How much do your really know about matches? Chances are you know more about a magnesium fire starter or BIC lighter than you do about matches. It is just that they are so ubiquitous. Everyone knows about wooden kitchen matches, right? And heck, back in the day folks used to collect books of matches from fancy dining establishments and keep them displayed in decorative jars.
I know I am dating myself with that last statement but seriously, how much to you really know about matches? One thing for sure is that I can not purchase strike anywhere matches locally. Our grocery store refuses to stock them for fear that they will spontaneously combust. That is a true statement; they actually told me that.
But is it true? With some help from my friend, Ron Brown, today I am going to delve into the world of matches and provide you with what you need to know about matches for survival.
Safety Matches vs. Strike Anywhere Matches
There are two kinds of matches: safety and strike anywhere. Safety matches won’t accidentally ignite in your pocket whereas strike anywhere matches can and sometimes do. Safety matches are also called strike-on-box.
There are three sizes: paper matches (called book matches); small wooden matches (called penny matches); and large wooden kitchen matches.
More than you ever wanted to know about match chemistry . . .
The head of a strike anywhere match is a progressive “explosive train.” A tiny bit of primary explosive is detonated. That ignites the main body of the match head. That in turn ignites the paraffin wax (with which the first half inch of the wooden matchstick is impregnated). The burning paraffin in turn ignites the wooden stick.
The very tip of a strike anywhere match contains potassium chlorate plus phosphorus sesquisulfide (a.k.a. tetraphosphorus trisulfide, trisulfurated phosphorus, and phosphorus sulfide). It’s is a primary explosive, sensitive to friction, impact, and heat.
If you cut off the tiny white tip of a strike anywhere match, place it on an anvil, and rap it with a hammer, it will sound like a .22 rimfire rifle cartridge (almost).
It was once a test of manhood for teenage boys to light their cigarettes from strike anywhere matches . . . matches that they lit one-handed, using their thumbnail as the striker. If a chunk of burning match head got lodged under one’s thumbnail, of course, it could ruin an otherwise pleasant afternoon. Trust me on this.
Safety matches (strike-on-box) contain potassium chlorate plus sulfur in the match head and red phosphorus in the gritty striking surface printed on the matchbook or matchbox.
The act of striking produces friction and heat. The heat converts a tiny amount of red phosphorous into white phosphorous vapor which ignites spontaneously. This heat decomposes the potassium chlorate, liberating oxygen, and causes the sulfur to burn. This in turn ignites the wood or paper body of the match.
Where can I buy strike anywhere matches?
In the USA, strike anywhere matches virtually disappeared from store shelves for twenty years – a generation. The old-time brands were Ohio Blue Tip and Diamond. Today, Diamond owns Ohio Blue Tip. But, regardless of brand, the question, “Where can I buy strike anywhere matches?” appeared year after year on Internet forums.
The only place I knew for sure was Canada. The Redbird brand, manufactured by the Eddy Match Co., was (and still is) sold by No Frills (a large grocery chain) and Canadian Tire (in the camping section). The price is $1.25 per box of 250.
But strike anywhere matches are making a comeback. Today, Diamond-brand strike anywhere matches (eco-friendly with green and white tips) can be purchased on eBay for about $4 per box of 300 including postage. They arrive in an envelope marked “USPS FIRST-CLASS PKG”. They are also available on Amazon for about $7.49 for three boxes of 300, or 900 matches.
I still haven’t seen them face-to-face in the big-box stores (e.g. Walmart, Target) so I was slightly amazed to find them just the other day in my local Mom-and-Pop grocery store. One U.S. dollar per box of 300. Strike anywhere matches are once again appearing on store shelves.
Then there is this bad info . . .
While they were on hiatus, one story had it that strike anywhere matches were classified as HazMat (hazardous material) and incurred excessive transportation costs. Consumers were not willing to pay the higher price and, for that reason, retailers didn’t stock them. But, as far as I know, safety matches were also classified HazMat.
Another story had it that chemicals in the strike anywhere tip were used in homebrew crystal meth recipes. Wrong again. If anything, it was the red phosphorous in the striker panel that was of interest, nothing in the match head.
Above (L to R): Coghlan’s, Stansport, Coleman’s, and UCO Stormproof.
Prices range from 1¢ to 12¢ per match.
