I’m sure every Scout fancies themselves as adventurer like Indiana Jones. Searching for lost treasure and exploring mysterious, dark caverns with the aid of a flaming torch. Well, fire torches are remarkably easy and economical to make. So with a horse-whip on your belt and a fedora on your head, let’s get started.
Step 1 – Materials
A straight stick – About 1m long and 3cm in diameter is ideal. Greenwood is preferable as it won’t burn, but if you’re happy with a ‘single use’ torch any sturdy stick will do.
Oil for fuel – Vegetable oil is fine. Lamp oil will ignite much easier, but is more expensive and frequently pongs of citronella. Traditionalists may prefer animals fats, but you’ll need to liquify it first. However, once the oil has ignited they all work similarly.
Absorbent cloth – Cotton or hessian is good. Old bed sheets are ideal as they can be cut into long strips. Bath or tea towels are another good choice as they absorb a lot of oil. A bundle of old socks will also work well. Make sure the cloth is not man-made (e.g. polyester) as it may melt.
Aluminium foil (optional) – A few layers wrapped around the top of the torch will separate the burning head from the wood. If you’re not using greenwood it will give you the opportunity to refuel or reuse the torch.
Thin wire (optional) – Non insulated. Provides extra security for keeping the head attached to the handle.
Step 2 – Assembly
To construct the head of the torch you’ll need to apply a bit of ingenuity as technique will vary with whatever you are using. The best advice I can offer is to imagine you’re administering first-aid to someone who’s just had their hand amputated. A bit grisly, but you get the idea.
If you are using sheets cut them into strips about 15cm by 1.5m, roll them up and then unroll them over the head of the torch. Keep criss-crossing as you go and make sure everything is pulled very tight. You can secure the head by cutting the final 25cm of cloth down the middle and tying it back on itself.
Thicker fabric, such as towelling, is harder to keep tightly bound. It’s best used as an absorbent layer underneath a few long strips of thinner fabric. Although a tight fitting sock pulled over the top might keep it in place.
If you are concerned about the security of the torch head you can improve it with a few turns of thin wire. Use pliers to twist and tighten the wire. Alternatively you can use natural cordage such as jute or sisal. It may sound counter-intuitive, but the cord will not actually burn and come undone.
Step 3 – Fuel up
You can load the torch with fuel by simply pouring oil over the head. Tilt the torch towards the ground and slowly rotate it as you carefully pour on the oil. You may need to repeat this process as it will take time for the oil to fully saturate the head.
My preferred method is to put the torch head into a tub or bucket and pour oil over it. Leave it there for a minute or two so the oil can fully absorb into the fabric.
Important point – when removing the torch from the tub allow plenty of time for the excess to drip off. You don’t want the head overloaded. Once burning the heat will thin the oil and it may start dripping or running down the handle.
Step 4 – Ignition
Lamp oil will ignite quite easily with a standard lighter. Vegetable oil will require a bit of perseverance however. A sustained heat source certainly speeds things up. Shoving the torch head into a campfire will get it going in no time! Once you have one torch lit you can light the others off it. Scouts really enjoy doing that.
Hold the torch in front of you at 45o so you can see what you’re doing with it. Be mindful of vegetation overhead. You know how easily gum leaves ignite!
Burn time will depend on head size and oil reserves. I’d say 20 minutes is typical. Initially the torch will burn very brightly as the outer layer of oil is consumed. It then starts wicking the inner reserves of oil which reduces the burn ferocity.
Variations to try
Go small – You can of course make mini torches. Perhaps you fancy juggling with them?
The candelabra – If you use a forked stick you could make a torch with 2 or more heads! I’ve never done this, but I’m certain in would be quite impressive.
You should be able to reuse your torch several times. When it goes out just reload it with more oil and relight it. Although in my experience if you are not using greenwood the heads will burn at the neck and drop off in about 45 minutes.
If you overload the torch with fuel you may notice oil running down the stick towards your hand. Probably chased by a line of fire 😲. One trick to minimise this is to cut, file or saw a groove around the stick, about one third of the way down. This will encourage excess oil to drip off there.
After a single use you will notice that the head has not actually burned away, but the cloth has turned into a black, brittle shell. This is commonly known as char-cloth. We’ll explore that in a future activity. It is not dissimilar to charcoal, where oxygen deprivation and heat are used to drive off combustibles and moisture, leaving behind almost pure carbon. Char-cloth is exceptionally good at catching a spark and is commonly found in tinder kits with a flint and steel.
How did you get on?
Let me know how you got on in the comments. How long did your torch burn? Was it an impressive sight? I expect the hardest part was keeping the head tightly bounds to the handle. It’s certainly a good excuse to learn some useful knots!
You might like to think of a fire torch as an inside-out candle. The wick being wrapped around the fuel source. If you’ve ever made a candle from a crayon, the principle is very similar.
Send me some photos and I’ll add them to a gallery below.