Fire Piston (Made From Aluminium)




Introduction: Fire Piston (Made From Aluminium)

About: I've always liked pulling things apart - it's the putting back together again that I have some issues with!

You may have recently seen my Instructable: Simple Fire Piston that I posted recently. After building it I wanted to try and refine the process further. This Ible’ is a little more difficult but doesn’t need any fancy tools to make. If you have a saw that can cut metal and wood and some files and a drill, you can make one of these.

This Ible’ also includes a small wooden case so I can keep all of the parts together. Plus it would make a pretty neat gift to give to someone.

For those who may be new to a fire piston, what it does is allow you to ignite char cloth without any form of fire. Once the char cloth is lit, then you can use this to light your fire. It works by compressing and heating air until it reaches temperatures of 260°C (500°F). This is hot enough to ignite the char cloth and create an ember which can be used to light your fire.

In step 7 I go through how to make Char cloth.

Check out this link if you would like to learn more about the fire piston.

Step 1: Parts and Tools


1. Aluminium Tube – dimensions 10mm: hardware store

2. Aluminium Rod – dimensions - 6.3mm (1/4 inch). hardware store. The dimensions don't have to be exactly the same as what I used. Just get something as close as possible.

3. Wooden Dowel – dimensions 8mm hardware store

4. Small door knob. hardware store

5. O ring – Hardware store, eBay. Best to buy a bunch of assorted ones as this will give you more options. I found the O rings I purchased from eBay worked very well.

6. Wooden box. eBay

7. Foam – hardware store. I used some foam from an old cushion

8. Small tin – eBay. I just used a small mint tin.

9. Small bottle – eBay

10. Silicone plumbers grease (this is to lubricate the O ring). You can add motor oil but I've been told that this can break down the O ring. You can buy this at any hardware store (plumbing section)


1. Grinder

2. Drill

3. Epoxy glue

4. Hand saw

5. Files (small ones)

6. Sandpaper – 240 grit

7. Vice

8. Stanley knife or exacto knife

9. Hammer

Step 2: Making the Cylinder - Filing

The cylinder is the aluminium tube that the piston is pushed into.


1. Cut a piece of the tube with the grinder and make it approximately 160mm. This will be the main body of the cylinder. Just as a side note, I have made shorter ones 130mm and it worked fine. It was however a little trickier to get it to work so I suggest start will a longer one. Reason being, the air gets compressed more in a longer tube.

2. The next step is to file the ends of the tube. You want to remove any burrs and make the ends smooth and flat. I found that the best way to do this was to put the tube into a vice and with a small flat file carefully grind away.

Tapering the Cylinder End

1. To allow easy access for the piston rod and O ring, you will need to taper the inside of the tube. I just used a small, rounded file and tapered the inside. I then just some sandpaper to smooth the edges. You want to have the tapered edge as smooth as possible so the O ring doesn’t catch and rip.

Step 3: Making the Cylinder - Handle

The first one that I made like this I didn’t add the knob to the end of the cylinder. Bad mistake as the inside of my palm was killing me after several attempts. I decided to add a small door knob to the end of this one. If you look at other fire pistons on the net, you can see that I do this differently than most as they usually attach the knob to the rod. I find it works well the way I do it but if you wanted to, you could just add the knob to the end of the rod as well.

This step goes though how to block off one end of the tube


1. You will need to modify the knob so it fits better on the dowel. First cut off the tapered part of the knob. Once you remove this, you should see a hole in the bottom of the top of the knob.

2. Use an 8mm drill piece and enlarge the hole and make it big enough so the dowel can fit tightly inside it.

3. Epoxy the dowel into place and leave to dry

4. Once dry, shorted the dowel if necessary (you only need about 15mm sticking out of the knob, taper the end of the dowel so it will be easier to get inside the tube and add some epoxy to the dowel.

5. Push the tube onto the dowel and with a hammer; lightly tap the top of the rod into the dowel. It's also a good idea to slightly round the edges of the dowel so the glue have something to grab and it also helps with installing into the rod. Once the rod is to the bottom of the dowel, leave to dry for a couple hours

6. Lastly, you can either add some bees wax or lacquer to the end to protect it.

Step 4: Making the Piston - O Ring


1. The piston should be the same length as the cylinder. This will ensure that the piston is long enough. Mark and cut off any excess.

