How to use a Fire Steel (With Video)
A lot of people think fire starters are straight forward and simple to use. They really are not, and it takes some practice and proper technique to get competent with their use. A lot of people have spent cold and hungry nights because they did not know the proper method. When you purchase a fire steel the very first thing you need to do is remove the coating by scraping down the steel until you see a distinct color change. The very first time you use it you may experience frustration. Spark-based fire starting isn’t immediately easy, and many people find they can’t light wood; they can’t light anything, except tissue paper or store bought fire starting products. When out in the field, starting a fire with a fire steel or cold and damp materials, seems impossible. This is not the time to learn.
The most effective ways to use a fire steel properly is by recognizing that there are some common basics used. All of them involve transferring as much heat as possible, as quickly as possible, into the material to be ignited, and in as concentrated of a spot as possible. Preparation of the material and striking technique is going to be the key to your success.
The technique which works best for all tinder’s, even damp material, is to put the end of the rod directly in the tinder, and scraping the striker along the rod, right down into the tinder. This, subsequently, does not give the sparks a chance to cool in the air. Remember, we want to put hot sparks in the tinder quickly. Sparks in the air cool by several hundred degrees in milliseconds.
You are not lighting a match. Light-fast strikes of the striker across the fire steel produce an impressive looking shower of sparks, but that is about it.
Make smooth, consistent, slow, forceful strikes. The tip of the rod should be firmly against the tinder allowing you to bear down on the rod. This method puts out more sparks and larger sparks in the tinder. You will know you are doing it right when striking the fire steel almost burns your fingertips. With a little practice, scraping the sparks directly down into the tinder and using slow, high-pressure strokes, you will be able to light things other than tissue paper.
Longer rods work better than shorter ones, and larger diameter rods work better than smaller ones. Larger fire steels allow you to strike a larger surface area, and thereby create more sparks per strike. Larger fire steels also allow for a better grip, which lets you strike harder and with more proficiency. The fire steels from Bark River are a good size and work very well. You will not do much better.
Some strikers work better than others. The sharper the striker’s edge, the more sparks it generates. BUT, THAT DOES NOT MEAN TO USE THE BLADE OF YOUR KNIFE! The back edge is sharp enough and works just fine. The harder the striker, the more sparks it generates, so the back edge is much harder than the sharp edge. You can also carry jagged strikers, like a piece of old hacksaw blade. Jagged strikers generate more sparks than smooth strikers. However, keep in mind that jagged strikers quickly tear up the fire steel, and are not really necessary. The back of your knife allows you a better grip and scrapes more forcefully. They work better than smaller strikers which are hard to grip.
Your fire steel can ignite nearly any flammable substance. However, like any fire, your tinder needs to be properly prepared first, as well as the materials to build your fire after the tinder ignites. When you use a fire steel you have to do it correctly, except for a few special cases where you have things on hand like cotton balls, tissue paper, trioxane, and other fire starters.
You can’t ignite solid blocks of combustible material, just as you can’t light a green log with a single match. Ideal tinder will be very low in mass, like dryer lint, there are plenty of similar items that can be found in the wild, and you can even cut very small, very thin shavings. An ideal tinder has a lot of surface area to maximize the chance that a spark lands true and is feathery so that the fire gets plenty of oxygen.
The degree to which you prepare your tinder . . . shred/tear/unravel/shave/scrape/etc., your solid combustible materials into low density, hairy shavings, will be directly proportional to the ease of igniting that material as tinder from a spark.
Along with removing the original coating, fire steels develop a thin layer of corrosion, when not used for a while. It takes a few strikes to wear through the corrosion layer. I strike mine in the air a few times before I start each time. Well-used fire steels work better than new ones. After a fire steel is well worn, one or more flat planes will be worn into the circular cylinder. This is a good thing. The surface area of a strike against these flat planes is many times larger and will produce many more sparks.
If the weather is exceedingly cold and the tinder is damp, it may not be possible to ignite the tinder in a single strike; instead, conditions may call for striking the fire steel multiple times in rapid succession. By doing this, you heat and dry the tinder, raising its temperature until a strike can bring it to ignition.
It is fairly obvious, in windy or rainy conditions, that you must keep your tinder and fire steel protected or they will get blown away in strong winds while trying to ignite them.
As we always say be safe by being prepared. Practice before you go. The Fire Steel’s we used are available through Bark River Knife and Tool
Copyright © 2010 by Steven L. Doran All rights reserved under international and Pan-American copyright conventions. No part of this article may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means without written permission from the author Steven L. Doran.