Lighting a fire with a flint and steel is a phrase we’ve all heard, but those 2 items alone won’t create a fire. You need a third item – tinder. It’s the magic stuff that catches the spark and will smoulder and burn. Nature provides a variety of tinder, but many are quite challenging to catch with a weak, solitary spark. There is however one material that will catch a spark very easily and offers anyone with a bit perseverance the thrill of creating fire from the simplest of materials. That tinder is char cloth. You’ll find it in the fire kit of almost every bushcrafter because it’s easy to make and works brilliantly.
You’re going to need a strip of 100% cotton cloth. Mine is cut from an old T-shirt and is about 8cm by 50cm. You will also need a small tin that can store the cloth when it is rolled up.
The shortest set of instructions ever! Lightly roll your strip of cloth, place it into the metal tin and close the lid.
Next you’re going to burn the cloth, but because it’s in an oxygen deprived environment it will not actually ignite. The heat will drive off all moisture and combustibles in the form of smoke. What gets left behind is a thin, fragile roll of carbon cloth.
I have lit a small campfire because Scouts and campfires go together like fish’n chips – right? But if you’re unable to light a campfire you could alternatively use an indoor wood-burner or a gas camping stove. I might be stating the obvious, but your kitchen stove is not an option.
Once your campfire is down to embers drop on the metal tin and sit back and watch. Actually not a lot happens. But after a few minutes you will notice smoke escaping near the lid. Some people like to pierce the tin with a small hole, but this isn’t usually necessary because a tin box rarely seals so tightly that smoke cannot escape.
You may also observe that the smoke ignites. If it doesn’t you can hold a flame next to it and it will. It behaves a bit like a candle. Perhaps you’ve seen the trick where you can blow out a candle and relight it by holding a flame next to the plume of smoke? This is basically the same science.
After about 15 minutes the smoke will stop and that signals that the char cloth is ready. I left my tin on the campfire for 30 minutes – just to be sure, but also because I went off hunting for quartz. Drag the tin off the embers with a stick and let it cool down.
When you open your tin you should discover a beautiful roll of char cloth. It’s quite fragile, so if you used a tin like my mine you might need to use a pair of pliers to remove it. You can unroll it. It should be completely black and there should be no sign of the original cotton design.
That’s it – you have made char cloth for your tinder kit. Next we need to create a spark and use the char cloth to catch it.