Fire is a primary natural element, alongside water, earth, and air. We need it to survive. We all love its beneficial aspects – it cooks our food, keeps us warm, lights our way, signals our whereabouts, and nourishes the soil.
Making a fire that can cook food and continue to burn for hours isn’t a cakewalk. Never fear. Fire Starters are here to make fire craft easier.
Fire Starters include ignition devices and flammable materials used to start a fire. Ignition devices are used to ignite flammable material. Flammable materials are plentiful.
They are an incendiary fuel source that burns the bulk fuel source of a fire.
When it comes to types of Fire Starters, there are plenty to choose from, so let’s establish the target upfront. We will deconstruct what it takes to start and sustain a wood fire.
While unpacking fire starter characteristics and methodologies, we’ll also analyze the strengths and weaknesses of ignition devices and combustible materials.
Related fire craft tips will also be conveyed, giving you the dope you need to ensure your fire craft experience is efficient, safe, and enjoyable.
How Old Is Fire Craft?
The history of fire-making, or fire craft, is fascinating – the stuff of myth, legend and literature. Fire craft is as much a part of human evolution as the crafting of hand tools and the invention of the wheel.
Scientists can’t put a definite date on when humans first started making fires. Archeological records show that fire was being made by humans in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia around 400 000 years ago.
Museums today house fire-making artifacts, like the fire drill that date back 5 000 years.
Before we investigate primitive fire-making tools and today’s popular commercial Fire Starters, let’s begin with a quick look at the physics and chemistry underlying the various modes of fire starting.
The Seven Modes Of Fire Ignition
Two pieces of wood are rubbed together to cause friction and thermal (heat) energy is released, which causes hot coal to form in the wood dust created by the friction. This model includes the fire drill, bow drill, fire plow, pump drill, fire-saw, and fire-thong.
This mode of fire starting includes the fire steel and the fire rod. Historically, flint and steel were used to create sparks to ignite tinder. Today, hard steel is scraped against a rod of ferrocerium and magnesium, rendering hot metal particles that ignite combustible material, aka tinder.
These include safety matches and the common cigarette lighter. A combination of percussion (kinetic energy), ignition/sparking agent (example – sulfur or electric pulse), and fuel (organic or chemical) produce a flame sufficiently strong to ignite combustible materials (tinder, kindling, and wood).
A pressure pump called a fire piston (made of bamboo and wood, or steel) rapidly compresses air in a sealed chamber, releasing sufficient heat energy to ignite a small amount of combustible material (like char cloth) located in an indentation in the piston head.
An optic lens or magnifying glass concentrates the solar energy to a point where it ignites combustible materials.
Combining two or more chemical substances to trigger an exothermic chemical reaction that releases heat energy to ignite combustible materials. Combining glycerin and potassium permanganate is one such method.
An electric current of sufficient voltage creates an electrical circuit with a conductive combustible steel material to a point where it heats the combustible material and produces a flame. A 9-volt battery igniting fine steel wool is one example.
Types Of Ignition Devices
Friction Fire Starters
The fire drill is made entirely of wood – two pieces of wood – a long, thin fire spindle made of hardwood and a narrow flat fireboard made of softwood. The fire drill uses friction to produce heat energy that chars and coagulates wood dust, which, as it heats, forms a small burning ember, or ‘a coal’, as fire crafters call it.
Creating hot coal to act as a fire starter is achieved by holding the spindle perpendicular to the fireboard between flattened palms with the thicker end of the spindle nestled in a notch cut into the board.
The spindle is spun between the fire crafter’s palms while pressing the spindle into the board to create friction. The heat energy released from the friction between the rotating spindle and static fireboard creates hot wood dust that eventually fuses to form glowing coal.
The coal is placed into a pre-prepared nest of combustible material, aka a tinder nest. The fire crafter then blows oxygen into the nest until flames arise.
This flaming tinder nest is the ‘starter pack’ for a productive fire (more on tinder nests a little later on).
The bow drill is the most popular type of friction fire starter amongst fire crafters. It utilizes the same scientific principles as the fire drill and differs only in the addition of a bow, bowstring, and a notched hardwood palm plate or ‘handle’, which stabilizes the spindle.
The bow is made of flexible wood (a green branch of a tree, for example) and a bowstring, which is wrapped around the fire spindle. The bow is moved in a horizontal sawing action with one hand while the other hand holds the palm plate, pushing down on the spindle as it rotates in the fireboard.
