Introduction: How to Make Char Cloth With a Tuna Can

Picture of How to Make Char Cloth With a Tuna Can

I sacrificed my kids clothes and a can of tuna to make some high quality fire starter!  Here's how to make a great batch of Char-Cloth to add to your emergency kit.

Step 1: Watch the Video!

WARNING: This project should not be attempted without adult supervision and adequate training.  Misuse, or careless use of fire and flammable materials may result in serious injury, property damage, and/or death.  Use of this video content is at your own risk.

Step 2: What Is Char Cloth?

Picture of What Is Char Cloth?

Char-Cloth is a fire starting tinder that has the ability to capture and hold a spark amazingly well, and for a considerable amount of time.

According to Wikipedia;

"Char cloth (also called charpaper) is a swatch of fabric made from vegetable fiber (such as linen, cotton or jute) that has been converted via pyrolysis into a slow-burning fuel of very low ignition temperature.

It is capable of being ignited by a single spark that can in turn be used to ignite a tinder bundle to start a fire.

It is sometimes manufactured at home for use as the initial tinder when cooking or camping and historically usually provided the "tinder" component of a tinderbox. It is often made by putting cloth into an almost airtight tin with a small hole in it, and cooking it in campfire coals until the smoking slows and the cloth is properly charred.

Charcloth ignites with even the smallest spark, and is therefore commonly used with a flint and steel."

I use it as my tinder of choice my acrylic fire piston.

Step 3: Materials You'll Need

Picture of Materials You'll Need
This project can be done with items you probably already have around the house!

  • 1. Tuna Can
  • 2. "Lid lifter" style can-opener
  • 3. Nail, punch, or small screwdriver
  • 4. Cotton fabric
For cotton fabric, old T-shirts work very well if they're 100% cotton.  You can find this information on the tag inside the shirt.

I also found that cotton balls work extremely well, and have become my new favorite!

Step 4: Cook the Cotton

Picture of Cook the Cotton
To make the Char Cloth cooker, just follow these steps;
  1. If possible, use a "lid-lifter" style can-opener to open the can.  This cuts the top off along the side of the can.
  2. Clean out your tuna can and make sure it's dry and free of contaminants
  3. Place 4-8 cotton balls inside the can (Or about 4 round pieces of cotton fabric from your T-shirt)
  4. Replace the lid and press it back into place.  (Note: If you cut it with a "lid-lifter" style can opener it should press and hold together like it was meant to be!)
  5. Flip the can over, and use your punch to make a small hole in the "top" of the cooker
Your cooker is complete and ready to go!

Step 5: Fire It Up!

Picture of Fire It Up!
The goal is to heat the container up over 400C, and this can be done in a variety of ways.  For example;

  • 1. Use solar power via your Solar Scorcher from another project
  • 2. Place directly in an open flame
  • 3. Any other outdoor method of inducing heat.  (Outdoors because potentially harmful gasses will be released and can smell up your house)
When the container gets hot enough, the cotton releases gasses, including hydrogen and methane gases.  As these gasses are cooked out, the fiber becomes carbonized through a process called "pyrolysis".  This means that the fiber is charred, but not burned.

You can tell the process is working because you'll see the gas venting through the hole in the top of the container.  These gasses are flammable, and may ignite.  Don't worry if they do because that's normal and just fine.

The cooking is done when the gas stops and the flame goes out.

Note: I've found that cooking them beyond the point where the gasses stop, and flame goes out, can negatively effect their performance, so take the container off the fire as soon as practical.


  • Place a layer of aluminum foil over the hole to prevent air from sucking back into the container.  
  • Let cool for about 5 minutes

Note: The container is very hot, so use protection on your hands to avoid being burned while applying the foil.

Step 6: How Did It Turn Out?

Picture of How Did It Turn Out?

When the container has cooled off completely, open it up and the first thing you'll hopefully see is that your white cotton fabric (or cotton balls) have turned completely black.

Note: If there are parts that are still white, or brown, it's not cooked completely and needed more time on the fire.

To test your batch of char-cloth, brush gently with an open flame.  The cloth should capture the heat and form a small spark that will continue to smolder for an impressive amount of time.  1 cotton ball can last a couple of minutes.

By blowing air onto the spark, heat will transfer quickly and can engulf the entire cloth.

This is the great advantage of the cloth.  It can deliver a lot of heat when you need it (by blowing on it), or just hold a spark for a couple of minutes while you're getting your tinder bundle ready.