2. Next file both ends of the rod so they are smooth and free of burrs.

3. The best way to make the groove I found was to use the side of a small, thin file. Put the end into a drill and secure the drill in a vice. Push the side of the file against the aluminium rod and move it up and down slowly. Take your time and don’t go too deep or wide. The groove should only be as wide as the O ring.

4. Stop and check regularly. Once you have an even groove, remove the rod from the drill and add the O ring to the groove. If the O ring sits even in the groove, then you are ready to see if it fits into the tube. HERE’S THE IMPORTANT BIT. Make sure you add a little bit of oil to the O ring. This will ensure that it moves easily and smoothly inside the tube. I didn’t do this initially and my O ring kept on getting stuck inside.

5. To test you need to push the rod into the tube. You should feel a “cushion” of compressed air as you push the rod down. This will force the rod to bounce back up again. If you find that the rod isn’t bouncing back, or that it’s too hard to push into the tube, then you will either need to make the groove larger or start again. Don’t despair if your first couple don’t work, getting the seal right will probably take a couple turns. You will know though when it is right as soon as you feel the “cushion” of air forcing the piston back up again.

Step 5: Making the Piston - Hole for Char Cloth

To ensure the char cloth has a place to sit, you need to drill a hole into the end of the aluminium piston.


1. Secure the piston in a vice

2. Find the centre of the piston and mark it with a centre punch

3. Carefully drill a hole into the end. It needs to be about 10mm deep. Remember, it needs to be big enough to hold the char cloth in place. I used a 4.5mm drill piece to make the hole

4. I also discovered through error that if you put a small groove on the top of the hole as shown in the images, it can make the char cloth easier to make. I'd suggest though to just make the hole as usual and if you do find it hard to light the char cloth, you could try adding a groove to help lighting the cloth

Step 6: Making the Piston - Adding a Knob

So now you should have a fire piston that works. To find out how you can test it out – go to step 10

After a little testing you will probably discover that it would be handy to have another knob on the end of the piston as well.


1. As per step 3, cut off the tapered part of the knob. Once you remove this, you should see a hole in the bottom of the top of the knob.

2. If necessary, file the cut section

3. Add some epoxy to the inside of the hole and push the end of the piston into the hole.

4. Leave to dry for a few hours.

5. Lastly, you can either add some bees wax or lacquer to the end to protect it.

Step 7: Making Char Cloth

Making char cloth is super easy and there are plenty of good instructions on the net on how to make it.

Check out this wikipedia link to see how it all works


1. First cut up some cloth. 100% cotton is the way to go. Cut up the cloth into small pieces.

2. Next grab a small tin like a tobacco tin and make a small hole in the top. Place the cut up cloth into the tin and place the lid on top.

3. Place the tin onto a fire source. You'll start to first see some smoke and then a flames come out the hole. Once the flame has died down and gone out you then should block the hole with a stick. The reason being the char cloth can start to smolder and ignite once it has been removed from the fire.

4. That's it! Your char cloth is ready to use in your fire piston.

5. Lastly, I placed the char cloth into a small tin which keeps it dry and secure.

Step 8: Char Cloth "Picking" Tool

In order to get the Char cloth out of the rod, it’s best if you have a little picking tool to pull it out.


1. Grab a piece of brass rod and squash the end in a vice

2. File the flat section to remove any lumps or burrs and also round the end of the picker

3. Lastly, slightly bend the flat section as shown in the pictures below.

Step 9: Making the Box

Actually, you don’t need to make the box as you can just buy on one eBay. You will however need to cut the foam to fit the fire piston, tin, oil, char cloth and picking tool. I designed 2 different types of boxes. One I just added some Danish oil to bring out the grain, the other I painted red and added some "Semiotics" I only recently discovered what these were after reading Dave Addey's magnificent blog titled - Typesets of the Future. In it he reviews the typography of different movies, one of them being Alien. A artist called Ron Cobb came up with some iconography he called the Semiotic standard. They are a way of communicating with images. Anyhow I decided to create my own for this project which can be seen in the below image.


1. Cut the foam so it fits into the box

2. Mark-out the area’s you will need to cut out. You’ll need to have a spot for the piston, tin, oil and picker

3. Cut out the area’s with an exacto knife

4. Glue the foam into the box

5. Place all of the parts into the box.


Step 10: Other Box Designs

I designed 2 different types of boxes. One I just added some Danish oil to bring out the grain, the other I painted red and added some "Semiotics" I only recently discovered what these were after reading Dave Addey's magnificent blog titled - Typesets of the Future. In it he reviews the typography of different movies, one of them being Alien. A artist called Ron Cobb came up with some iconography he called the Semiotic standard. They are a way of communicating with images. Anyhow I decided to create my own for this project. They're no where near as cool as Rob Cobb's designs but it was fun to come up with some of my own designs.

