Old Style Firestarter Fills Modern Wilderness Survival Niche

Posted on July 15th, 2011 by Leon in Make a Fire


The wind blew sheets of rain sideways and the water dripped off the brim of my hat as I hunched over my charcloth and flint and steel. The original idea had been to demonstrate to Boy Scouts of Troop 18 in Bend, Oregon how to start a fire in the rain using one match, and available natural materials.

The waxed firestarter will burn on snow, or when the weather is wet and nasty.

By Leon Pantenburg

It had rained in the area for two days, and everything was soaked. We found a juniper tree that offered some shelter. I demonstrated how to find the dry side of the tree, strip off dry inner bark from underneath a limb and gather relatively dry twigs from under the trunk. Then I reached from my waterproof match container.

My 11-year-old son Dan had other ideas.

“Oh, c’mon Dad,” he said. “You can get a fire started with a flint and steel, can’t you?”

Typically, Murphy stands at my elbow when I attempt such demonstrations. And Murphy’s Law (as it relates to firemaking) is very explicit. It states: The more people watching you try to show off, the harder it will be to start a fire.

But Murphy had stayed home. I caught the spark on the second whack of the striker, placed the glowing charcloth into a prepared nest of dry and shredded juniper bark and in a matter of minutes had a roaring fire going. Nobody was more impressed than me.

Getting interested in one aspect of history generally leads to other rediscoveries. In my case, an interest in primitive

firemaking lead to a search for an effective firestarter. Surely, I reasoned, the oldtimers had some sort of flammable material that was compact, portable, effective, simple to make and that used easily-obtained local materials. Pitch wood, cedar bark, dry grass, weed stalks, pine needles etc. all work great when the weather is nice. But usually, the fouler the weather, the more desperately you need a fire (another axiom of Murphy’s firemaking law). There had to be some sort of old time firestarter.

The answer came from another seeker of esoteric knowledge, my buddy, Dr. Jim Grenfell. Jim is a former UCLA

Charcloth, made from old denim, will catch any spark and should be included in every survival kit! The finished product should be completely black, but flexible and not brittle.

instructor of dentistry who took up blacksmithing upon retiring. He makes knives, replica tomahawks, fire strikers, and anything the local Boy Scout troops need. Jim is also a former fighter-bomber pilot combat veteran of the Korean War and a graduate of three Air Force wilderness survival schools.

Jim already had the answer to the firestarter situation. We went out to his shop and he pulled out what looked like a waxed pillow case.

“You could make a hat out of this, cover your feet, or use it as a mat to sit on,” Jim said. “But it’s really firestarter. Try it.”

Well, I did, and the waxed firestarter works very well. Here’s how to make it.  The idea is to melt equal proportions of beeswax and paraffin together and dip 100 percent cotton cloth in it.

First, find a large flat pan and a source of heat to melt the wax. I use my propane Camp Chef double burner camp stove outside to reduce the potential mess.

Get some 100 percent cotton that tears easily. Denim from jeans and the stretchy material from old T-shirts will work, but the material is difficult to tear or fray the edges. I prefer old cotton sheets or pillow cases. The material can be torn easily to whatever size is needed.

Paraffin is available in grocery stores. Beeswax can be expensive, so a good alternate material is the wax liner ring used to seal the bottoms of toilets. These rings cost under a buck at most hardware stores and they provide about eight to ten ounces of wax. The toilet sealer wax starts out slightly sticky, but after it’s diluted with paraffin that disappears. I always add a crayon to the mixture. The crayon’s only purpose is to color-code the batch, so if it works particularly well, you can duplicate the recipe.

Set your fire extinguisher nearby. Then heat the wax/paraffin mixture to almost smoking hot, SHUT OFF THE HEAT, and start dipping the cloth. Molten wax can burn you, so wear oven mitts or gloves. I use kitchen tongs to handle the hot cloth, and after dipping, let the excess wax mixture drain off.

Set the dipped cloth out the dry on a cookie sheet covered with aluminum foil. And that’s it.