Step 7: In Closing

Picture of In Closing

Well there's how to make a batch of char-cloth using materials from around the house.  It's great for emergencies, so go make a batch for your emergency kit right now!

Haven't see the video yet? You can still see it here!

If you like this project perhaps you'll like some of my others. Check them out at


MiloI1 made it! (author)2017-10-27


I would add that it is probably a good idea to pre-burn the can you're gonna use before you make your first batch of char cloth. Most of them have a thin resin or plastic liner on the inside, and this will leave weird flakeys on your cloth.

I also had some issues with the food-can lid staying on solid the first time I used it. I *was* moving it around but I think that likewise is helped by a "break-in" burn.

no flashback or burn up though, good batch!

cheesybob (author)2015-12-04

I tried this in an Altoid can on the grill side of a BBQ and it worked really well.

nerfwarrior66 (author)2015-02-01

Does char-cloth take a spark as well or better than a cotton ball impregnated with paraffin?

I haven't tried sparking cotton that's been coated in wax, but I have with charcloth, and even a novice like me can start a fire with it. I'd never started a fire before with a ferro rod, but after I made charcloth, it only took one try and I had it.

acoleman3 (author)2015-03-30

nice instructable, however there's no need to pierce it. look up "Flint and Steel Char Cloth Tin - Does It Really Need a Hole?" on youtube and watch it. he proves it don't, even with a cavandish & harvey tin which has a rather tight fitting lid.

nerfwarrior66 (author)2015-02-01

What a good way to store char-cloth/ball in a backpack until it's needed?

nerfwarrior66 (author)2015-02-01

Well done. And that magnifying glass!!!

KraftyKrew (author)2013-11-09

My dad would love this

the_names_levesque (author)2013-08-10

if they get wet will it affect the durability or effectivness of a char cloth in any way? (in other words is it waterproof)?

It won't work if it is wet. It is not waterproof.

the_names_levesque (author)2013-08-13

can we do it over the bbq?!?


mikaleda (author)2013-03-21

The nice thing about army surpluses gun cleaning patches is they are per cut to one inch peices

mikaleda (author)2013-03-21

I have found that an Altoids can and the army surplus gun patches (100% cotton) work great. I don't let the smoke catch on fire I usually make mine over embers and I take it off and let it cool after the smoke stops. I cover the hole when cooling, it doesn't hurt ;)

wpcodename (author)2013-03-12

My personal recommendations, I've done it a few times before,
First, I would recommend just using a fire, and watch the smoke. I've never noticed flames out of the hole, just watch when the smoke turns from gray to white. Then take out of the fire and let it cool.
I've also never covered the hole and have never had a Flashback with it, And I don't believe it would be a problem so long as you keep it away from the fire.

Thanks for your ideas!

Exocetid (author)2013-03-10

Use a wooden kebob stick, sharpened stick or pencil to seal your hole after charring--the AL foil is too complicated and wasteful.

Sounds like an idea that could work

How was it done in history; i.e., when they actually had to use it during daily life?

thinkdunson (author)Exocetid2013-03-10

dig a hole, fill it with wood or whatever, then cover it with dirt to keep air out and heat until it stops smoking. there would be more to it of course, like how do you heat it (probably by building a fire on top of it), but that's the general idea. as a matter of fact, the idea probably came from char left over in just a regular fire. they noticed that some of the larger pieces at the heart of the pit (where oxygen was harder to come by) didn't fully consume and were really easy to re-light. just speculation.

Exocetid (author)thinkdunson2013-03-11

This is actually a fascinating piece of history that is not well documented. What you are implied making is char wood, not far off from char cloth, the subject of this Instructable. I did some Googling and found all sorts of speculation and very good guesses as to how this came about. What one must ask is: why hasn't some history graduate student written a dissertation on this given the amount of uncertainty.

Apparently, what we are talking about in general is tinder, and there are a significant number of artifacts out there in regards to it. One of the more interesting is the notion of a tinder stick, which is a metal tube that has a cotton (or linen, or jute) cord in it. You light one end of the cord, let it burn and then pull it back into the tube, which extinguishes it and makes it into tinder. Then, when you need a bit you push the charred end out and go to it. Isn't technology wonderful?

The thing that must be remembered is that in the days before electricity, the primary energy source for heating and cooking, and to some extent light, was wood fires. Making them was a daily thing and technologies evolved to support the process. 

