Fire, and all it represents, is one of the building blocks of survival along with food, water, and shelter. Fire will cook the food, purify the water, and heat the shelter. For that reason, it should come as no surprise that fire starting tools and paraphernalia are one of the first things newbie preppers acquire when they are first getting started.
Acquiring tools is all well and good and not to be discounted. The real test, however, lies in the ability to actually start a wood fire. To that end, there are as many ways to start a wood fire as there are preppers. Everyone has their favorite method, even if it is inefficient and poorly executed. Most likely, they simply do not know of a better way.
Help is on its way. Ron Brown, friend of Backdoor Survival and author of the Non-Electric Lighting Series of books and eBooks, knows how to light fires. He has been doing it for over 50 years, and he is here today to teach us how.
Ron Brown’s Easy Way to Start a Wood Fire
I’ve probably started upwards of 10,000 wood fires in my life. My parents heated with wood when I was a child and I, myself, have heated with wood most of my adult life.
Still, 10,000 sounds like a lot.
I keep a box of strike-anywhere wooden matches beside the stove. I use about one box a year. The boxes hold 250 matches (though some hold 300). At that rate it would take 30-40 years to light 10,000 fires. Then again, I’m 75 years old.
The purpose of this article is to share with you what I’ve learned; to share with you the easiest way I know of to light a fire.
At the onset, we need to recognize that your objectives and my objectives might not be the same. My objectives are simple: (1) to start a fire, (2) as easily as possible, (3) with as high a success rate as possible, and (4) as safely as possible.
I feel no obligation whatsoever to start a fire the way grandpa did. Or how the American Indians did. Or how the aborigines in the Australian outback still do it today.
I have a camping buddy who feels that if it takes more than one match to light the campfire then it is not a proper fire. It’s his Boy Scout religion. I’m sure he constantly fights the urge to dump a bucket of water on my campfire and force me to start over and do it right this time.
In his heart of hearts he knows that my fire is inferior to his. It’s like new math. Okay, so I got the right answer. But I didn’t use sanctioned methodology so, in his eyes, my answer doesn’t qualify as an answer even though the result is correct.
How about you? Do you want a fire? Or do you want to play primitive? Only you can answer that. For my part, my aspiration is to keep my fanny warm and cook supper. I just wanna get the fire going. How can I say this politely? Screw primitive.
So Here’s How You Do the Doin’
In general terms, we’re going to:
(1) assemble a stack of firewood ready for burning
(2) insert, into the stack, a patch of cloth soaked in kerosene
(3) light the patch with a match
Done. The fire is started.
For “insertion into the stack” I, personally, use some long-nose needle-nose pliers from the Dollar Store. Cheapies. They work great.
Basically, that’s all there is to it. Lesson over. (Although the devil, as they say, is in the details.)
Firewood. The firewood needs to be seasoned, dry. Not green. Not wet. It should be split so that it has sharp edges, something for the flame to bite into. Split wood is easier to start than round wood (i.e. round like wooden pencils).
The Stack. You can skip the so-called bird’s nest, the tinder, and the kindling. If the wood is both dry and split, you can start out with wood the size of your wrist. Starting out with “real” firewood saves mega time compared to starting out with newspaper and wood shavings and building the fire up with successively larger pieces.
The pieces in the stack can be parallel to each other (just like you would carry them in an armload of firewood). The stack does not need to have successive layers crisscrossed. Nor must it be set up teepee-fashion.
The Cloth Patches. Cotton works better than synthetic fabrics. Synthetics will not absorb and hold as much kerosene as cotton. Discarded blue jeans, T-shirts, sweat shirts, and athletic socks will all fill the bill.
A patch of cloth 4″ x 4″ is a good size but please realize that a 4″ x 4″ piece from a handkerchief will not soak up as much kerosene as a 4″ x 4″ piece from a Turkish bath towel. Of course, when you get to the actual fire building, you can always use two pieces.
- Safety. Here I need to add a word about spontaneous combustion. I started out as an industrial arts teacher. I learned that all of the high school industrial arts shops in New York State have a red-painted metal can with a spring-loaded cover labeled “oily rags.” Why? Because oily rags are subject to spontaneous combustion.
It’s a fact known to everyone of my grandfather’s generation but to no-one of my children’s generation. I invite non-believers to Google for “spontaneous combustion oily rags” and do their homework before scoffing.
Consider this from back in the day: “Spontaneous combustion [is] . . . the ignition of bodies by the internal development of heat without the application of an external flame. It not infrequently takes place among heaps of rags . . . lubricated with oil . . .” – Encyclopedia Americana, 1919
Storing Patches. When I tear up my rags into 4″ x 4″ pieces, I start with the used (and oily) shop clothes in my workshop. I do this in the fall and spend a couple of hours cutting up enough rags to last for the whole upcoming year.
Starting with the shop cloths means that many of the pieces I’m cutting up will be oily right from the get-go. So, after tearing or cutting my rags into pieces, I store them (before use) in empty metal paint cans (one-gallon size). I can tap down the lid with a rubber mallet and make an air-tight seal. When needed, I can pry open the lid, just like opening a gallon of paint, with a screwdriver.
Four or five one-gallon cans of cloth patches, tightly packed, are enough for the whole upcoming year.
Marinating the Patches in Kerosene. Gallon sizes are fine for on-the-shelf storage but are not convenient for day-to-day handling so I buy pint-size cans of wood stain from the Dollar Store. “Stain cans” are much easier to clean out than paint cans.
These pint-size cans are metal so there’s no danger of breakage. They’re air tight so they don’t leak on other gear. They’re easily pried open with a screwdriver and easily resealed with finger pressure.
