Introduction: Complete Guide to a Personal Tinderbox

About: I'm a mechanical engineer in the Eindhoven region. In my spare time I like to make random stuff, both usefull and especially useless.

Dear reader,

Welcome to the complete compact guide to your very own personal DIY tinderbox, depending on your definition of complete, that is. But what does that mean, a complete guide to a personal tinderbox? This guide is for those people with the burning desire to own their very own tinderbox. I will talk you through multiple stages of fire making, creating sparks, catching spark, building your fire, keeping your fire going etc. For all stages I will try to give as much information and options as possible AND usefull. So everyone can pick their favorites and combine all options to compose their personal tinderbox.

Of course this being an Instructable and me being me I will start the fire adventure with a tinker session to contain the fires. The tinderbox is some sort of box containing all the fire making material to get a fire going. But what if you are a minimalist and your fellow tinderbox-maker is an indecisive fire spitting maniac? What if a reader is a tinker-goddess while the other is more like an 'I broke my nail' guy? And what about the persons with a kitchen cabinet sorted from a to z and their chaotic kids with a bedroom where it is impossible to walk? For all these people this stage will also contain more than one option including designs from me and other people, so again everyone can get personal.

Good luck building your own tinderbox. Follow the guided path and your dreams of owning a DIY personal tinderbox won't go up in smoke.

In this Instructable, when an image is added to the step, I made that piece of text in italic and underlined.

Step 1: Tinker Time - the Container

Let's start with tinker time, because what to do with all the materials we are about to collect when we have nowhere to put them. This part of the guide is for giving you ideas for your box. There are a couple of things to consider here, so the main question is where do you use the tinderbox for? A field trip, making fire on a dark summer evening, decorative, storage etc. Some purposes need a properly sealed box to prevent water from entering whatever you are doing. Other boxes will remain mostly in dry places, so proper sealing isn't required. Some will use the box for storage of extra materials, where others use it as survival package, so size and weight is also of great importance.

Log chest:

The idea for a log chest came to me by Jimmy DiResta on youtube. He has made a large and a small wooden log chest and SuperPollo made this Log box/case. This box is suitable for all tinderbox sizes, whether you want to have loads or only a small amount of material, since the box is scalable to your needs. I have some copper tubing laying around, and I could get my hands on a 'small' log, perfectly sized for my purpose. So I will start my log chest soon as decorative item in my house.

SPAM can:

The SPAM can tinderbox was the first one I made. I have made around 5 of them. The one in the images is the most recent one I made for a friend. Where the log chest could serve all, this one is more for the minimalists. It fit's exactly enough materials to make fire, not too much, not too less. A big advantage of the size is that it is belt mountable. Perfect for a camping trip.

Paint can:

A perfect tinderbox for the easy DIYer. They come in all sizes, can be bought everywhere and are very nicely seeled so no water can enter. I use a large 'paint' bucket as storage container for all my fire equipment.

Wooden box:

This is by far the best option for the woodworkers among us. But also for the rest this can be a suitable option. Go completely insine with a 5 species wood design: Secret Compartment Box by dhpenner1. Inlay a forbidden for lighters sign: Laser cut box with veneer endless knot inlay by dogtooth. Carve a bonfire on top: Refurbish a Box for Carcassonne Game by Nozebra. Are you a pyrographic artist, make an intricate design all around: Wood burning 101 - Techniques and Tricks by mimaki cg60. Lazy people, don't wory, just search for wooden box on amazon.


There are loads of other options, just search the internet. For weekend trips I mostly use a thin can which is an old storage can for grinding disks. It's a little bit small but I can just get everything in it. For the fire makers who like it old fashioned, try a leather draw pouch. They age nicely when often used. Or what about a favorite among Instructablers, the Altoids can or similar.

Step 2: Sparks - Producing Heat

Flint & fire striker:

I guess this is the most traditional method to start a fire which fits into your tinderbox. Use the fire striker to hit a sharp edge of the flint, this will create the spark. The hardener steel fire striker will 'release' some particles which will than oxidate, the spark. The spark 'burns' at high temperatures, all we need to do is catch this spark and get something burning. Read more about this in the next step.

You can create your own fire striker with materials you can find in your home. Make sure it is hardened high carbon steel, an old file for example as can be seen in this movie.


