How to Make Char Cloth
When you are out in the field, fire can be made through a variety of different methods – some old, some new. The luxury we have today is that our very survival does not depend on making a successful fire – as compared to our ancestors – to which you or I may not be around today had they been unsuccessful.
A short story on my first successful friction fire using a bow drill set:
It was late summer and pouring with rain. I was covered in sweat from exertion, my hands were cut and I had bruises from where I made the bow line too taut and the drill slipped and flew out at a hundred miles an hour cushioned by my knuckles before falling into the mud. The drill had burnt through the bearing block (which had been put through its paces from previous failed attempts) and straight into the palm of my hand leaving me with a small memento of the occasion. But when I looked down and saw a faint glow in the ember pan, along with the merest suggestion of smoke, all of that was forgotten.
I could feel the excitement build up inside of me. I scrambled through my pockets searching for the birds nest I had made two days earlier (thinking friction fire was going to be a breeze) from dry grass and sweet chestnut bark. Grabbing it, I quickly formed a small area in the centre and waited anxiously for the ember to establish itself and increase in size. After the ember was fully formed I remember gently folding it into the birds nest and closing the grass delicately over the top – making sure that oxygen could still reach the ember.
I began moving my arms back and forth in long, steady movements. Slowly feeding the oxygen that would give life to my first friction fire. The smoke started to thicken as the ember spread and transferred heat into the tinder, taking on an almost cream-like texture. I could feel my hands getting warmer as I gave it more and more oxygen. Blowing hard now directly into the centre, a flame flickered up and quickly went back down, more oxygen was given until the tinder bundle suddenly burst into flames.
I turned it upside down, laid it on the floor, stood back and looked on with euphoria at what I had created. The feeling of making fire is magical. As you can probably guess, I learned a lot from this experience and the second time was considerably easier (and less painful).
Many people like to embrace old traditions when making fire. One very popular method of traditional fire-lighting is to use a steel striker along with some flint. Many people think that it is the flint making the small incandescent sparks, but it is actually the steel. As you strike the steel against the sharp edge of the flint, the flint will shave off a small particle of steel. Carbon steel contains iron (98% iron, 2% carbon). It is this iron that reacts with oxygen in the air to create small red hot sparks.
The sparks however, are unlikely to light a tinder bundle on their own – unless it is very fine and completely dry. They needs some help. This is where char cloth becomes extremely useful.
What is char cloth?
Char cloth has been used for centuries. It is easy to produce, readily available in abundance, weighs virtually nothing and will last for years provided it is kept dry and free from moisture. Char cloth is created through a process called Pyrolysis. There is a very scientific explanation of this process on Wikipedia for those of you who like to fully understand concepts. For the purpose of this article, all you need to know is that Pyrolysis is the process of burning an organic substance such as cotton, in a way where all the gasses the material contains are released but the material itself has not combusted. The end result is a blackened fabric which will ignite from a weak spark and burn for a long period of time. This charred material is ideal for inserting into a tinder bundle and creating a flame, and we can achieve this affect using a very simple method.
One thing to note – It is extremely important to plan and do everything you can to give yourself the best possible chance of success. As the old adage goes – ‘failure to prepare is preparing to fail’.
Steps on how to make char cloth:
- 1) The first thing to do is find the right material. You can use any organic material (vegetable fibre) such as cotton or linen. Old T-shirts and jeans are ideal. Just make sure they are 100% cotton or linen. Cut them up into small pieces ready for the next step.
- 2) Now we have the material we need a tin to put it in, ready for the charring process. You will see online that most people like to use an altoids tin. Though this is a good choice, any other tin can be used provided it can survive being heated over a flame. Even a tuna/ baked bean can with foil over the top can be used for this process. Put your material inside the tin and close the lid.
- 3) Make a small hole in the lid of your tin using a nail, drill or anything else you have to hand depending on your environment. Do not make the hole too big, if you do, oxygen will get in and combust your cotton. You won’t be left with any char cloth, just ash!
- 4) Start your fire. Use any method you like. My preference is the Web-Tex warrior compact stove. I have used it for years and still love it. Simple is always best.
- 5) Place the tin on your fire and after a short while, smoke will begin to escape through the hole you made. The escaping smoke are gasses such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and hydrogen leaving the cotton and releasing into the air. This process is called gasification. The smoke may catch fire and turn to flame but do not worry, just continue to watch. It is important to vary the angle of the tin to make sure all the cotton inside is being heated and those gasses released. Once the tin has stopped smoking, remove it from the fire and put it to one side for a few minutes.
- 6) When the tin is cool, open the lid and remove your blackened finished product – CHAR CLOTH!
Test a small piece with a flint and steel or ferrocerium rod just to make sure it performs as it should. A very dull red ember should stick to the cloth and as you blow and add more oxygen, the ember will slowly spread and increase in surface area.
Wrap the char cloth up in a airtight, dry container and this is now a readily available source of creating fire. If you allow the char cloth to get damp it will not perform. It is very important to keep it as dry as possible.
I always carry a small amount with me in a zip-lock bag. This is mainly to practice, but if I ever get into trouble, I know it is always there as a back up.
I hope you enjoyed this article. Please leave a comment below with any questions. If you have any other tips, we would love for you to share too!