This post was originally an article that I wrote for The Bushcraft Journal last year as part of an ongoing series of articles covering bushcraft basics. I’ve also written about fire steels previously and included a short video; look at them as being complementary.
Fire steels, also known as ferro rods, fire flashes and sometimes flint & steel or fire strikers (not to be confused with a traditional flint & steel) are great pieces of kit to carry around in the outdoors. Whilst I get huge satisfaction from lighting a fire by friction, or practising with a fire piston or parabolic mirror, I always have a fire steel in my bag. They don’t have any working parts to break, they don’t need fuel that can run out, it doesn’t matter if they get wet, you just shake them off, and they work in the wind and the rain; so if I need to light a fire quickly, this is my go-to method.
Fire steels are made from a metal alloy called ferrocerium, patented in 1903 by Carl Auer von Welsbach, an Austrian inventor. Today the ferrocerium used in fire steels is made of iron and a bunch of rare earth metals including cerium, lanthanum, magnesium, neodymium and praseodymium.
Ferrocerium is a soft alloy so in a push anything harder will work as a striker, the back of a knife, broken glass, pottery or a piece of flint amongst others. As with much of bushcraft, don’t let the first time you try any these be when you find yourself in a potential survival situation.
When you run the striker along a ferrocerium rod, a shard of the metal alloy is sheered off. Because ferrocerium has a low ignition point (between 150 and 180°C), this sheering action causes the shard of ferrocerium to oxidise, or ignite.
Sparks or temperature?
Whilst this article is about using a fire steel and not a review of the multitude of them on the market, it’s worth noting that they’re often marketed in terms of the number of strikes they produce. Whilst this is useful information, it’s not the key thing to know. The temperature of the sparks produced by fire steels can vary massively, ranging from 2 – 300°C at the lower end of the scale to 3000°C at the upper end. So regardless of how many strikes a fire steel gives, if the sparks are at the lower end of the temperature range, you’ll struggle to light many natural tinders. Somewhat shamefully, the fire steels in off the shelf survival tins often produce low temperature sparks, so if you have such a tin, throw away the fire steel and replace it with one that gives high temperature sparks.
Maybe not a big factor when you’re deciding which fire steel to buy, but I use orange fire steels; I also replace the cord with orange paracord. When I’ve lit my tinder the absolute first thing I do is put my fire steel in my pocket, but many times I’ve seen people put their fire steel down next to them (or even in the fire in their excitement). If your fire steel is olive green, it can be difficult to spot again amongst the vegetation.
Knife or striker?
I know that it’s common practice to use a knife with a fire steel, and I do so myself from time to time to keep my hand in, but generally I use the striker it came with. Not because I’m at all precious about my knife (it only cost £15 after all) but because I find them to be more ergonomic and easier to use (an exception here is the hacksaw blade striker. I’m not a big fan of these). And it keeps my hands away from a sharp edge. I’ve also seen novices use a fire steel on the cutting edge of their knife. At the end of the day it’s a matter of personal preference.
A quick note on strikers: often they have a handle with places to put your thumbs, or they are marked with an ’up’ side. This is because they have a burr filed onto the underside; the burr scrapes off more of the rod producing more sparks. If you hold them upside down you won’t get as many sparks. It’s worth re-filing the burr onto the striker once in a while.
When I’m using a fire steel I do it in a kneeling position with my legs together and my back to the wind. This provides some protection to the tinder when first lit but it’s also a comfortable position that allows me to get in close to the tinder I’m trying to light. It might sound so self-evident as to be not worth saying, but you want your fire steel to be as close to your tinder as possible. This increases the chances of the sparks actually landing on the tinder and reduces the time the sparks are in the air, where they lose heat.
Related to posture is the angle between the rod and the striker. Just a small change in the angle can make a significant difference to the quantity of sparks produced. In my experience the angle varies between manufacturers and the type of striker, so experiment until you find the optimum angle.
Push forward method
Given a fire steel for the first time, most right handed people will hold the rod in their left hand, the striker in their right and run the striker forwards. I call this the ‘push forward’ method. This produces sparks but has a couple of disadvantages. One is that the sparks tend to shower forwards and off to the sides and often miss the tinder. The other is that you lose some control and what very often happens is that you knock your tinder forward with every strike, and if your using a natural tinder it’s likely to cause it to disperse. Or if like me you build your fire on a bed of sticks, the tinder can drop down the gaps. And if, again like me, you use a ‘V’ lay, you can knock the whole thing over. So I avoid the ‘push forward’ method.
Instead I typically use 2 techniques.
Pull back method
The first is the ‘pull back’. Here I switch the striker and rod around so that the striker is in my left hand and the rod in my right. I find it’s easier this way around as the hand that moves is my dominant hand. I hold the striker horizontally and directly over the tinder, place the rod under the striker and pull backwards with it. I also apply a little upwards pressure with the rod to give more friction. This generally produces a good shower of sparks directed straight on top of the tinder.
The pull back method involves a big, simple movement, that takes very little co-ordination. So if you’re cold and wet or you find yourself in a bad way, this is one to consider.
Thumb push method
The other technique I often use is the ‘thumb push’. Here I hold the rod in my left hand with about 10 to 15mm of the rod sticking out between my thumb and index finger. I hold the striker in my right hand and also put my left thumb on the striker. The movement comes from me pushing forward with my left thumb. I also, very slightly, bring my left fingers backwards. The striker doesn’t travel very far and avoids knocking over the tinder. Again, this method puts the sparks straight on to the tinder.
I do a couple of variations of the ‘thumb push’; the first is where I use a lot of fast thumb pushes in rapid succession, producing shower after shower of sparks. This often works with tinder that is damp as the sparks help to dry the tinder before igniting it. I also tend to use this variation with cramp balls.
The second variation is where I make the same motion but much slower so that I scrape pieces of the ferrocerium rod onto the tinder. Once I’ve made a pile of shavings, I’ll drop a spark onto it. I used this recently on a course when the students made some really good feather sticks in the rain. As much as we tried to keep the feather sticks dry, they absorbed some moisture from the air and we were struggling to light them. By igniting a pile of ferrocerium on the feather sticks, they caught.
Like everything in bushcraft, using a fire steel is all about practice. Start by lighting something easy such as cotton wool and then move on to natural tinders. Remember, be responsible with your fire lighting and have fun.