An Experiment in Home-Made Firelighters

I am perfectly well aware that I can buy little blocks of stuff that will make lighting a fire child’s play once one knows how to build one properly, but that’s not really as much fun as it might be. I prefer going slightly in the opposite direction from the effective but pretty unpleasant method and have taken to using a ferrocerium rod, AKA a fire steel.

My Fire Steel

My Fire Steel

Fire steel does sound impressive, although it really just creates fantastic sparks and doesn’t shoot flame like I think it sounds as though it should. That said, the sparks are about 1,600C, or 3,000F for anyone who works on old money, so they’re really very effective when they land on the right thing. Cotton wool and thistledown are good for that sort of thing but you have to keep them dry and that’s easier said than done in the great outdoors sometimes, so a friend and I decided to see what we could do with a combination of man-made and natural materials as tinder, hopefully enhanced by the addition of some recycled candle wax.

Flames, made by me, in a chimenea, which is a bit cheaty but am not setting fire to my grass.

Flames, made by me, in a chimenea, which is a bit cheaty but am not setting fire to my grass. It’s bad enough that I have to mow it without adding extra mud.

Cotton wool will light from a spark and a cotton ball will burn fairly well for (I just had to go and time some in the garden to check) a minute or so, which is OK, but not really long enough for someone like me to get everything else sorted to take it from tiny ball of patheticness to giant glorious fire of awesomeness. Or something similar, anyway. Should you add a bit of petroleum jelly to your cotton ball, it will extend the burn time to between 3 and 5 minutes or so, depending on how much you use.

It may not look like much, but it's taken me 40 years to get to this stage.

It may not look like much, but it’s taken me 40 years to get to this stage.

Well why not just do that then?
Good question: I could. Both those things are the sort of items that could be easily carried but it doesn’t deal with the waterproofing issue and it uses petroleum jelly, the production of which is hardly known for its cuddliness towards the planet. Also, have you smelled a burning cotton ball? It’s pretty foul: acrid black smoke and quite horrid, although once the wood smoke takes over you do stop noticing. Besides, if I’m going to light a fire using a cotton ball and a bit of Vaseline, I might as well go the whole hog and try matches and petrol, or just stay indoors and use the oven. That’d deprive me of all the sensory things about fire which make it lovely, so I’m going to come up with something I can take camping, that’ll be as foolproof as I can make it and which uses natural materials where possible. So there.

The Experiment
On the day that we went for our foraging walk, we brought back various things and decided to muck about with some melted wax and see what we could produce.

1. Cotton wool ball dipped in melted candle wax for a couple of seconds. We knew how long a clean cotton ball would burn and we knew what would happen if we added petroleum jelly, but we wanted to add waterproofing to it and to see if it would still burn well, since they’re easily obtainable and you can get eco sources. Burn well it did. It just needed a little fluffing out (you need fibres for the sparks but I imagine a match or lighter would just melt the wax and ignite it without the need for that) and then it caught on my second strike. (I’m aiming for first time, every time, which is impossible but it’s what I’m after.) It burned strongly for about 9 minutes, which is plenty of time even for me to get my act together, so that was a win. It was also pretty wind resistant, which is handy, since it so often is windy when you’re trying to light a fire

Experiment 1

We got outside just as the light was fading – the best time to set stuff on fire, if not for photography.

2. Cotton wool ball dipped in melted candle wax for a couple of seconds, sat in a mug of water for ten minutes or so while we burned the first one. Having assumed that our first experiment would prove to be an improvement on the ‘usual’ methods, we thought it would be good to test the waterproofing capabilities of our firelighter. Could we dump it in a puddle and still light it? Having removed the firelighter from the water, it was given a deeply scientific quick rub on the t-shirt (to replicate likely field conditions) and then broken open and fluffed up as much as you can fluff up something when it’s that full of wax. Second strike again and it lit and burned for as long as the last one, so waterproofing was another win and it wasn’t too difficult to break apart, although I’d like to experiment with different ways of breaking/cutting it open. It wouldn’t be something you could do with cold or stiff fingers, I don’t think.

Cotton wool ball + wax + water = no problem, apparently.

Cotton wool ball + wax + water = no problem, apparently.

3. Thistle head half-dipped in wax. Our first natural firelighter: we wanted to see if you could leave the fluffy bits intact and try and light them with a spark, whilst extending the burn time with wax. Thistledown just goes whoosh when you add a spark and all the little bits will just flash to nothing but the ember you get from the centre can be encouraged to light other tinder. It’s not as ‘good’ as the cotton ball in terms of getting a flame but it is all natural and it was worth a go. So we dipped the lower bit of the thistle in wax to see if it would burn rather than just ignite and go to tiny embers. It did. It was slightly harder work to light than the first two but it only took about 4 strikes aimed in the right direction for the spark to catch and up it went, with the wax giving us a burn time of around 5 minutes or so. I’d count this as a success, in that it worked, but you’d struggle to keep the thistle heads intact without coating the whole thing in wax, I suspect, during transportation. More work needed on that one to make it viable.

A thistle, in various stages of combustion. The melted wax is helping things along, too.

A thistle, in various stages of combustion. The melted wax is helping things along, too.

4. The monster-hybrid thistledown wrapped in birch bark, tied with twine and dipped a few times in melted wax. This beast was far and away the largest of the firelighters we made: a sausage of thistledown wrapped up in some silver birch (which makes good kindling) and tied together with some natural twine, both to stop it falling to bits in the wax and hopefully keep it together a bit longer once it was burning. Once it was all tied up it was dipped into the wax a few times to ensure that the whole thing was thoroughly coated, with the exception of one end, leaving some thistledown exposed. It took the longest to light but once it caught (I lost count of the number of strikes but it took a few, still lit within 30 seconds or so, though) it burned brilliantly. Yes, it did look like a “flaming dog turd” (thanks, Mike – it really did, though!) but it burned for so long that at the 25 minute point we were told that dinner couldn’t wait any longer and moved the firelighter, on its bit of wood, to the wet grass so we could go indoors. Neither of us were entirely convinced that it wasn’t going to take the base piece with it so we didn’t want to leave it on the nicely flammable wooden table upon which we’d conducted our experiments. We have no idea how long it burned, but it was well over 30 minutes. It’s not the easiest thing to light, but the very long burn time means that this could be particularly effective at lighting damp wood, and you could use more than one – lighting it from the first one for speed.

The monster firelighter: an odyssey.

The monster firelighter: an odyssey.

It burned for ages – it got a little boring in the end and we’d tried blowing on it and various things that indicate once lit it’s going to be robust. A definite, if vaguely unattractive, win.

Like Ariston in that 1991 ad we all thought was so cool, this just went on and on and on...

Like Ariston in that 1991 ad we all thought was so cool, this just went on and on and on…

So that was fun: we learned some stuff and got to set stuff on fire. We’ll be doing that again before too much longer, trying some different materials such as wood shavings and other foraged tinder.


About SAM2.0

You'll want me on your team for the Zombie Apocalypse.
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