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.


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