As in the method employed with a fire drill, the bow drill produces an ember that ignites a tinder nest.
Much like the fire drill and bow drill, the fire plow uses hard and softwood to create heat energy from friction (thanks to the fire crafter’s applied kinetic energy).
The fire plow forms a burning ember from heated wood dust, created by repeatedly rubbing a hardwood stick along a groove, carved lengthwise into a soft-wood base.
When a coal forms, it’s dropped into the tinder nest.
Another friction fire starter from antiquity is the pump drill, which also uses a spindle and fireboard. It differs from the fire drill and bow drill in that it incorporates a weighted flywheel and pulley system to take some of the physical stress out of the equation.
It’s an ingenious design, utilizing the momentum of the spinning flywheel (made from stone, mostly) to keep the spindle rotating. The pulley system consists of a handle with a hole in the center, which slides over the spindle. A rope is tied to each end of the handle and pulled up to sit in a groove at the top end of the spindle.
The fire crafter spins the handle. The rope winds around the upper section of the spindle. The handle is pushed down the spindle.
The spindle and the flywheel rotate together. At the bottom of its down-run, the handle and spindle continue to spin, powered solely by the momentum of the weighted flywheel, automatically rewinding the rope around the spindle for the next downward thrust by the fire crafter.
Here’s a modern but primitive homespun pump drill that effectively halves the physical labor! See for yourself: Watch this video.
The oldest known examples of fire saws come from Australia and the South Pacific Islands. They are very simple fire starters comprising a ‘saw’ made of hardwood (or bamboo) and a fireboard made of softwood(or bamboo).
In the wood fire-saw, a length of soft, dry wood is split into quarters. Part of its underside, when placed on the ground, is elevated. A lateral groove is carved across its length.
Another length of hardwood is carved into a blade shape to slide back and forth in a sawing motion in the fireboard groove.
Tinder is then placed beneath the groove in the fireboard.
The saw runs back and forth in the fireboard groove until coal falls onto the tinder and ignites it.
The same procedure is used with bamboo fire-saws. A long piece of thick bamboo is split down its length and smoothed inside and out. A lateral groove is cut into one of the halves to create a fireboard. The other is fashioned into a blade.
The fireboard is placed on the ground with the inside of the bamboo facing down. A small bundle of tinder is placed beneath the groove. The saw runs back and forth until coal ignites the tinder.
A thong and tinder! Smokin’! Cut a strip of rattan, rub it with a stick vigorously to soften it, and tie a wooden handle to each end. Carve a conical hole in a piece of softwood with guide grooves on the underside to act as a track for the rattan to move in and start pulling!
Check how it’s made: Watch this video.
Wood Types For Friction Fire Starters
For Fireboards & Handles
· Aster weed stalks
· Cattail Stalks
· White Cedar
· Red Cedar
· Juniper Wood
· Goosefoot Weed
· Tulip Poplar
· Ash Wood
· Pawpaw Wood
· Mullein Stalks
· Sumac Wood
· White Cedar
· Red Cedar
· Tulip Poplar
· Pawpaw Wood
All of the above friction fire starters rely on oxygen to combust sufficiently to create a good fire. The fire crafter, immediately after dropping the coal into the tinder nest, holds the nest in both hands and blows oxygen (from his or her lungs) onto the coal in the nest, rotating the nest carefully until the tinder ignites.
REMEMBER: Conserve Energy
Making and using friction fire starters successfully demands a lot of skill, physical fitness, and patience. Without practice, it can take hours to get a fire started. Novice fire crafters often ‘tag team’ the friction work to conserve energy and get that all-important coal.
- Each friction fire starter has its own technique. Search YouTube for your preferred friction fire starter and learn the correct technique to get the fire started!
Percussion Fire Starters
There’s a good chance the first percussion fire starters were two rocks being bashed together to create a spark. The method of striking flint (a type of quartzite) against steel or iron to create a spark to ignite tinder goes back millennia.
There are hundreds of percussion fire starters on the market today that use the same principles of physics and chemistry our prehistoric ancestors used.
The thermal energy released as the steel striker hits the fire-steel (or Ferro rod) instantly heats tiny fragments of steel (ferrocerium and magnesium) that are directed by the fire crafter towards a bundle of tinder.
