Firestarter: how to get the best from firesteels

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Posted Dec 28 2017 by Gary Johnston of Jack Raven Bushcraft

Gary Johnston of Jack Raven Bushcraft takes us through firesteels, from which one to choose and how they work to how to use one to make a fire with natural tinders.

Firesteels go by a variety of names, including ferro rods, flint & steel (not to be confused with the traditional flint & steel) and fire sparkers, and are awesome for lighting your fire.  I always carry one with me when I go to the woods.

I like them for a number of reasons:

  • There aren’t any working parts to go wrong,
  • They don’t need fuel so can’t run out,
  • It doesn’t matter if they get wet, you can just shake them dry,
  • They are great for lighting manmade and natural tinders,
  • Small and lightweight.

They’re made from ferrocerium; it’s a man made material that contains iron (the ferro part of the name), cerium (the other part of the name) and some other heavy metals. If you’re interested in the technical details, take a look at this Wikipedia page.

A firesteel is used to ignite birch bark tinder

White hot sparks from a firesteel, igniting birch bark tinder

Buying a firesteel

There are dozens and dozens of firesteels available to buy, and at the end of the day what you use will come down to personal preference, but I think a few guidelines are worth mentioning.

The steel

A lot of firesteels you see advertised on the internet talk about the number of strikes the manufacturer claims you’ll get from them.  This might be useful to know, but what is more important is the temperature of the sparks produced.  And they can vary quite considerably.  In my experience, you need a firesteel that produces sparks at the 3,000° end of the scale to light some of the natural tinders out there.  So if your firesteel is only producing sparks at 500° it doesn’t matter how many strikes it gives, you’ll struggle trying to get a fire going.

Handle materials vary enormously and some don’t have a handle at all.  I know plenty of people who re-handle their firesteels with a hand carved handle, antler and even bone.

A selection of different firesteels

A selection of firesteels

The striker

Lots of people use their knife with a firesteel, but I tend not to.  I nearly always use a striker.  So for me the striker needs to be comfortable in my hand, and as we’re all different, what’s comfortable will vary.

I’m not keen on using a piece of hacksaw blade, it tends to rip off big chunks and go through the firesteel quickly, but more importantly I don’t find that it works very well using the two techniques I describe below.  So I prefer a striker that is a little more subtle, one that uses a burr on one side.  If you use your fingernail, you should be able to feel this burr; every now and then when it wears off, I’ll file a new burr back on.

My own preference is the Light my Fire Army as it produces hot sparks, has ergonomic handles and has a whistle built into the striker as an added bonus.  I buy the orange ones as they’re easier to spot if they get mislaid.

Using a firesteel

For a right handed person it seems natural to hold the steel in your left hand and the striker in your right and then pushing the striker forwards down the length of the steel.  Whilst this generally creates lots of sparks, I find that they tend to spray forward, and not always onto your tinder.  Another disadvantage of this method is that it is easy to knock over your carefully collected tinder.  So I have two techniques I use with a firesteel:

The pull back method

For this method 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 on top of the tinder.  I put the firesteel under the striker at about 45° and then pull it backwards. 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.

Demonstrating how to use a firesteel Creating a spark through the use of a firesteel

The 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.

With this method, you can also shave off bits of the steel into your tinder and then drop a spark onto that; I find this useful in wet conditions.

The video below shows me using both of these methods to light cotton wool.  Cotton wool is easy to get hold of and easy to light, so good to practice with.  But you’ll need to move on to natural tinders once you’re comfortable with the techniques.  In the video I light some birch bark (in light rain and strong gusts of wind) using the thumb push method.

Demonstrating the use of firesteels to create a spark Demonstrating how firesteels are used to create a spark

 

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.