Fire Lighting and Steel Making

Vikings for all occasions, no spark too bright

Manaraefan Herred

Flints and steels

Most people wear a pouch on their belts, this can contain a number of useful items, car keys, loose change, mobile phone?, all the normal things 'you' as a 21st Century person don't want to leave around. The public are however very curious about such things, and to save some embarrassment, I wanted at least the top half of my pouch to contain the kind of items that should be in there.

I decided to keep string, and a flint and steel. String's easy, wool, flax or hemp, even the flint is easy, the garden's got tons of the stuff in it, but then came the problem; what kind of steel do I need to be able to produce sparks.

I tried the flint on almost every thing metal I had. The websites and survival books supply lots of information, but don't really go into this subject at all well, in general they say that 'strike a piece of steel, ie a knife blade, with a flint and it will produce sparks which can then be used to ignite the tinder'. Try this at home, but please take all the precautions necessary (especially to protect your eyes) and you will find out just how reliable that information was.

The flint needs to be fairly hard, a deep blue colour appears to work best, too black and the flint shatters, to light and it looses it's cutting edge. Knapp the flint; for the less skilled like me wear goggles and hit a big block of flint with a hammer until the right shape appears. This should be a lump the size of your fist, with a nice clean square edge on it. The steel will be stuck against this edge, to take off a very thin curl of metal, which should be ignited by the friction of the impact.

The sparks should be a warm yellow in colour, and should last for a while. Smaller brighter sparks are caused by the metal being too hard, and the curls being that much smaller. If the metal is too soft, then you don't get enough friction, hence no spark. If the carbon content is too low you again no spark, or if the steel is too hard you again get no spark. That is the basic theory of it. Getting the steel right was for me the difficult bit. The steel needs to have a very high carbon content. Old files, preferably woodworking ones, are good; the temper appears to be about right for this application. You will get sparks off most files, but that is mainly the file teeth being removed - small bits of metal producing very glittery sparks but with no real heat. The striking surface needs to be smooth so that a good curl of metal can be removed. Once you have found both a flint and a piece of steel which work well together, you will need to make it into the correct shape.

Basic Shape for Steel

Four fingers should fit within the curves of the steel, and the thumb should rest on one of the re-curved ends. If you have the skill to forge metal, then just copy the shape and set the temper as if it is a woodworking tool, anneal the curved bits. If not then you will have to try to make sure that the striking edge of the steel does not loose it's original temper, ie keep that bit cool. Take your old file and, using an angle-grinder, smooth the surface and make the basic shape as closely as the metal allows. Heat the ends on a gas ring and bend them carefully to shape. This can be done with a couple of pairs of pliers. Try to keep the heat away from the main striking edge; holding that point with one of the sets of pliers should sink enough heat out of the metal to aid in this. Keeping the curved ends thin means you will require less heat to shape them. Do not cool straight into water as this will make the metal very brittle. Air cooling the ends makes them softer and less likely to break in your hands when using the steel. Well that's your basic steel made, now all we've got to do now it learn how to use it. I am told that wrapping the flint in charred linen works best, but this will take a lot of practice. Best of luck.

Flint and steel update

As we have now made several sets of steels, which seem to work very well, and we are now regularly lighting fires with them, it seems a good time to record our new findings.

The steel used for Steels should be good quality, high carbon steel, the sort of stuff very old woodworking rasps are made out of, or possibly old cart springs. Most modern files and indeed most modern steels are complex alloys, which may not work properly. If the metal type is correct you should be able to work it at an orange heat, with the hammer, until it's in the right shape. It might be a good idea to 'soak' the metal in the fire for a while before trying to work it, to relieve any stresses present. However you make your Steel, heat it to a red heat and leave it beside the fire to cool slowly. Once cool clean it up with a file, rounding edges next to fingers etc (leave the striking edges sharp).

Now your Steel is made you need to harden it. It needs to be hard to produce the hot sparks you want. Prepare a bucket of water and heat the Steel to a dull red heat, pick it up with tongs and drop it into the bucket! Well done, its now finished. You can re-harden the Steel at any time as it wears down.

To light a fire with a Flint and Steel you need to prepare your tinder. We have had good results with baked linen, as the initial spark catching material. You will need a smallish tin box (old tobacco tins are good but sadly inauthentic) with a tightly fitting lid in which you can punch a small hole. Fill this with linen and place in the fire, leave until no more thick smoke issues from the hole, then hook it out of the fire and leave to cool. Your linen should be a very dark brown or a black colour. Test a piece with your Flint and Steel to see if it's done. I am told King Alfred's apples (a black round fungi found on ash trees) also make excellent tinder, whatever you use, it must be very dry.

