In this instructable I will attempt to show you how to make a fire piston using relatively common materials found at your local hardware store. It took me a few attempts to get it working right so hopefully this instructable will help you benefit from what I've learned. The cost is under $20 per piston though some of the suplies like brass rod only come in 4ft sections so I'm dividing the cost down for each individual unit.

What's a fire piston anyway?
A fire piston is an amazing little tool that's been around for hundreds of years, unfortunately due to the invention of the common match its popularity diminished and it almost dissapeared. It is a piston and cylinder that works like a diesel engine using compression to cause a piece of tinder to heat up rapidly and turn into a coal. Wikipedia explains it better than I do so if you're really interested just click here for the full history.

The most important part about getting one of these working seems to be the char cloth or char string which is used as the tinder, don't be fooled by other videos online its almost impossible to light just regular balls of rolled up tissue paper. Charcloth is a cotton based material that is heated in an oxygen deprived container until certain gases etc are released afterwhich the remaining material turns to an ember really easily. Another characteristic of char cloth is that the ember grows when it is blown on (so wind actually helps you!)

Making a fire piston without having char cloth will make you go crazy, chances are you'll have a working piston but won't know it because your using the wrong tinder. Make char cloth first!!!

5" or more of 1/4" brass rod
4" 1/8th Threaded brass pipe nipple
1/8 Threaded brass cap
1/4" OD 1/8" ID 1/16 Cross section rubber o-rings aka -006 size
2 part liquid epoxy (Jb Weld, Cold Weld etc)
Wooden cabinet knob (or you can make your own)
Wooden Broom Handle or suitable wood for turning*
Cotton T-Shirt (Optional for making char cloth)
Tin can that seals (Optional for making char cloth)

Drill Press & Drill Bits
Triangle File

*Not all the tools/materials are necessary just to get a working piston. Instead of using a lathe you could file the o-ring groove by hand for example. The wooden sleeve made from the broom handle is optional as its purely cosmetic.

**All the slides were made with Google Sketchup, playing around with the styles gave it the illustrated look and it reminded me of a kids book so I ran with it ;)
LLuE88.6 months ago

What is the actual inside diameter of the 1/8" brass pipe? reason for the question is the i.d. of 1/8" brass pipe varies lately, it used to be very close to 0.254", now it's likely closer to 0.270" which really stretches the viability of an o-ring to seal the rod against the cylinder wall. It might be best to buy a brass tube of 0.500" O.D. x 0.250" , then reduce the end for threads - then cut threads for the cap. then with very fine sand paper reduce the rod by about 0.003" clearance. thanks

jphphotography (author)  LLuE88.6 months ago

I'm really not sure what to tell you, since the ID isn't the spec'd dimension you sort of have to take what you get or if possible just bring a micrometer with you. The whole idea was to use easily sourced off the shelf parts, I'm sure with the proper tools you could just machine all the parts yourself using rod stock but that was out of the scope of this instructable. Cutting threads etc seems a bit advanced, also the regular brass tubing I had access to was very thin walled (hobby tubing) so you couldn't thread any caps onto it, these were the best option I could find. To accommodate for the variability in the ID you could also try buying an o-ring variety pack and just finding one that works, that's what I did and then found the size that worked and used that on the rest that I built and they all worked fine, it could be that the box of brass pipe I got was all similarly spec'd. Sorry I don't have a better answer for you.


Most vendors do not show nominal pipe i.d. , but a specific designer likely needs more info. Earlier there was a site that also spec'd the 1/8" brass pipe nipple for a fire piston with no indication of required I.D., at that time I bought a 6" brass nipple from Home Depot with the 0.254" I.D. "at one end only" the other end was 0.275", change at about 2.5" from end, talking about being upset at their quality control, they had no explanation for it {there were six more with exactly the same issue on the hangers}. I suppose ignorance is bliss, but a serious project person must research needed details or some how work around these sorts of problems. General use doesn't need i.d. or wall thickness
Below find link to one of quit a few that do give the required info.


