Random pebbles as fire scraping tools

After watching several youtube videos about using stainless steel to strike sparks from a ferro rod, and reading a bunch of comments claiming that it is impossible to get any sparks using stainless steel, and that the steel used in the videos must have been some kind of bad quality fake stainless steel with very high carbon content, I decided to make a video about using some random pebbles from my front yard as fire scraping tools.

For the test I picked ten small stones of unknown mineral content. Each of the stones had some rough edges, but none of them were particularly sharp. Then I used them to scrape my trusty ferro rod. I’d have expected at least some of the stones to fail the test, but to my rather mild surprise, every single one of them produced a nice shower of sparks with the ferro rod, proving that it is absolutely not necessary to have any specific high carbon steel tools to get sparks from a ferro rod.

Since practically any rock is harder than a ferrocerium rod, in order to be able to shave tiny pieces from it, the only thing to remember is to pick stones with at least one relatively sharp edge.

It is truly amazing how hard it is to get rid of once widely spread misinformation.

The world is full of correct information about properties of ferro rods and fire scrapers, as well as about flints and firesteels, but still the misunderstanding of those property differencies seems to prevail. Are people really so information illiterate that they cannot decide which one is more reliable source of information, “Honest prepper Joe’s survival page” or The Smithsonian institute, or such?

It will be interesting to see for how long does it take before someone claims that my pebble video is fake, or that the only reason why I was able to get any sparks was that all of the pebbles were pieces of high carbon iron pyrite.

A modernized version of a tinderbox

Before 1827, and the invention of friction matches by English chemist John Walker, a tinderbox was something to take with you when ever leaving the house. Tinderbox was a more or less weatherproof box, or a can containing everything needed for starting a fire. Typically a flint and firesteel to strike sparks, tinder, such as amadou, charcloth, or finely divided hemp or cotton, and sulphur-tipped matches to catch a fire from smoldering tinder. In short, the tinderbox was the most convenient fire starter kit in its time, equivalent to a butane lighter or a box of matches of today. Due to the fact that generally people want to use the least possible amount of effort to achieve their goals, friction match quickly killed the tinderbox.

I belong to the vast majority of people who see no reason to use flint and firesteel if something easier is available. However, it is quite possible that some day I end up being in a situation in which my butane lighter is empty, and I just ran out of matches. Therefore, I see a modern version of a tinderbox as a reasonable thing to have with me when ever going further than few hours walking distance from civilization. Since my goal is not to relive the good old pre-1827, Instead of trying to copy the original tinderbox, I’m using the most modern, low cost materials available. In fact, when I was done, the only thing left of the old tinderbox was the name. A ferro rod and a fire scraping tool are a lot easier to use than a flint and a firesteel, so, the flint and the firesteel were gone. Due to the fact that a regular cotton swab easily catches fire directly from sparks, any old tinder material, and sulphur-tipped matches, which btw are quite poisonous and no longer available, were also gone. To improve the burning time and intensity, I smeared the cotton swabs with a small amount of vaseline, and packed everything into a waterproof 50 ml plastic tube. And there it was, a fire starter kit, which, despite the fact that none of the used materials were available in the 19th century, can, without a doubt, be called a tinderbox.

In order to see whether my modern tinderbox really works, I first tested the fuel ie. cotton swabs indoors. Plain cotton swab was easy to ignite with two to three strikes of the ferro rod. The problem was that the plain cotton burned in about 30 second with rather lame flame. Vaseline smeared swabs proved to be a lot better. They caught fire as easily as the plain swabs, but burned for a lot longer time, about two minutes, with much more intense flame. Next step was to take the tinderbox outdoors. I did not try the plain swabs, but the vaseline smeared ones worked beautifully. Ignition was easy, and the flame was strong and long lasting enough to start a nice camp fire without any trouble at all.

As a conclusion, I can say that my modern tinderbox is an excellent secondary or tertiary (after the butane lighter and the box of matches) emergency fire starter kit.

Ferro rod “flint” 101

Terminologywise, probably the most confusing, and misunderstood area among hikers. Campers, and survivalists, is an ancient art of producing sparks by hitting two different materials against each other.

Before the iron age, possibly the only way to produce sparks strong enough to ignite anything was to hit an iron containing rocks of iron pyrite, also known as fool’s gold, with a lot harder flint stone.

I don’t know what did the iceman Ötzi and his buddies call their magical spark tools, but definitely, it was not a flint and a striking iron. I would guess something like “Holy magical stones of fire from the Gods”.

Then came the iron age, and with it a lot stronger sparks. Iron pyrite was replaced with a piece of high carbon iron. As in the case with the iron pyrite, the flint acted as a blade, which shaved microscopic pieces of iron from the fire striker, AKA firesteel. So, the source of the sparks was the striking iron, and the tool for separating pyrophoric pieces of iron from it (which can be seen as sparks when the iron burns in contact with the oxygen of the air), was the flint stone.

