Traditional Flint and Steel Fire – The Hard Way(?)

flint and steel kitSome time ago I posted a video in which I explain extensively how to get an ember with a traditional flint and steel. That was the easy way using a piece of charred cloth (I also explained how to make charred cloth). Although, sometimes this proves difficult too. Especially if you’ve never done anything like this before.

Flint and steel first attempt

Flint and steel striker patternsBut let’s say we’ve mastered this stage. We can now move on to something more difficult but at the same time more natural, self-sufficient and also more historically accurate. That is not to say charred cloth was not used back in the day. It was, but rather rarely since cloths, clothes and fabrics in general were a precious commodity before the industrial revolution. A common man would definitely not tear up his clothes just to be able to make a fire. Not if he could find other materials to achieve his goal without loosing his only shirt.

There are tons of natural tinders you can find in the woods. Most will have to be charred or otherwise processed. Some, even longer time ago, so long it seems ancient past and I apologise for the quality and my appearance, I posted another video about flint and steel fire. In that one I show pieces of horse hoof fungus, or rather pieces of amadou obtained from a horse hoof fungus. That amadou had been boiled in wood ash supposedly to get rid of fire retardants found in the fungus. I’d heard about this somewhere, can’t even remember where now, and thought I’d give it a try since up until then I’d been unable to get an ember with a traditional flint and steel and horse hoof fungus amadou.

It worked pretty well as you can see in the video and yesterday, centuries after that video, I showed it to some of the London Wildlife Trust volunteers at Camley Street.


We took it step by step and some of the volunteers ended up catching a spark on a piece of prepared amadou. So it definitelly works and seems like a great charred cloth equivalent for a medieval peasant who, unlike us, couldn’t afford a £5 cotton T-shirt from Primark. Especially that horse hoof fungus was and probably still is quite common and easy to find. Must’ve been even easier with all those trees and ancient forests we’ve lost since the Middle Ages.

The problem is, it takes forever to first peal the hard shell off to get to the amadou, then slice the spongy stuff into manageable pieces, soften them by twisting, stretching and rubbing, and finally boiling in wood ash for hours and drying. What if you just want to make an emergency fire with your high carbon steel knife and a piece of flint?

Well, you may look for some of the natural tinders that are not as common as horse hoof fungus, but at least don’t require any preparation.

Those include the true tinder fungus or chaga, which is rare and grows on live birch trees. All it takes to get this one glowing is a bit of scraping and cutting into smaller pieces. Needless to say, it should be dry. Works every time. Even in winter. And unlike the next tinder fungus does not absorb moisture as readily.

Another choice is the King Alfred’s Cake or Cramp Balls. This is also a great natural tinder which works without any preparation other than crumbling in fingers. The hard shell needs to be removed exposing the layered structure inside. It’s found on dead ash trees and branches. The only problem with this fungus is the fact that it is so hygroscopic. It literally soaks up moisture from humid air. It recently went mouldy on me because I kept it at home in a closed container.

The last but not least of the natural tinder materials we will talk about today is punk wood. Punk wood is nothing else than just rotten wood. What we are interested in is a hard wood at just the right stage of decomposition. How do you tell the right stage? I don’t know. After some time you just feel it when touching the spongy stuff. But I do get it wrong sometimes so I guess it’s gonna be a bit of trial and error for the most part.

Flint and steel kitIn fact, most punk wood you’ll find will only catch sparks if previously charred. It’ll also glow if treated with sun rays let through a magnifying glass. But some, the one of the right specimen and at the right decomposition stage, will actually catch sparks without any preparation. I recently found some perfectly rotten logs. They’re too rotten for me to tell what species that was but they catch sparks and smoulder so well, one can virtually hear the pieces sizzle. The smell is delicious too 🙂

If you can find any of these (there’s more, I’m sure), you happen to have a fairly hard high carbon steel knife and a piece of flint, quartz or even sharp broken piece of glass you’re in business. You should be able to make fire without anything that a modern man would call a fire-making equipment. As long as your tinder is dry, of course.