With the i.d. knowledge you can easily make a plug from the same rod used for the piston itself by cutting about 1/4" long, at the center of outside end put a deep center punch into it, then drive it into the pipe or tube of about 0.25 or 0.254" i.d. about 1/64" past flush from bottom end of cylinder for a solid closure. thanks
what size is a 31 dill bit
A wire size #31 drill bit is 0.1200 inches in diameter, I used a 1/8 inch bit which is 0.1250 inches (the difference is about the thickness of an average human hair) to make mine entirely on a lathe (before I read this instructable).
jphphotography (author)  Bryan B4 years ago
@ Bryan Nice looking piston! Does the narrow end hurt your hand though when striking it?

@Shootin Wizard
Thank you.
As for the narrow end it is 1/2 inch diameter and rounded on the end (rounding helps a lot) but if you try to learn how to make it work with tinder fungus as tinder in one night (many many many strokes one right after another for hours) it will make your hands VERY sore (I still have some small bruised spots after 2 weeks).
With this new optimized piston it is much easier to strike it though.
Also I have polished the cylinder very smooth, I think this will help with a lot of the problems people have with any fire piston and will likely make o-rings last longer.
jphphotography (author)  Bryan B4 years ago
You're probably 100% right about polishing the cylinder, how exactly did you go about doing that? Do you need special tools?
A gun cleaning kit and some metal polish come to mind but i haven't started mine to test it yet , going to the store tomorrow to find the stuff to make one.

a small long drill bit or similar and some super fine sandpaper wrapped around it to run down the shaft would work good too

Do you think it would still have enough compression if the piston were only four inches long, I couldn't find any longer at the store?
db852 years ago
I love my fire piston, unfortunately I don't have a lathe so making the o-ring groove in metal was very difficult for me. I like the images in this instructable, what software did you use to make them?
jphphotography (author)  db852 years ago
Hey db85, I'm glad people are still using this instructable, congrats on making yours! I'd love to see some photos of your finished piston. I can imagine that the grove would have been hard without a lathe, do you mind if I ask how you did it? As for the images used in the instructable, I used Sketchup which is a free 3D modelling program formerly owned by Google and now by Trimble. I changed the style settings so the lines looked like watercolour etc then use exported as 2D images.
ampstar2 years ago
I followed your instructions. My piston is 4.0. Only thing I did that was different is that I didn't file the o-ring slot to an angle. I just cut a deep enough groove around the shaft as I was working with my dremel. Thanks for the instructable man!
jphphotography (author)  ampstar2 years ago
Right on man, glad to hear it worked out for you. My only concern would be that if the edges of your groove are too sharp they may nick the o-ring when you're installing it and would significantly reduce the lifespan of the o-ring. Just running a file along the edges should be enough. You should post some pictures if you can, I'd like to see the results of what others have made!
So I am a little confused. The rod goes inside the pipe nipple right? Yet the materials list says1/4 rod and 1/8 pipe nipple? If the rod is bigger than the pipe that makes no sense. Unless you intend for us to turn the rod down until its smaller? Or am I just misunderstanding the directions?
jphphotography (author)  USAFpirate6003 years ago
That is just what they are called, I have no idea how or where they get the 1/8 part from. I know it sounds wrong but I assure you that wasn't a typo. No need to turn down the rod to fit or anything like that.
ur explanation is completly wrong, it does work like a diesel engine but diesel engines don't work like that. when air is compressed to a point where the partial pressure of oxygen is more than 1.6 it combines with most types of oils and explodes, thats allso why diesel engines make a lot more noise, because they compress the air a lot more than normal gasoline ones.

"it does work like a diesel engine but diesel engines don't work like that."

That doesn't even make any sense.  His explanation is correct, and although this is not exactly how diesel engines work, he is giving a comparison to those who do not know very much about this type of combustion.  Also, the compression in a gasoline engine is not what causes the combustion as it does in a diesel engine.  It uses a spark to ignite the fuel, not compression alone.
a diesel engine doesn't use compression alone either, it requires a certain level of heat to have good combustion, which is why they have glow plugs to preheat the chamber. on a warm day you can start it without glow plugs, but near freezing temps you'll have no luck.
jongscx chrwei5 years ago
Well, a Diesel engine doesn't Use the heat, but it just Needs a minimum heat level to function properly... so it kinda does just use compression alone. As opposed to a gas engine which uses both the spark and the compression... In a Diesel engine, the Compression of the fuel-air mixture causes the molecules to heat to the fuel's Flash-point, the point at which it spontaneously ignites. The Fire Piston Works in the same way, where the combustible cotton is placed in the piston with the air and is heated to ignition by the compression of the air.
A fire piston works like a diesel engine. A fire piston is not a diesel engine.
Actually if you want to get REALLY technical a diesel engine works like a fire piston. According to some web sites including the Wikipedia on the fire piston Diesel got the idea for his engine from seeing how a fire piston worked.
diesel engines do not use sparks, they just use compression. thats why they are much simpler and less likely to have combustion problems. oxygen is cooler than you thought, no sparks, just pressure.
Just Bill3 years ago
Looks like a good 'ible.

