Making Better Char Cloth

When starting a flint and steel or striker type of fire, char cloth makes all the difference in being able to actually get the fire started or just making a bunch of sparks that never catch anything on fire.  Char cloth (sometimes also called charred cloth) is one of those amazing mountain man items that is still very useful today.  Char cloth is pieces of blackened fabric that easily catch a spark and burn similarly to the way steel wool burns–no big flame, but a nice ember burn that doesn’t blow out once it’s lit.  The spark lights the char cloth and the char cloth is used to light the other tinder.  I’ve been wanting to add char cloth to my fire kits and having used all my char cloth made by others, I decided to make a batch of my own.

100% cotton jersey fabric

100% cotton jersey fabric

I had some basic directions to go off of, but had never made it myself, so here’s how the first round went.  I got some 100% cotton fabric–I used jersey fabric (an old T shirt) and cut it into approximately 2″ squares.  Mine was kind of a natural color, but you could probably use any color you have, just avoid screen-printed designs, etc.  I cut the ribbing off from the neck and sleeve ends as well as the seams.  You just want the fabric.

Next, I got a metal can–I used an old cookie tin.  I punched a vent hole in the can lid with a hammer and nail.  You can use whatever metal can you have–I’ve seen it done with smaller tins as well as cleaned out food cans with foil for a lid.

Char cloth cooking tin

Char cloth cooking tin

Cut cloth in the tin

Cut cloth in the tin

I put the cut up fabric squares in the tin, put the lid on, and put the can on my grill on low and let it cook.  You definitely want to do this outside–burning fabric doesn’t smell all that good.  My instructions said to cook it until it stopped smoking.  I had the tin fairly full, and cooked it close to 3 hours before I decided to turn it off.  It never smoked a lot.  When it cooled, I opened the can and only the bottom 3-4 layers were black, the rest of the fabric was brown.

I turned the pile over and put it back on the grill on Medium this time and cooked it another close to 3 hours.  This time it was all black when it was finished.  However, it didn’t catch a spark very well.  I could light it with a flame, or an occasional large spark, but it was very frustrating to work with.  Nothing like the char cloth I’d had before that a friend of ours made from terry cloth (old towel).

Cooked jersey char cloth

Cooked jersey char cloth

So I put it back on the grill again, this time I only filled the can about 1/3 full and cooked it on high another 3 hours or so.  Now it was a little more fragile and easy to tear (as char cloth generally is), but it still didn’t catch spark well.  I had no more ideas to make it better, so I decided to start over.

Cotton monks' cloth (quarter for scale) and smaller cooking tin

Cotton monks' cloth (quarter for scale) and smaller cooking tin

The second and far better batch of char cloth I made started with 100% cotton monk’s cloth I got at Walmart.  Notice the loose weave and air holes.  Those made a huge difference.  I cut it a little smaller this time–about 1 1/2 inch square as 2″ was a little larger than necessary.  There is some shrinkage as it cooks, but not that much.  I wanted to see if it would work straight from the store without washing the fabric first, so I only cut 5 squares of it.

I put it in a smaller tin which also got the hammer/nail air vent in the lid.

Feeling like I’d spent enough of my grill gas on this project, I opted to do this round real mountain man style and build a fire and toss the tin in the fire.  I pretty well buried it–it’s in there somewhere.

Real mountain man char cloth cooking method

Real mountain man char cloth cooking method

It did not cook long in the fire–maybe 15 minutes (of course it was in a smaller tin than the first round, but I’m guessing even a large tin wouldn’t take 9 hours in the fire).  I couldn’t tell when it stopped smoking since it was in a fire with all the rest of the smoke, so I just guessed at when to pull it out.  It wouldn’t matter if it stayed in there until the fire burned out as long as no sparks got in the airhole and caught all the fabric on fire in the meantime.

Cooked monk's cloth char cloth

Cooked monk's cloth char cloth

I fished it out, let it cool, and opened it to nicely blackened monk’s cloth.

This second round of char cloth lights up with minimal spark from a firestarter or flint/steel.  It is more fragile than the jersey char cloth, but works much better.  I’ll have to post on flint/steel firestarting another time :)

Char cloth burning

Char cloth burning

So, to recap, to make better char cloth, start with a 100% cotton fabric with texture and a fairly loose weave.  Use a fire pit if you can to save on gas.  Cooking on higher heat and cooking a smaller batch help speed up cooking time.  Happy firestarting!

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  • http://preparednesspro.wordpress.com/ Preparedness Pro

    Glad you figured out great char cloth! I went to a pioneer village in Logan last summer and we were showed how to make char cloth this same way — it was surprisingly flammable. Great post!

  • http://preparednesspro.wordpress.com Preparedness Pro

    Glad you figured out great char cloth! I went to a pioneer village in Logan last summer and we were showed how to make char cloth this same way — it was surprisingly flammable. Great post!