A firesteel creates a spark, just as the flint and fire striker. However firesteels are made of magnesium which burns at higher temperatures, so the sparks are hotter than with the flint and firestriker. Scrape the magnesium stick with a sharp metal edge to create sparks.

There are multiple ways to use the firesteel, this movie explains the three most usefull of them.

  1. Push the sparks forward. Good for much wind, you can keep the tinder out of the wind more easily.
  2. Draw the firesteel backward. Easy when you don't want to mess with the tinder.
  3. If your material doesn't burn easily, scrape some of the magnesium on the tinder and when enough magnesium is on the tinder try to light all the magnesium by creating a spark. This way there is more heat in one go.

Battery & steel wool:

The 9-volts battery and steel wool is a very easy way to create much heat. By pushing the battery into the steel wool a shortcut is formed which heats up very quickly. The steel wool keeps burning very well and long enough to light the tinder. Again see the next step for more information on how to get the fire starting once heat is produced. Watch this to see how easy it is so light the steel wool.

Step 3: Kindle - From Heat to Fire

When we got the heat, or the spark, it's time to create a fire from this, which of course can be done several ways. It's also important to have a fire large enough to get the fire going and not dying out. A couple of useful materials I like to use are explained below.

Char cloth:

My tinderbox will always contain char cloth, one of the best way to go to catch sparks AND small enough to put in a very minimal tinderbox. Char cloth essentially is charred clothing (100% natural fabric such as cotton, jute and linen) and can 'catch fire' with a single spark. The burning char cloth can be used as the start of a flame. In this step under birch-bark you can see how to create a fire using char cloth. The Make Char Cloth Instructable by Graywolf is a good way to start making your own char cloth. (Want to make charcoal, use wood instead off cloth)


Fire with char-cloth:

In order to go from the burning char cloth, which essentially is glowing red hot carbon, to a flame we use birch-bark. With only a little amount of both one can start a fire. Before you start, make sure you use the thinnest birch-bark you can get. If it's too thick, you should be able to strip it to thinner pieces by hand. also make sure your char cloth is only burning at an edge. if that is not the case, rip a piece of such that it is. Start by putting the char cloth and birch-bark together. Then, by making sure the burning edge of the char cloth is at one end, wrap them both to a cylinder. The cylinder needs to be as tight such that air can flow through when we add air by blowing. To tight and no air can pass, not tight enough and too much heat is lost to start a fire. When done correctly you should have flaming birch-bar. This video shows the process of blowing such that you get a flame.

Fire with only birch-bark:

When you don't have char-cloth but do have something sharp you can try to make fire using only birch-bark. This is done by craping the birch-bark. The shavings should be thin enough to catch sparks. Put the shaving together and using a fire-steel to ignite the birch-bark. Watch this video to see how it can be done.


Cattail is a very efficient natural kindle. Start by extracting the fluff. The fluff should ignite with a couple of sparks. Again watch this simply video to see how it works.

Feather sticks - knife:

When none of the above is available to you, or you want to get you small or short flame to burn a little better or longer, you can try to start a fire using feather sticks. A feather stick is nothing more than a stick which is sliced in thin pieces of wood without cutting the slices of the stick. So you end up with a lot of slices of wood together. See How to make Feather Stick by michaelrobbutler. When cut thin enough the feather stick should be easy to ignite using a small flame. Or when you are a little bit more experienced you can try and ignite the stick using a fire steel.

Step 4: Keep the Fire Going

Once you have a real flame, this flame needs to be kept going long enough to light up a log or thicker sticks in order to make your fire. To do so, you can off course stack the smallest wood you've got, or use dry leaves, but these will die out quite fast. A couple of good "fire keepers" are Maya sticks (also called fat wood), or good ol' candle wax.

Maya sticks (natural, aka fat wood):

Maya sticks are originally a natural product, and actually nothing more than wood drenched in its tree sap or resin. Because the resin is a good fuel, the wood burns longer and is quite wind resistant, which is absolutely what we need when trying to get a fire going. A good wood choice would be pine, due to the high amount of resin present in the wood anyway, but even better is fallen/broken or sawn tree stumps, because the roots still pump up water and nutrients, transformed into resin into the stump, which in the end has nowhere to go and stays there. Off course you might not live next to a forest, let alone a pine one, and although many kind of woods make good Maya sticks, you might want to make Maya sticks yourself.