Just to add my two cents: I've found that wetting the char cloth with turpentine (not mineral spirits - real turpentine) then allowing them to air-dry gave me a much more flammable char cloth. I had the darndest time getting a fire started before this treatment, but now they reliably catch a spark and easily heat up enough to ignite tinder.

In the woods, I don't want to be relying on something that sometimes works. But every fire starting technique only works sometimes and that is why it is wise to have a variety of means to start a fire at hand. I already carry matches, tinder, flint, char cloth, cigarette lighter and a magnifying glass ... it wouldn't hurt to add a fire piston, too.

To those who question the wisdom of a fire piston, allow me to point out that they are very light weight, very simple to operate and work even when your fingers are too cold to deal with matches or a lighter.

That last part could be important.

Hint: load the char cloth in the fire starter before you need it. Then, if you have the rest of the fire starting materials gathered, you are only a slap or two of the piston away from a fire.
Is Brass necessary i have a steel rod of that exact diameter
"minime" is exactly correct, brass was chosen because it is way easier to work with than steel. I wouldn't even bother trying steel.
If you have a metalworking lathe the difference in working difficulty is negligible.
I made a test piston from stainless steel rod, it worked pretty good.
thats probably a lot harder to turn on a lathe...
iacchus4 years ago
WUNDERBAR!! & congrats on getting featured. I'm curious as to what the shelf life of the char cloth is & how should it be stored? Does it have to be cotton (an earlier post mentioned rope they had charred). I just moved to Maine to live with my brother & we plan on doing some camping this year, however the state is very damp. Of course humidity will have an effect on the cloth & the temp in which it will ignite, but if I can keep it dry the short time its out in the elements prior to being put in the piston shouldnt be a concern. Thank you for sharing & your hard work.
jphphotography (author)  iacchus4 years ago
I know that it would definitely have some impact but I'm not sure how much, if its purely moisture from water (as opposed to oil from your fingers) then I think it might just take one extra "pump". I had seen some videos where a guy literally dunked the thing in water, dumped the water out, then had an ember within a few strokes. The heat generated for that brief moment in time is very high so it is quite plausible that it would dry it out, the second stroke would then ignite it.

I would definitely recommend storing the char cloth/string in an air tight container if at all possible anyway just to limit the exposure to moisture.

If you build one and use it out there please comment about your experience!

Good luck!
nikolaou4 years ago
I followed your instructions to a T but when i push the piston down, air seems to be escaping past the O-ring. and sometimes the Oring get sort of stuck and rides up the piston. once in a while i will get it to go down and will get some compression as the piston pops back up a inch, but i am not producing a noticable amount of heat.

any suggestions? i have put alot of time into it this weekend and it is getting frustrating. thanks for the good instructable though!
jphphotography (author)  nikolaou4 years ago
Hi nikolaou, sorry you seem to be having problems. I'm not sure what to say, if followed precisely my instructions should work. You mention that sometimes the O-ring is getting stuck and slides up the piston, this should definitely not be happening and may shed some light on what is happening.

The first thing that comes to mind is whether your o-ring is too big in the first place?

Secondly, on your piston the angle of the piston where the oring sits may not be steep enough and is allowing your oring to slide up too far? (see attached image, sorry for the quality I only had mspaint to work with).

Another possibility is that you've somehow scored the inside wall of the tubing with the piston head and that is preventing a good seal.

This may be a stupid question but you are using vaseline or chapstick to lube the o-ring right?

You will need compression throughout the entire stroke or there will be no heat. If its sealed correctly you shouldn't even be able to get the piston down quite all the way (say 95% but not 100% of the way).

