Anyone who's started a camp or cooking fire with petroleum jelly impregnated cotton balls (a.k.a. "Great Balls of Fire, or "GBOF" for short) knows just how awesome they are. All they need is a little spark--not even a flame--and you'll get a good, hot fire going to catch your kindling. Using these, you can usually skip the whole tinder-bundle step unless you're dealing with damp or punk wood, and you'll have a good fire going even in less than ideal conditions. As useful as they are, GBOF take some preparation and can get messy, especially if stored for long periods in a hot climate.
This simple project takes the GBOF a step further by making them portable, water-proof, multi-duty use and compact. An hour in front of the TV will have you producing enough of these to last an entire season.
Here's what you'll need:
1. Petroleum jelly (any brand)
2. Regular cotton balls
3. Drinking straws
4. Chopstick (or other narrow object with a blunted end)
7. Pliers (should have jaws which close tightly)
Step 1: Prep the Cotton
1. Using sharp scissors, cut each cotton ball in half, then pull each half into a loose tuft. It's OK if the tufts fall into pieces.
2. Swipe the cotton tuft into the petroleum jelly. The trick here is to apply only enough to "scare" it...you don't want it completely saturated.
3. Roll the tuft of cotton with the small amount of petroleum jelly around with your fingers to work it into the fibers. Again, the goal isn't to saturate it, but get it damp enough so the cotton is no longer "fluffy". Use the cotton to wipe the excess off your fingers and back into itself.
Step 2: Load the Straws
Now to load the petroleum impregnated cotton into the soda straws...
1. Cut the straws into lengths no longer than three inches. This size fits very easily into Altoids tins, and any more than three inches won't increase your burn time by much.
2. Twist one end of the cotton tuft into a point, and insert it into the straw. Use a chopstick to coax it all the way in, leaving a gap of about a 1/4" from the opening of the straw to the cotton.
3. Using pliers, grasp the straw approximately 1/8" from the end and close tightly. If petroleum jelly leaks out, use another piece of cotton to wipe it away.
4. Hold the end of the straw near an open flame of a candle. You don't want to ignite the straw, only get it close enough to the end to melt it.
5. Hold the pliers closed for several seconds to allow the plastic to cool. This will create a seal. You'll know if it didn't seal properly due to visible gaps or spots on the end--just repeat step 4 to create a seal.
Step 3: Load the Straws (pt 2)
1. Working from the open end of the straw, continue feeding parts of the impregnated cotton ball into it, using a chopstick to tamp it down as you go. You don't want to pack it too tightly...in the second pic you can somewhat make out the compressed bit of cotton on the sealed end, with the dark line of the chopstick visible.
2. Continue to pack, leaving approximately 1/4" gap from the end of the straw. I've found a 3" length of straw will exactly hold a half cotton ball. Excess petroleum jelly can be wiped off the straw and your fingers with the *next* piece of cotton you're preparing...this won't be an issue if you're not saturating them.
Step 4: Sealing
Now that you've packed the cotton inside, it's time to seal the straw. This will make it water-proof and single-use.
1. Grasp the open end with your pliers, leaving approximately 1/8" gap as in the previous steps. Hold it *near* (not on) an open flame--close enough to melt the plastic, but not so close as to ignite it.
2. Remove from the flame and keep the pliers closed for several seconds--this will complete the seal.
3. Congratulations--you've made a fire straw! Your first one will take the longest--as you make more, you'll get much faster.
So now what?
Step 5: How to Use Firestraws
These are simple to use to start a fire, even in less-than-ideal conditions. As with any fire outdoors, check local conditions first and use a fire *only* in the areas set aside for them (i.e. fire ring or pan) and *only* if the situation warrants one. Once these are lit, they can be very difficult to put out!
Important: Make sure your kindling (pencil-sized sticks) and wood up to wrist thickness is already at hand. You don't want to start a fire only to realize you don't have enough fuel prepared. A general rule for camp and cook fires is once you think you have enough, go get three times as much.
1. Using a sharp blade, slice the straw lengthwise leaving the sealed ends intact.
2. With the end of the blade, tease the cotton up through the cut to "fluff it up". Don't worry if you don't see or feel the petroleum jelly--it's there.
3. Continue to fluff it up, creating as much surface area as practical while keeping most of the cotton still within the straw. Don't let the fibers clump or mash together.
4. Using any spark (even from a broken lighter), set it alight! You'll be surprised at just how quickly these catch with minimal effort.
Step 6: How to Use Firestraws - Burn Rates
A three inch length of soda straw will contain a half cotton ball. As long as the cotton isn't saturated (only "scared" with petroleum jelly), the burn times are approximately four minutes--plenty of time to add kindling and get the fire going properly. These burn *hot* and are great for getting even damp wood going. The photos were taken in a controlled environment (kitchen sink), but show in sequence:
1. Immediately after lighting
2. One minute
3. Two minutes
4. Three minutes
5. Four minutes
Shorter lengths will have less burn time, but will give you an even lighter option and potentially more "fires in your pocket".
These have other uses besides fire, such as lip balm or removing gear squeaks. Just cut off a sealed end and squeeze--the petroleum jelly will ooze out for use.
Enjoy, and BE SAFE OUT THERE!