Two main types of percussion fire starters are available today that replace flint with more efficient sparking materials:
- Ferrocerium: Commonly referred to as a ‘Ferro-rod’ and a ‘fire-steel’. Sold with a hardened steel striker. A more efficient producer of sparks than flint.
- Ferrocerium and Magnesium: ‘Mag rods’ and ‘mag steels’ combine the two elemental compounds. Magnesium can replace tinder because it combusts easily, emitting extreme heat (over 5000°F) in shavings that remain burning longer than flint.
Both types of percussion fire starters use a hardened steel blade to scrape the rod, producing a shower of extremely hot sparks that ignite tinder or the magnesium shavings from the mag rod.
Tip: Pressure is all-important. Keep the fire rod pointed down at the tinder, ideally with its tip on a hard surface, and forcefully but steadily scrape the rod to release the sparks onto the tinder.
Firesteel Technique is about one steady strike that will shower the tinder with the right concentration of sparking material.
Watch this master class: https://youtu.be/u6diTROxK7I
The safety match is the most ubiquitous fire starter on earth. A match is, technically speaking, a friction fire starter but deserves a category all of its own. The combustible tip was traditionally made of sulfur and struck against almost any abrasive surface to ignite.
Today, safety matches are made using a number of substances including; red phosphorous, carbon black and potassium chlorate. The match head is made predominantly of potassium chlorate mixed with small amounts of sulfur and starch.
The striking surface of modern matchboxes comprises mostly red phosphorous and powdered glass.
When a safety match strikes, heat energy is released, triggering a chemical reaction between the red phosphorous and the potassium, resulting in a flame.
As with most fire starters, the technique is everything:
- Place as many fingertips on the stalk of the match as possible.
- Hold the top of the match stalk firmly between thumb and forefinger and place the tips of your middle finger and ring finger lightly on the stalk.
- Then strike the box. As the match head ignites, swivel your hand to cup the flame, using your hand and fingers as a windscreen.
- Keep the match head pointed down at a 45° angle to allow the flame to light the wooden stalk.
- Properly extinguish the match.
Whether it’s a Bic or a Zippo, if you’re a serious fire crafter, you’ll always carry a lighter or two into the wild.
Surprisingly, there’s quite a lot of room for lighters to differ, beyond price and color. A host of considerations come into play when choosing a lighter, such as:
- Fuel type?
- Ignition type?
- How much fuel?
- Is it refillable?
- Adjustable flame size?
- Casing durability?
- Is it waterproof?
- Is it windproof?
Apart from Zippo lighters, which use a proprietary high-heat, quick-burning fuel, most modern lighters use butane. The amount of fuel in the lighter depends on the size of the lighter.
1. Plastic disposable lighters come in two varieties – spark-wheel or piezoelectric. Not all disposable lighters have flame adjusters. Not all lighters are refillable. They are cheap, small and light.
The advantage of the spark-wheel lighter is that you can ignite propane cookers and other gas-fuelled products even when the lighter is empty, thanks to the flint in the spark wheel.
Piezoelectric lighters have a battery and often come equipped with a small LED light/torch.
Tip: Pull a rubber band over a baseball cap peak, secure the lighter on the peak, and presto – you’ve got yourself a headlamp!
They’re not exactly windproof, but certain disposable lighters (a Bic, for example) are surprisingly waterproof – one hour in the wash cycle and the Bic starts the first spin of the spark wheel!
2. Zippo-type lighters have a spark wheel and flint to ignite a wick soaked in Zippo fuel. The flame from this type of lighter is impressively windproof and will only die when deprived of oxygen (which is what happens when the lid is closed).
Zippo-type lighters can be used instead of candles. However, the fuel evaporates rapidly and needs refilling more often than a disposable lighter.
3. Plasma lighters are electric and flameless. A USB-chargeable battery creates an arc of charged plasma that moves between a set of electrodes.
Plasma lighters produce heat much stronger than conventional lighter flame and can withstand strong winds. They’re rechargeable and don’t require fuel.
4. Candle lighters are similar to plastic disposable lighters but offer excellent ease of use, safety, and comfort for fire crafters. They have a long neck, a piezoelectric ignition, and hold more butane than disposable lighters.
- If you’re tired of burning your thumbs on heated lighter heads, the candle lighter is an obvious solution.
Compression Fire Starters
Generally referred to as a ‘fire piston’, this fire starter creates combustion by rapidly compressing and heating the air inside its steel cylinder.
