Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tinder -Many Choices

Most all of us where taught that the primary requirements for fire were oxygen, heat and fuel. Those are, without a doubt, things that must be considered by everyone attempting to build a fire. Lets take those three requirements just a little farther, separate them and then discuss how each must be addressed.

Oxygen, of course, we have all around us yet few pay enough attention to this key ingredient when they build their fire lay or tinder bundle. A tightly packed fire lay, let’s use the familiar tipi tyle as an example, will not burn as readily as one that is a little loosely  build so that air, i.e. oxygen, can circulate through and be drawn into the fire. One way to demonstrate  this is by lighting a match, holding it in a horizontal position and let it burn. The match will burn  until it’s totally consumed. If you repeat this process, light the match then place it down on a flat surface, what will happen? The match will go out. It simply can’t get enough oxygen to burn. Time and time again I’ve watched as students (and even experienced “old hands”)  fire building attempts failed, their fire just slowly dying out, simply due to lack of oxygen. The common solution, and a very good one, is to get down and blow life back into the fire. This does two things.  First it provides much need oxygen, force feeding it essentially, which in turn produces the next of the 3 essentials : heat. Get enough heat built up and you’ll have fire.

Now we’re getting down to the nitty gritty, the practical, controllable elements and the part where decisions can be made. How we apply heat;  whether it be flame, sparks or ember, also dictates what the third essential ingredient will be, that is the fuel. Aka known as tinder.

We’ll get to a discussion about tinder soon but first let’s talk about our heat source. We’ll start from the easiest to hardest – flame, spark and then ember. The best choice, and by this I mean the one that’s the easiest to start a fire with, is a flame. The flame can be supplied by many methods with a match, cigarette lighter or candle being the most practical.

The next source of heat to be considered are sparks. Fire steels are a very popular means to generate sparks and many consider carrying one an essential survival item. These babies generate very hot sparks, somewhere around 5000 degrees and with the correct tender  ( fuel) it’s easy to get a fire growing- first try. Just move a metal blade slowly down the length of the magnesium rod and you can throw a shower of sparks onto your tinder. Fire Steels can be used in any weather, even wet and are the favorite of many survival experts, hunters, campers and the military.

That other common source of sparks and the method favored by many mountaineering and early history buffs and practitioners is flint and steel. A good combination of flint or flint-like rock: jasper, chert etc. when struck by a high carbon piece of steel, produces some very nice sparks. Take note - these sparks are no where near as hot as those from a magnesium rod.

Now to the third, and most difficult method of making fire. The ember. An ember used for fire building is most commonly produced by a friction method. The Bow Drill and the Hand Drill being the two most obvious and the most practiced.

So there we have our three most common methods of ignition, or the source of heat that we use to start our fire - flame, sparks and ember. The next part of the equation is our fuel or the more common term used for the fire building process – tinder. ( Wikipedia lists over a dozen definitions for tinder but none of them pertains to fire building. The first edition of Noah  Webster’s Dictionary published in 1806 ( and no – I wasn’t around then)  defined  tinder as:  “Tin’der, n, burnt linen, what easily catches fire.)  Times are  changing. For this discussion, tinder, will be what we use to turn our heat source into fire.  The key word here, of course is  “correct”  tinder. There is no one tinder that works for all three of our selected heat sources. A tinder that works great with a Fire Steel  may not work at all with a ember. Likewise, and here’s where it gets confusing for many, a tinder that works great with an ember, will not work with a Fire Steel.

Let’s continue by talking about the best tinder to use with a flame. If you have a source of heat like a Butane lighter or candle that can provide  steady heat to your fuel there’s a wide and usually readily choice of tinder available. Grasses, leaves, small twigs, even some that are slightly damp can usually be coaxed into fire with a sustainable flame.  Hold that flame on there long enough and something is going to burn. Paper, rags, cardboard, the list of materials you can light with a flame is many and varied making it the first choice for most all folks needing a quick fire.

Our next choice of heat was the Swedish Fire Steel. There’s been a  lot of misleading information written and taken as gospel about what makes a good tinder to use with fire steels.  Remember now, I’m talking about fire steels,  not flint and steel. Even though these simple devices can throw out sparks as hot as 5000 degrees F  you cannot hope to ignite natural materials like pine needles, shaved sticks, dry leaves,  Spanish moss etc. Don’t waste valuable time in an emergency even trying. They won’t work. But don’t despair,  there are many natural materials that a fire steel will work with. Cattail fluff, any dry plant down that looks like cotton:  thistle, dandelion comes to mind. Cabbage Palm trunk fibers makes excellent tinder, also some dry inner barks if first they are finely shredded to almost hair like threads. Obviously, some of these work better than others. Cattail fluff and cotton-like plant fibers will catch a spark and burn but they burn very fast, like in a flash, and unless you have a very well constructed tinder bundle with some very combustible material right next to that little burst of fire, you’ll come up ended handed. Lots of people carry small balls of Oakum fibers or jute string  to use with their fire steels. Although these are  natural fibers ( called tow by old timers)  you’re not likely to find any growing in the field. (Try your local hardware store.)

