material within reason. Generally, the more material you pack into the tin or the tighter it is packed, the longer you will need to leave it in the fire to make sure it chars through. Once you remove the container from the fire, it is imperative that you let it cool before you open the tin. If you do open it while the material is still hot, the introduction of oxygen into your tin will complete the triangle of fire and burn up your char cloth making it unusable.
Over the years I have come to prefer using natural materials that I can resource from the landscape. I prefer to source my materials for char making from the environment so that I don’t have to expend cotton materials from my kit for that purpose. One of the most prevalent natural resources for this is punk wood. Punk wood is semi rotten wood that is soft and spongy to the touch. If you spend any time in the woods, it is highly likely that you have seen it around. There are other resources as well such as Cattail heads, Mullein leaves, assorted inner piths, etc that can make great char for using with your flint and steel set. Once you start using these materials off the landscape, you will soon see that there is an almost endless supply of available material to use for this purpose making it a sustainable resource available to you for the long term.
The next part of the flint and steel set is the hard rock that you use to drive sparks off of your steel. Over time, the sharp edges of your rock will dull out. There are of course ways to sharpen that back up however, over time the rock will begin to chip away and eventually need replacing. The nice thing is, rocks are everywhere and most likely you can find a rock that will drive sparks off of your steel in a relatively short order. There are choice rocks for this such as English Flint or Chert, which are an absolute joy to use but unless you live in the right areas, these will be unavailable to you. In my area, the only good choice is quartz. When you first break into a piece of quartz, it has very sharp edges which do a great job of making sparks however, those sharp edges tend to dull quickly and lessen the effectiveness of the rock. Because quartz is so prevalent in my area I can easily locate a replacement when needed. I always carry a few ideal pieces in my kit at all times that I know will be there if I really need them. Until that time comes, I try to use what I can find in the field to conserve my resource for when it counts.
The last element in the flint and steel kit is the steel striker itself. One of the reasons I enjoy using flint and steel as an ignition source is that I am able to create every element in the kit myself. It may seem difficult to make a striker but in reality it doesn’t have to be. Any high carbon steel file can throw sparks and can do so well if you grind one edge of the file smooth to strike against. If you want to get a little more creative with your design, some very basic blacksmithing techniques can help you to forge out a simple “C” striker or my personal favorite, a “rat tail” striker. One would not have to look far to find scrap metal that can easily be used to forge an improvised striker and even the forge itself can be improvised with a little know how. Of course, if you really want to keep things simple, just purchase a striker or two or even barter with someone who has the ability to forge these tools for you. It is also important to remember that it you carry a high carbon steel knife on you, you always have a striker on the spine of your knife that will throw sparks if you have the rock and the char to work with. I always think of this as my back up plan if all else fails.
As you can see, every part of a flint and steel kit can easily be manufactured or sourced off of the landscape with a little knowledge and know how. In my mind, this makes flint and steel ignition truly sustainable and a very worthwhile skill set to know and hone. Once again, to really own this skill in it’s entirety, not only should you know and practice the various techniques to properly use an established flint and steel kit, but you should learn how to make char out of multiple natural materials you can source from your area. You should also have knowledge of the rocks in your area that have the hardness necessary to drive sparks from your steel. Finally, you should understand how to improvise and even learn to forge a replacement striker if ever you need to do so. With these skills, you can be confident that you truly understand and own flint and steel ignition and can count on these skills for the long term. Flint and steel has been a viable means of making fire for centuries for our forefathers and I believe it is just as viable today for us as modern woodsman.