Along with friction fire (the actual rubbing together of two pieces of wood), the art of making fire by striking a stone with a piece of metal is literally keyed into our DNA. We call this technique “flint and steel”, but neither flint nor steel are necessary. Our ancestors made fire in this way prior to the coming of the Iron Age using iron pyrites (fool’s gold) in place of iron or steel.
Iron Pyrites, better known as fool’s gold.
A reliable source of flint wasn’t necessary either, since most hard, crystalline forms of rock will make a spark. Indeed this writer learned the technique using a sharp chunk of quartz.
For the purposes of this post, we’ll be using the following items:
Tin tinder box with “kindling” and lid, slow match cotton cord, flint shard, forged steel “C” striker
However, you could perform the same procedure with this basic equipment:
Chunk of steel from an old file, charred 100% cotton cloth, broken piece of quartz.
The mechanics of the system work thusly;
- upon striking a smooth edge of the metal against a sharp edge of a flint or quartz, tiny flakes of metal are shaved off and due to the friction, these become sparks.
- To make fire, you first need to catch some of those sparks and coerce them into becoming an ember.
- Once you have an ember, you can add kindling and then coax the ember into a flame.
So simple and effective that the method continued to be used until the 1940s, particularly in rural France where a glowing slow match cord struck by flint and steel was the preferred method of lighting a pipe.
Rural French pipe-smoker’s outfit – late 19th Century.
Tips for getting the best spark:
- Ensure the striking edge of your steel is smooth and free of rust, varnish or paint.
- Strike the steel against a sharp edge of the flint. Remember, we’re making sparks by literally shaving off tiny pieces of metal. The sharper the edge, the bigger and better the sparks.
- Don’t even bother trying this unless your steel has a good carbon content. This is why pieces of broken file or even the back of a good knife are best if you can’t find a dedicated, forged steel striker.
This image shows the edges you need for effective sparks – a relatively smooth edge on your steel (top) and a sharp edge on your flint or quartz (bottom).
Tips for catching the sparks:
- Remember that when you’re striking flint with steel, the sparks will fly up, therefore you must position your charred cloth or cord on top of the piece of flint to catch a spark.
- It goes without saying that your charred cloth or cord must be 100% dry for it to even retain a spark, let alone burn into a useable ember.
- When you have a tiny piece of the cloth or cord glowing, very gentle blowing will see it set into the cloth without danger of going out. Once it’s set it will keep going until either you extinguish it or it burns the useable carbon out of the whole cloth.
This is how your charred cord or cloth should be positioned on the flint in order to catch a spark.
This began as a tiny spark scraped off a steel striker. One quick, gentle breath later and it’s an ember.
Tips for coaxing an ember into a useable flame:
- For kindling use dried grass, palm fibres, dried bark. Some people carry waxed jute string for the same purpose, others go even lower tech and use dried fungi or even animal dung (herbivores only for obvious reasons).
- Place the ember into your “bird’s nest” of kindling and then gently wrap the kindling around it.
- Blow GENTLY or even wave the bundle through the air. Soon enough the ember will burst into a flame, ready to place into your prepared fire pyramid.
Lay your glowing ember onto a loose mat of kindling.
Wrap the mat of kindling around the ember and subject to gentle blowing or a light breeze.
Flame. Now you’re ready to light your campfire.
From striking a spark to lit campfire is a matter of maybe a minute or two. Even in these times of Bic lighters and waterproof matches, the old ways still stand up. The flint and steel will still be useable long after your matches and your Bic lighter’s gas have gone. It’s a skill worth learning.
In the next part of the series we will look at a more modern equivalent to the flint and steel – the ferro rod.