I pack a pint-size can with dry patches (taken from a gallon can) then pour kerosene into the pint-size can, letting it saturate the cloth all the way to the bottom. I prepare a couple of pint-size cans at a time. In use, when the first pint-size can is empty, I start using the second. In the days that follow, before the second can is empty, I refill the first.
Matches. The source of ignition can be matches or a cigarette lighter or sparks from a magnesium/flint striker or steel wool touching both terminals of a 9-volt battery. Your choice. The easiest technique (and “easy” is the theme of this article) is to use a strike-anywhere wooden kitchen match.
Diamond (brand) still makes strike-anywhere matches. They are for sale today in mom-and-pop grocery stores as well as eBay. Interestingly, although strike-anywhere matches can be purchased on eBay and sent through the mail, “strike-on-box” is all you’ll find in the big-box stores like Wal-Mart. And don’t bother searching for Ohio Blue Tip. Diamond bought them out years ago.
Gaye’s Note: Our local supermarket in Friday Harbor told us that they do not stock the strike-anywhere matches because they self-combust. Urban legend or CYA? Who knows. Amazon sells them.
Incidentally, if the tiny white tip (the “strike anywhere” part) breaks off the head of the match, the match will still light if you rub it against the “sandpaper” panel on the side of the box. But you already knew that, right?
AND, don’t forget that you can carry fire from another source. A twig, a splinter, or a rolled-and-twisted sheet of paper can be used to carry fire from a stove burner, a candle, or a kerosene lamp to the fire you are building.
Still, the EASIEST ignition source is a strike-anywhere wooden kitchen match.
Kerosene. Throughout this write-up I’ve said “kerosene” because it’s something everyone is familiar with. Actually, diesel fuel is the better choice.
The odor we associate with both kerosene and diesel fuel comes from the sulfur content.
There are two grades of kerosene, K1 and K2. The K2 grade is intended for use in appliances that are vented to the outside (a home-heating furnace with a chimney, for example). K2 kerosene contains 3000 ppm (parts per million) sulfur.
K1 kerosene is intended for appliances that are not vented to the outside (kerosene lamps, for example). K1 kerosene contains 400 ppm sulfur. You can confirm this with online MSDS sheets. Just Google for “k1 kerosene sulfur.”
In the bad old days, before 1993, diesel fuel contained 5000 ppm sulfur. Between 1993 and 2006, “low-sulfur” diesel fuel with 500 ppm was introduced. Since then, diesel fuel with “ultra-low” sulfur (15 ppm) has been mandated for on-road use.
Point is, if you use my fire-starting method but want to avoid a kerosene smell inside the house, then today’s diesel fuel with 15 ppm sulfur is a better choice than K1 kerosene with 400 ppm.
“But what if I don’t have any kerosene or diesel fuel? What if the stuff really does hit the fan? OMG. Armageddon is here. The sky is falling. The sky is falling.”
Easy there, big fella. There are lots of materials you can substitute for kerosene. They might not smell good. They might smoke. They might be flammable (e.g. gasoline) rather than combustible (e.g. kerosene). In which case you must exercise some brain cells to avoid – POOF! – losing your eyebrows. But you can start a fire, no doubt about it.
Here are some alternate fuels with which to saturate your cloth patches:
Power steering fluid
Mineral oil (laxative)
70% isopropyl rubbing alcohol
Everclear (brand) 190-proof grain alcohol
Sierra Silver (brand) 150-proof tequila
Denatured alcohol (used as shellac thinner and as fuel in marine stoves)
Heet or Drygas (methanol)
Charcoal lighter fluid
Cigarette lighter fluid
Automotive starting fluid (ether)
WD-40 (penetrating oil)
Cooking oil (olive oil and similar)
Hoppe’s 9 (gun cleaning solvent)
Oil-based wood stain
Many kinds of cologne, after-shave lotion and perfume
Many aerosol spray cans (for insect repellent, paint, and hair spray) contain a flammable propellant. Here you’ll have to experiment to see what works; you cannot trust what it says on the label. Spray a postage-stamp-size cloth patch and see if it will light with a match. (TIP: When lighting, hold the patch with tweezers or needle nose pliers.)
Candle wax dripped onto a cloth patch works well. You can also rub (firmly) a candle or a bar of soap or a bar of paraffin canning wax into your patch (both sides, please). If you have a choice, avoid the soap. Scorching soap does not smell good.
Have I, personally, tried all these things? Yes.
“But that’s not the way grandpa lit a fire. Or The Waltons. Or Little House on the Prairie. That’s not how the Boy Scouts do it.”
Sorry ’bout that. You want romance? Nostalgia? A merit badge? Or a fire? Come on. The kids are starting to shiver. Wouldn’t you settle for a fire?
The photo above is my “Russian Fireplace”. It’s all ceramic (no metal parts). In use, you close the stove door (thereby hiding the flame). The brick soaks up heat from the fire and then then radiates heat out into the room. You do not feed in one piece of wood at a time. This kind of stove runs at top speed or at zero, nothing in between. It runs flat out until only ashes remain. Then you start again.
That means starting two or three fires per day from scratch. Five months x 2 fires/day = 300 per heating season.
© Ron Brown 2015
The Final Word
Why is it that humans seek out the challenge of doing something easy in a complicated fashion? I know that I do. I don’t know about you, but going forward I want to embrace easy. I want to embrace simple, I want to do the least amount of work necessary to get the job done with the fewest number of tools, implements, and gizmos.
I don’t know if it is even possible to back away from technology and incorporate the simplest of pioneer skills into our daily lives. We can try, though. Starting a wood fire the easy way will give us a good start.
Once again, I would like to thank Ron for his contribution and support of Backdoor Survival. If you are interested in learning more about what he has to say, be sure to check out his books in the Non-Electric Lighting Series and also his real claim to fame, The Amazing 2000-Hour Flashlight.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!