Hand Drill Fire – There is a Trick

Hand DrillWe don’t know which method of primitive fire making came first. Most likely we’ll never know for sure. We can’t even say if it was a friction or percussion method. Most scientists, I know about, that researched this topic seem to believe the first fire started by a human-like species must have been made using the hand drill.

Some of those scientists claim this is a very easy way of making fire, and give examples of people from various primitive cultures, who are supposedly able to get an ember in 10 seconds. Maybe. If you are in a hot dry environment and happen to have some of the best possible materials with low combustion threshold. I suspect most people interested in learning this method live in a bit less favourable conditions and don’t have those supper materials to hand. Not to mention those guys lived in the late 19th century and would’ve mastered their skills possibly for decades as that was the only way of starting a fire they knew.

Hand Drill kitLet’s get this straight. Hand drill is not easy. It’s not like the bow drill where you can take two random pieces of more or less dry wood and make it work. Especially in places like the UK where rain is the norm rather than exception and temperatures are generally not very high. If you’ve never done this before expect your hands to hurt. A lot. You’ll get blisters which may burst and bleed. Your skin will then come off, your muscles and bones will hurt too and you’re out for days before you even got your first ember. Does that sound easy to you?

You can, of course, get a coal the very first time if you have someone experienced make the kit for you and then watch you and tell you what to do. Needless to say, this is not the same as doing it all and succeeding by yourself. Plus, even if you do succeed with somebody’s help, there is a good chance you’ll still mess up your hands.

So in this sense, there is no trick. You have to practice your coordination, stamina and thicken you skin just like you would when learning to play guitar – practising gradually longer and longer. But you can do all that, make your spindle and hearth board from the best materials available in your area and still fail. The trick to solving that problem is patience.

First of all focus on each task as if there is nothing else to do. Don’t think about the notch before you burn the pieces in. Don’t wait for the ember if you haven’t even seen smoke yet. One thing at a time and it’ll come. And remember – if you’re sweating, you’re doing something wrong.

The Spindle
The spindle I used in the video below, is made from a cattail or bullrush (Typha) stalk. I absolutely love to use them for hand drill as they are already perfectly straight, usually have the right diameter and are relatively soft which is good for your hands. They also work quite well with many types of hearth board materials, and grow almost everywhere in the world where there is a bit of water. The perfect length for me is between 50 and 35 cm (20 and 13″) and diameter between 6 and 10 mm. Because they are soft, they do get worn Hand Drill smokedown quickly and a stalk of less than 30 cm will be difficult to use. Therefore, I tend to make a compound spindle consisting of a thicker piece with one end hollowed out (about and inch into the stalk) and reinforced with sinew, and a removable short piece which takes all the beating.

The Hearth Board
Outdoor Hand DrillThe type of hearth will depend on what the spindle is made from. For a cattail spindle it’s good to use something soft. In the video, I used a piece of long-dead poplar. Willow, slightly punky birch or even pine, spruce and ivy will work too. The hearth cannot be too thick. There won’t be as much dust as in the case of a bow drill kit, and your board has to be appropriately thiner. One centimetre (0.4″) works best for me.

The Notch
If everything is dry, you’re getting a lot of smoke but the ember just isn’t forming, there’s probably not enough oxygen. The hand drill notch has to be perfect. It shouldn’t be too wide or your spindle will bore its way out of the socket ruining everything seconds before the ember formed. It can’t be too narrow because the dust needs to be able to come out freely and your ember will need oxygen to start glowing.

There is one trick I learned from a guy who calls himself Mr Wilson, and haven’t seen anywhere else. He once showed me how to increase friction when marrying  the pieces together by adding a pinch of sand under the spindle. Works great and reduces the time needed to char the spindle tip and the board.