This article was originally published in Issue 10 of The Bushcraft Journal in October 2016. I hope you enjoy it and find it useful.
Traditional Flint & Steel
I wrote about using fire steels back in issue 6 of The Bushcraft Journal and this time around it’s a related method, the traditional fire steel, or as it is often known, flint and steel.
As a fire lighting method, the use of flint and steel is inherently linked to the iron age, developing first in the near east and spreading to Europe around the 11th century BCE. We know that the Vikings were using fire steels routinely, there are many fine examples on display in museums across Europe. Typically Viking fire steels were a basic ‘C’ shape; I have many of this type made by Ross at Kaos Blacksmiths.
There is also evidence of their use in Japan, where a flint and steel set is referred to as hiuchibukur (actually sets use agate or quartz as flint is rare in Japan). According to an early chronicle of Japanese history and mythology from 720 CE, called Nihon Shoki, a noble named Prince Yamatotakeru was presented with a pouch containing a striker and stone prior to setting off on a dangerous mission.
We have flint in abundance all around our bushcraft camp; I tend to pop into the adjoining field after it’s been ploughed to stock up my collection. But as mentioned above, you don’t need to use flint, other rocks can be substituted. I’ve also had success with broken glass and ceramics; I’ve tried using a piece of terracotta plant pot as well as a wall tile but found that they were too soft. The important point is that you need to have a hard, sharp edge to strike against.
Similarly, you don’t necessarily need a manufactured traditional fire steel, you just need carbon steel, so old files, chisels etc. or the back of a carbon steel knife.
When it comes to holding the fire steel, I know that a lot of people put their fingers through, a bit like a knuckle duster.
I avoid holding them like this as it tends to bring the fingers in a bit close to a sharp edge. Also, because I don’t make the downward strike from my elbow, but instead from my wrist, I tend to hold the steel between my thumb and index finger. I find this gives more control to the strike.
I hold the flint in my left, non-dominant, hand and the steel in my right. Try to get the strike onto the flint in a slight arc so that all of the steel makes contact. Sometimes you need to alter the angle of the flint subtly to get the right angle; because every piece of flint is unique, the angle of the sharp edge you need is always slightly different too. The aim is to shave off a tiny piece of the steel, causing it to heat up. It’s these hot pieces of metal that you see sparking.
Char cloth works really well with this method of fire lighting. I hold the char cloth on top of the flint so that I can see when a spark lands on it. Position the char cloth so that a frayed edge is next to the sharp edge of the flint.
Once the char cloth is lit, it can go into a tinder bundle and be blown into a flame. In the photo I’ve used inner bark of sweet chestnut.
Tradtional flint and steels are great fun, so give it a try.
We teach how to use traditional flint & steel, as well as a host of other methods of ignition, on our 1 Day Fire Lighting Course, our as well as on our 2 Day & 5 Day Bushcraft Courses, the IOL Bushcraft Competency Course and also our 2 Day & 5 Day Survival Courses. You can see plenty of photos from all of these courses on our Facebook page.