Maya sticks (artificial):

Because we know that Maya sticks are nothing more than fuel-drenched wood, we can also make this ourselves. Firstly, a choice needs to be made for the kind of fuel we want to use. Fluid fuels are often volatile, and tend to evaporate fast, as are gasses. We are therefore looking for a kind of wax or other solid (at the desired using temperature) fuels, of which candle wax is one of the most available choices.

The choice of wood is preferably a porous and light one, which can absorb as much of the wax as possible. The wood I typically use is a 2x4. It is relatively light and very dry. Rip off "sticks" not larger than with a cross-section the same size as a thumb.

Now, the solid fuel needs to be molten and the sticks can be "cooked" for about 10-15 minutes to make sure the fuel is absorbed into the wood. Make sure you don't heat up the fuel too much until it catches fire, which is find is quite hard to achieve with candle wax. If you don't want to waste your precious Maya sticks, the obtained sticks can be split into smaller "splinters" before using them. Or you can use your stick to make a maya feather stick.

Candle wax:

Off course candle wax itself is a good choice to keep your fire going. You can drench anything that absorbs it, to make it burn slower (burns longer) and become more wind resistant. The drenched materials will act as an enlarged wick.

You can now use these "fire keepers" to start to build up your fire place. The obtained flame should stay on long enough for you to light up larger branches and even logs, if dry.

Step 5: Fire As Light - Emergency Candles

For centuries, fire is used as a source of light. Although most people don't use fire anymore as functional lights. In a survival or camping situation fire can still be a great source of light. And for those party people out there, these candles make excellent party tricks.

Tuna can:

The best party trick and optionally longest burning candle of the three. Make sure you are using a can of tuna on oil and puncture a hole in the middle. A piece of rolled up paper towel will act as the wick. Put the towel in the hole and wait until it is completely soaked with oil. Once the towel is soaked, it can be lighted. Depending on the can this candle can burn anywhere between half an hour and up and over 2 hours. Once the candle is burned down, the tuna inside is still good to eat.


The butter candle is probably the most likely you're able to make due to the ingredients. As for the tuna can, make a paper towel wick and put this in a stick of butter. Rub the wick up to the top with the butter. This must be done otherwise the candle will stop working as soon as the fire reaches the stick of butter.

Cheese wax candle:

The cheese wax, an emergency candle, or maybe better, a re-purpose candle. This candle is most like a normal candle. Like the other two I also use a paper towel wick for this one. Just sculpt your wax around the wick and once your happy with the shape, light it. Just go crazy with the sculpting. My tip: Secretly eat the last two babybel cheese bites, make a heart or rose shaped candle of the wax and let her find out herself you ate them both once you give her you're home made candle. (I take no responsibility for the consequences.)

Step 6: Usefull Extra's

What if you found the perfect size box for yourself and filled it with everything you need, but there still is some room for more. Here are some things you can put in which can be usefull.

Pencil sharpener:

Instead off making thin pieces of wood using a knife. What about using a pencil sharpener to make shaving of a small twig?


Normally I would put the innertube in the "Keep the fire going"-step, but because it's not really good for nature I will put it here as a last resort. Innertube burns really well and has a good resistance against the elements. It can't become wet and it can withstand much wind when burning. However, when burning innertube gasses are produced which are not healthy to breathe. So don't try to use this unless you don't see any other options.

Step 7: Example - My Personal Tinderbox

So now we covered all parts of fire making using stuff out of a tinderbox. Like I said before, I normally use an old storage can for cutting disks. The content of this box hasn't changed in the last two years. So to give an example of a possible tinderbox here is what I take with me:

  • Char cloth
  • Birch bark, rolled up in a tin ring
  • Fire steel
  • Old hack saw blade, to use with the fire steel
  • Maya sticks
  • Pencil sharpener
  • Candle wicks
  • Candle wax, I sometimes use this to rub on wood or other stuff to instantly create some kind of 'longer' burning thing
  • Inner tube, I try not to use this since it's not really good for the environment
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