Most people reading this magazine are familiar with what is commonly referred to as “char cloth” and are aware of the way the modern product is made in a can. Even though this method is probably not the way charred tinder was made on the frontier, it produces high-quality charred cloth with which to catch sparks produced using a variety of methods.

Charred tinder carried in a waterproof container, such as a small Nalgene bottle, should be a part of your survival gear. Carried in such a manner, it will allow you to practice with charred tinder in camp and extend your options significantly when attempting to make fire under adverse conditions.

Making Charred Cloth

Terrycloth is my favorite material to use when making charred cloth. Today, manufacturers can claim an article is 100-percent cotton, but it can still contain manmade fibers that will ruin your efforts. The cotton symbol on the tag is your guarantee that the item is truly 100-percent cotton. Get yourself a new quart-size paint can from a home improvement store, a cake tin or another container with a tight-fitting lid. Burn the container in a fire to get rid of all the residue. Next, take a nail about the diameter of a toothpick and hammer it through the top of the can. Remove the nail and save it for later. Cut the toweling into 1.5-inch squares and fill the tin about half full. Shake it around to ensure there is space for air and place it on the hot coals of a fire. Once things heat up, smoke will begin to jet from the hole in the top of the can. When the smoke stops, replace the nail, remove the can from the fire and let it cool. When the can is opened, all the cloth should be completely black. If not, move things around, replace the lid and repeat the process. This will produce a batch of the highest quality charred cloth suitable for use in your survival kit. Be sure to test a couple of pieces before placing it in your waterproof container.

You may also want to carry a small tin with a tight-fitting lid as part of your survival gear. This tin will allow you to practice making and using charred tinder in the field. With the lid on the tin, drive the small nail through the side of the lid all the way through to the inside. Remove the nail. Twist the lid to open the hole for making char or close it off to snuff it out.

Charred cloth can be made from items available in the field, such as bandanas, jean hems, shirttails, etc. Charred cloth can also be made without the tin by simply setting the cloth on fire and then smothering it by stepping on it. It can also be extinguished by other means such as dropping it while it is still aflame into a jar (or other container) and then quickly replacing the lid.

Punk Tinder

Here’s how charred punk tinder works. In the field, look for dead hardwoods such as poplar, birch or sweet gum. Look for fallen trees as well as stumps. The wood should be partially decayed, but spongy when mashed, and should not crumble or fall apart. It might be wet when found, and can be dried before preparation. Dry wood that’s ready to use can also be found, especially in standing stumps.

Sharpen a small, dry stick and poke it into a piece of punk. Now roast it over the fire until it catches and is black all over. Place it in your tin or some other container to snuff it out. If a container is not available, it can be snuffed with a piece of cloth, an old shirt or any other such item. Repeat this process until a supply of charred punk wood is produced. The pith of certain dry, woody plants like mullein can be charred and used in the same way. Various types of dried fungus, such a bracket fungus, can also be used. Using this method, an infinite amount of charred tinder can be made. If we could look back in time and see the contents of a frontiersman’s tinderbox, charred punk is most likely what it would have contained.

building a fire

Be ready! Building a fire is often job number one in a backwoods survival scenario.

Fire-Starting Tips

Charred cloth and punk can be ignited in a variety of ways. The most obvious is to lay a piece of charred cloth on top of your flint and strike the flint with your steel in the usual manner. Doing the opposite will also work. Open the can with your charred tinder in it, hold your steel above it and strike the steel with your flint, showering sparks into the can. Sparks should ignite the charred cloth or charred punk tinder in the can so that several glowing areas appear. Protect your eyes as you use this method, because the flint chips may fly toward your face. Fine kindling, such as shredded cedar bark or fine grass, can then be used to transform coal to flame. 

This tinder also enhances the effectiveness of a weak magnifying glass, Fresnel lens or eyeglass lens to produce a coal. Charred material makes it easier to use water-filled containers such as clear plastic drink bottles or plastic bags as lenses to ignite tinder in a survival situation. It also works great when using parabolics such as flashlight reflectors and the like. Char will even allow you to use the sparks from an empty lighter to achieve ignition.

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If you have char, you can also use a carbon steel knife, axe, file or what have you just as you would a steel. Pieces of scrap metal, shovels, garden hoes and the like will also work. Stones such as quartz and granite can be used just as you would use flint. My favorite knife to use for this purpose is an old one-arm Barlow Razor. The blade is just the right shape to use as a striker, and it doesn’t damage the rest of the knife.

As long you have access to steel or some other means of ignition, with this knowledge you never have to be without fire. These methods come into their own when a survivor is running low on matches or other conventional fire-lighting means. Using his wits, he gathers a supply of punk from some nearby birch trees, prepares it and stores it in one of his empty water bottles. When he needs fire, he chooses a rock from the ground and strikes it against his knife over a little pile of the charred material. As the embers grow, he places them in some fine kindling such as shredded bark and blows it into flame. While the fire is going, he manufactures more charred punk to use in the future. Even if prepared punk gets wet, it will still work once it is dried out. If a tin is available, unburned pieces of dry, raw punk can be stored in it. As the tin or tinderbox is used, the new pieces of punk become blackened and the cycle is perpetuated.

Other Benefits

Certain unorthodox methods used to start a fire are easier to accomplish when using charred material as tinder. Likewise, it can be used as a coal extender, ensuring success when using methods such as the bow drill, hand drill and fire saw. Charred tinder is not meant to take the place of matches, lighters and modern tinder in your survival kit. Rather, it is another component that you can carry into the woods with you to extend your options and give you an edge when you need fire in an emergency. With this knowledge, as long as you have a piece of steel available such as your knife, axe or even a piece of scrap metal, you will have a way to make an infinite number of fires after modern lighting methods are expended. 

As with all primitive skills, the most important thing is to practice. Do your research, experiment with various woods and find out what works in your area. Do the same with other tinders, coal extenders, fine kindling and ignition sources. One day, your life or the life of someone you love could depend on it.  

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This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  2014-#158 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  magazine are available here