If you’re into traditional outdoor living or even a modern-day prepper looking for ways to improve a bug-out bag you have more than likely heard of flint and steel.
For everyone else, if modern heating conveniences ever get disrupted then this will be one of the ways you’ll start a fire for heat.
Flint and steel are two separate components that are traditionally used together to start fires. Flint is a rock that is struck with a steel striker to generate sparks that can be caught using tinder.
Historically, flint has been mined by various indigenous tribes all across North America and Europe. They used it for various tools as shards of flint can be quite sharp to the touch.
Flintknapping is still a practice today and is commonly how tools were created. It is a labor-intensive love that can leave the “knapper” with bleeding hands and sore fingers.
It’s believed people as far back as the Iron Age used the two to start fires. As such, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact time it was ‘invented’.
But how does striking flint and steel to one another cause the energy needed to ignite tinder? Keep reading and learn a little bit more about the relationship between the two…
Is Flint Actually a Metal?
As stated, flint is not a metal. It’s actually a stone, although many quartz-based stones can help start fires.
How Does Flint And Steel Cause Sparks?
To figure out how this dynamic duo creates sparks we need to turn to the wonders of science.
Iron and carbon are what make up steel and give it such a dense hardness. Iron is known as a pyrophoric substance in that it will ignite when exposed to oxygen at room temperature.
Now iron doesn’t spontaneously combust if you hold it, and that’s because it has a thin layer of oxidation that prevents it. The outer layer is actually iron oxide, a coating protecting the pure iron inside…
However, if you were to chip away at that oxidation and expose the iron, then pieces of it would ignite as the air got to it. That’s the big secret about using flint and steel to light a fire.
Striking the high carbon steel striker against a hard rock-like flint at the right angle will chip away the steel and cause the iron inside to produce a spark as it burns up in the air.
You can do this with any rock that is hard and has a sharp edge. Examples of rocks you can use are:
Iron is naturally very soft so having high carbon steel will produce a brittle metal. This combined with a hard and sharp rock will produce the hottest and best sparks for starting a fire.
Where Can You Find Flint?
Flint is a resource that you can easily stock up on and have the means to start a fire for the rest of your life.
Tracking it down isn’t too difficult and there are some pretty easy methods for finding flint in your local area.
Start by using these tips to help you on your next flint search:
- Look along beaches and beach cliffs
- Check construction sites as they get a lot of their rocks from rocky rivers
- Look along the shores of lakes, creeks, and rivers. Anything with chert and shale around it
- Old quarries are a great place to check out flint availability
How To Spot Flint In The Field
It’s easy to spot once you’ve found it a few times and you’ll usually find quite a lot when you stumble across it.
Look for either round, smooth rocks that are very dark gray to almost black. They are much darker than their counterparts, chert.
Often you’ll find it splintered or in jagged shapes which is perfect for using it as a fire starter. Once you’ve found a suspect piece of flint, have a look at it. Does it appeal matted or glossy?
If it’s matted or has a lack of luster, take some sand and give it a good rub, if you reveal a glossy surface then you have the right rock.
Since flint is an extremely hard rock you should be able to scrape it along something and see if it leaves a mark.
A common test is scratching it along a glass bottle, if it leaves a mark on the bottle you are in luck. Otherwise, simply try it against your steel striker and see if it’ll produce a spark.
Let’s Talk About Steel Strikers
The steel striker is generally made of high-carbon steel and is shaped in a variety of ways.
This includes a shape similar to that of an iron knuckle where it curves around the middle knuckles of your hand.
Other variations include a piece of hardened steel that has been bent so that there is a hole for your finger to hold the steel instead of it going around your entire hand.
The idea is that you want the steel alloy to be hardened but not so much so that impact with the flint won’t produce sparks. You want the flint to shave off micro-fractures of steel which then combust.
The best steel strikers are ones with high carbon content, such as W1 or W2.
A lot of folks use old steel files and grind them down into the desired shape. It is due to their high carbon content that files are one of the best sources of material for this kit.
A Short Guide On Using Flint and Steel To Start A Fire
Flint and steel require some finesse and technique to successfully pull off. You will need an additional piece of kit, something like char cloth or tufts of jute that can hold the spark that the steel gives off.
Here are some step-by-step instructions on using a flint and steel.
- Holding the flint in one hand and the steel striker in the other, hit the flint at a downward angle with the striker.
- The sparks should be angled downward into your tinder pile. Keep striking until you see an ember forming on tinder.
Tips On Using A Flint And Steel
Hold The Tinder On The Flint
If you are using char cloth you can hold the tinder by wrapping it around the flint.
When you break through the fragile material with the striker the spark will ignite the cloth around the area.
Make Sure It’s Not Windy
A tiny ember is completely at the mercy of the elements and is prone to be extinguished by the smallest breeze. You will need to strike a balance between airflow and fuel to grow your fire.
There are many reasons that you could not be generating sparks with your flint and steel.
Add that to the basket of reasons why your tinder isn’t lighting and you could have a conundrum on your hands. Here are some of the basic reasons that your flint and steel attempts keep failing.
Change Your Angle
If you suspect the angle of your flint is the culprit, then switch it up until you start seeing sparks. The ideal striking angle would be 45 degrees
Add or Remove More Force When You Strike
Sometimes you just need to strike the flint harder to coax some sparks out of the metal underneath.
If you’re missing the flint when you strike then you might want to dial back on the strength.
Use a Different Edge on the Flint
The sharper the edge the higher the possibility of sparks. If you’re not seeing anything after several strikes, find or make a sharper edge to the flint and try again. Sometimes you just need to try a different side of the rock.
As a fire-starting tool, it is a no-brainer that should be in everyone’s kit. The steel striker will last several years and flint is a near-infinite resource for the individual.
The technique is refined over and over as you use different types of rocks or strikers and you’ll soon find your rhythm.
Perrin is an adventure guide and naturalist currently living a nomadic life in the Canadian wilderness. His education and expertise is in wilderness survival and wildlife tracking. He enjoys teaching people about the outdoors and has managed large groups on expeditions.
With several accredited certifications, including being a wilderness first responder and a leave no trace expert, Perrin believes it is important for all of us to reconnect with the natural world.