Using Natural Tinders / Alternatives for Charcloth

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Tom A Hawk

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For your firebug entertainment, the following is an article I wrote for Backwoodsman magazine a while back about tinders that will catch a spark as they come straight from the field. No charring, no soaking, nor boiling.

"The use of charcloth in primitive fire starting represents something of a chicken and egg conundrum. In order to make charcloth, one first needs fire… and to make fire most primitive pyro’s use charcloth. So…where do you start and are there alterative ways to get a cook fire ablaze with flint and steel? You bet! Actually, the use of charred cloth is a relatively “modern” development and one that requires the availability of woven cotton fabric.

Cloth being a rather valuable commodity on the frontier, the Missus Long Rifles of yesterday took a rather dim view of “smoldering the family dudsjust to make something that catches a spark. Thankfully, nature provides a number of tinders that will catch and propagate a spark from a flint striker - but they need to be handled a bit differently from the eyebrow singing whoosh of tow and charcloth. ( Note - There are natural tinders that perform after chemical alteration and special treatments, however to maintain the natural flavor of this article we will focus only on those requiring no special treatment other than drying. )

With charcloth, the fiber nest is blown into flame using the heat given off directly by the charcloth. Most natural tinders develop an outer layer of ash as they burn which insulates the fiber nest from the direct heat of the coal and inhibits direct ignition of the fibers – in other words…no flame. Natural tinders perform best when they are combined with a coal extender and natural fibers. ( while jute, hemp, sisal and other commercially available cordage fibers commonly used in primitive fire making are natural, they do not carry a coal well nor do they grow on the North American continent.) Coal extenders cause the tiny spark from the striker to grow and expand producing higher and higher temperature until combustion temperature is reached. Common examples of coal extenders include certain types of fungi including hoof fungus ( Fomes Fomentarious ) True tinder fungus (Inonotus Obliquus) piths from weed stalks such as mullein, the shredded inner bark of trees such as cedar. Plain ordinary punk or rotten wood is one of the most plentiful and effective natural tinders. Punk, sometimes called “touch wood”, will propagate a coal as well as tinder fungus. Once the punk is touch by the glowing ember it will spread until the entire piece becomes a large smoldering coal that’s difficult to extinguish.
Natural tinders


Inonotus obliquus Fomes fomentarius





Mullein


Milkweed pod


OK, so we’ve been out foraging and have our coal extender ready. Now what? We need something to take the place of the charcloth.

If you happen to live in an area within the range of white or yellow birch trees you will soon learn to appreciate the qualities of true tinder fungus ( Inonotus Obliquus ). It is an amazing natural tinder. Simply place a pea sized chunk on top the flint as you would charcloth and strike as you normally would. Putting the tinder on top on the flint is important. Many people make sparks by striking the steel with the flint and driving the sparks downward. This method work well with charcloth and powdered tinder ( something we’ll discuss later on ) however directing the sparks to land on and catch on a tiny piece of fungus can be quite frustrating. To overcome this, we place the fungus on top of the flint and strike the flint with the steel. This causes the sparks to fly up and forward, directly into the tinder fungus. The very short gap traveled by the spark enables it to land sooner and hotter, thereby increasing the chances of it catching in the tinder. Once the spark catches it will spread and rapidly consume the fungus so its important to quickly transfer the spreading coal to a larger piece of fungus or other coal extender.

Spark from steel has ignited Milkweed pod ovum



Note -Tinder fungus will easily catch and propagate a spark and once ignited it is extremely difficult to extinguish. Just light a small piece and try stomping it out in your moccasins – the next camp over yonder will think yur call'n for rain….


Another very effective natural material for catching a spark is milkweed pod – but not the whole outer pod. The part we want is the slender, puffy structure that remains inside the pod after the down has dispersed. These are easy to find in the fall after the pods have opened and their seeds have scattered to the winds. Simply tear off one end to create a ragged edge and place this on the flint as you would charcloth. Once it catches, quickly transfer the spreading coal to your coal extender. You will have to act quickly as this one has a short burn time.

Next comes mullein pith. The trick to getting a spark to catch in this weed-stem pith is to slice it very thinly with a sharp knife. You want to present the finest, most delicate edge possible to the spark. This pith is porous and it helps to orient it such that the spark lands on end grain rather than the side surface of the pith. Also, you want a spark that clings and lingers just a bit on the edge of your flint. This allows for longer contact time with the mullein pith. When using more challenging tinders it is helpful to change our way of thinking from that of “catching a flying spark” to transferring the heat from a hot glowing shred of metal to the tinder by direct contact. When the spark catches, again use the tiny glowing coal to ignite a larger coal extender.

Lastly, ordinary wood punk or touchwood ( especially hard maple ) provides an extremely useful natural tinder. Punk performs very well with flint and steel and its abundance makes it worth the effort required in learning to using it successfully. Not only will it catch a spark but several chunks placed in direct contact with one another can be blown into flame without need for shredded bark or fiber. This can be extremely important to know in an area where suitable fiber is not available. Punk exists everywhere that trees grow and even in a rainstorm it is usually possible to obtain suitable punk from the interior of a standing dead hardwood tree such as maple. Look for a tree having a hole in its trunk from a broken limb.