  • http://kentucky-preppers-network.blogspot.com/ matthiasj

    Great post Angela. This one is a keeper. I’m going to look for that fabric next time I go to Wal-Mart.

  • http://kentucky-preppers-network.blogspot.com matthiasj

    Great post Angela. This one is a keeper. I’m going to look for that fabric next time I go to Wal-Mart.

  • http://www.72hourplan.com/ 72hourplan

    great article. I am going to add some char cloth to my fire kit, along side my dryer lint. May I have permission to reprint this article at http://www.72hourplan.com?? I will of course maintain your byline and link back to utah preppers.

    Best,
    Wayne

  • http://www.72hourplan.com 72hourplan

    great article. I am going to add some char cloth to my fire kit, along side my dryer lint. May I have permission to reprint this article at http://www.72hourplan.com?? I will of course maintain your byline and link back to utah preppers.

    Best,
    Wayne

  • http://www.conservativescalawag.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Very nice, this is something I’ve been working on as of late. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.conservativescalawag.blogspot.com Michael

    Very nice, this is something I’ve been working on as of late. Thanks for sharing.

  • max191

    Your blog appears quite informative. Can you please tell me how can I read your rss blog?
    regards
    charcoal grill

  • http://mamasnuthouse.blogspot.com/ Darlene in North GA

    Then you have the method I learned in BYU Youth Leadership aka Desert/Alpine survival – back in 1975 (when you “spend 3 days in the classroom and 28 days in the beautiful Uinta Mountains”).

    We used old dishrags or dishtowels that were 100% cotton. This was before everyone used dryer sheets in the dryer. Dryer sheets mess things up. Wash your old rags/towels in plain with a little SOAP – NOT detergent, which is what most bath soap now adays is. Rinse them well with water that has some vinegar in them and let them air-dry.

    Have a #2 or #10 can ready to use to suffocate the fire you're going to make. Now using a finger-thickness piece of wood with a slit cut in the end, hold the towel/rag by one corner and light the opposite corner and let it burn until all of it is engulfed in flames. In fact, let it almost burn up. When it is fully burning, but before it's non-existant, drop it on FLAT ground and cover it with the can. (cloth on ground, can upside down over cloth) The material will continue to burn until it depletes the oxygen in the can (unless O2 can get UNDER the edge of the can). Then it will be suffocated. Let the can sit for about 10 mins to be sure the flames are entirely out and the fabric is cooled.

    Break the fabric into small pieces and store in a 35mm film canister.
    Easy-peasy. Takes about 11-12 mins to do. No wasted wood or gas fires.

    About that dryer lint. Has anyone besides me actually tried to light a flint and steel fire with it? Mine melted, not burned as char cloth does. Well…duh. Most of our dryer lint is polyester/rayon/acrylic fibers and most people use dryer sheets in the dryer. Even some of the towels we have are not 100% cotton. ONLY 100% cotton (or wool or linen) will burn. Man-made stuff melts! So all the dryer lint people are saving probably won't do them any good. When man-made melts and you try blowing on it to increase the flame, it just gets hard and the fire goes out. Same with those cotton balls with the petroleum jelly on them IF they're not 100% COTTON. Yes, a lot of the cheaper “cotton balls” are actually “polyester balls” with little or no cotton in them. At least around here they are and they melt instead of burning.

  • http://mamasnuthouse.blogspot.com/ Darlene in North GA

    Then you have the method I learned in BYU Youth Leadership aka Desert/Alpine survival – back in 1975 (when you “spend 3 days in the classroom and 28 days in the beautiful Uinta Mountains”).

    We used old dishrags or dishtowels that were 100% cotton. This was before everyone used dryer sheets in the dryer. Dryer sheets mess things up. Wash your old rags/towels in plain with a little SOAP – NOT detergent, which is what most bath soap now adays is. Rinse them well with water that has some vinegar in them and let them air-dry.

    Have a #2 or #10 can ready to use to suffocate the fire you're going to make. Now using a finger-thickness piece of wood with a slit cut in the end, hold the towel/rag by one corner and light the opposite corner and let it burn until all of it is engulfed in flames. In fact, let it almost burn up. When it is fully burning, but before it's non-existant, drop it on FLAT ground and cover it with the can. (cloth on ground, can upside down over cloth) The material will continue to burn until it depletes the oxygen in the can (unless O2 can get UNDER the edge of the can). Then it will be suffocated. Let the can sit for about 10 mins to be sure the flames are entirely out and the fabric is cooled.

    Break the fabric into small pieces and store in a 35mm film canister.
    Easy-peasy. Takes about 11-12 mins to do. No wasted wood or gas fires.

