Fire lighting workshops are core to every course we run and char cloth is our top tinder of choice.
Sparks are delicate little things, although they burn incredibly hot and bright (up to 3000 degrees C from a ferro rod), sometimes to make best use of our sparks we need to catch and tame them.
Char cloth is a great fire lighting medium for beginners and we use it for all of our fire lighting workshops. It easily catches a patch of sparks making it ideal for building confidence in all our budding wildlings. The sparks should hold long enough for us to work our magic on a tinder bundle and create fire.
You can of course buy char cloth online but why waste your pocket money on something that’s so easy and fun to make yourself. Making char cloth is a wonderful way to put any old garments that may be too well worn for the charity shop to good use, meaning we’re wasting as little in life as possible which can only ever be a good thing!
Preparing char cloth with your family makes for a brilliant little science lesson for anyone who is home schooling, or looking for a fun little project on the weekend.
Although the material you use may feel dry to the touch, it will contain a certain amount of moisture that will hinder our fire lighting progress. Turning it to char cloth will drive off any remaining moisture and will give us the best chance of catching a spark.
Making char cloth is a similar process to making charcoal, we are just going to be doing it on a micro scale in comparison. To make char cloth we have to change the chemical compound of the cloth or organic matter via a process called pyrolysis.
Pyrolysis turns the cloth into a slow burning fuel with a low ignition temperature which is a big fat win for us. In simplified terms we are burning or charring the cloth, in a controlled oxygen deprived setting.
Simple in principle – but actually quite complicated the more you read into it. The beauty of char cloth is that it will catch and hold even the smallest of sparks – which is why it’s great for flint and steel, fire pistons and ferro rods.
100 percent cotton or natural material.
(Towels and flannels work best due to the loops in the material)
Sharp pair of scissors
An empty tin – I use an old round travel sweet tin
Drill with a 3mm drill bit attached or a nail of the same diameter
A small twig that fits snugly inside the hole in the lid of your tin
Bed of hot coals ( the embers of a fire or bbq after you’ve cooked your meal for this)
Pair of long handled tongs
First let’s make our vessel to create char cloth, this can be any small tin with a fairly tight fitting lid. Make sure it doesn’t have a rubber seal that will weld itself shut on the first cook.
Make a small hole in the top of the tin, using either a drill or nail and hammer. Your tin is now ready to start cooking char cloth and should last you many a char cloth making session.
Light a fire and let this burn down to a nice bed of coals. Whilst this is happening we need to cut the chosen piece of material into strips, slightly shallower than the tin you will be using.
Roll up your strips of material nice and neatly but not too tightly to create a giant snail shell the width of your tin.
Close the lid of your tin and using fire gloves or long handled tongs place the tin into the embers of the fire.
(Side note for the little wildlings – don’t be silly like me and not use gloves or tongs. Fire is hot so please be careful)
At this point we can don our fire gloves again and open the tin quickly to look inside. I say quickly because if you leave the tin open then the cloth may combust and just burn up into thin air. We’re looking for a consistent char throughout the cloth. If there are any patches of un-charred cloth, then return to the embers for a few more minutes.
If you are happy that the cloth has charred to perfection, we can replace the lid and set the tin aside pushing the stick inside the hole we made in the tin earlier. This blocks out all oxygen from the tin until cooled completely.
Once completely cooled, your char cloth is ready for fire lighting. Remember that your char cloth will start absorbing moisture from the air – so make sure to keep your char cloth in a zip lock bag or tin with a tight fitting lid, to keep any moisture at bay.
Char cloth has been used throughout the ages to create fire using multiple methods of combustion. Why not find an era that fascinates and captivates the whole family!
Think medieval, frontiersman, native americans, vikings … you can research the food they would have cooked over fire and give it a go in the garden.
Use your one walk a day to go and search for other materials to char. Anything natural living or previously living will work – leaves, twigs, moss, tree bark, pine cones, snail shells, small animal bones. Experiment and record your findings, do any of these chars catch and hold a spark to create a fire?
You could also look for pieces of flint for a more natural way to create fire as an alternative to a ferro rod.
Striking flint with steel can cause small sharp pieces to chip away, these fragments are unpredictable and could cause injury to the eyes and any exposed skin. We recommend that children wear eye protection until they become more skilled at striking flint with steel.
Try to avoid sparks landing on any other flammable materials such as clothes.
Char cloth embers burn incredibly hot. We recommend that you move your char cloth ember with either fire gloves, a pair of tongs or using two sticks.