For about 3000 years, terminology was pretty clear. There was the flint and the striking iron. Then, in 1903, came Carl F. Auer von Welsbach, an Austrian scientist, and messed it all up. He invented an alloy, which contained about 70% of rare earth element called Cerium, and about 30% of iron, and called it Ferrocerium. Ferrocerium was capable of producing much more intense and hot sparks than the good old striking iron. That was the point when it went all wrong with terminology.

People began to call ferrocerium a flint. That is kind of understandable, because for couple of thousand years, something able to produce sparks, when struck with a striking iron, was called the flint. However, despite the fact that striking a ferrocerium rod with a piece of iron produces an intense shower of sparks, one cannot call the ferrocerium rod a flint. It has absolutely nothing to do with flint. Flint is, as I said before, the tool that shaves pieces of iron from the striking iron. In addition to that, flint is a member of a group of very hard rocks, not a piece of man made metal alloy.

In fact, if you want to stick with the old nomenclature, you should call the ferrocerium rod a striking iron, and, whatever material you are using to hit, or scrape the ferro rod with, a flint.

You, dear reader, may ask why I bother to do this academic nitpicking of words with the good old flint?

And I must admit that I have nothing against calling any spark producing device a flint. However, the general misunderstanding of meaning of words, and history behind them, has created hordes of “experts”, who, after seeing your very nice video about starting fire with ferro rod on Youtube, immediately attack you with comments like: a) “Your video is fake, you cannot strike flint with stainless steel. It must be XX% carbon steel.”, b) “In order to get a good striking tool for ferro rod, you must heat a specific kind of metal to an exact temperature of XX degrees, and cool it down for XX time in water/oil/magical secret liquid.”, c) “If you want to start fire with a ferro rod, you must use an ancient Roman design of striking iron, or you are not using true ancient way of starting fire.”

Answers to a, b, and c are:

a) Yes, you cannot strike fire with flint and stainless steel. The flint is supposed to shave, and the metal is supposed to burn. Stainless steel and flint stone do not work. The flint is hard enough though to shave stainless steel, but the stainless steel does not contain enough carbon to make it burn in contact with oxygen. Therefore, you do not get enough tiny high carbon chips of iron to produce any sparks. However, a ferrocerium rod is soft enough to be scraped with a sharp piece of stainless steel (or any other material harder than the rod) to produce an impressive shower of sparks (remember, a ferrocerium rod is not a flint, it is a striking iron). In this case the percentage of carbon has a role in making the steel harder, and therefore, high carbon steel works better than the softer stainless steel, whereas in case of the old striking iron, the coal enabled the metal particles burn better.

b) Another case of mixing two things, which have very little to do with each other. To get sparks with a true flint stone, you need a piece of iron that is in the same time fragile enough to be shaved to tiny pieces by the flint stone, and contain enough carbon to burn well. Therefore, the treatment of iron plays a significant role in the process of producing a good set of fire starters. In case of ferrocerium rods, the only significant properties of the iron (really, the flint) are the hardness and the sharpness. The iron (or any other material) has to be harder than the ferrocerium, and sharp enough to shave tiny pieces from the ferrocerium rod.

c) If you want to start a fire using some ancient method, forget the ferrocerium rod. It was invented in 1903. Using a regular safety match stick is far more ancient than the ferrocerium rod (friction match was invented by English chemist John Walker in 1827). Ferro rod is rather new invention, and trying to scrape fire out of it with anything older than 113 years does not make it ancient, traditional, or genuine. The Greeks, Romans, or anyone living before 1903, started their fires with a true flint stone and a striking iron, and anyone claiming to use genuine ancient methods of starting a fire with a ferro rod, could as well claim that black powder firearm is a true weapon of a cave man.

Now, that the terminology should be clear; in old terms the ferro rod is the striking iron, and anything used for shaving the rod is the flint. I would suggest using the terms ferro rod, and fire scraper. Ferro rod for it’s own uniqueness, and fire scraper for the reasons that a) it does not necessarily have to contain any iron (anything harder than the ferro rod will do), and there is no need to strike anything, scraping is quite enough to produce sparks. The names I suggested would clarify the field a lot. No more sales pitches about “magnesium flints” (some ferro rods contain up to 5% of magnesium, but it does not make them magnesium rods. They still contain about 40% of Cerium, 20% of iron, and a lot of other metals.) And, we may accept that anything producing sparks can be called flint, but really, shouldn’t it be the time to name things for what they are? At least to get rid of comments like “I loved to see you strike sparks from your magnesium flint, but shouldn’t you use a higher carbon content striking iron?”

To end up with something positive, while testing different materials (flints) for their ability to strike, or in reality, scrape sparks from a ferro rod, I discovered that an abandoned dull drill bit was the best tool (flint) to get the most intense shower of sparks with almost every scrape. A drill bit is very, very hard, and it has curvy sharp edges all along it’s shaft. These properties make it almost perfect tool to strike, or, in real world, to gently scrape tiny pieces, ie. sparks, from your ferro rod. Some parts of the curvy sharp edges of the drill bit are almost always in the right angle against the ferro rod to produce a very nice shower of sparks with minimal effort. From now on, my favorite, and the only scraping tool will be an abandoned drill bit.