Rons Primitive Skills

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Sunday, February 1, 2009


I was just over at Bushcraft USA,my favorite forum, and read a few new posts about fire steels and other fire starting methods. My all time favorite method is using the ferro-cerium spark rod also known as the fire steel. Now this may cause a bit of confusion because in my old buck skinner days (mountain man reenactment) a fire steel was a piece of steel you smacked a chunk of flint with while holding char cloth to make fire. Its a fun and dependable way to make fire as long as you have good char cloth. Char cloth is made from 100% cotton material such as denim or canvas. It has to be 100% cotton or it wont work. Here's the method I use to make char cloth. I have an old Bag Balm can with a very small hole poked in the lid. I put the pieces of cloth in the can and then place the can on a small fire or bed of hot coals. A steady stream of smoke will pour out of the hole and ignite like a gas jet. When the jet goes out take a piece of pointed twig and plug the hole. After its all cool enough to handle, open the lid and you'll find your very own char cloth. To make fire with this you need a steel such as this one from
I had one similar to this shape:

but it wondered off one day.........I ended up making one from a section of file I broke from an old, used one.

I then mounted it in a piece of deer antler with cut grooves in the sides for a better grip. Its very hard steel but with stone such as chalcedony it throws a respectable spark. The odd item to its left is my bone shredder. I use it to shred bark for tinder and clean fiber for cordage making.
Now for the fine art of flint and steel. Hold a nice piece of flint (or chalcedony, chert, agate, jasper or any rock with a high silica content) with a piece of char cloth tucked on top of the front edge. If you're right handed you'll be holding it in your left hand and striking with the steel in your right. The idea is to give the sharp edge of the flint a glancing blow and drive a spark onto the char cloth. The spark ignites the cloth which glows red. Now take the cloth and gently blow on it as you nest it in your prepared tinder bundle. Keep blowing until you get a flame and there you go. Fire.
Another method I use is the friction technique. There are three ways of doing this Hand drill, bow drill and fire plow. Bow drill is easiest and hand drill is hardest (for me anyway, it takes forever and the arms do get TIRED!) The fire plow is a simple method. You have a hearth board and a stick. You move the stick back and forth very fast and with steady pressure in a groove in the hearth board. After a small pile of smoldering chaff forms you blow it into fire using the same technique as char cloth. The bow drill and hand drill have been discussed so much I will let you find the info for them on the net.Basically its the same technique. Friction+heat+smoldering material+tinder=fire.
The other method I like is the fire piston. I first saw one of these in the Army in 1973. I was impressed by the simplicity. The second photo shows several examples. They work by heat compression just like a diesel engine. In the tip of the plunger is a small indent where a piece f char cloth or tinder fungus is held. A quick smack on the top of the plunger drives it into the body of the piston. The sudden compression heats the tinder to ignition temperature. A small pick is usually carried to pry the smoldering tinder out of the indent and apply it to the tinder bundle, and then blown into flame.

Here's a photo of various prepared tinder's I use. The first on the left is Coghlans emergency tinder. This stuff is great and its only $3.32 at . Its being carried in a used medical container. I placed some empty ones at the top of the picture to better show them. I use a very small portion of a tab ( about pea size or a little bigger). The secret is to pull it apart and have it fluffed out as much as possible. This insures a good chance of ignition on the first pass of the sharp edge on the ferro rod. By the way, when I use a ferro rod I use a technique a bit different from most others. I hold the very tip of the rod near the fire starter, and hold the blade against the rod. Then I pull the rod away from the tinder holding the blade steady. This way the tinder isn't knocked about by accident. If you ever notice, most folks will push the blade towards the tinder as they try to get sparks from the rod. I just like my way better.
The second container from the left is an old 35mm film can. It contains a mixture of Vaseline and cotton with magnesium filings and powder. Magnesium burns at 3600 degrees F. This mixture will really get a fire going on a wet, cold day. I bought the powdered magnesium and a small block of the metal at a Preparedness expo before Y2K. I simply shaved the filings off the block with a sharp knife. The next container holds plain Vaseline/cotton mix. Its an old Army match safe. The zip lock has regular Vaseline/cotton mix as well as the souped up magnesium/Vaseline/cotton mix. These are carried in different survival kits I made.

Here's a photo of my ferro -cerium rods. The two on the left have deer antler handles and are 3/16" X 3" long. The next one is a 1/4" X 2 1/2" rod. Next is the same size rod in a deer antler case/handle I made. Last is the "metal match" from the Coghlans Emergency Tinder kit. It has a few tinder containers attached and a small loose one. For its small size and price it actually performs quite well.

This is a picture of the Coghlans kit. It shows tinder, match, striker and the instructions. Old Jimbo does a very good write up about this kit at

Here's another photo of the kit.

Here's a photo of a package of the tinder.

I have used a variety of tinder's: shredded cedar bark, shredded inner bark from the basswood tree, poplar tree, elm and others. Jute fibers, hemp fibers, yucca fibers & tow left over from nettle and dog bane cordage making. The down from the pods of milkweed and dog bane work good but the finer the fiber, the faster they burn so you must be quick to get it to your tinder. Cottonwood fluff also works but it go's fast like gun powder. Speaking of which, gunpowder can be used but it has a tendency to flash too fast to ignite your tinder.
There are many more ways to make fire such as steel wool and a battery (000 works best with a 9 volt battery), parabolic mirrors & reflectors (ala Ron Hood video), pop cans, pieces of ice (!) shaped into a lens as well as Fresnel lenses and hand lenses.
Experiment and find your fastest method and practice, practice, practice.

BTW How 'bout those Pittsburgh Steelers?

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