Making Char Cloth in Just a Couple of Minutes!





Introduction: Making Char Cloth in Just a Couple of Minutes!

About: Hi, I'm Tim. I work on the railways during the day, run a scout troop and have a blog (see above website link) where I discuss my allotment and projects!

There are many different ways to start fires however some of the most difficult involve catching a single spark.

In this instructable I'm going to show you how to make one of the most useable materials for catching that spark. It can be done anyware outside - I did this in a field in Gilwell, the international center of scouting over an MSR pocket rocket. If you've got an open fire that'll work just as well, but it's harder to control the heat - one of my scouts tried using a coke can and unfortunately because the fire we'd built was too hot, the coke can melted and the cloth caught fire.

The second advantage of using char cloth is that the embers burn much hotter than they would in fluffy seed heads or perhaps silver birch bark shavings. It actually burns longer too.

What you need:

100% cotton material - could be socks, tea towel, old rag or in this case, an old t-shirt ruined a year beforehand when I poured a very expensive bottle of red wine over myself. I did my best to reclaim it all by sucking on the t-shirt however it was all in vein.

Lighter - (optional) but makes it easier to see when the job is done. Plus I like burning things!

Knife/scissors - to cut material.

Metal container - in the pictures I used a air rifle shooting pellet container. These were left over from the shooting course I ran in June. Any tin will be fine like an altoids container!

Heat source - as mentioned before, I used an MSR pocket rocket, but you could use an open fire. The important part is it must always be done outside.

Something to spark the finished product!

Beer - Optional.

Step 1: Cut the Material

Using your knife/scissors, cut cloth to the same size as the tin. It will shrink when you start the process and the gases are released (you can make it bigger to take this into account). You can do more than one piece at a time, so why not pack the tin out to save time? You will have to peel them apart carefully!

Step 2: Making a Hole in the Tin

Not really a very technical step. I used a very sharp knife point to stab my tin. This is because the tin is very thin metal and I knew the knife wouldn't be damaged.

If you're using a bigger/thicker tin, the size of the hole won't change, however the method you use to pierce it may. You can use a thin metal drill bit to make a small hole, but obiously in the field this might not be possible.

One of my scouts tried using a small coke can. After the first one melted, we tried again with a lower heat. He sliced the top off the can, stuck the material in, folded over the middle of the can so that it was roughly sealed in and put it on the heat. The results were the same.

Step 3: Light Up the Stove or Stick on Fire Step.

A simple step, just don't burn yourself.

However a small warning!

The smoke emitted from the can are quite toxic/poisoness, hence why you shouldn't do this inside. They are also flamable.

The process of turning the cotton into char cloth is taking place under your very eyes - the cotton is shrinking and blackening. When the smoke stops being emitted, the process is complete. Because I don't like to waste a chance to burn things, you can actually set fire to the gas coming out of the top and you can therefore keep an eye on the flame - once the flame goes out, the cloth is done.

Below is a video of me lighting the gas.

Step 4: Done!

As you can see, the finished product has shrunk quite a bit, however as long as you keep it dry, it's the perfect tinder...

Step 5: Lighting the Char Cloth... (fin!)

In the below video you can see me lighting the char cloth with a sweedish firesteel. You could use other methods such as striking a flint and steel or two flints. As you can see, the sweedish firesteel emits far more than one spark, which does mean the char cloth lights in far more than one place. This does mean it burns far faster, but just as hot. I did blow on the cloth to try and show the glowing embers in the bright August sunshine and because it is no more really than a very thin piece of flexible cloth charcol it blows away quite quickly!



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    19 Discussions

    the beer is for drinking! As is all beer. Or slug traps if you don't like beer.

    char cloth is absolutely necessary if using a true "flint" and "steel" setup (meaning a piece of hard, sharp stone and slightly softer steel) as the sparks are not as hot and more difficult to catch. a "sweedish firesteel" or ferrocerium rod, which is a blend of iron and other metals that produces a SHOWER of 3000° sparks that can ignite dry grass, cotton fiber, or even fine wood shavings.

    Pardon my ignorance. What is the advantage of this on "normal" tinder? Example: paper, wood chips, straw, dry grass, dry leaves, etc..

    10 replies

    Yes, as others have said this catches it easier. Close but still not quite is dryer lint which will catch everyother time

    Char-cloth will catch the spark from your flint and steel much faster and produces a much hotter source of ignition.

    One more tip: char cloth is the best first step in the firemaking process.

    Before you start, wad up a fist-sized ball of dried grass/lint/milkweed fluff/dried cattail fluff/etc, and poke a pretty big hole in it.

    Then strike the char cloth. Once you have an ember, stuff it into the hole in the tinder fluff. Cup the wad in your hands, and blow through the hole. The wad will take with a couple of steady breaths, and you'll have a hand full of growing flame.

    Shove under your tinder pile, and continue as normal.

    This is almost easier than the "drunk redneck + lighter + lighter fluid" method...

    The char cloth will catch and hold an ember for quite a long time.  It's also much easier to start and is more reliable.

    I think it's that you know this will be dry, and it is easier to set light with just a single spark. I'd be tempted to light more "traditional" tinder with this, as it doesn't look like you get much of an ember out of char cloth but it could easily light a handful of dry grass etc.

    Try it for yourself, it burns way hotter. I much prefer char cloth to light all my tinder. I bunt my fingers the first time I used char cloth.

    the advantage is that a single spark (such as that generated from a flint and steel) wouldn't necessarily catch first time or last long enough to catch. When you strike against char cloth however the moisture content is so low and the weave so tight that you get instant ember which burns much hotter and longer. You can take this further by making a nest of other tinder such as straw, dry grass, leaves etc put the char cloth in the middle and blow. The resulting heat will make it catch straight off.

    I remember one time on a little camp out i made a torch out of a stick a shirt and rubbing alcohol, but yet i didnt have a striker pad for the matches, so what we did was wrap a peice of char cloth aroun the match tip and then spark the char cloth giving you a hot enough ember to light the match.

    To keep your char-cloth dry try applying a drop of melted candle wax on the hole in your tin. I always carry a small beeswax candle in my rucksack.

    I should clarify that I was focusing on the undyed part, rather than the 100% cotton (since you already mentioned it). We've tried everything from jean material to flannel shirts and found that many dyes will inhibit the char from accepting a spark.

    1 reply

    thanks antagonizer - I've only experimented with normal unbleached t-shirts which works fine. I used flame mainly to get rid of some of the gas being released. Around an open ignition source, it's quite likely to catch on its own and if you're prepared at least to light it, you're unlikely to be leaning over it with your head in the gas when you light it (removing your eyebrows in the process). I did mention in a round about way that you only need to wait for the smoke to burn off, but it could do with more clarity I guess! But should be noted, if you're a military type doing this somewhere when you don't want to be seen, burning the smoke off is a good idea to remove chances of being caught.

    I teach fire making and survival so I have to say that you've got a pretty good instructable here. Couple of things tho. First your starter material should be undyed 100% cotton. Painting/tent canvas works the best. Second what you're making is essentially a miniature gasifier, however when you're trying to preserve the char inside, lighing the 'fuel' can cause the flame to flash back into the can burning up your hard work. In survival training we teach that the smoke comming out is how you guage when your material is done. When the smoke stops (or slows dramatically), your char is ready. The problem being you can't stop the process to check it without ruining the char.