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Briar Patch Outdoors

Primary Tinder for a Flint and Steel Fire

by George Hedgepeth

(Photos coming soon!)

A striker of hardened, high-carbon steel and a piece of a sharp silica-rich rock like flint or jasper has been a source of fire for at least 2000 years. It is found in many cultures, and is a reliable method that is particularly good in windy conditions. It has a possible Achillesí heel however; it requires very high quality primary tinder for the method to work.

What I mean by primary tinder is the substance that is used to catch the weak spark produced from the steel. It must be ABSOLUTELY dry and of a sufficient low density to allow a rather low temperature, small spark to take hold and spread into a usable ember. This will then ignite (hopefully!) the shredded vegetable fiber of the tinder ball.

Usually this primary tinder was charred organic material (generally cotton or linen cloth) or a prepared material called Amadou. This is a substance made from a layer in a shelf fungus that is nitrated by boiling in a solution of saltpeter or urine. Neither of these materials are easily obtained in the field, and both require fire to manufacture. This has led some people to consider flint and steel fire making to be a poor option for survival training.

What many of these authors are missing is that there are some materials that are usable for primary tinder that require either minimal or no preparation to use. In fact, most of these seem to be nearly unknown to most outdoors people. Knowing these additional tinders allows the flint and steel method to be much more versatile and usable for emergency situations.

The best known of these alternative tinders is the True Tinder Fungus (Innonotus obliquous) found on birch trees in the forests of the north. This fungus has become relatively popular in the last 10 years mainly due to the rapid spread of information allowed by the Internet. It is mentioned and illustrated in Bushcraft: Outdoor Skills and Wilderness Survival by Mors Kochansky and also noted in Alma Hutchens's Native American Herbalogy. This material works very well! A good, corky-textured piece will catch a spark nearly as easily as char cloth and will glow for much longer. It is difficult to extinguish even on purpose, and it even smells good! The only preparation it needs is to be allowed to dry and have the soft, punky pieces separated from the hard outer surface. This material deserves a complete write up all of its own!

A material that is less well known is the Styrofoam-like pith found in the center of many large weed stems. Some that I have successfully used are Burdock (Arctium sp.), Sunflower (Helianthus sp.), and Mullein (Vervascum thaspus). I would like to try the pith in Corn (Zea maize) and Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), but as of yet I have not done so. All of these soft, light materials can easily be used if charred, but what is more exciting is they can be used WITHOUT that step. The trick to making this work is twofold.

First, the pith must be sliced in such a way to produce the thinnest possible edge. I find a wedge shaped piece of pith allows for a suitably thin edge, but with enough mass to endure handling. Then, holding the pith on top of the flint, strike the steel down to hit the pith with multiple sparks. The pith will generally require several sparks to hit the same area on the thin edge before it catches. I believe this is a case of "micro-charring", where previous spark impacts have created miniature-charred areas that allow a fresh spark to ignite and take hold. Once lit, the pith must be given a steady stream of air to stay hot.

Many people are familiar with the silky little parachutes that stream out of the open pods of the common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). What fewer people see is the fleshy little placenta that remains inside the pod. Even fewer know what special feature this papery little structure possesses. If it is found dry, and it often is considering how well sheltered it is inside of the pod, it can be used just like a piece of char cloth! No other preparation is needed.

It does have its drawbacks. It catches a spark easily, but it burns quickly. It works best if it can be placed immediately in a prepared tinder bundle, or used with a coal extender such as a piece of punky wood. This has worked for me with Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) as well as several Milkweed species, but the very slender little placentas of the Dogbane do not last long and are delicate. (pic. D)

This past summer, I made a discovery! While attempting to produce a bowl from a gourd, I started to play with the dried, seed-imbedded flesh I was removing. It was very lightweight and protected from moisture by the gourdís shell. On a whim, I struck a spark from the spine of my knife into a piece. Instant success! This material catches more easily than Burdock pith, lasts longer than Milkweed, and is more common than Innonotus obliquous. Eventually, I will experiment with wild gourds and the linings of other plant pods and fruits.

It is, in my opinion, harder to dismiss flint and steel fire making as a survival skill when one takes into account that several options for primary tinder that work well are available. Also, there is plenty of room for experimentation in this area! If one keeps the requirements of good tinder in mind and has eyes open to the environment, other good tinder types may surface.




- Woodsrunner Tips -


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Durand MI 48429
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