Instructor Corps Pro Tip: If you recall last week’s post, we went over how to use a single log to provide everything you need to create a great fire. But even with that technique, using wood shavings as a flash tinder to catch a spark is a hit-or-miss proposition. If your only wood is green, wet, or a difficult-to-light hardwood such as oak or hickory… well, you’re gonna have a bad time. We’re not saying it can’t be done, but it’s certainly not easy, especially if you’re in adverse conditions and under the gun to get a fire going to keep yourself or others alive. So we’ll say what we always do: Instead of relying on the good graces of the woodland spirits to bring you usable tinder when you need it, carry it with you.
One of the oldest and most time-tested of all tinders is char cloth. It’s simply cotton cloth (or nearly any other woven plant fiber, really – you can use linen, jute twine, burlap, etc.), that’s undergone the process of pyrolysis. Pyrolysis, in technical speak, is the thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures in the absence of oxygen. In practical terms, it’s “cooked,” so combustible gases are expelled without completely burning it up. The resulting material has a very low ignition temperature, which means that a single spark from a flint, ferro rod, or even a used-up lighter will set it to glowing. Why is this valuable? Let’s go back to the basic steps of firecraft. Normally, (#1.) you light off your flash tinder, which in turn (#2.) lights your small kindling, which then creates a flame big enough (#3.) to devour your large fuel pieces. Consider char cloth step #0.05. If you have crappy tinder that’s damp or just doesn’t want to light, having a material that will readily catch a spark and glow is invaluable. You can blow that hot mini-coal into your tinder, which will then light from the sustained heat.
Now that you know you need it, here’s how to make it:
1. Come up with your cloth. The only real non-negotiable here is that it absolutely, positively must be a 100% organic plant-based fiber. Synthetics will melt, and you’ll be left with a tin full of goo. Thicker cloths such as cotton canvas or denim will burn longer and hotter, but thinner fabrics such as pieces of shemagh will catch a spark more easily. Our choice is a cut-up cotton t-shirt. Cotton gun cleaning patches work well in a pinch, too.
2. Get a container. It needs to be metal with some kind of closable lid. The classic char cloth vehicle is an Altoids tin, but as long as it doesn’t burn up in the fire, you’re good.
3. Next, lay your strips of cloth out in the container. They should be cut into a size and shape where they lay neatly on top of each other without being rolled or wadded.
4. (Optional) Punch a hole in your container. The idea behind this is creating a release for gases to escape so they don’t blow your tin open. We’ve found that your average Altoids tin doesn’t seal tightly enough to warrant this, and that enough gas escapes around the hinges and lid to do just fine. But, if you’re going to do it, don’t punch a big hole. Too much oxygen will get in and your char cloth will catch fire and burn. Remember, this is supposed to be an anaerobic process. Use something small like a trim nail.
5. Place your container on the fire. For medium-hot coals, we generally leave our tins on for about ten minutes. Some recommend flipping your container halfway through. If your container is flaming or smoking heavily, it’s not done.
6. Retrieve your container and let it cool. Give it a few minutes before you open it, otherwise, your cloth will spontaneously combust in the presence of oxygen.
7. Your char cloth is ready to use! It should be a nice, uniform black – fully cooked, but not burned to ash. It’s going to be fragile, but it should still hold together when you handle it. Store it in the container you made it in, or find another hard-sided tin or bottle to keep it in to protect it.
Char cloth is a great tool, but using it does take some practice. If you’re trying to build up your skills to take on the challenge of primitive fire, using char cloth is a great place to start, because the process of blowing the coal into your tinder bundle is essentially the same as what you do with the coal from a bow drill. So get out there, mess around, try different combinations of fire and material, and see what works best. And practice firecraft every chance you get. You can never be too good at it.
What about you? What’s your favorite char cloth material? Any suggestions on making it better? Tell us in the comments!
Want to learn more handy firecraft tips like this one in a guided, hands-on setting? Then come join us for Firecraft Essentials, Saturday, October 20th, from 9am-7pm! Register now at www.sarcraft.com/firecraft-essentials !