I decided to test some homegrown methods of waterproofing against commercial matches. The tests consisted of “waterproofing” ordinary strike anywhere matches (dipping in paraffin wax, painting with shellac, etc. . . . whatever recipes I could find), letting them dry 24 hours, then soaking them side-by-side with commercial waterproof matches in a bucket of water overnight.
I was astonished to find that the commercial waterproof matches didn’t work. The heads were all mushy and crumbled when striking. They might have been water resistant but none of them were waterproof. Ditto for the homegrown methods.
No doubt my surprise resulted from my expectations. I expect a plastic poncho to be waterproof. I expect rubber boots to be waterproof. I expect a bulletproof vest to be bulletproof. “Here. Put on this bullet-resistant vest and let’s go capture the bank robbers.” Yeah, right.
Nail polish came the closest of anything to working but the matches were no longer “strike anywhere.” Strike some places would be a better description. Matchbox, yes. Side of carborundum grinding wheel, yes. Sandpaper and rocks, maybe.
And the entire match had to be painted with nail polish. If only the head-end were coated, water penetrated the exposed wood, traveled the length of the stick, and turned the match head mushy.
Conclusion: A mechanical container remains the only for-sure way I know to have a dry match when you need it. One buck. Cheap.
5 Tricks and Tips for Using Matches
Over the years, I have learned these tricks and tips for using matches.
1. One trick to increase your supply of paper matches is to split them in half. Granted, lighting requires nimble fingers and some of the halves will fail. Nevertheless, splitting the matches will increase your effective match count by 75% or so. I recommend that you split just a few and experiment before you split everything.
2. You can light paper safety matches on a penny matchbox or on a box of kitchen-size safety matches or on a strike anywhere box!
3. Sometimes, in attempting to light a strike anywhere match, the primary tip is broken off before the match lights. Can a strike anywhere match WITHOUT ITS TIP be lit on a book of safety matches? Yes. It requires two or three quick, brisk strokes, but it can be done.
4. Long-term storage. Humidity is the enemy. The FoodSaver of Rival Seal-a-Meal (brand) vacuum system is one way to solve the problem. Other solutions include fruit canning jars, Tupperware, and recycled plastic containers of all kinds (think coffee, pretzels, whey protein powder). Seal the lid with silicone calking.
5. For a desiccant (to soak up humidity inside the container), you can use silica gel (found in the craft section of Walmart) or powdered non-dairy creamer in an envelope made from a coffee filter. How to form the seams of the envelope? Fold over the filter edges a couple of times and staple them.
© Ron Brown 2016
About Ron Brown and the Non-Electric Lighting Series
I have been working with Ron for a long time. We first became acquainted when he introduced his Lanterns, Lamps & Candles CD (still available from his website). Later, recognizing that books on CD were not as popular as eBooks, Ron converted all of his material to both print and eBook format. This became his Non-Electric Lighting Series, currently being sold on Amazon.
And the part about matches? According to Ron, “Matches” was left on the cutting room floor along with “Lighters” (which I will be sharing with you down the road).
In a shameless pitch, if you enjoy Ron’s work, I suggest you pick up one of his books. They are reasonably priced and make a useful addition to your survival library. It does not hurt that they are highly readable and written with a good deal of wit and humor.
Here is a link to Ron’s Non-Electric Lighting Series of books on Amazon.
The Final Word
Although I tend to favor those butane wand devices that are used to light barbeques, I know that when the fuel runs out, they are useless. As a backup, I use BIC lighters, and as a backup to that I use matches. Last on the list, but still a skill I practice, is using a fire steel.
Having the means to light a fire, weather for cooking, warmth, signaling or some other purpose, is basic to our preparedness efforts. I would like to thank Ron for sharing his research and knowledge on matches. Coming up next? Lighters!
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
Gaye Levy, also known as the Survival Woman, grew up and attended school in the Greater Seattle area. After spending many years as an executive in the software industry, she started a specialized accounting practice offering contract CFO work to emerging high tech and service industries. She has now abandoned city life and has moved to a serenely beautiful rural area on an island in NW Washington State. She lives and teaches the principles of a sustainable and self-reliant lifestyle through her website at BackdoorSurvival.com. At Backdoor Survival, Gaye speaks her mind and delivers her message of prepping with optimism and grace, regardless of the uncertain times and mayhem swirling around us.