I’m happy to have the chance to share what I know about making char cloth, a material used to help start fires over a hundred years before modern matches and lighters, on the Low Tech Blog. Char cloth is simply carbonized cloth that, when it is lit, will hold a smoldering hot ember for several minutes. For reference, I timed a 1-x-2-in (about 3-x-6-cm) patch burn for just under 4 minutes with no wind. Once lit, char cloth gives a person ample time to light her or his tinder and get the kindling for a fire going. This is a great system to use for lighting fires while backpacking, camping, or in windy conditions where matches and lighters struggle to stay lit. Once your kit is ready, it is easy to make more char cloth and have it ready to go each time you want to light another fire. The compact, light-weight kit we will create only requires a few low-cost items to make.
Items you will need:
- Metal tin of mints
- Pointy object to make vent holes (I used a corn cob holder)
- Natural fiber cloth (cotton, linen, hemp, possibly wool)
- Flint and steel (a.k.a. a fire-steel and flint) or other item to make sparks reliably
Most convenience stores and thrift shops will have these basic items, though you may have to order a flint and steel kit from a camping or survivalist supplier.
After acquiring all of these items it won’t take long to get a working char cloth kit prepared. First open the tin, remove the mints, and enjoy. Yum! The hinges of the tin allow for some ventilation, but in order to have a better balance of ventilation while heating I prefer to add a couple of holes to the top of the tin.
Next, cut your natural fiber cloth into even sections so it will fit inside the tin in several layers. Folding the cloth into the right shape might lead to pockets of un-burned cloth, flat and even layers work better. Reminder, don’t use artificial fibers or blends of natural and artificial fibers. You will only be rewarded with brittle flakes of useless material or a melted puddle of plastic if you try to make them into char cloth.
Third, close the tin holding the cloth and prepare to make it into char cloth! You will have to take advantage of a low smoldering fire to slowly cook the fibers. Don’t give into the temptation to use your gas stove or range to make your char cloth. If you simply must, make sure it is a very well-ventilated space. My own attempt to use our stove to make char cloth resulted in an entire month of misery for me. The smell of smoke was so intense in our kitchen that my conversations with my wife consisted of her asking “Why did you do that!?” while I replied with a different unsatisfactory answer. My dog wouldn’t look at me and howled with displeasure any time he went by the kitchen. While I’m sure this story is ripe for a country music rendition, don’t risk making the mistake I did. Only make char cloth outdoors!
Once you set the tin onto the smoldering coals or very low flame on your stove (if you must) then you should start seeing small puffs of grey smoke rising out of your vents. Black smoke or flames mean you are heating the tin too fast and burning up the cloth before it can become char cloth. Heating low and slow for several hours or overnight in the case of a campfire will ensure everything heats through evenly. Do note that my video of making char cloth is in a fire that is way too hot, but dimly glowing coals late at night don’t photograph well. Wait until your fire dies down before placing it in. If all goes well, the following morning you should have tin of perfectly made char cloth.
There are lots of ways to build fires using different types of tinders and kindling. Get everything ready for your next fire ahead of time so you are able to use your char cloth immediately after it is lit giving you the most time possible to try and get your tinder to catch on fire. To use your char cloth in making your next fire take a swatch of it and place it against your flint. Striking the edge of flint with a glancing blow from your steel should produce several hot sparks. Fun fact, the sparks are actually small pieces of steel, not rock, that are being shaved off by the slightly harder flint. It may take some practice to get the right angle and force of the strike to get it right [Editor’s Note: Always strike in a downward motion, as I learned from bitter experience: a metal shaving lodged in my eye when I was learning this technique. -SAJJ]. Once you get a regular series of strikes against the flint you should have a spark or two land on your char cloth. If the cloth is getting banged up or worn off while striking, just use a little more or move more of what you have closer to where the sparks are flying. You will know when it is lit because there will be an orange-red glow where the spark landed that starts to spread and grow.
Next place your hot piece of char cloth carefully into a bundle of tinder and blow gently on it to help light it. My neighborhood was having burn restrictions so I only let mine get to a smolder before putting it out in my driveway. The char cloth will be very hot once lit, so place it between some bark and tinder right after you see it is lit to prevent burning your finger tips. Of course after you have your lovely fire lit you can always make more char cloth by placing more natural fiber cloth in your tin and leaving them in the coals for several hours.
When traveling, the tin container can easily hold your char cloth, a small piece of flint, a steel striker, and a small amount of your favorite tinder, like dried moss, birch bark, or paper so you can be ready to light a fire as soon as you gather the needed kindling and fuel. Good luck on your own DIY projects, and I hope this guide helps you in making this fire-lighting system.