Step 11: Using Your Fire Piston

So now you’ve finished your piston, it’s time to get it to work. It does take a little practice but once you get it, it should work for you each time. Don’t be put off if it doesn’t work straight away though.

Here’s what you do:


1. Place a small piece of char cloth into the drilled hole in the piston. What I do is tear a small strip off the chat cloth and roll it up. IMPORTANT: after a lot of trial and error, I discovered that the char cloth lights best when below the rim of the hole in the piston. Make should it is pushed into the hole and that there is no char cloth hanging over the edge.

2. Add a little oil to the O ring. You don’t have to do this each time, just the first time or until the O ring is dry.

UPDATE - As DaBoSSs has mentioned in the comments below, it's better to use silicone grease instead. It won't break down the rubber like motor oil will. However, just use motor oil if that's all you have around - I have been and it seems to do the job well.

3. Push the end of the piston into the tube just to the O ring is inside

4. Grab hold of the tube in on hand and put the knob of the piston into you palm

5. Give the piston a quick push down

6. Immediately remove the piston and check the char cloth to see if it is lit

7. If it is isn't try it again

Step 12: Troubleshooting

If you are having issues getting the Char cloth to light, then check out the below hints

There is no push back (compression) on the piston

You should always feel the piston pushing back when you go to push it in. If not, you may need to try the following:

- Add a little oil to the O ring

- Remove some of the oil by wiping the piston. It can get dirty and you can lose compression.

- Pull the O ring out of the groove, clean it and put it back.

- Re-visit the groove that you added. If you aren’t getting any compression, it could be because the groove is too deep.

- Change the O ring

Can’t get the piston into the tube

- It could mean that you need to make the groove larger. Check and make sure that there are no bumps on the groove and that it is a smooth as possible. It doesn’t have to be perfect though.

- Add some oil

- Check the size of your O ring

I’ve pushed down a hundred times and still nothing

- When you push the piston into the tube you need to make sure that it is a quick, sharp action. Push down hard but don’t try to hold it down, let the piston come up naturally which it will because of the compression.

- Check you char cloth. If it doesn’t light after a few pushes then change it.

- Try a different method. There isn’t one sure way to get the char cloth to ignite so find what works best for you.

- Try a different sized O ring, or replace the one you are using.

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    6 years ago

    Use silicon plumbers grease instead of engine oil. All petroleum based oils will make the O-ring break down, silicone plumbers grease will not. also lasts longer on the O-ring and not as messy.


    6 years ago

    Wow that is to much work to attach a handle with all those dowels in the pull handle and trying to mount it to the solid stock. There is a much easier way to make one using a 1/2 inch copper pipe bib, a 5/8 inch wood dowel, drawer pull handle and the 1/2 inch OD O rings. Here is a video of it on youtube also.

    When you go to the hardware store to buy a half inch dowel they are no
    longer half inch anymore, after the milling/sanding process. But instead a half
    inch are 3/8 inches now and with a rubber O ring on the dowel you dont
    get a good seal anymore in the copper pipe. There is to much space
    between them and air sucks into the pipe. If anything you have to
    probably buy a 5/8 dowel rod which is slightly bigger than half inch and
    sand it down until you finally get a nice fit in the copper pipe. What I did was using coarse grit sandpaper I started sanding the dowel a few inches at a time starting at one end, rotating it as I sanded it to keep it round to avoid getting a flat spot in one area. After a few minutes I took the dowel and tried to insert it into the copper pipe. Then using a Sharpie marker just marked around the pipe then continued to sand the dowel more every few inches until I could get the entire dowel to slide inside the pipe loosely without it getting caught up within the pipe. Then marking about 1/2 or 5/8 inch from the end I marked my line for my O ring.

