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How To Make Char Cloth

A lot has been mentioned lately about using “flint and steel” for fire-starting, and much has been mentioned about different tinders in general.  One should first note that I am not talking about “ferro-rods” or “firesteels,” but real steel (or iron) “flint striker” and real flint; the rock.  I have been using a flint and steel for over twenty years with excellent results, in fact, better results than with a ferro-rod, when using the appropriate tinder with my flint and steel – char cloth.  There is no magic and no mystery to making fire with these tools, but it seems there is a common belief to the contrary.  I think that this is because most who try it do so on their own and learn the same hard lessons that were learned, possibly thousands of years ago, at least at the dawn of the iron age, or longer ago if people first managed to create fire using the sparks from just two “rocks.”  The only real “trick” is finding something that will catch the relatively weak spark from the steel.  This is where char cloth comes in and, again, there is no magic or mystery to making or using it.

Char cloth is the best primary tinder, in my mind, in that it catches the least of sparks and is not only unhampered by wind, but is aided by wind.  Regardless of how you throw a spark onto it, it is a superior tinder to others, in most situations.  It does not matter whether you are a Buckskinner, re-enactor or carry the most up-to-date and modern gear, it is just one more “prepared” tinder, but with attributes not found in others.

The following process is “pic-heavy” for a reason.  Sometimes, the simplest processes seem easy to describe because we take for granted the subtle but important details.  I hope that this covers most of them.  If not, it will get you very close.  The most important thing to remember is that there is no alchemy or wizardry involved.  It’s as simple as tying your shoes, but to communicate all the tiny “twists” and “pinches” that we each have perfected over the years would be laborious to write and far more so to read.

All you need is some 100% cotton cloth scraps, an air-tight container that won’t burn or melt, and a heat source.  Obviously, each of these three elements must adhere to some amount of specificity, and the details will either be explained or be evident in the photos.

The cloth must be 100% cotton, and finding “scrap” not too hard to manage with the way a lot of clothing lasts these days.  Any old (washed) clothing will work but I prefer old blue jeans because they yield some good “bulk” to sustain the ember and some “toughness” to aid in handling.  I have used cloth baby diapers to very good effect but they “burn up” quicker than heavier materials and my girls are way past that stage.  Cut the material to fit whatever you will want to store and carry it in.  I make 3” by 2” rectangles to fit in a 50 gr. tobacco tin I have and that also works fine for the Ted Cash tinder box I carry as well.  If you shoot a muzzle-loader, the round “store-bought” patches make neat char cloth and the .32 caliber patches fit into a percussion cap tin.  That makes a tidy little bit of tinder to tuck away for an emergency, whether it is sparked “authentically” or by whatever other means.

The container, in my case, is a tobacco can, which is convenient for me since I smoke a pipe.  A clean, new paint can may be acquired at the local paint supply or hardware store.  Get a pint or quart can if possible; a large can is not necessary and you’ll get better quality in smaller batches and you don’t want a lot of extra space in the container.  Using an awl, a small finish nail (4d) or similar, poke a small hole, no bigger than 1/16”, in the center of the top and bottom of the can.  The steel in the can is thinner than you might expect and it’s easy to overdo it, so back it up with a block of wood and push gently.  Once prepared as such, throw the empty can/container into a fire and burn off residual oils, coatings and such.  Don’t let the can get cherry red.  A dull orange is OK but you don’t want to deform your container.

The heat source, as stated before, can vary.  You can experiment with this but be careful and be mindful of safety in particular.  One can use a gas cook-top, camp fire or woodstove.  I use the wood stove because it’s convenient and I can prepare a batch of char cloth when I am not able to “get out” and it allows me to be actively engaged in an outdoor-related activity while doing other things indoors.  I have used the gas range with a burner set very low under a steel band-aid box full of cloth but it will stink up the kitchen a bit and just try to find a steel band-aid box today.  The wood stove is handy but it’s easy to “over-cook” the char cloth because  it’s “out of sight – out of mind,” and I have the attention span of a dog sometimes and always too many things going on at once.

Below is a slideshow with pictures that correspond to each numbered section below.  The picture titles match the numbered section so you can manually flip to the next slide as you refer to the written information below the slideshow.  Click on either the left or right hand side of the pictures (on the arrows) to page through the show.


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CC001–Shown here, some remnants from a pair of old jeans, my tobacco can and some scissors.  Make up a couple little wooden “plugs” to fit the holes in the top and bottom of the can ahead of time and fit them to the holes.  You will need them later.

CC002–Here is the lid with the hole.  You can see that this can has been used a few times and most of the coatings are burned off.  The lid should fit snugly to keep out oxygen, prevent it from being forced off by emitted gas or just simply falling off.  Poke the holes from the outside-inward so the plugs insert easily.

CC003–Inside the can reveals the “look” after some use.  Again, burn off a new container before making char cloth.  After the initial burn-off, and the can has cooled, scrub the inside with a clean, stiff brush and shake out any residue.

CC004–Bottom side with the other hole.

CC005–Old jeans being recycled!  Cut to your desired size and stack LOOSELY.

CC006–Place the loosely stacked cloth into the can and DO NOT compress it just to get more in!  You can have something to look forward to by saving the excess to make more char cloth later.  Press the lid into place.

CC007–The tobacco tin is handy because I can grab it with a pair on channel locks.  Don’t start smoking just to get a tobacco can.  Find someone who smokes a pipe, make a friend and bum a can from him or go buy a new paint can.  Be aware that not all pipe-smokers buy cans.  This one is a Scandinavik® can, by the way.

