"Doc" Rannie FLINT AND STEEL FIREBUILDING
Fire building with "Flint and Steel" requires (1) "Flint", (2) Steel, (3) Charred "stuff", and (4) Tinder. To do it well you will also need Knowledge and Practice and, for sure, a SHARP pocket knife!
"Flint" should be any hard, quartz based stone (flint, chert, quartzite, jasper, etc.) found on the reservation that is harder than steel. Such stones are all over the (HRB Scout) reservation. Look down! How do you determine if a stone will work? Best bet )) Try it!
"Steel" should be a knife (back of the blade), a section of a file, a striker (properly tempered!) from a boy scout Flint & Steel kit, or a "pioneer" type of striker (that wraps around several fingers.)
For the best performance the edge of the steel should be smooth, as is the case with the back of a knife or a boy scout striker. When using a file, it will be best to grind the edge smooth. In the field, sandstone or some other abrasive rock may be used to grind the edge of a file.
Striking Flint and Steel
When you strike flint and steel together (technique (a) or (b) below) you may get "sparks." "Sparks"are tiny burning pieces of steel (iron) that have been shaved from the steel by the sharp edge of the "flint" (remember that flint is HARDER than steel!). The friction of the shaving process has heated the iron above its ignition temperature and the iron has ignited and is now burning (reacting with the oxygen in the air) and releasing enough energy for the spark to ignite a charred material (usually charred cloth) when the spark comes in contact with the charred cloth.
(a) Flint Striking Steel: In this situation a long (8 to 14 inch) file is held (inclined about 30 degrees from vertical ) in a "death grip", with the left hand while the right hand holds the flint and strikes the sharp edge of the flint a glancing blow downward against the steel file. This will shower sparks downward toward the base of the file where the charred material is located (and in fact the charred material may be pinned in place by the file.)
Safety: It is important that the sharp tang of the file be broken off or ground off, bent over, or
covered with a handle.
(b) Steel Striking Flint: In this situation the steel is usually short (from 2 to 4 inches in length) and the flint is now held in the left hand and the steel (held in the right hand) is struck a glancing blow downward against the sharp edge of the flint. Since the flint is shaving steel from the striker, the charred cloth is now placed on TOP of the flint (and close to the sharp edge of the flint) so that the sparks can "spray" directly into the charred cloth. The left thumb is usually employed to hold the charred cloth in place on top of the flint.
Note: In accordance with our native American traditions, only real steel and real rocks (from our reservation) should be used in firebuilding with flint and steel. In addition, the material used to catch the sparks should be a charred version of the plant material available to native Americans.
The so called "flint" found in lighters and in "Sparky Bear" and other fire starters is NOT a stone that is harder than steel, but is a product of modern technology called "Misch Metal" which is actually softer than steel.
Accordingly, good firebuilders should have no need for modern materials such as steel wool, Misch Metal ("Sparky Bear"), or any accelerants ("scout juice", etc.) in fire building.
Sharpening or Resharpening Your Flint
Making a sharp edge on the flint: Flint-like rocks break with what is known as a "shell shaped"
fracture. This produces the sharp edge that may be seen on "flint" arrowheads. The best way to
obtain a sharp edge on a piece of flint is to hold the flint in your left hand and hold your steel
in your right hand. You should hold the steel very close to the end (so that less than 3/4 inch of steel protrudes from your right hand.)
Now holding the flint at or below waist level strike the steel down against the portion of your flint where you wish to create (or recreate) a sharp edge. Your intention is to chip off a small piece of the flint. The edge of the resulting fracture will be VERY sharp (beware of cuts!) and can probably be used to produce sparks many times before you will need to "resharpen" your flint.
Safety: When chipping flint remember safety! Hold the flint below waist level (see above.) Face away from others. Warn others not to be looking as you chip. Close your eyes as you strike and/or use eye protection as appropriate.
"Charred Cloth" For thousands of years firebuilders have understood that in order for a spark from flint and steel to ignite a material and for that material to then continue slowly burning, the material must be charred.