The piston, equipped with a rubber gasket to create an airtight seal, has an indentation in its head into which a small piece of tinder such as char cloth is lodged.
The piston, with its load of tinder, is inserted into the cylinder. It is then hammered down by hand at high velocity into the cylinder. The extreme pressure of the pump-like action heats the air inside the cylinder and ignites the tinder.
Watch these YouTube videos to see how they work:
Solar Fire Starters
A magnifying glass is the most common type of solar firelighter. A convex lens concentrates sunlight to a point where combustion occurs. Most convex clear glass or plastic lenses can be used to start a fire using solar power. Even ice has been used to achieve the same results!
Take a look at this low-cost, bush-smart alternative – the Fresnel lens:
Chemical Fire Starters
Unlike other fire starters that use chemicals in conjunction with several other materials and energy sources to create combustion, a chemical fire lighter uses two or more substances that combust spontaneously.
The hazards associated with transporting chemicals that, if mixed, burst into flames, are obvious. For this reason, they’re not the first choice for fire crafters.
However, for the believers in keeping options open and always carrying alternative sources of heat energy, here are a few ‘chemical romances’ that spontaneously combust:
- Hydrochloric acid + ammonium nitrate powder + zinc powder
- Automotive brake fluid + calcium hypochlorite
- Glycerin + potassium permanganate
- Sulfuric acid + potassium permanganate + acetone
- Sulfuric acid + sodium chlorate + sugar
- Zinc + sulfuric acid + platinum
Remember: Have your tinder bundle at the ready. These incendiary moments are short-lived.
Electrical Fire Starters
Here’s another left-field approach to getting a blaze going – electric current. The most well-known type of electrical fire starter is the 9-volt battery running current through steel wool.
Try this method, using a 1.5-volt AA battery and gum wrapper foil: https://youtu.be/ttPyIRAfhEQ
If you have a generator or powered inverter, you could use an electric fire starter made to run on shore power.
Check this out: https://youtu.be/u-W5JO30pJg
Types of Tinder
A fire starter, from the most primitive to the most hi-tech, is only as good as the tinder that is being used to start the fire. Here’s a list of the most common types of tinder:
- Small twigs
- Leaves and grass
- Paper and thin cardboard
- Dry pine needles
- Cloth, frayed rope, and lint
- Char cloth
- Cotton balls, tampons, cotton swabs
- Certain types of fungi like Chaga and amadou
- Dry bread
- Shoe polish
- Rotting and charred wood
- Bird down
- Pine knot
- Fine steel wool
- Tightly rolled gaffer/duct tape (cigar-shaped)
Watch this tutorial on how to build a tinder nest: https://youtu.be/4YlBq8MgipI
And this ‘Building a Tinder Nest in the Wet’ video: https://youtu.be/yc2RxlH4JkA
Hot Fire Craft Tips
Remember, fire needs three vital ingredients – Heat, Fuel and Oxygen.
Keep all three in mind when you’re preparing your fire:
- Gather different sizes of dry wood, from thin twigs to branches and logs.
- Prepare a good tinder nest.
- Gauge the wind conditions to situate your fire optimally to get the right amount of oxygen.
- If you’re making a fire in strong wind, use a windscreen.
- Use a fire starter you’ve mastered.
- Start with small wood and add wood to the fire steadily to the point where a deep bed of coals can burn big logs.
- Nurse the fire without being overly fussy.
- Allow space between kindling and logs so the fire can breathe.
- Extinguish the fire with water and soil.
- Leave no trace.
For a lesson on how to get a strong fire going in wet conditions, watch this:
Useful Fire Craft Accessories
- Fire Bellows: Get oxygen into the fire – where and when it needs it.
- Welding Gloves: Don’t get burnt handling the fire fuel or tools. They’re cheaper than BBQ gloves.
- Pliers: A handy tool to move grills around hot fires.
- Fire Windscreen: You can move it to make optimal use of available oxygen and protect your fire from strong winds.
- Scissor Tongs: For moving firewood onto and within the fire.
Seasoned fire crafters insist on having at least three different types of fire starters. Whether you go primitive, modern, or, a mix of both – there’s no shortage of choices in the fire starter spectrum. Try making a primitive fire starter.
Practice the techniques required to get the flames rising as efficiently as possible. Most importantly, make your fire craft a safe and exciting experience!