CC008–Set the can among the coals.  A roaring fire is neither necessary nor desirable; one of those subtle things one might miss in a quick explanation.

CC009–Pay attention to the time!  If the can is in the stove, it is easy to forget.  Set a timer initially for ten minutes and check your progress often.

CC010–After ten minutes, maybe less, you should see a jet of smoke emitting from the holes.  Once this starts, keep an eye on things.  It will go for a while but you want to catch it at just the right time.  Turn the can gently if you are able and it may help ensure even heating inside.

CC011–After another ten minutes or so, the smoke begins to peter out a bit.  Check more frequently from this point on.  Remember, if you are dong this in a camp fire, you can watch the whole process while you sip your tea and daydream.  The gasses escaping through the holes will prevent oxygen from entering the can.  No oxygen – no combustion.  Combustion means “ash” and not “char.”

CC012–This is what you have been waiting for.  When you have but a wisp of smoke, your char cloth is done or nearly done.  If you open the stove and see NO smoke, you don’t know exactly how long there has been “no smoke,” so it’s best to catch it as it dwindles to a wisp.  Take it out now or wait a few more minutes.  It is not a terribly time-sensitive thing but leaving it too long will yield brittle char cloth that is difficult to handle and will not perform nearly as well as perfectly prepared char cloth.

CC013–Carefully remove the container and set it in a safe spot.  It’s hot, so place it where it will not catch something on fire or burn someone.

CC014–Immediately plug the holes to prevent oxygen from entering and allowing combustion to occur – ruining your tinder.  I only plug one hole because the steel plate the can is sitting on effectively blocks the bottom hole.

CC015–Let the can sit and cool.  Go do something else now and so you are not tempted to open it too soon.  Once pulled from the fire, you can forget about the container for a bit and have no problems.  “Over-cooling” is not an issue and it only takes about twenty minutes to cool with ambient temperatures in the seventies (F).

CC016–Make sure the can is cool to the touch; cool enough to hold it in your hand indefinitely without any discomfort.

CC019–Unplug the hole(s).CC017Pry open the lid.CC018Now that’s what you want to see when you open the lid – pure, dull black and intact cloth.  Quality inspection starts now.  The cloth should be as black as charcoal and the individual threads and the weave should be visible.  Brown spots indicate under-done char cloth.  You can cull a few brown pieces out or put it back in the fire for a bit and re-check it frequently.  If you did not over-stuff the can and the holes stopped smoking, odds are you will not have any brown spots to worry about.

CC020–To further check the quality of the char cloth, tear a piece in two and pay attention.  It should feel as though you are tearing something; obviously, not “healthy” denim, but there should be a faint but distinct feeling of the individual threads breaking as you tear the cloth.  If you don’t feel it, you may have over-cooked your char cloth and it is now closer to ash than is desirable.  It will tear easily but a very faint sense of the threads breaking should be noticable.

CC021–The next test of quality is in how the cloth will bend without breaking.  If, in addition to the above criteria being met, you can bend it in two and pinch the fold without it breaking, you’ve done well.

CC022–Show time’s over.  Now it’s “go-time.”  By whatever means you chose; flint and steel, ferro-rod, empty butane lighter with the metal guard removed, throw a spark on the cloth.  Easier said than done, but not nearly as hard as it is typically perceived to be.  If using flint and steel, fold a 1” or larger square (rectangles are fine too) twice and place the cut edges near the edge of your flint and, with a quick, arcing glance, swipe the face of the firesteel across the sharp edge of the flint.  Just remember that all you are trying to do is shave a few tiny bits of metal off the firesteel to make a spark.  You don’t have to use much force at all, just be quick and accurate.  It’s like sharpening a knife on a sharpening stone but really quickly.  A few quick “strikes” and you can see where the sparks are going so reposition the cloth to where the sparks hit.  When a spark hits the cloth, it should stick, stay “lit” and glow.  THAT is “catching a spark.”Once that happens, you can relax because it won’t go out if the char cloth is “right,” and it probably is if everything else checked out to this point.  Blow on it and it will grow.  Blow harder and it gets even hotter.  Just don’t become mesmerized and forget to put it somewhere safe before it gets to your fingers.  As a gauge, it takes about as long to reach your finger as a four-year-old digital camera takes to focus!CC022Place your newly-made char cloth in an air-tight container so that it won’t shift around and pulverize itself while jostling in your pocket or bag on a hike.

CC023–I place a thin leather “split” on top of mine to keep it flat and isolate it from my flint and steel.

CC024–Close it up and you’re ready to go!  You don’t have to own a fancy tinder box.  A zip-lock bag will do if you protect it from physical damage.  Anything that will seal it up and keep the moisture out will work.  Try a number of containers and always keep bits of dry tinder in various locations on various “layers” of your clothing.  It’s lightweight and compact so don’t put it all in your “fire kit,” which, if lost, “all’s lost.”

CC025–Now that you have made what I personally believe to be the single best primary tinder available, practice with it – outside.  See how the wind intensifies the ember and what it takes to get secondary and tertiary tinder aflame.  Use it up practicing and get good at using it, just be certain to remember that its purpose in life is to start fires, and start fires it WILL!  Play safe and be responsible with your new skill.  Share it with anyone who will listen and pass along an age-old and nearly forgotten task, for posterity, and for practicality.  It’s cheap entertainment to make and use char cloth and could potentially save your bacon some day when it’s so windy that no other means of starting a fire will work for you.  It’s not magic.  You still have to have to be skilled in the fundamentals of building a fire and this is a good excuse to practice that also.  Just be safe and be responsible while doing it.

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