As for the frustration, I know, I've been there and I feel your pain lol. It took me more than just a weekend to get my first one going, probably spent 60hrs total. My hopes of this instructable were to help other people avoid that frustration ;)

Just think though how hard it must have been for the jungle tribes that made these with wood or bamboo and used string as the o-ring. Even with detailed instructions, better materials, and modern machinery these pistons are still tricky to make!

Good luck and if you figure out the issue please post back so other people can benefit.
Fire Piston.PNG
Sorry to came in the conversation.
I ve built a piston, I guet in same diferente way.. in the rod I left a gap, Insted make like you said. But I press the road,...he road came back, pull back, the 0 ring its good,its seal, I have nice charcol(Because I ve try with flint stone,by stricking it) BUT I CAN NOT MAKE A FIRE......
do you have any idea.???

could I fill a bit the hole wich I ve made in the rod(piston) in same way? like expoxy, could help?
thanks for help.
your reply has inspired me to keep trying.

i am going to try with a new section of brass since i had to buy about 3 feet.

I am also going to try some different techniques when drilling and cutting the O-ring Groove. and when flaring the nipple.

also, i am using 3/16th inch O-rings, i also bought 1/4 and 5/16th but the smaller ones fit the best and there was no 1/8th inch at any of the stores i visited.

Will keep fiddling and get back to you, thanks for your help

p.s yes im using vaseline
task41line5 years ago
I hope no one will use this for bad purpouses
It's easier to get a pack of matches... or a lighter.
the thing with those is that they have a shelf life and/or use life.
How far ahead were you planning on setting a fire for a bad purpose? They have WWII ration canteens with waterproof matches in them that still light on striking, so I guess if you're planning 50+ yrs in advance, then maybe these are better. My point was that a fire-piston creates a slow, smoldering ember really. Given enough time and effort, yes you could turn it into a big fire. If you were to use it for nefarious purposes... sitting there, blowing at this ember in your hands with some tinder nearby... would probably not be the best course of action. If I were burning something, I'd use the fastest means possible...
didnt read the bad purpose part till now, but waterproof matches will not work if they are damp. They will dry and be pretty usable. Fire pistons can make a fire out of more materials and quicker too.
Waterproof matches won't, but stormproof matches will :)

Great 'structable! I definatley plan on makeing one of these. As far as the matches comment,you could just take strike anywhere matches and coat them in melted paraffin. It keeps the heads dry and the paraffin is easiley removed for use of the matches.
owen102 jongscx4 years ago
the thing about matches is THEY ARE ONE TIME USE ONLY. ;)
jphphotography (author)  jongscx5 years ago
Thanks I was going to say the same thing :)
That's a rediculas thing to say on an otherwise very good instructable. For someone to go to this entire process for 'bad purposes' is a joke... and I think a bit of an insult... Personally I think there are cheaper faster and more efficient ways to be a naughty person.
bombem14 years ago
This was a wonderful Instructable and the first one I followed to make a Fire Piston. The plans were layed out very well which made it easy to follow. The only recommendation I would have for the procedure is to include the common size of the drill bit used. I did find one that looked close and it worked out well in the 3/16 area that you outlined.

One question for you. I believe i followed the instructions very well for both the char rope/paper and the piston. After testing with several materials and plunging my heart out I only got one piece of char rope to glow. The piston can be pushed in and then comes back out 3/4 of the way by itself. I was hoping that this was going to be easier than rubbing 2 sticks together. Any thoughts on what could be done differently?
jphphotography (author)  bombem14 years ago
It's a tricky thing to make really, it took me a few tries to get one that worked reliably. As for the problems you're having I can think of here are a few possibilities:

1) Even though you're getting a good seal your "throw" may not be long enough, if you followed the instructable though it should be ok. The reason I state this is if the throw isn't long enough you wont be building up enough pressure therefor not creating enough heat. Not having enough epoxy in the cap could also affect total pressure.

2) The char string/cloth isn't up to par, this as you say though probably isn't the case.

3) You've contaminated the char string/cloth. This is probably the most likely cause, oils from your fingers or from the vaseline used to lubricate the o-ring can render char string/cloth useless.

4) When in doubt add more lube to the o-ring ;) Not so much that it contaminates the char material mind you.