    About that dryer lint. Has anyone besides me actually tried to light a flint and steel fire with it? Mine melted, not burned as char cloth does. Well…duh. Most of our dryer lint is polyester/rayon/acrylic fibers and most people use dryer sheets in the dryer. Even some of the towels we have are not 100% cotton. ONLY 100% cotton (or wool or linen) will burn. Man-made stuff melts! So all the dryer lint people are saving probably won't do them any good. When man-made melts and you try blowing on it to increase the flame, it just gets hard and the fire goes out. Same with those cotton balls with the petroleum jelly on them IF they're not 100% COTTON. Yes, a lot of the cheaper “cotton balls” are actually “polyester balls” with little or no cotton in them. At least around here they are and they melt instead of burning.

  • http://mamasnuthouse.blogspot.com/ Darlene in North GA

    Then you have the method I learned in BYU Youth Leadership aka Desert/Alpine survival – back in 1975 (when you “spend 3 days in the classroom and 28 days in the beautiful Uinta Mountains”).

    We used old dishrags or dishtowels that were 100% cotton. This was before everyone used dryer sheets in the dryer. Dryer sheets mess things up. Wash your old rags/towels in plain with a little SOAP – NOT detergent, which is what most bath soap now adays is. Rinse them well with water that has some vinegar in them and let them air-dry.

    Have a #2 or #10 can ready to use to suffocate the fire you're going to make. Now using a finger-thickness piece of wood with a slit cut in the end, hold the towel/rag by one corner and light the opposite corner and let it burn until all of it is engulfed in flames. In fact, let it almost burn up. When it is fully burning, but before it's non-existant, drop it on FLAT ground and cover it with the can. (cloth on ground, can upside down over cloth) The material will continue to burn until it depletes the oxygen in the can (unless O2 can get UNDER the edge of the can). Then it will be suffocated. Let the can sit for about 10 mins to be sure the flames are entirely out and the fabric is cooled.

    Break the fabric into small pieces and store in a 35mm film canister.
    Easy-peasy. Takes about 11-12 mins to do. No wasted wood or gas fires.

    About that dryer lint. Has anyone besides me actually tried to light a flint and steel fire with it? Mine melted, not burned as char cloth does. Well…duh. Most of our dryer lint is polyester/rayon/acrylic fibers and most people use dryer sheets in the dryer. Even some of the towels we have are not 100% cotton. ONLY 100% cotton (or wool or linen) will burn. Man-made stuff melts! So all the dryer lint people are saving probably won't do them any good. When man-made melts and you try blowing on it to increase the flame, it just gets hard and the fire goes out. Same with those cotton balls with the petroleum jelly on them IF they're not 100% COTTON. Yes, a lot of the cheaper “cotton balls” are actually “polyester balls” with little or no cotton in them. At least around here they are and they melt instead of burning.

  • http://mamasnuthouse.blogspot.com/ Darlene in North GA

    Then you have the method I learned in BYU Youth Leadership aka Desert/Alpine survival – back in 1975 (when you “spend 3 days in the classroom and 28 days in the beautiful Uinta Mountains”).

    We used old dishrags or dishtowels that were 100% cotton. This was before everyone used dryer sheets in the dryer. Dryer sheets mess things up. Wash your old rags/towels in plain with a little SOAP – NOT detergent, which is what most bath soap now adays is. Rinse them well with water that has some vinegar in them and let them air-dry.

    Have a #2 or #10 can ready to use to suffocate the fire you're going to make. Now using a finger-thickness piece of wood with a slit cut in the end, hold the towel/rag by one corner and light the opposite corner and let it burn until all of it is engulfed in flames. In fact, let it almost burn up. When it is fully burning, but before it's non-existant, drop it on FLAT ground and cover it with the can. (cloth on ground, can upside down over cloth) The material will continue to burn until it depletes the oxygen in the can (unless O2 can get UNDER the edge of the can). Then it will be suffocated. Let the can sit for about 10 mins to be sure the flames are entirely out and the fabric is cooled.

    Break the fabric into small pieces and store in a 35mm film canister.
    Easy-peasy. Takes about 11-12 mins to do. No wasted wood or gas fires.

    About that dryer lint. Has anyone besides me actually tried to light a flint and steel fire with it? Mine melted, not burned as char cloth does. Well…duh. Most of our dryer lint is polyester/rayon/acrylic fibers and most people use dryer sheets in the dryer. Even some of the towels we have are not 100% cotton. ONLY 100% cotton (or wool or linen) will burn. Man-made stuff melts! So all the dryer lint people are saving probably won't do them any good. When man-made melts and you try blowing on it to increase the flame, it just gets hard and the fire goes out. Same with those cotton balls with the petroleum jelly on them IF they're not 100% COTTON. Yes, a lot of the cheaper “cotton balls” are actually “polyester balls” with little or no cotton in them. At least around here they are and they melt instead of burning.

  • 330-Trapper

    The smaller Tin made the difference… and it can be done cheaply and faster with a coleman stove… Use Cotton T shirt material…

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  • Jess1

    3 hours?? wow, your a dumbass! LOL it shouldnt take that long 5-12 min produces plenty of carbon stained cloth. and it doesnt have to be cotton, just cloth of vegetation. no synthetics. the thicker the cloth, the better!

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