Our little UK group is in the process of writing a book
of essential skills for our kids etc. I know whats in here is probably
old news to a lot of you guys but we strongly believe in sharing what
we have found, so I hope this may be useful to someone.
In order to be able to make fire well, we need to understand the properties of each of these three elements and learn to manipulate them well. Then we bring all these three elements together and apply some fire making technique. The result? The ability to make fire under challenging conditions by manipulating the tools available.
(2) The Elements of Fire
2.1 Understanding fuel
2. “Flame” in which the volatile pyrolysis gases are driven off, burn, and raise the temperature
3. “Carbon burn” in which the fire reaches a high enough temperature to generate glowing embers. Wood can be converted to carbon (charcoal) by heating it without oxygen. This prevents the pyrolysis gases igniting
Minerals - this is the non-burnable stuff like calcium, and potassium – this makes ash.
2.2 Understanding Heat
This explains why it is in some ways easier to light dry
wood than charcoal – there are no pyrolysis gases in charcoal
to burn. However since charcoal also doesn’t need to have the
water driven off, whilst the temperature needs to be higher, the actual
amount of energy that needs to be expended may be lower. We’ll
come to that.
2.3 Understanding Air
The effects of a chimney
(3) The Process of Firelighting
(4) Generating Heat
Lets look at some examples of heat generation and see how they map:
Ferrocium rods (Swedish Firesteel etc.). A ferrocium rod is an alloy of rare earth metals (predominantly cerium and lanthanum) and some hardening materials (predominantly iron oxide). This soft alloy of metals catches fire easily when struck off (around 200 degrees centigrade) and burns in the air the same way that the true steel spark does. Because its much softer than the steel, far more sparks are developed and a wider variety of strikers can be used (knife spines, steel striker etc.). The nature of the ignition is the same as flint and steel – a shard of metal struck off and heated oxidising rapidly in the air. Where a lighter contains a “flint”, it is in fact a ferrocium rod.
Matches. Matches light by rubbing the head of a match on a striking surface. The match head of a “strike anywhere” match contains sulphur, glass powder, an oxidising agent and red phosphorous. When rubbed on a rough surface, the glass powder turns the red phosphorous to white phosphorous. White phosphorous burns in the air and the heat causes the sulphur to burn in the air. Safety matches have the red phosphorous on the striking paper not in the match head
Chemical combinations. Various chemicals can be combined to cause fire. I’m not going to cover that here for safety reasons since most of these reactions are highly dangerous and unstable.
Reflection. Any shiny surface will reflect light, but to achieve ignition, we need to reflect lots of light onto a single spot. To achieve this, the reflective surface needs to be shaped into a dish like form. There are tools on the market that do this, but one of the most interesting ways it can be done is to polish up the indentation on the bottom of a soft drinks can to a high shine. The reflective surface needs to face the light source (the sun) and the tinder put into the light focus that will be in the centre and in front of the curved reflector. Holding the tinder there can block light though so it should be supported on a narrow wire or twig. I have heard of this being achieved using a headlight reflector.
(5) Tinder Ignition
Birch bark. One of the most widely available and easily recognisable of tinders. Its great as it needs minimal preparation. Many fallen trees have paper thin bark already peeling away. There seems to be plenty of fallen birch logs around too. Pieces of ***** bark can be teased apart with the fingers too tissue paper thin strands or scraped into strands and powder with a knife. A good handful squeezed into a loose ball will generally catch a spark first time. Birch bark contains lots of tarry hydrocarbons (so much that tar can be extracted from it) so it burns very hotly with good flame. Shredded birch bark is very fine though – beware it blowing away!
Clematis bark: Clematis is a climbing plant with a soft bark that forms vertical lines. Its downy seed pods are instantly recognisable. The seed down will burn but generally absorbs water from the atmosphere and so needs to be dried before use. The clematis bark can be stripped away from the stem and buffed (rubbed between the palms of the hands) into fine fibres. If the plant is not dead, these need to be dried – but they dry easily in a pocket near the skin. They burn well and are great for developing flame from a piece of charcloth or cramp ball.
Dry grass or straw: Sounds great but actually very hard to find dry stuff in the wild. Again if dry(ish) stuff can be found and kept in a warm place for a while it gets much better. Coarser stems should also be buffed up to make finer fibres (especially straw). A handful of hay or straw from the middle of a bail is generally dry even if stored outdoors.
Fatwood: Fatwood is formed when natural resin (pitch) is concentrated in the centre of the stump of certain pine trees. This means that wood emits a large amount of volatile hydrocarbon vapour, ignites easily and burns very hot. Thin fibres carved from a fatwood stick can even be ignited from a spark from a Feroccium rod. Fat sticks are sold under a variety of names including “Maya” sticks.