If you get it working reliably please post back with what you did to fix it.
Good luck!
hammy108095 years ago
why dont you use something else and save the brass for a brass tap
jphphotography (author)  hammy108095 years ago
Not sure exactly what you're getting at with saving it for a brass tap? By tap do you mean "tap and die" or faucet? Either way I'm not sure how either would apply here. 

If you meant using a different metal for the rod then the reason I used brass is that this is the material I found that works the best. Its easy to cut and shape and comes with a nice smooth finish. Steel is very hard to work with in order to get the o-ring groove and channel for containing the tinder. Aluminum is a little too soft and I found the stock to be too rough.

I spent weeks working on this and even ordered a ready-made one just to see if I could learn from their design. This instructable shows the only method I found that actually yielded a repeatable result, after the first successful one I made 5 more exactly the same way and they all worked first try.

Hope this helps.

This is a great instructable and the time and attention you put into it shows.
Since you have a lath why not use it to cut a nice radius on the inside corner?
minime123585 years ago
Two quick questions: can you use a simple 5 minute two part epoxy? what is the total cost (not including wood and tools) This is a great instructable by the way.
jphphotography (author)  minime123585 years ago
The quick epoxy's don't tend to be as strong so I wouldn't recommend the quick stuff.
minime123585 years ago
btw quick thing: Instead of using a lathe r<----- im assuming you meant lathe notlather
jphphotography (author)  minime123585 years ago
Thanks ;)
minime123585 years ago
in the final picture, it looks like there is something to the right of the O-ring. What is that?
jphphotography (author)  minime123585 years ago
If you mean in the "real life" photo that's just lubricant that built up. Due to the soot in the tube it becomes quite black.
Vulcanator5 years ago
jphphotography (author)  Vulcanator5 years ago
At first I thought you were writing "pervert" in some leet speak or internet slang and was very confused ;) Now I see that it's just the equation for the ideal gas law lol http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ideal_gas_law
jphphotography (author) 5 years ago
Thanks for all of the comments everyone, I was on holidays for a few weeks and when I got home I saw my inbox was flooded with comments!
max.whittle5 years ago
This is incredible! Thanks so much!
Very nice!
Realy, the true your are a very nice, don´t you?
spa31rky5 years ago
Hey wait a minute..!!!! What happened to the diesel argument.? I was just getting interested in that one. ( I do know how diesel works and I was enjoying the argument too well! ) Oh yeah...........the "ible" here was a really good one. I have made one with the same idea from bamboo.........one bamboo smaller than other so it would slide inside the chamber between the knots ( cut out of course) and with some friction action......."let there be fire"
jhenson815 years ago
Very nice 'ible! The artwork from SketchUp also gives it an antique feel, if you will. Kinda like articles from old "DIY" and hobby magazines. This will be a great project for my father and I. He loves woodworking and antique tools. I also find simple tools like this fascinating.
juswalkin5 years ago
Many year ago I was going thru a estate sale and I found on of these and I had no idea what it was, but still picked it up. It's made of wood and has the thread wraped around the end of the piston and a small cup cut into the end. the thread has wax all over it and there is charing to the end of the piston. I always thought it was some kind of candle. Now I can't wait to try it.
Black powder patches or cleaning clothes are cotten and about 1 in square or rounds . This also goes well with the Civil War and mountain man equipment easily carried in the possables bag
abehambino5 years ago
i read in a book that you can do something similar out of bamboo in an emergency. if any one has any info on that, please share. by the way, great instructable! i've looking for a permenant alternative to the bamboo version.
Bamboo was, in fact, one of the original materials used for fire pistons. I've been thinking about building one of these for a while. The simplicity of the design makes it a great low-tech alternative fire starter. Nice 'ible, thanks for writing it up.
I think you are talking about a bamboo fire saw?- http://www.wildwoodsurvival.com/survival/fire/firesaw/index.html
no. in the technique i saw, it said that you would shove ta dowel into a bamboo section like a piston.
ourmoneypit5 years ago
Excellent 'ible, very nicely done. (I love SketchUp too!) and I am always on the look-out for simple low- or no-tech ways of doing things -- I have nothing against technology, but it is all dependent on electricity, and one day, there may be nothing coming out of those lovely little ubiquitous holes in our walls. This 'ible goes into my project file.
Just a thought on the sizing question. Nipples are pipe fittings, and the pipe itself would be a "nominal" 1/4" , inside diameter. Therefore everything to accommodate the "1/4" inch pipe would be larger. Then again I found this on wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pipe_%28material%29 This tells some of the history of when 1/4" pipe would have actually been 1 quarter of an inch Love the Ible, I'm going to try and make one. Thanks for for your research. John "Never underestimate the importance of product testing" Caption under a picture of a man demonstrating a door cut into the side of a cast iron claw foot bathtub...
Eirinn5 years ago
"(especially if your fingers have left over vaseline from lubing the o-ring)" *gigglesnorts*
Skyfinity5 years ago
Ha! I remeber this being demonstrated many times. It is a very good physics demonstration. Plunger moves down a glass tube, cotton at the bottom ignites. I didn´t think it could serve such a practical purpose though. I might give this one a try. It seems to be very well written. :)
frollard5 years ago
Looks like you got popular featured! Well done! Question: Did you sketchup then photoshop filter or does sketchup have output filters to make it look hand drawn?
SketchUp has "styles" that are preset and can also be fiddled with, go window>styles>assorted. There is a list there.
Thanks for the info :D I can't wait to get back into drawing random crap.
Brother_D5 years ago
I have really no use for a fire piston, but I read through this whole instructable simply for the quality! You get an A for effort!
Aztof5 years ago
Very nice! Looks how I imagine a primitive steampunk lighter would look 4.5/5
Arbitror5 years ago
I love the sketchup designs! ;)
luvit5 years ago
tanks to instructabl's i have shelves full of monkey fists. now i want fire pistons
whackpak5 years ago
The illustrations are so nice! Well done.
sora5 years ago
you should make a book out of this

