Remember that time before matches and gas lighters? Na, me neither, but it did exist apparently. It was a time when your options for starting a fire were extremely limited and involved very simple materials. Modern methods of fire starting have made these primitive methods quite obscure. Anybody that possesses the skills nowadays is considered some kind of magician. It’s like being part of a exclusive club – and here’s you chance to join.
The spark of an idea
Here I’m going to demonstrate how to light a fire from a solitary spark. At one point in history this was a technological advancement as it was much easier and more portable than using friction techniques.
Traditionally two materials were used to create a spark:
Flint – this is a very hard mineral, typically found in chalky ground. Plentiful in parts of Europe, but the only place you’ll find flint in Australia is along the Limestone Coast in SA.
Steel – this is a combination of iron and carbon. The more carbon the harder (and more brittle) the steel.
Now it’s pretty easy to acquire steel, but what do you do if you can’t obtain flint? One good substitute that is far more plentiful is quartz. It’s abundant here in the Adelaide Hills. Go for a walk and you’re bound to find some, usually the white milky quartz.
Hitting a hard mineral like flint or quartz with a piece of steel will dislodge bits of carbon from the steel’s surface and the friction will cause it to ignite. We call this a spark.
Okay, enough theory. What materials do we need to make fire?
Steel – The more carbon the better. The type commonly known as high carbon steel is perfect. It’s used in tools that cut other metals – like files and drill bits. Other forms of steel will work too. So don’t despair if you can’t find the ideal type. What won’t work is stainless steel. So don’t bother rummaging through your kitchen draw – you’re much better off searching the shed or toolbox. If it’s rusty – it’s got potential. Hmm, what about the tent peg from the electromagnet?
Quartz – A tennis ball sized piece is comfortable to hold and hit. It’s best if it has a ridge line, so maybe find a large piece and shape it with a few whacks of a hammer (you may even see some sparks!)
Char cloth – This is our tinder of choice for catching a spark. Hopefully you have already made some.
Cotton wool – This is our combustible tinder. In the bush you’d be using dry grass or something else that will easily ignite from a heat source.
The shortcut method
If you have a fire steel / ferrocerium rod you can generate a perfectly aimed shower of very hot sparks. In fact they are so hot they will usually ignite combustible tinder. But using a ferrocerium rod does require some practice and I expect many people have failed to light a fire with one despite making plenty of sparks. Using char cloth will make this task much easier. Just place the end of the rod against the char cloth and firmly scrape downwards at about a 45o angle. A shower of sparks will have it glowing with orange embers almost immediately.
Is this cheating? Only a little bit. But a shortcut to success is more rewarding than no success. It’s also worth noting that this kind of intermediate step is sometimes necessary with a ferrocerium rod because if your combustible tinder is not perfectly dry it won’t ignite. But the sustained heat from glowing char cloth will get it going.
The traditional method
The first thing you need to practice is hitting the quartz with the steel; just to see if you can generate sparks. Firm, glancing blows are best, not demolition blows.
Once you know that your materials work you need to master aiming the spark. Hold the quartz with the ridge line near your fingers, then strike downwards with glancing blows. You’ll notice sparks have a will of their own, but this technique does encourage at least some sparks to follow the downward trajectory.
When you’ve been able to do this with a modicum of consistency it’s time to try and get a spark to land on the char cloth. Place a strip of char cloth along your fingers and rest the quartz ridge line over it. Then repeat striking the quartz with the intention/hope of a spark landing on the char cloth. Take care not to hit the char cloth with the steel. The cloth is very fragile and won’t survive any form of abuse.
If the char cloth caught a spark you will see a tiny orange spot glowing and spreading. If you’re uncertain just blow on the cloth and see if that encourages it to light up.
I did it! Now what?
Firstly, don’t worry about it going out. That won’t happen. The char cloth won’t burst into flames either. Instead the hot, glowing spot will slowly spread over the cloth leaving behind a few fragments of ash. It will probably last for a couple of minutes. If there’s a bit of a breeze it will be consumed a lot quicker.
Secondly, be mindful that the char cloth burns very hot. You don’t want to leave the cloth on your hands. Place it in a small dish.
If you were out bush you would now cocoon the char cloth with some very dry grass and blow on it. The grass would start to smoulder and smoke and eventually it would ignite.
We will substitute grass with cotton wool. So with your char cloth in a dish place several fluffed out balls of cotton wool on top of it. The cotton wool will soon start smouldering and you should feed it oxygen by gently blowing on it. You’ll notice the volume of smoke increasing. Keep blowing until it eventually bursts into flames.
How did you get on?
If you managed to do it – congratulations. You’ve achieved something that humans have been practising for thousands of years, but few can actually do today.
Sparks are not easy to photograph, but if you managed to take a photo of your endeavour send it to me and I’ll publish it in a gallery below.