None of the natural materials listed above that can be ignited with a fire steel will work with flint and steel. You can take that to the bank. There’s only a handful of natural materials that will take a spark from flint and steel and even then, those need to be prepared first. The only  natural materials that I’m familiar enough to talk about is punk wood. ( I don’t consider that old standby and the material most commonly used with flint and steel -  charcloth, as being natural)  Punk wood is fairly easy to find. Just about anyplace there are trees and/or large woody plants, there will be some form of punk wood.  By definition, punk wood is any wood that has rotted to the point where it feels spongy. It can be a limb on the ground or even pieces of trunk wood up inside a hollow tree. Anything that looks and feels close to a cork-like consistency is the best I can describe it. Will all punk woods that fit that description work. Of course not. Nature just doesn’t work that way. I once picked up two branches that were lying side by side and looked like they came from the same tree,  one worked like a charm, the other didn’t. That’s just the way things are folks, which means you’ll have to experiment, try different woods from your neck of the woods and see what works.

How do you process punk wood? Just like making charcloth. Put small pieces in a small can that has a 1/16 inch hole in a tight fitting lid and slowly cook until smoke no longer comes out the hole. When done it should look like just what it is, a piece of charcoal. This can be done over an open campfire also. The best method I’ve found is to place your punk wood in white hot ashes along the outer edge of the campfire and let it slowly burn. Once totally consumed and blackened, gently rake the hot coal out of the fire and cover with about 2 or 3 inches of dirt. The dirt will smother the coal. When it’s completely cool to the touch you can  uncover it and hopefully you now have a piece of char that will take a spark. As always, before betting your life on starting a fire with this fragile little piece of burnt wood – try it. Make sure it works, then carefully cover it and stow it safely in your strike-a-light bag.

There is another natural tinder for flint and steel that’s actually prized and was considered a trade item by early Native Americans and then later frontiersmen.  That’s tinder fungus. It’s a fungus that grows almost exclusively on Birch trees.  I have yet to have any of this material in my hands to play with and test, but I do know this – it also has to be processed. It’s not something that you just peel off a tree, strike a spark and bingo – fire. Obviously, any tinder that will work with flint and steel will work even better if you use a fire steel, but, like I stated previously, not the other way around.

That leaves us with that truly primitive fire starting method – the glowing ember. Stuff of legends and images of aboriginals twirling a stick between their palms and then gently blowing life into a small bundle of grass and twigs. One of the best tinders to use with an ember is cedar inner bark that’s been twisted and shredded and made into a small bundle. Place your small ember into the center of the bark bird’s nest and start slowly  and gently blowing on the ember. You’ll have to watch carefully so as to not blow so hard you blow the ember apart and then carefully nurse the coal and make it grow and slowly spread it’s heat into the surrounding bark. It take a little practice to get the technique down. There are other barks that work almost equally as well as cedar: grape vine, honeysuckle and Juniper are three I’ve had luck with. Dried grasses, crumbled leaves, pine needles also work as do jute and hemp fibers. They have to be dry. Moist or damp tender just won’t work. Here in Florida just the humidity can keep you from working  up a flame.

One would think, and many do, that any tinder that could be turned into fire from a small ember could surely work with a fire steel. And, logic would seem to make this true. It just doesn’t work  that way. That bird’s nest of cedar bark that works so well with an ember – no way with a fire steel. The same goes for most grasses, pine needles and crumbled leaves. You can shower them all day with a fire steel and never get a flame.

Keep in mind that there are exceptions to all rules and who knows, maybe one day I’ll find that perfect natural tinder, one that grows just about ever where, and can be ignited with any and all heat sources. Anything  I find while wandering through the woods that looks like a likely candidate as teider I pick up and tote home to test. Most don’t pan out but in the  process, whether failure or success, I learn a little.

The point here is that anyone that decides to depend on one particular fire starting source, flame, sparks or ember would be wise to practice a bit and make dang sure that their technique, the equipment and most importantly, that tinder they may be betting their life on will actually work, and I mean work ever single time under the harshest conditions they may encounter. That’s a tall order for any single fire starting method or materials and the primary reason that we recommend a minimum of three separate fire starting methods are carried. Unless, of course, you are truly confident in your abilities and choice of materials.