Cramp ball: Cramp ball is a black vaguely round fungus usually found on dead or dieing ash trees. It looks and behaves like a light charcoal honeycomb. On the outside it is smooth and almost shiny and looks almost like a black animal dropping. On the underside it has concentric silvery rings. When ignited it glows like charcoal and burns for a very long time, although a thinner fibre based tinder or twigs are useful to coax flame.
Horses hoof fungus. The horses hoof (or false tinder fungus) grows on dead Birch trees. It has three distinct layers - a very thin crusty outer layer, a thin (1 or 2 mm) leathery layer of amadou and a thick corky spore layer. The crusty outer and spore layer need to be removed and the leathery layer either dried and roughed up with a knife blade or boiled in wood ash, pounded and fluffed which some claim improves the fire taking qualities.
True tinder fungus or chagga. Chagga fungus looks like a black lumpy burr on the side of a birch tree. Dried and crumbled it makes excellent tinder and is particularly effective in fire pistons.
Punk wood: Punk wood is the soft powdery wood found in the middle of rotten logs that is almost as light as balsa wood. It can often be found dry by knocking or kicking apart rotten logs. Be sure to dry it or dry out damp stuff before needed. It light very easily since its well mixed with air already. If charred like char cloth it will catch and burn from a cool spark.
Tinder made from fine or adapted fuels:
Feather stick: In making a feather stick, fine curls of wood are shaved from a dry stick leaving them attached to the main stick. The finer the curl, the easier they are to ignite – some practice is required to get good and quick at this. I have had excellent results by using an axe to split a wet log to get to the dry wood inside, chopping thing pieces of dry wood and then feathering them. A finely feathered stick can be lit with a match – a very well made one ignited with a spark from a ferrocium rod.
Butane: You may know butane as a stove fuel, but it is of course a vaporised hydrocarbon – its also lighter fuel! The heat source in a lighter is the piezoelectric spark or “flint”. Its butane vapour that provides the “tinder”.
Petrol: Petrol vapour (liquid petrol doesn’t burn – just the vapour) is what powers the trusty Zippo lighter.
Tinder procured from readily available household materials:
Cotton wool: The fire makers friend. Dry cotton wool will catch any old spark and burst into flame. Cotton is of course a natural plant fibre! I carry some in small “ziplock” bags. Its cheap, widely available and foolproof. What’s not to like?
Cotton wool and Vaseline: Like cotton wool – just better! Rubbing a small amount of Vaseline into the cotton wool gives a long lasting burn. A small ball will burn from 5 to 10 minutes! Vaseline is of course “petroleum jelly” – petrol! The cotton starts to burn and vaporises the jelly. It then acts like lots of candle wicks and the result is probably the easiest lighting, best burning, tinder that I know.
Drier Lint: A lot of people recommend this but I have to say, cotton wool is better (and only 99p for a big bag). Drier lint is the stuff from the lint trap in your tumble drier. The quality depends on what was washed though and there can be lots of other (non cotton) fibres mixed in. Stick to cotton wool is my advice!
Charcloth: Another of my personal favourites. Easily made by charring natural fibre cloth in an airtight tin with a small hole. Ensure you use only natural fibres (cotton or linen are great). Some are treated with a flame retardant so be sure you use those that aren’t. Charcloth is my tinder of choice with “proper” flint and steel but its good for lots of uses. Again, it’s a “glowing” tinder so to produce flame, its best dropped into a ball of fibrous tinder and blown into flame.
Olive oil: I have found that many tinders can be improved by smearing or dripping on Olive or other vegetable oil. I always have some in my Bergan for cooking and have noticed that a piece of cloth or cotton wool with oil rubbed in burns very hot and long – same principle as cotton wool and Vaseline – plenty of easily combustible hydrocarbons in oil – the Romans used it as lamp oil after all.
Charred wick: I use a lot of oil lamps. I’ve noticed that a wick that has been burned before lights very easily. A small piece of charred lamp wick can be used to catch a spark and transfer the heat to another less volatile tinder. It can then be extinguished and re-used. Again it can be improved with a little oil.
Candles: Many survival instructors
advise using a candle to start a fire. The one advantage these have
is cheapness! “Tealight” type candles can be had for about
2p each and only cotton wool and petroleum jelly can equal that for
cheapness. Two top tips.
Candle wax and sawdust: I have heard of people using homemade firelighters made from candle wax and sawdust (with or without embedded wicks). I see no reason why they wouldn’t work, but for me, if going that far, I’ll take a packet of firelighters.