tacamaral5 years ago
Wow, congratulations on the 'ible, man. It looks great, professional, even. : )

I intend to start trekking, and one of these would be great. I'll probably be making one soon. 
lieuwe5 years ago
 do the brass nipples have threads? if they do you can't measure it because the threads are it the way
jphphotography (author)  lieuwe5 years ago
They do have threads but I don't see how they prevent you from measuring, could you elaborate?
 you can then only measure from thread-to-thread, you need to measure from inside wall to inside wall, which is near impossible because the threads are in the way...

jphphotography (author)  lieuwe5 years ago
Still not sure if I'm following you ;)
The threads are on the outside wall of the nipple not the inside. The measuring I refer to in the instructable would be length not diameter anyway, could you point out which step you saw this in so that I can try to make it a bit more clear? Chances are if you misinterpreted it then other people did too and I should correct it.

 oh, sorry, i assumed the threads were on the inside, then you bought something really weird...
zoltzerino5 years ago
 Lovin' the SketchUpness...
jphphotography (author)  zoltzerino5 years ago
Thanks, I'm a huge fan of this program. I don't think I make a single project now without conceptualizing it in 3D first ;)
 I used it for a box design in my electronic products coursework, a hollow extruded rectangle with some imported LEDs stick out at awkward angles - CAD is not for me, but yeh I love Google.
dkop15 years ago
i would love to make one of these, great instructable. i however, but a polycarbonate one for about 30$ instead. we are getting a lathe soon so i will definetly try this!
jphphotography (author) 6 years ago
Thanks for all the compliments everyone! It makes spending the extra time worth it ;) As for the pictures I usually end up making a 3D model of most of my projects just so that I have a better visual of it, its so easy with Google's free program Sketchup. This also gives the added benefit of having a nice model to take stills from for instructables, often I'm too focused on making the project to take pictures along the way. This lets me go back after and only show the necessary steps and the best way to make the project. Anyway thanks again for the nice praise, I hope yours work if you make one. Make sure you share your experiences and feel free to ask questions!
instructors6 years ago
Honestly this is the best instructable I have ever seen. Great discription and amzing artwork that includeds discriptions! The pictures alone could be made into a book! I hope to see more instructables from you, your great at this!
Very nice! Your illustrations are outstanding. This should be an example of what makes a great Instructable.
microman1716 years ago
Great artwork!

I thought the instructable was of a high quality! Hopefully you will get featured =)