Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Char Cloth

For most methods of fire starting, a light, fluffy tinder works just fine, but for some of the more primitive methods, fluff provides less than satisfactory results. The more primitive the method, the worse these results tend to be. For those methods, a different type of tinder can provide far better results, and that tinder is known as char cloth.

Char cloth is to fabric what charcoal is to wood. They are created through the same process: the material is baked at a high heat, in a low-oxygen environment that does not allow the cloth to actually burn. This drives hydrogen, oxygen, and other compounds out of the material, and what is left behind is almost pure carbon.

This carbon fabric has a low ignition point and burns slowly, which means that it will catch readily with a spark, but hold an ember long enough to ignite a traditional tinder bundle. This becomes important when firestarting methods like bow drills and fire pistons are employed.

While there are limited sources for char cloth online, it is fairly simple to make for yourself. All you need is 100% cotton fabric (think "old t-shirt"), a metal container that seals fairly well, and a source of heat.

An Altoids tin, snus can, or anything similar is an ideal container for making char cloth. The only real requirement is full metal construction and a snug-fitting lid. Make a small hole in the lid of the container, 1/8" diameter or less. This allows the expanding gases to escape the container instead of blowing the lid off.

For the heat source, a fire works great, as does a barbecue grill. Making charcloth indoors isn't the best idea, as the process creates smoke and odors. A properly vented fireplace will do the job, but other than that, this is an outdoor project. The important part is that you want as much heat as you can get.

  1. Cut your fabric into pieces that fit into your container. I find that rough 1" squares are a pretty good size.
  2. Put them into the tin until it is full. They don't have to be loose, but don't pack them so tight that they compress in the tin. 
  3. Close the lid and put your tin on the heat.
  4. In a very short time, smoke should begin escaping from the hole in the lid. 
  5. Once the smoke stops, remove your tin from the heat and allow it to cool, while leaving the lid closed. 
    • Warning: Opening the lid and adding oxygen while the cloth is still hot can allow the entire tin to catch fire!
  6. Once the tin has cooled, open it and inspect your finished product. It should be black and a bit delicate, without being crumbly.  
    • If it isn't a uniform black color, it hasn't finished cooking yet, and needs to go back on the heat.
    • If it is ashy and crumbly, it has been overcooked and is useless.  You'll have to start the process over, removing it from the heat sooner.
From Greywolf on Instructables.com

Care and Keeping
Store your char cloth in a waterproof container. It can be cut into smaller pieces if needed, or used full size. Unlike most tinders, it won't catch flame when it catches spark, but instead will create a hot, smoldering ember that is gently nursed into flame in a tinder bundle. It takes a bit more work, but makes primitive firemaking far, far more successful.
Next week, we'll show it in use.


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