    After I tried several attempts to make mine using a small Miter saw, a
    multi tool tree saw, and pocket knife. The hack saw and the multi tool
    saw blade were just a slight bit to thick for the O ring and had to either use
    Plumbing Dope Tape to fill in the loose gaps between the dowel and O ring. With the pocket knife is
    very clumsy and you risk either cutting and slipping, or not getting a
    straight cut all the way around the dowel. I found the best tool to cut
    my groove was a 6' Craft Coping Saw which is just the right width as the
    O ring itself. Then using a small flat hobby file I slowly sanded the groove down until I got the O ring to fit just right. This is where a pack of 10 O rings come in handy. At first while I tried to get the groove depth just right with the file, and trying to do test fits to see if I needed to file it down more. At first few attempts the groove wasnt deep enough and at first the dowel would fit just nice, but when it came to taking it out the O ring would buckle inside the pipe as it would roll out of the groove and break in half. So after a few more times of filing the groove down and test fitting it, youll break several of the O rings. Thats why its best to buy the multipak instead of just 1 or 2 O rings. Once you finally have the fit just right.

    I used a drill bit size half the width of the dowel and drilled a
    small hole about 3/4's the length form the end to the O ring and drilled in the end of the rod for my charcloth to fit into and sanded
    it smooth. Then using a drill bit the size of a wire hanger or a turkey lace pin which I use as my prick pin. I drilled the hole in the side of the dowel in center from the end of the dowel and the O ring. I had a turkey lace pin left over from a few years ago which I thought would work great for this. And the turkey lace pins come in small or large sizes. You want to use the smaller size for if you use the large size you risk drilling to big of a hole in the side of your dowel and shattering the tip. Then your left with having to recut another O ring groove and do the process all over again. For those who dont know what a turkey lace pin is here is. What with the holidays coming up Im sure there will be plenty of them laying around for everyone to use. They are used to tie up the turkey legs and wings to the body while its cooking. Here is a link to show you for those who dont know what they are.

    Then using the drawer pull handle it usually comes with a pan head screw. I just cut the head off the screw using my hack saw and grind the end to a point tip . Then I screwed the one end into the pull handle and then placing the dowel in my vise to keep it straight drilled a hole a size smaller then the screw and then screwed the handle to the dowel. Afterwards I sanded, stained it and spray lacquer the dowel and
    finished putting it all together. Then I just made a custom leather pouch to keep all my fire making tools altogether instead of spread all over the house trying to find them when I needed them. For I had an old Boy Scout fire piston in my fishing tackle which back then was mainly made of plastic and over the years of being in the shed in the heat, and age became brittle which made me want to make a better piston. So rather than looking for them in camping, fishing tackle or where ever. I made a pouch to keep my fire piston, flint n steel, magnesium striker, charcloth, Vaseline, and spare O rings all together in one place.

    I hope this helps anyone looking to make their own fire piston or any other ideas they may have.

    Good luck


    Reply 6 years ago

    I think this comment wins hands down as the longest I've seen! You are right though, this isn't a simple fire starter. Check out the link in the intro though if you want to see how to make one (This is mine also). This version is more slimline and has a better finish though.

    If you have any pictures of the one you have made, are you able to post them? If not, you should write up your own ible' over the thanksgiving holidays.


    Reply 6 years ago

    I did make my own as I mentioned in my first post. I used the copper pipe bib and wood dowel. Ill see if I have a pic to post it along with the custom leather pouch I made for my fire making tools.

    fire pouch3.jpg
    Anirudh Ralhan
    Anirudh Ralhan

    6 years ago

    Great like the previous one... Good work :D


    Reply 6 years ago

    Cheers mate!


    6 years ago

    really nice instructions on how to make something vital for survival. in pioneer America , there were no matches, instead they used flint and steel to start a fire , then kept it going. neighbors would occasionally have to borrow embers from an existing fire and they had to carry it home in a bed of flammable materials wrapped tightly in leather so it would just smolder till it got home.

    the flint and steel method works great with charcloth and your fabrication method is simple and effective. actual;fire starting with the glowing ember is tougher than it would seem but with plenty of small pieces of tinder to catch, then a store of progressively larger bits and chunks you can build a fire that will keep you warm and keep bears away. its important to practice survival techniques before they are needed, so dont set the house on fire and be ready to put it out with ten times as much water as you think it would take. children shoudn't play with matches, but i live in Oklahoma where tornadoes, wind storms, ice storms,floods and now major earthquakes make it a necessity to train kids to have a bug out bag and knowledge of how to take care of them-self.,


    Reply 6 years ago

    Thanks. I've used flint and steel plenty of times as well. Does take a little practice to get the embers to catch - the right amount of tinder definitely helps.

    Oklahoma sounds like a crazy place man