I don't know, I wasn't around and don't know anyone who was, but you can probably get away without even sealing the hole. It's just that sometimes if the conditions are right, if air sucks back inside, the tinder can burn and become useless so covering the hole helps prevent that.

tbor62 (author)2013-03-10

I just use an Altoid can. Just put in some denim and throw it on the fire.

shizumadrive (author)2013-03-10

NIce and useful. But that scorcher is what I really want now.

Haha nice. I have a video on how to get it for free.

dougbyte (author)2013-03-10

Great job of presentataion. I know an old mountain man in my area that searches out the river bottoms, for cottonwood punk from the dead trunks. Swears that it's the best for charing. Something to keep in your back pocket if you ever find yourself in a posistion where you can give up the cloth.

Awesome, thanks for your comment!

jnatt (author)2013-03-10

wow good easy way of making Char cloth thank you

The King of Random (author)jnatt2013-03-10

You're welcome, and thank you!

MT1 (author)2013-03-10

Got an idea from your vids. Use acrylic or other plastic melted into lenticular canteen.

Boyscouts used to sell a metal canteen of this shape. Why plastic? Take cover off and use as fire starter lens. Even half empty.

Being currently under employed, I can't do this myself.

The King of Random (author)MT12013-03-10

Sounds great! It's the same idea as using a water bottle to start a fire so I think it would work great!. Thanks for sharing your idea!

pedistrarian (author)2013-03-10

I made these right after your video came out. This is really easy and I used an Altoids can. I punched a hole in it and I noticed that gas also comes out of the hinges. I used a tye-dye shirt that was too small for me and it was super easy.

Perfect! Thanks for the follow up!

BlueWeasel (author)2013-03-10

We went camping last week and I learned about char cloth for the first time.
I don't know how I managed to go almost 30 years of camping without ever learning
about this stuff, but I digress. I'll be making some char cloth soon and certainly
like the idea of using cotton balls. These will go great with the flint strikers I had
a blacksmith make for me yesterday.

Perfect! Thanks for your feedback and best of luck with your project!

chrisnbolen (author)2013-03-10

That is awesome! Way better than shelling out real money ( the kind folds neatly ) on fire starters. Keep up the good work! On a side note your video is well done too!

Thank you very much!

kirkb150 (author)2013-03-10

Good stuff!


MR.. (author)2013-03-08

I'm so stoked you put this up!!

The King of Random (author)MR..2013-03-09

Thank you! What did you like about it?

MR.. (author)The King of Random2013-03-09

I make char cloth often for my survival kits. I'm just so happy that there's a awesome Instructable out now showing folks how easy it is. I love your photographs as well!!

The King of Random (author)MR..2013-03-10

Perfect, thanks for your feedback!

Billy Maxwell (author)2013-03-10

Just as good to char rotten wood for an ignite material for fire steel. Charring cloth for rich people. Strike char on sharpened flint and not in a nest of grass. When lit, place char wood in grass. Otherwise wind will make effort too difficult.

snworks (author)2013-03-10

Thanks! I sometimes do fire by friction with a bow drill, and it can be hard to move from ember to fire if the tinder isn't right. One thing about your instructable - you say "If possible, use a "lid-lifter" style can-opener," but it seems like this type would be not optional, but necessary. A regular can opener would leave a smaller lid piece, so how would you close it airtight? (except for the small hole)

pedistrarian (author)snworks2013-03-10

Yes, anything other than a lid-lifter can opener will not work. That's why I used an Altoids can.

You could try wrapping it together in a few layers of aluminum foil, leaving just a small hole in the top. I imagine that would work?

Johenix (author)2013-03-09

Idea one: Use an ALTOIDS hard candy can or shoe polish can with a small hole punched in it.

Idea two: Use Gun cleaning patches for char cloth.

ElZorro (author)Johenix2013-03-10

Yes, I use altoids can and clean denim from old jeans.
Cut the denim to fit the can as many layers as will fit.
The can makes a handy carrying case and the "sheets" of charcloth just peel off.
And you can make more on the fly in the field with your can.
Keep it in a plastic bag with your shavings and dryer lint and firesteel and you are good to go.

They are both good ideas and will probably work.

I used a tuna can and cotton balls because I think more people will have those than shoe polish and gun cleaning patches.

About This Instructable




Bio: Random Weekend Projects
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