Once you have your initial tinder you will need some very fine wood shavings or other fibrous material, as the next flammable stage, again it must be very dry. If you wrap a handful of this in a piece of birch bark its both easier to hold and also helps with the draft. The smouldering linen is placed, either on a layer of shavings or directly on the birch bark, more shavings go on top and the bark can be loosely wrapped into a tube. If you need to blow the shavings do so from a distance as your damp breath will not help. As soon as it is burning well, dump the shavings onto your fireplace and start adding thin dry twigs in the usual way.

KORMAK

Comments on this site should be sent to Roger Barry

Fire Lighting

There were several ways of making fire in the Dark Ages, banging rocks together to create a spark, rubbing sticks together to generate heat or the preferred method of striking iron or steel against stone.  Before we look at the preferred method let us briefly discard the other methods.

Rubbing sticks together, even when using a bow, requires a fair amount of physical effort and once an easier method was available was quickly dropped by man who would prefer to idle about waiting for something to eat.

Banging rocks together, preferably hard rocks such as flint, produces a spark but its heat is low and the sparks die quickly.  If you bang two flints together at night or in a darkened room you will see that they produce a fat orange spark which maybe last for  a tenth or fifth of a second, not long for it to land on something flammable.

Flint struck with a steel or striker, produces a bright yellow spark that lasts at least half a second, plenty of time to set light to flammable material.  The spark is a tiny piece of steel scrapped from the striker, the energy imparted from the human being striking the steel against the flint creates enough friction heat to cause the steel to burn.  This is because it is concentrated into a very small space; however it is amazing to think that a human being can make steel burn!

What do you need and how’s it done?

A piece of flint, it can be of any size that can be comfortably held at the tips of the fingers of one hand and preferably with a good sharp edge.

A steel or striker; this must have a flat or slightly rounded edge on the side that will strike the flint and be about an eighth of an inch, or a little more, thick.

Some char-cloth, this is linen that has been baked in an oven until it is black similar to charcoal.  Other materials can be used, some fungi’s work well but I shall stick with what I know.

Some kindling for the fire, wood shavings are good for starting a fire.  Small slivers of wood and then small sticks, larger sticks and finally logs.

Take the flint and a piece of char-cloth approximately two inches square and hold them in one hand with the flint on top of the char-cloth. You want a good edge of the flint away from the hand so that it may be struck without injury to yourself.  The edge of the linen should be frayed as this may help catch a spark, I say “may” as you will have no control over where sparks land and may only know you have achieved success when you feel your hand burning!

From a height of no more than twelve inches bring the striker down sharply so that the edge catches the flint.  You do not need to put all your weight into the blow, no more effort is required than that used when clapping.  The aim is to scrape off small pieces of steel with enough force to generated, through friction, sufficient heat to make the steel burn, this doesn’t require as much effort as you might think.  Practice making sparks with the flint and steel before you try to get the linen to burn.  The linen is fragile and will soon break up and become dust under your pounding.

Keep striking the flint with the steel until a spark lands on the linen, this should start the linen smouldering. Gently blow on the smouldering linen or wave it about in the air until you think you have enough of the linen burning to start your fire.

Now gently bow air on to the linen with your mouth, a bellows or a fan. You should quickly see smoke, this is the wood beginning to smoulder, keep blowing and as more of the wood smoulders increase the force of the blowing.  This is to increase the oxygen getting to the smouldering wood; it should soon burst into flame. 

Steel

With care you should have the fire big enough to consider putting a pot of water over it in about ten minutes, weather conditions and the quality of your wood will affect how long it takes.

The difficult part of this is getting a spark that lands on the linen.  It is one of those skills that you have to practice often; you will fail many times and then suddenly find you can do it every time with only three or four strikes, sometimes less.  Strangely you will not be able to say what you are doing differently to the time before you could do it.  If you light a fire this way every time you have a chance you will soon become proficient.

HROTHGAR

You should of course have already decided where you are going to build your fire and set the kindling and fuel to hand.  Place the linen in the centre of the planned fire and place some of the wood shavings on top of it.

When it does place the smaller slivers of wood into the flames, as the flames increase add bigger and bigger pieces of wood.  Make sure you continue to force air into the fire, when it is small it will quickly die back as soon as all the fuel is consumed so pay attention to it.