Wire wool: Wire wool works very well as a firelighter and burns very, very hot. Ideally you want the fine stuff (0000 or 00000). It lights from a batter or spark and glows like a bulb filament – literally red hot. It wont flame so have another tinder or fine kindling available to catch the heat – it doesn’t last long. Interestingly a few drops of added oil work well again!.
“Hairy” string: Good old fashioned garden string is just vegetable fibres (usually jute). I keep a small hank in my pouch. Its good for firelighting when teased apart plus shelter building and washing lines!
Prawn Crackers. Really. Want a bet?
Zip firelighters: Yeah I know, hardly “Bushcraft”, very, very handy though when its hammering down, you are cold and wet and so is the wood. I carry them. I can make fire underwater if needs be. So? It takes longer and why be uncomfortable, I don’t carry a first aid kit because I plan to use it, but I use it if I need to. Zip do some really nice individually wrapped ones that save stinking your pack up. Shave pieces off finely and they will light with a spark.
Hexamine block: No real difference to firelighters – esbit and hexamine blocks are solid fuel for stoves. If you are running low though, using a small piece of one to eke your fuel out by starting a fire makes sense.
Wet fire tinder: A commercially made firelighter. Comes individually wrapped in small bags and will burn floating on water. Good stuff but pricey.
Shredded fire logs: Many supermarkets sell self-igniting firelighters and “firelogs”. Small pieces of these broken up burn very easily and make for a very cheap tinder source.
(6) Kindling Ignition
Kindling is really just small wood. In the same way that your tinder should be dry, its important to find dry kindling. Start with twigs about the diameter of a match, you will need more than you think you need – a really good double handful when compressed. The thinner tinders burn up very fast – their purpose is to generate enough heat to light larger and larger types of kindling. People often think of kindling as a single size of fuel – it isn’t on a well made fire – its many sizes in increasing diameter. I use (roughly) these:
1. Long twigs about the
diameter of a match
It wont always be possible to find a variety of tinders at your fire site. Many people collect any really good tinder they find along the way stashing it in a large pocket or rucksack pocket. Its also possible to make tinder by splitting larger logs with an axe – logs can be reduced to whatever thickness you require. If the log is old, splitting it will often provide dry kindling even if the outer log is wet.
The best location for tinder is often said to be “standing”.
This can either be a dead tree or (more likely) fallen branches caught
up in lower branches or shrubs. Living trees often have dead limbs too.
Can you see the "standing" wood?
More obvious - but will need splitting
Beware wood on the floor in a wet are – its possible to wring water from a fallen log is useless for fire!
(7) Burning Fuel
Beechwood fires burn bright and clear
Oaken logs, if dry and old
An old poem, but a good one. Ash and Holly burn green, beech and Oak should be seasoned (I quite like birch if well dried), elm is a poor burner. That said, for bushcraft and survival, the dry wood that is to hand is best! Its often more a matter of how you burn it than what you burn.
Wet fuel will not burn, but it can be prepared. A log that is wet on the outside can be split and the dry fuel obtained. The wet outer layer can be discarded or added later when a lot of heat has been generated to slowly dry and burn. If stacked near a long lasting fire, wet fuel can be used as a reflector and dry in the process.
Laying a fire
Arranging the fuel
(2) Make loose tepee of thin kindling. Add plenty of kindling when the first layer is well and truly alight. Use your best and finest kindling first leaving plenty of air gaps between the twigs and adding more only when the finest are well alight
(3) Add thicker pencil shaped sticks until you develop a good “heart” of coals to your fire
(4) Start to build a “criss
cross” of sticks and thicker fuel around the “heart”.
Alternate the lay of the sticks to allow plenty of air in. This will
eventually collapse into a large pile of coals but the fire will be
self-sustaining by then.
A small cooking fire can be built as shown above. If fuel
is damp or a longer term fire is needed, consider digging a 3”
deep trench pointing towards the prevailing winds and igniting the fire
on a layer of sticks laid across it. Build the “criss cross”
above the trench and fire base and wind will funnel down the trench
and be drawn up through the fire literally “fanning the flames”.
If the wind moves a lot dig two trenches in a cross format and one or
another will catch the wind.
(8) Fault Finding Guide
Volume of fuel to quantity of heat
When achieving ignition, the volume of fuel needs to be
balanced with the amount of heat generated. If too much fuel is used,
the amount of heat energy required to cause ignition rises beyond the
ability of the heat source to provide it. The smaller the tinder, the
easier it is to ignite. However, small tinder will give out small heat
by combustion and so only tiny increases in fuel size will be possible
without choking the fire
Nature of Fuel
Carbon / Hydrocarbon content
Shape of Fuel
I hope this guide is useful to some. Long as it is, it barely scratches the surface, however I have found it useful to sometimes take the “craft” from “firecraft” and put a little science in!