Fire It Up: How to Make Char Cloth

Char cloth is the camper’s best friend when starting fires using flint and steel.

Last year I wrote a piece on how to season cast iron. A friend of mine is a scoutmaster and brought me a particularly rough looking cast iron pot, which I cleaned up and he was delighted with the results.

“This looks great,” he declared. “Anytime I can help you out like this, just let me know. In fact, if you want to do something on how on make char cloth, I’d be happy to help you by taking it off your hands once you’re done,” he added with a wink.

So what the heck is char cloth?

With the National Boy Scout Jamboree underway this week, it seemed like a good time to try my hand at making this handy tool for starting campfires without matches or accelerants. Heating natural cloths like cotton, jute or linen in the absence of oxygen, the flammable gases cook away. What’s left is an organic material that will easily catch a spark from a flint. Placing squares of cloth in a sealed tin and punching a small hole from which smoke can escape, the result is a boy scout’s best friend — a head start in getting a fire going without matches. The smoke is actually the release of those flammable gases through a process called pyrolysis (the same process used to make charcoal). Science!

Char cloth is a useful tool for scouts, backpackers or survivalists. Small and easy to pack, these fire starters (for use with flint and steel) can mean the difference between ghost stories around a roaring fire and a cold night in the woods.

If camping is on your schedule this summer, char cloth is surprisingly easy to make using a grill, an old t-shirt and a do-it-yourselfer’s friend — the upcycled mint tin.

Follow the simple steps below to make your own char cloth in less than 30 minutes.

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Step 1

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Gather materials. Any small metal container like mint tins, mints, shoe polish, salve container, cosmetics tin, etc. can be used as a nearly airtight cooking container. T-shirts, old towels or denim all work well as char cloth, but must not have any synthetic blends or the char cloth will be more likely to melt than support fire. Use 100% cotton, linen, jute or other natural fiber.

Step 2

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Cut small squares of cotton about 2” in size (or whatever will fit in your metal tin).

Step 3

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Use a hammer and nail or drill with a small bit to make a hole in the top of the tin. This will allow smoke to escape while cooking the cloth. Strictly speaking, Altoids tins (which we use here) are not airtight and will probably work without punching a hole, but many mint, candy, or polish tins have a tighter seal and will pop open as gases expand during the cooking process. Err to the side of caution.

Step 4

 Open GalleryLightly pack cut squares of cotton into the tin. Fill the tin completely, but don’t overpack.

Step 5

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If using a grill, remove the grate to allow access to the burner covers on a gas grill or hot coals of a charcoal grill.

Step 6

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If using a gas grill, turn the burners to high and place the tin directly on the burner shields. For charcoal grills or post-campfire hot embers, place the tin on top of the hot coals. Depending on how hot the grill is, smoke should begin to expel through the punched hole within 10 minutes.

Step 7

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Once the smoke subsides, use tongs to flip the tin over.

Step 8

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Once flipped, the tin will begin to smoke again. Keep an eye on it. As soon as it stops smoking, remove it from the grill or coals. Left too long, the cloth will begin to break down, making it useless as char cloth.

Step 9

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Allow the tin to cool completely before opening.

Step 10

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When the tin is opened, the cloth should be uniformly black. If brown or white spots are visible, the cloth has not released all of its flammable gasses. This will happen if the tin was removed before it stopped smoking or if cloth was too tightly packed. You may try to return the cloth to the grill, but beginning again with fresh cloth is more likely to produce a successful result.

Step 11

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Your char cloth should be ready to go! On a fireproof surface, test char cloth by igniting a piece using flint and steel. It should catch the spark readily and begin to smolder right away.

Step 12

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When using char cloth to start a fire, once it begins to smolder, add a small amount of flammable material like pine straw or dry leaves and blow on the ember gently until fire catches.

Step 13

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Once a flame is visible, you can begin to add kindling and build your fire safely as any good boy scout would. Store char cloth in a small, airtight container easy to carry in your backpack for your next camping trip to easily get that campfire going before the sun goes down. Save me a s’more.

Materials

  • A small metal tin
  • Cotton fabric

Tools

  • Scissors
  • Hammer and nail
  • Grill, waning bonfire or camp stove
  • Tongs
About Mick Telkamp 

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A former Midwesterner living in North Carolina, I write about my adventures in backyard chicken-keeping and suburban homesteading over at HGTVGardens, and my exploits in the culture of Southern cooking ...

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3 Responses

  1. Mark R says:

    You can also use cotton rope for a more substantial burn.

  2. Mick Telkamp says:

    Thanks, Watson! I was new to char cloth too, but I'm impressed by how easily it catches a spark. Turns out if you want to know how to start a fire, ask a Boy Scout.

  3. Watson says:

    I've never heard of this material, Mick, but definitely going to try it – looks very handy at the campsite. And a high-five for the pic in Step 11 – great shot!

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