If the punk is firm enough you can follow the basic guidelines above, placing the punk on top of the flint. However small pieces of punk tend to fragment easily when manipulated and pressed against the flint. As an alternate approach, you can rub the punk between the palms, grinding it up into a fine powder. Do this over a large leaf so you can catch and later move the dust pile created. When using a tinder pile you reverse the set up and strike the steel with a downward blow from the flint driving the sparks down into the dust pile. Punk can be stubborn to catch and several strikes may be needed. Once a spark has caught, fan it gently with your hand to expand the coal. Blowing on it too hard may scatter the dust pile… and your coal. When the coal is burning well, scoop under it with the tip of a knife to lift it out of the dust pile and transfer it in your fiber bundle or punk.

Note: Save the remaining punk dust! A small metal tin makes a great place to store your remaining punk dust. And, if you allow do not remove all of the coal but allow it to propagate a bit in the dust, the charred dust will catch a spark much easier next time. Simply place the lid on the tin when its time to extinguish the smoldering punk.

The above tinders also perform extremely well in the fire piston, a primitive fire starting device that cause ignition by the compression of air and rumored to have been carried by the Lewis and Clark's Corp of Discovery. ( See Muzzleblasts, June 2008 )

upload_2019-4-16_8-5-49.png


For more information on natural tinders, fire pistons or flint and steel please visit Wilderness Solutions at www.wildersol.com
 
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nit wit

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I use punk wood from sugar maples which are all over Maine. I char it in a can over an open fire and it work very well.
Nit Wit
 

sawyer04

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Awhile back I ran across a post on what skills we think we need to polish up. Fire making was mine. Not too scientific, but found many natural fire starters. I like to powder a dry stick and cradle it in a nest of slivered stick with a nest around the whole shebang for primitive fire.
 

rich pierce

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The chicken and egg thing is real but soft charcoal made from white punk wood or from stems of swamp mallow is my go-to for flint and steel. I normally use a bow drill though to get a coal because it’s more fun. Then adding a grape sized piece of soft charcoal makes a fire start quickly in the tinder nest. Enough heat to make damp-ish tinder light.
 

Carbon 6

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The chicken and egg thing is real but soft charcoal made from white punk wood or from stems of swamp mallow is my go-to for flint and steel. I normally use a bow drill though to get a coal because it’s more fun. Then adding a grape sized piece of soft charcoal makes a fire start quickly in the tinder nest. Enough heat to make damp-ish tinder light.
Hard charcoal is something one should not overlook either. It can be found in the remnants of almost any campfire and can be easily made. A small bag (handful) of hard charcoal is light and easy to carry, just the thing for starting really wet wood .
 

beardedhorse

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Neither yellow birch nor sugar maple (Acer saccharum) occurs naturally in Colorado. Placing naturally occurring untreated tinders on top of a sharp flint and striking down on the edge at an angle with a decent fire steel requires good hand eye-coordination and practice to not destroy the tinder. rumor is not sufficient for the historical re enactor or interpreter to use a tool or object. Three primary sources would. That is why I don't carry any of my three fire pistons to rendezvous or teaching. Smithsonian article way back talks about metal fire pistons in Europe pre 1840 but no proof of its use at rendezvous or the Corps of Discovery trek to Pacific and back in 1804-1806.
 

beardedhorse

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The pendulum swings both ways. A knee jerk reaction to lack of evidence of common use of charred cloth spurs research into alternatives. If one digs into the records, cotton cloth was affordable and one yard of it cut into one inch squares is more than enough for two or three fires a day over a year's time. So you can buy new cloth, cut and char it for fire lighting. It not so impractical as some insist. Burning lenses and simply adding a little black powder works too. At ten cents per shot during the rendezvous period and some camp helpers making only 5 cents a day, you aren't going to do much target practice or use gunpowder to start every fire. One Upper Missouri trade fort complained of having only one fire steel and the hunter had to borrow it to go out and hunt for meat.
 

Carbon 6

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Placing naturally occurring untreated tinders on top of a sharp flint and striking down on the edge at an angle with a decent fire steel requires good hand eye-coordination and practice to not destroy the tinder.
You shouldn't even touch the punkwood or charcloth with the striker. When a flint and steel is your only means of starting a fire you get quite proficient quickly.

As for the wood, you'll just have to gather punkwood and see what species works for you, my first try would be aspen
 

tenngun

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The pendulum swings both ways. A knee jerk reaction to lack of evidence of common use of charred cloth spurs research into alternatives. If one digs into the records, cotton cloth was affordable and one yard of it cut into one inch squares is more than enough for two or three fires a day over a year's time. So you can buy new cloth, cut and char it for fire lighting. It not so impractical as some insist. Burning lenses and simply adding a little black powder works too. At ten cents per shot during the rendezvous period and some camp helpers making only 5 cents a day, you aren't going to do much target practice or use gunpowder to start every fire. One Upper Missouri trade fort complained of having only one fire steel and the hunter had to borrow it to go out and hunt for meat.
Char cloth was called rag tinder at the time, and we know it was widely used. We know natural tinder were used. Fire pistons don’t seem to be used much, if at all.
A fire once started probably didn’t go out till the camp was left, at home fires may have only gone out in summer.
 

Realwarrior

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While I agree and appreciate the posting, I want to point out that Mullein has great medicinal uses so if I can avoid using it as a firestarter, I will. If course in a survival situation, I'll use what I have to
 

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