Sparks falling on ordinary (not charred) material will create a minute"burn" but the gasses and vapors produced by this tiny burn immediately extinguish any combustion. Just as charcoal is superior to wood (charcoal is wood with all of the gasses and vapors driven out of it), so charred cloth (which is ordinary cloth with all of the gasses and vapors driven out of it ) it is nearly pure carbon), is better (necessary!) for catching flint and steel sparks.
Charred material (usually cotton cloth, but some other vegetable products will also work) is made by heating the material (e.g., cotton cloth, canvas) in an enclosed space where air cannot reach the material and burn it up. An enclosed space might be between two tin can lids, or in a metal band-aid box (or in some other enclosed metal container.
Note: The Mountain Men would set fire to the end of a strip of cloth and then smothered it somehow (perhaps with the other end of the cloth.) The burned cloth would then have a portion that was charred (black!) and this is the part that would then be saved for starting fires in the future.
Charred Cloth can be made by placing 1 to 3 pieces (approximately 4 to 5 inches square) between two # 10 tin can lids and putting the lids on the burner of a gas stove (electric ranges just don't work!*) Metal "Altoids" cans work very well. You can put seventeen 2 inch by 3 inch rectangles of cloth in one can. Gasses are driven off by the heat. They will be seen burning around the edge of the lids/cans.
After a few minutes, (shortly after the gasses are no longer produced), remove the lids/cams and set them aside to cool. DO NOT! separate the lids at this time as the still burning charred cloth will burn up! After allowing the lids to cool (to where they can be handled) separate them and remove the charred cloth(s).
The increasing use of synthetic fibers in blended fabrics can create a problem in the manufacture of charred cloth. In some cases there will be enough of the charred cotton left to provide a workable spark catcher. In other cases the blended fabrics just won't work! Fabric made from cotton ONLY is really the best way to go!
Before storing charred cloth, you should test it to confirm that it will catch sparks from your flint and steel. Charred cloth can be stored conveniently between the pages of a TV Guide or any similar booklet.
In the field charred cloth may be made "Mountain Man" style or a band-aid can or a pair of meshed cans may be used to good advantage in a campfire.
"Tinder" Best tinder is dry shredded cedar bark. Pounding with a stick gives even better small
fibers. Some dry grass will work well. Leaves are almost Never any good, except to add bulk to
the outside of the tinder bundle. Four (4) feet of 1/4 inch rope (cut into 1 foot lengths )
disassembled into strands ) strands disassembled into yarns ) yarns broken into at least two groups of strands) will create a pretty good tinder bundle. Form it into a "birds nest" about 6 inches in diameter.
Turning a Spark into Fire
When a spark has caught on the charred cloth, the charred cloth should be (Gently!) placed in a compact (folded up) form in the center of the birds nest. Avoid undue haste. The burning cloth will continue burning reliably in almost every case! Now fold the tinder around the charred cloth. (The cloth MUST be in contact with the tinder if it is to ignite the tinder!)
Leave a very small opening in the tinder so that you can blow (long....and steady) on the charred cloth.
Turn so your back is to the wind so smoke will be carried away from you. Hold the bird's nest ABOVE your head! Failure to do this will result in smoke from the bird's nest coming up into your face. If you have properly "surrounded" the charred cloth with the tinder, you will not have to worry about the charred cloth falling out of the bird's nest. Blow long and steady (hard is neither necessary nor good) on the charred cloth in the tinder bundle. When you need to take a breath, LIFT THE BIRD'S NEST ABOVE YOUR HEAD AT ARM'S LENGTH SO YOU CAN GET A BREATH OF NON SMOKE AIR! Continue until you have a fire!
Words of Wisdom for Firebuilders
There are two kinds of Firebuilders, those who have burned themselves, and those who have not burned themselves, ....... yet!
* Indicates that additional information is available upon request.
"Outdoor Survival Skills", Larry Dean Olsen, BYU Press
"Bushcraft", Richard Graves, Schocken Books
This description of "Flint and Steel Firebuilding" was prepared by Dr. Robert P. "Doc" Rannie,
Assistant Scoutmaster, Troop 223, Blue Elk District, Heart of America Council, Boy Scouts of
America, in June, 1996, (and revised in May, 2002) for friends of Scouting, and in particular, for
Firebuilders, Scouts, and Scouters at the H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation, Osceola, MO.