To use the material, rip off a piece and roll it diagonally, and fray the edge. It should light almost instantaneously. For lighting campfires, I generally use a piece of firestarter about the size of a cigarette paper. If your tinder, kindling and wood have been gathered correctly, this will be overkill. If the fire starts quickly, you can extinguish the starter and re-use it.

How well does this stuff work? Well, it will burn almost completely up while resting on top of a snowdrift. An eighth-inch by one-inch piece, rolled loosely, will burn for several minutes. I’ve used the firestarter many times in driving rain.

Because the wax mixture is so hot when the cloth is dipped, individual threads completely absorb the wax. This makes

Firestarter, left, charcloth and a signal mirror can all be carried in a wallet. The compact, easy-to-carry firestarter can be included in your everyday wardrobe without ever noticing it!

the material completely waterproof and virtually indestructible.

Several springs ago, a Boy Scout campout south of La Pine, Or., turned into an exercise in sleet and snow camping. In the dark, somebody dropped a piece of  the waxed firestarter in the main path, where it was ground into the slush, mud and snow.

The next morning, assistant scoutmaster Dave Colton of Bend found the piece and brought it over to me.

“Do you think this will work now?” he asked. We brushed off the mud, patted the firestarter dry on my pantleg, and it started like it had spent the night in a waterproof container.

Since discovering the waxed firestarter, I’ve replaced all the commercial versions in all my survival kits. I carry a credit card-sized piece in my wallet. The waxed firestarter takes up virtually no space, is light and doesn’t leave a mess. (But don’t leave a piece on the car dashboard in the summer sun!)

Like all survival tools, this one will do you no good unless you know how to use it. So make some waxed firestarter, practice with it and add another tool and skill to your survival arsenal. (Original story published in the Volume 28, No. 2,  April/March edition, 2006,  of “The Backswoodsman.”)

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10 Comments on “Old Style Firestarter Fills Modern Wilderness Survival Niche”

  1. Leon

    It burns better and ignites quicker.

  2. Michael

    Can you please explain why you use a 50 / 50 mixture of beeswax and paraffin rather than just one or the other?

  3. Leon

    Good tip! Compact is wonderful!

  4. Jeff

    I’ve been using cosmetic cotton pads, with petroleum jelly on one side. Just split the pad to expose uncompressed fibres. Lights up with a spark every time. All fits inside a little ziploc, and flat enough to go in a wallet.

    I’m too lazy to make charcloth these days, or go collecting cramp-balls and such. (Though I still keep a small bit of birch-bark in my pack.)

  5. Leon

    Sounds like a good recipe! I’ll try it!

  6. Bill

    I use a mixture of two parts paraffin and one part Vaseline. I melt it in a stainless dog food bowl on a West Bend bean pot slow cooker heater. It melts slowly and doesn’t overheat. I use everything from jute twine, which I just dip the whole roll in the wax and let soak, cotton rope, cotton balls and mostly the cotton make-up cleaning pads that are about 2″ round. The wax is slightly greasy, but not overly so. A mix of beeswax and paraffin would probably be more stable at high temperatures, but harder to light. I find that I can uncoil a bit of the jute twine and unravel it to expose the fibers and it fires right up with a firesteel.

  7. Leon

    Thanks for reading!

  8. Elizbeth Schonhardt

    Man this is why i just love the internet…it gives us free valuable information..and when i see posts like this it really makes me happy and thankfull to the person who wrote and posted it …thanks so much

  9. fat style

    Thanks. some fantasticinfo here, keep it up .I cannot really leave a more constructive commentas i’m a bit out of my depthbut I will be inspectionback here for further updates.

  10. Julian

    Excellent tips and excellent site. FWIW – some of us carry cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly or carry cotton balls and a bottle of that antibacterial Purell or Germ-X for hot firestarting and I have found two sources for free airtight plastic tubes to carry them in. Red Bull energy drink company makes small bottles called “Energy Shots” and when the label is peeled off you have a clear, flexible plastic screw-cap bottle; and if you know anyone who is quitting smoking and using the brand of mints called ‘Commit” – remove the label from the blue ‘secure pop-top’ canister and you have a rigid, opaque container. Useful for a lot of stuff. There is also a mil based site called “Kit Up” which has a lot of tips, suggestions and product reviews that you may find helpful.

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